HELENA — A commission drawing up new legislative districts on Tuesday finalized its three-year effort by rejecting recommendations from Republican legislative leaders, and instead adopting a small bipartisan request.
The panel approved a plan in a split vote and gave the map that will be used in 2014 elections to Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch. The commission drew 100 new state House and 50 new state Senate districts to align with 2010 population numbers.
The two Republicans on the commission voted against the final plan, arguing that too many decisions favored Democrats. Two Democrats joined Chairman Jim Regnier in approving the plan.
The new map replaces one that has long been the focus of criticism from Republicans who argue it was written solely by Democrats. Republicans said the new map is an improvement, even if it was not good enough to garner their support.
Republican legislative leaders advanced, on partisan votes, a series of proposals aimed at fixing perceived flaws in urban areas they believed favored Republicans.
Regnier spurned the suggestions.
Instead, the chairman backed one last-minute change to the way the plan assigns holdover senators. The change was requested by a bipartisan group of legislators.
It ensures that a Republican senator — known for bipartisanship — will be able to run in 2014 in a new district where he lives. The original assignment of holdovers left Sen. Llew Jones, of Conrad, without a district.
But the move also shifts some term-limited senators, who will not be running again, into new seats that will have less familiar territory. It was opposed by the two Republicans on the panel who said the trickle-down effect will provide an advantage to Democrats in 2014 elections.
"I am disappointed that legislators can come up with a bipartisan request, and our commissioner cannot come up with a bipartisan solution," Regnier said before casting the tie-breaking vote in favor of the change.
Republican commissioner Jon Bennion said the commission did a good job in keeping the population difference between districts at about 1 percent, and in other areas. But he said the commission strayed from a requirement to draw "compact" districts, arguing some were stretched from urban places into rural areas to minimize the impact of some Republican-leaning voters.
Regnier said the final plan does not disadvantage Republicans. He noted that the August vote that drew the 100 House districts was unanimous.
Regnier was chosen by the Montana Supreme Court to be the impartial chairman of the panel.
"I don't think either side got what they wanted and I don't think either side was disadvantaged more than the other," he said.