RICHMOND — The day after the House and Senate passed bills policing gift-giving and travel, good-government advocates said lawmakers were silent on the biggest ethics issue facing the state: redistricting.
A House panel will consider Thursday the first of several Senate proposals that call for nonpartisan drawing of the lines separating legislative districts — a political process currently controlled by the General Assembly.
Because districts are often drawn to protect incumbents, they tend to include populations that lean heavily toward one party over the other — attracting candidates who appeal to the extremes of their parties at the expense of bipartisanship or moderation. As a result, redistricting is regularly blamed for the partisan discourse that sometimes defines the tenor of the Legislature.
Despite strong support in the Senate, the House — where Republicans hold a overwhelming majority — has shown no appetite for changing the process.
Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Spotsylvania), chairman of the committee in charge of redistricting issues, said the House bills — which never got a hearing — were a low priority because the next scheduled redistricting is five years away.
Cole said that creating an independent commission to handle redistricting, as some lawmakers have proposed, would send the process behind closed doors.
“They’re trying to take politics out of an inherently political process, and I don’t think forming some, quote, independent commission will do that, because then the politics is in who gets appointed to the independent commission,” he said.
Lawmakers from both parties disagreed during a news conference Wednesday organized by OneVirginia2021, a group that pushes for nonpartisan redistricting.
Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) — who with Dels. Jeion A. Ward (D-Hampton) and Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (D-Fairfax) wrote an op-ed on the subject this week — said any ethics debate is “insincere” without redistricting reform.
“Most of us are in hyperpartisan districts. I was elected with over 70 percent of the vote, so why would I ever want to compromise? I need to stay as far left as possible so I don’t have any problems with my primary,” Rasoul said, though he stressed that that is not how he legislates.
Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) and Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) sponsored a resolution that would set up a seven-member commission. It would include four members appointed by the majority and minority leadership in the House and the Senate, and three high-ranking public officials in nonpartisan positions.
Under their measure, the commission would have to follow specific criteria, including a respect for precinct boundaries and the need to keep districts compact. They also favor a prohibition in most cases on the use of political data to draw the lines.
“Legislators are loath to relinquish all of their power to have an impact on line drawing,” Vogel said, adding that a “more populist approach” is needed.
A government integrity panel created by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) adopted similar recommendations last year.
A bill sponsored by Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Powhatan) would make the criteria part of state law, but still leave the General Assembly in charge of the process.
Sen. John C. Miller (D-Newport News) sponsored a bill that would ask voters on the November ballot whether the General Assembly should pass a constitutional amendment establishing an independent commission to draw state and congressional districts.
All three measures passed the Senate but are unlikely to gain traction in the House.