INDIANAPOLIS — A Northwest Indiana state senator is leading an effort to reform how boundaries for the state's congressional and General Assembly districts are drawn, with an eye toward greater transparency and less partisanship.

State Sen. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores, is co-sponsor of Senate Bill 159. It establishes a redistricting commission to draw the lines with significant public input, rather than leaving the redistricting process solely in the hands of self-interested state legislators.

The first-term lawmaker, whose district actually tilts Democratic, said he's repeatedly been approached by his constituents and numerous "good government" advocates about taking action to alter the way Hoosier legislative boundaries are crafted.

"I think it's been a nationwide discussion, and I think it's time to start having the conversation in the state of Indiana, too," Bohacek said.

Filling the commission

His measure, co-sponsored by state Sen. John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis, creates a nine-member redistricting commission to lead the redrawing of legislative boundaries in 2021, following the once-a-decade national population count set for 2020.

Four of the commissioners would individually be selected by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Indiana House and Senate.

A separate nominating commission, composed of Indiana public university presidents, would solicit applications from the public to fill the five remaining slots on the redistricting commission.

The applicants, who'd be required to have had no role in government, public service or lobbying in the prior six years, will be sorted into three candidate pools: Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan.

The nominating commission will identify the seven applicants it believes are most qualified in each pool.

Then a random selection will be made to put one Democrat, one Republican and two nonpartisan members on the redistricting commission.

Those eight commissioners will select a ninth member by choosing any of the candidates recommended by the nominating commission.

The redistricting commission also will elect its own chairman who must be one of the five non-legislative appointments.

Bohacek admitted the selection process for redistricting commission members is necessarily complicated.

"We're trying to get a redistricting board that is truly nonpartisan, but that also still has representation from the two parties because they want to have some input as well," Bohacek said.

"So I think what we're trying to do is make it truly a transparent process."

The commission's work

Under the measure, which Bohacek expects will change as it advances through the legislative process, the commission members will be selected and the redistricting commission will get to work prior to March 15, 2021.

It must establish a website to publicize the commission and enable Hoosiers to submit proposed redistricting maps to the commission.

In conjunction with the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, the commission will publish between May 1 and May 15 any legislative district maps created by the commissioners, or the public, that it believes are worthy of further consideration.

The commission will hold public hearings on the submitted maps in each of the state's nine congressional districts prior to June 30.

However, the commissioners would be prohibited from communicating, directly or indirectly, about the maps with any elected official, former elected official or candidate for elected office.

By Aug. 1, the commission must recommend a final redistricting plan to the General Assembly that is supported by at least seven of the nine commissioners.

The proposed districts must contain contiguous territory that is as compact as possible, not cross precinct lines, minimize the crossing of municipal or county boundaries and accommodate the minority representation requirements of the Voting Rights Act.

State lawmakers would convene in special session prior to Oct. 1 to review the maps recommended by the redistricting commission and either approve them without changes, or send them back with instructions for specific revisions.

If the General Assembly twice rejects the commission's proposed maps state lawmakers then would be entitled to draw new maps on their own.

Once approved, the maps would be in force for U.S. House and Statehouse elections from 2022 to 2030.

The current Indiana maps, drawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2011, have produced GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate since then, as well as Republican domination of the state's congressional delegation.

Other redistricting proposals

Bohacek is not the only Hoosier lawmaker working on redistricting during the 2018 legislative session that begins Jan 3.

Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, has a similar proposal in Senate Bill 77 for an independent redistricting commission to draw the maps with limited input by elected officeholders.

The Indiana House in recent years also has advanced redistricting reform measures only to see them die in the Senate due to the strong opposition of state Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, floor leader for Senate Republicans.

But with Hershman resigning from the Senate on Tuesday to take a job at a Washington, D.C., law firm, the road ahead for redistricting changes might not be as bumpy.

Bohacek said he's remaining realistic about his chances.

"Whether it passes, whether it gets a hearing, all those things are yet to be seen and heard," he said.

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