Panel gets earful on drawing new Senate districts – and agreement often hard to find

2012-11-15T21:37:00Z 2014-03-07T11:42:05Z Panel gets earful on drawing new Senate districts – and agreement often hard to findBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
November 15, 2012 9:37 pm  • 

HELENA – Should western Montana’s Lake County maintain its own Senate district – or should southern Lake County fall in with part of Missoula County?

Should part of Butte get paired up with Jefferson County, to the east – or will Jefferson County get paired up with a rural area its local leaders prefer?

Or how about Montana’s northern Hi-Line? One, big district? Or tied up with partly with Havre, and partly with the oil-patch of northeastern Montana?

The five-member panel that will make those decisions heard arguments on all sides, and then some, as it held its final public hearing Thursday night at the Capitol before it votes to determine the Senate districts and, perhaps, adjust its overall plan for Montana legislative district boundaries.

The Districting and Apportionment Commission will draw boundaries for Montana’s 100 House districts and 50 Senate districts that become effective for the 2014 election, tied to population figures and shifts reflected in the 2010 Census.

It plans to meet Nov. 30 to pencil in the Senate districts, which are a combination of two House districts. The commission has already drawn tentative boundaries for the House districts, but may tweak those as well at the same meeting.

On Thursday night, the commission heard from numerous legislators about their ideas for how to draw up the districts. Here’s a sampling of some of the conflicts:

Butte-Jefferson County: State lawmakers from Butte argued that the new House District 76, which covers eastern and southern Butte, should be paired with HD75, which is Jefferson County.

Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, said the two areas are linked by a history of mining and agriculture, as well as Interstate 90.

Yet Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman said local residents would rather be paired up with neighboring Broadwater County to the east as one Senate district that combines House districts 75 and 74.

Unsaid was that the Butte-Jefferson County Senate seat would lean Democratic, while the two rural counties would likely be solid Republican.

Lake County/Missoula: Ronan- and Polson-area lawmakers argued that Lake County should fall as much as possible into one new Senate district, combining House districts that include Ronan and Polson.

Yet Rep.-elect Kimberly Dudik of Missoula said the district including Ronan and the southern portion of Lake County should be paired up with HD98, which stretches through the southern portion of the Flathead Indian Reservation and into the northern suburbs of Missoula.

“They are the same size and they share similar demographics,” she said.

Yellowstone County and points east: Republicans state Sens. Jeff Essmann and Taylor Brown of the Billings area said that 14 House districts within Montana’s largest county should be paired up into seven Senate districts, while the two other House districts that are partially in the county should be sewn into one large Senate district that stretches east from Billings to Miles City, and also includes Roundup and northern Yellowstone County.

However, Rep. Bill McChesney, D-Miles City, argued that Miles City should be lumped in with the Yellowstone Valley district to form a Senate seat.

Hi-Line/Havre or oil patch: Several Hi-Line and Havre-area lawmakers argued that two large Hi-Line House districts should be combined into a solo Senate seat, which would stretch along the north side of the Milk and Yellowstone rivers all the way from Havre to North Dakota.

That pairing also would allow Richland, Dawson and Wibaux counties to account for most of a Senate district.

However, Sen.-elect Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said the northeast Montana House district should be paired up with the Sidney-area House district to form a Senate district, and that the city of Havre should be combined with the north-central Hi-Line district to form a more compact Senate seat.

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