ST. PAUL (AP) -- As demonstrated by a flareup Monday in a Senate hearing, the debate over redistricting is shaping up to be another fiercely partisan exercise despite hopes for a more civil tone.
Pointed exchanges in the Senate committee -- over a "nonpartisan" staff member's participation in a recently filed redistricting lawsuit -- prove it may be impossible to keep politics out of the turf battle undertaken once a decade.
Behind the political and legal jostling lies a critical task: Redrawing the state's legislative and congressional maps to account for population shifts. Detailed 2000 census figures are due to state officials sometime next month.
The goal is to make every vote equal by having each lawmaker represent roughly the same number of constituents. The outcome can influence the strength of each party in government, and consequently, the policy priorities that win out.
During Monday's hearing, Senate Republicans challenged the impartiality of the committee lawyer because he submitted an affidavit for defendants in a redistricting lawsuit brought by GOP activists. "My members don't feel they can trust Mr. (Peter) Wattson," said Sen. Bill Belanger, R-Bloomington.
Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, defended Wattson. Moe argued that the information Wattson offered in the court document was harmless and shouldn't disqualify him from aiding the committee.
The lawsuit, filed Jan. 4 in Wright County, seeks to have the current political map declared unconstitutional because some lawmakers represent many more constituents than others, thus diluting the voice of some voters. Wattson's affidavit states that the 2000 census, not annual population estimates, offers the only count accurate enough to determine whether district lines are legitimate.
Bill Walsh, a Republican Party spokesman, said one goal of the lawsuit "is to get the courts to start thinking redistricting issues" and lay a foundation for other legal battles that may arise.
Minnesota's courts could end up drawing the boundaries if the Legislature and Gov. Jesse Ventura can't reach consensus or if someone challenges the outcome.
Another point of disagreement surrounds redistricting ground rules. Senate Democrats hope the Legislature will adopt criteria prior to the release of the census figures.
"There is a tendency after you see the numbers to try to formulate what you see is fair," said Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis.
But House Redistricting Chairman Erik Paulsen, R-Eden Prairie, said he's inclined to wait until the numbers come out before deciding on redistricting principles.
"Ten years ago, they waited to pass the (rules) resolution until just before they passed the (redistricting) bill," Paulsen said. "At this point, we don't see any reason to change that."
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