Contending that the New Jersey Legislature needs fewer partisans and more pragmatic problem-solvers, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) yesterday called for a constitutional amendment that would require the creation of as many competitive districts as possible during the legislative redistricting process.
Bramnick’s proposal to require New Jersey’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission to create as many districts as possible with less than a 10 percent difference between likely Democratic and Republican voters is in line with redistricting reform initiatives in California, Arizona, and Iowa.
It also echoes the criticism of political reformers who blame the growing partisanship in Congress on the lack of competitive districts; no more than 20 of the nation’s 435 House seats are considered competitive.
“Gov. (Thomas) Kean once said that most people want you to govern from the middle,” Bramnick said, but because New Jersey does not require competitiveness in redistricting, “the districts have become so partisan that representatives play to the wings, and not to the middle.”
“If politicians do not fear the wrath of voters, there is no compelling interest for them to work across the aisle and produce results,” the GOP leader said, adding that “Republicans aren’t going to like this any better than Democrats because there are a lot of Republicans in safe districts who can do anything they want and still get reelected.”
Contrary to Principle
Bramnick’s proposal, unveiled at a Statehouse press conference, runs directly counter to the redistricting principles set up by the late Alan Rosenthal, the Rutgers University political scientist who served as the chairman and neutral tiebreaker for New Jersey’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission when it redrew district lines in 2011 following the last U.S. Census.
Because the New Jersey Constitution does not set any guidelines for redistricting priorities, that power is essentially left to the chairman, and Rosenthal gave priority to maintaining “continuity of representation” — an incumbent-protection philosophy that essentially guaranteed that just a handful of the state’s 40 legislative districts would be truly competitive, and that Democrats would retain control of the Legislature.
Following that philosophy, Rosenthal not surprisingly chose the legislative map proposed by the Democrats, a “mutual assured survival” map that offered so few swing districts that Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) had a hard time coming up with five even marginally competitive Senate seats to target in 2013. In fact, Democrats did not even lose a seat in GOP Gov. Chris Christie’s landslide reelection that year.
With Rosenthal’s favorable map, Democratic legislative leaders can expect to hold onto their 24-16 majority in the Senate and 48-32 edge in the Assembly through the next round of redistricting in 2021.
Consequently, Democrats can be counted on to reject Bramnick’s proposal for a constitutional amendment in 2015 and the redrawing of district lines prior to the 2017 election, when all 80 Assembly and 40 Senate seats will be up for election — and when Bramnick is considered one of the leading GOP candidates to run for Christie’s seat.
Needs Democratic Support
Bramnick needs Democratic support to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to reform the state’s legislative redistricting process, and he said yesterday he would be willing to amend his proposal to have the new competitiveness criteria go into effect in the next regular round of redistricting following the 2021 Census.
For Democrats, the creation of as many as 10 to 12 competitive districts would be a double-edged sword: It would give Republicans a better chance to recapture a legislative majority, but it also would give Democrats an opportunity in an increasingly “blue state” to win the 27 Senate and 54 Assembly seats they would need for a two-thirds majority to override the vetoes of a future Republican governor.
While Democrats have controlled both houses of the Legislature during Christie’s four-and-half years in office, the governor’s strong veto powers under the state Constitution have enabled him to control the budget, rule out an increase in the millionaire’s tax, bar reinstatement of a full Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, and block more than $330 million in funding for Planned Parenthood and other women’s health clinics. In fact, Democrats turned to the constitutional amendment process to get around Christie’s veto in order to raise the minimum wage.
New Jersey’s current redistricting process is more balanced than most states: Every 10 years, New Jersey sets up two separate commissions comprising equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. A neutral tie-breaker appointed by the state Supreme Court chief justice redraws the boundaries for the state’s congressional and legislative districts in accordance with the equal representation requirements established by the courts and the federal and state constitutions.
New Jersey is one of seven states that have redistricting commissions for legislative and/or congressional reapportionment with neutral tie-breakers; four other states have commissions with equal representatives from both parties.
But because most members of these bipartisan commissions are appointed by political party leaders, their redistricting maps are as likely to protect incumbents — and to fail to create competitive districts — as the 30 states that still leave it up to their governors and state legislatures to create gerrymandered maps and the six states whose redistricting panels are controlled by a single party.
Bramnick’s proposal would take New Jersey in the direction of reform models set up in California, Iowa, and Arizona. California and Iowa actually bar incumbency protection — or “continuity of representation” — from being considered by their redistricting commissions.
Creating Competitive Districts
Arizona sets clear standards, similar to those proposed by Bramnick, that give priority to the creation of competitive districts where it does not interfere with ensuring minority representation consistent with the Voting Rights Act.
However, those three states ensure the creation of competitive districts partly by excluding political leaders from the bargaining table during the redistricting process. California and Arizona both use citizens commissions for redistricting, while Iowa entrusts redistricting to a commission made up of professionals from its nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.
Bramnick said he would be willing to consider a process that included more citizen representatives on redistricting commissions, but was inclined to leave the current legislative commission made up of five Democrats and five Republicans in place with a neutral tie-breaker required to prioritize the creation of competitive districts in choosing the winning Democratic or Republican map.
He also said he would be willing to consider expanding his constitutional amendment requiring competitive districts to cover not only the legislative redistricting process, but congressional reapportionment as well.
Bramnick acknowledged that the process of defining competitive districts would be complicated in a state like New Jersey, where the disparity in Democratic and Republican voter registration figures belies the fact that larger numbers of independents may vote Republican consistently in state elections.
In addition, while New Jerseyans have turned in some of the largest Democratic percentages of any state in the past five presidential elections going back to 1996, state voters have gone for Republicans for governor in four out of six elections since 1993.
Bramnick said redistricting reform is critical to making the New Jersey Legislature more responsive to the desire of voters for a truly representative body that will “govern from the middle,” but he said he wanted to jumpstart the process by urging Democratic legislative leaders to join him in creating four bipartisan committees made up of equal numbers of Democratic and Republican Senate and Assembly members to work on long-term solutions to major issues.
Bramnick’s choice of issues reflected standard Assembly Republican talking points. The first committee he wants to establish would be tasked with changing the school-funding formula – presumably by cutting aid to urban school districts.
A second would study ways to cut the cost of the state’s pension and retiree health benefits program, which currently have a combined unfunded liability topping $90 billion. Bramnick’s suggestion is to shift public employees from the current defined-contribution pension system to a hybrid system that moves workers increasingly into 401K plans, along the line of the Rhode Island plan praised by Christie’s treasurer, Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff.
The third panel would study ways to cut the state’s inheritance tax, estate tax, and income taxes on the wealthy to keep retirees and the rich from leaving the state. The fourth would seek to build a bipartisan consensus in favor of the state’s business-tax incentive programs, whose $4 billion in tax subsidies to companies have been criticized not only by Democrats, but by conservative Republicans, as tax giveaways, Bramnick acknowledged.
Notably absent from Bramnick’s list of proposed bipartisan committees were panels to study how to cut New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes — which Democrats have argued should be the first priority for any tax cut — and how to refinance the state’s Transportation Trust Fund that pays for highway, bridge, and mass-transit construction projects. The TTF will run out of funding months early because of overborrowing by the Christie administration, and Democrats have suggested the fund cannot be replenished without an increase in the gas tax, which Christie opposes.