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Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, left, with Senate President Steve Sweeney. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Redistricting on the table for lame duck session

Timing’s tight, but legislative leaders aren’t ruling out a renewed push for redistricting reform

By Nikita Biryukov, December 04 2019 1:33 pm

Democratic legislators may make a renewed push at redistricting reform before the end of the year.

“We still have a while to go, but that’s something that’s still, I guess, under consideration,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said. “We haven’t done anything with it recently.”

Democrats made a push for a constitutional amendment to reform the state’s legislative redistricting process last December that failed after it faced oppositions from Republicans, good-government advocates and progressives, including Gov. Phil Murphy.

That measure, which critics said would gerrymander the state in Democrats’ favor, would have required the state’s competitive districts to be drawn with past statewide election results in mind.

It also would have reduced the power of the Democratic and Republican state chairmen have over the legislative redistricting commission, cutting the five appointments each party leader makes to the 10-member board to two each while adding three seats to the commission.

Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle in the upper and lower chambers of the legislature would make eight of the remaining appointments, and the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court would make the last.

While the state’s governorship frequently flips from one party to another — and while recent Democratic governors have tended to lose their bids for a second term — New Jersey’s U.S. Senate seats are squarely in Democrats’ favor. The same is true of presidential elections in the state.

New Jersey last backed a Republican for president in 1988, when President George H.W. Bush won 40 of the country’s 50 states.

A Republican last won a U.S. Senate race here in 1972.

Still, top Democrats aren’t ruling out making a last-minute push for redistricting reform.

“Have to talk to the speaker,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said. “We haven’t brought it up yet. We have some time.”

It’s unclear how closely a new redistricting measure would reflect the one Democrats pushed last year.

An identical version would likely face the same pushback that killed last year’s push.

Because it would have to be done by constitutional amendment, redistricting reform would also face a time crunch.

An amendment to the state’s constitution must sit for 20 calendar days after being introduced, then either chamber has to hold a public hearing on the measure before it goes to a floor vote.

Once it’s on the floor, the legislature can pass it once by a 60% super-majority — that’s 48 votes in the Assembly and half as many in the Senate — or by simple majority in two consecutive years.

At the earliest, lawmakers could introduce a redistricting amendment on Thursday, but that would put the end of the 20-day waiting period squarely on Christmas and require lawmakers to come in to vote on the measure in the week leading up to the new year.

The legislature rarely convenes at the time, and calling lawmakers to Trenton during the holidays wouldn’t earn legislative leaders any good will.

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