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Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe

Dem legislators see no allies at redistricting hearings

By Nikita Biryukov, December 13 2018 4:04 pm

Democratic members of the legislature were the only ones to speak in favor of a constitutional amendment that would change the state’s redistricting process at simultaneous public hearings before Senate and Assembly committees Thursday.

The rest of the testimony, which took about two-and-a-half hours, was given by individuals and groups opposed to the amendment. The vast majority of those groups were liberal ones traditionally aligned with Democratic policies.

“I guess there might be a number of other people that share my opinion, but they didn’t testify today,” State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the constitutional amendment’s Senate sponsor, said.

Such allies may indeed exist, but Scutari was unable to name any outside of his fellow Democrats in the legislature, and even there, support for the bill is less universal than the measure’s proponents would like.

State Sens. Nicholas Sacco and Brian Stack announced their opposition to the amendment earlier this week, adding to criticism levied by six of New Jersey’s Democratic county chairs and some national Democratic leaders.

“As we’ve seen in states around the country this year, the American people want redistricting reforms that help level the playing field so that elections are decided on who has the best ideas, not which party was in charge of drawing the lines,” Eric Holder, a former U.S. Attorney General under Barack Obama, said in a statement Thursday. “Any proposed reforms should put the interests of the people ahead of politicians and improve the current redistricting process in each state. As currently constructed, the proposal in New Jersey fails to live up to those standards.”

Holder’s comments first appeared in the New York Times.

The amendment would impose a fairness formula on the state’s redistricting process for legislative districts. It would require that at least a quarter of the state’s 40 legislative districts have vote margins that fall within 5% of the average of statewide elections over the 10 years preceding reapportionment.

The measure would also reduce the number of picks made to the redistricting commission party state chairs make from five to two, giving two picks to two legislative leaders from both parties

No votes accompanied the proceedings, and none were required. With the hearings concluded, the amendment is ready to appear on the floor before the full Senate and Assembly on Monday.

Scutari said he believed both chambers would vote on the measure then, but it’s not clear whether Democrats have the votes needed to reach a simple majority, which they’ll need to win this month and in early 2019 if they’re to get the amendment on ballots in the 2019 election.

Scutari declined to say if the amendment would reach that threshold, deferring to Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

“I’m not the conference leader,” Scutari said. “I don’t know the answer to that question.”

With Sacco and Stack opposing the bill, Gov. Phil Murphy and other that oppose the amendment need to flip a mere three votes to stop the amendment.

Sen. Shirley Turner, one of the possible swing votes, usually sits on the Senate State Government Committee but was replaced by either Scutari or State Sen. Troy Singleton in Thursday’s hearing.

Other possible swing votes include former Gov. Dick Codey and State Sen. Nia Gill.

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