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Sawyer: There's no reason to delay redistricting reform

BY MARC KOVAC Capital Bureau Chief Published: December 11, 2016 12:00 AM

Columbus -- In one of his last appearances before a state legislative committee in his present capacity as senator, Akron Democrat Tom Sawyer again urged the legislature to change the way the boundaries of congressional districts are redrawn ever decade.

Like many others who have been vocal on the topic, Sawyer wants the process to be handled in a more bipartisan fashion, avoiding the gerrymandering that comes when one political party is in control.

It was a symbolic -- and futile -- effort by the soft-spoken statesman, capping decades in public office that included stints in Congress and as the mayor of his home city.

But Senate Joint Resolution 2, offered by Sawyer and Republican state Sen. Frank LaRose, will die for lack of action this month. It may not be seriously revisited anytime soon, either.

"We will be better as a state if the elected congressional delegation fairly represents the preferences of all Ohioans," Sawyer noted in his testimony to the Senate's Government Oversight and Reform Committee. "We will all be represented better when we have districts that are more competitive, drawn to best represent the people who live there."

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Ohio redraws its legislative and congressional district lines every 10 years, via separate processes. Legislative redistricting is handled by a bipartisan panel; congressional reapportionment is handled by the state legislature.

A little more than a year ago, the latter appeared ripe for reform, after voters overwhelmingly OK'd a ballot issue to make legislative redistricting a more bipartisan affair.

Last year's Issue 1 expanded membership of the redistricting commission to include seven members, ensuring minority party representation. New maps now will require bipartisan support or have to be redone after four years.

Issue 1 also outlined criteria for map-drawing aimed at avoiding gerrymandered lines that snake across cities or counties and requiring better political balance in any resulting districts.

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders stopped just short of holding and hands around a campfire and singing Kumbaya over the success of the long-debated reform effort.

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But in the days after the 2015 general election, Republican legislative leaders made it clear that they weren't as keen on congressional redistricting reform, which, some say, should remain in the control of the elected members of the general assembly.

There's been ample discussion of the issue over the past 12 months, with occasional rumblings of potential action.

But nothing has been done yet, except for Sawyer once again providing testimony and urging lawmakers to act.

SJR 2 would have set up a similar process for congressional reapportionment, taking the process out of the hands of lawmakers and placing it under the group that handles legislative redistricting.

"We know from history and our own intuition as members of an elected body that the closer we come to the next round of elections and the next census, the less likely we are to act on redistricting reform," Sawyer offered in what likely was his last committee testimony as a sitting senator.

"The intractable pull of the power of the redistricting pen will keep us from acting. Let's not waste the opportunity we have here. Let's not allow the people's wishes to grow stale for another 10 years or more. Let's act now. We know what to do. We know how to do it. We have a plan that the people want. We have bi-partisan support for the effort right here in the general assembly."

He added, "There is absolutely no reason to delay."

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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