The Senate, after a long and tedious debate over tweaks and tinkering, largely agreed to the House proposal for reapportioning voting districts for representatives and approved a plan to keep the Senate map nearly identical.
Once a conference committee gives the final nod, the two maps, which largely follow the boundary lines developed 10 years ago, will be in effect for a decade to come.
In the end, Chittenden County will remain the largest Senate district in the country, with six seats. The neighboring towns of Waterbury, Huntington and Bolton will be in three separate county districts (Washington, Addison and Chittenden, respectively). The 1,300 residents of Eden, who had been pulled into a district with the Northeast Kingdom towns of Lowell, Westfield, Jay and Troy, will now rejoin their Lamoille County neighbors, Johnson and Belvidere at the voting booth.
Four different Bennington County House districts were changed by the Senate.
Most of the arguments centered on what is (or isn’t) an acceptable level of deviation in voter population from district to district. Ten percent would be the ideal deviation level; 16 percent is defensible in court, according to Sen. Jeanette White, chair of Government Operations. The map approved by the Senate has a deviation rate of 24 percent.
White said her committee used three legal criteria to reset boundaries: identifying the least disruptive changes, keeping the deviation level defensible and respecting county lines, as required by the Constitution.
Government Operations reviewed 30 maps in all, most of which were between the 15 percent to 18 percent deviation range.
The Vermont GOP has threatened to sue if the deviation level exceeds 18 percent. White said the map is defensible because it abides by the criteria.
Sen. Dick Sears, a Bennington Democrat, was unhappy with the changes, which he said tore four House districts apart in his county.
“As the other body worked on the plan, they came to conclusion Bennington County should be the epicenter of changes,” Sears said.
His proposal to put Reading back into Bennington County and keep Rupert and Pawlet together, among other changes, including a plan to put 33 voters in Hinesburg back in the Charlotte House district, failed. The deviation level would be 24 percent under the plan. Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, co-sponsored the amendment.
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, urged lawmakers to drop the Sears-Ashe plan and adopt the committee bill.
“Traditionally reapportionment is difficult, it can be partisan and can get nasty,” Flory said. “In the Senate we had a nonpartisan and fair process. The same thing happened in the other chamber. They worked hard to come up with a proposal that met their needs and that’s harder in other chamber when you’re trying to divide it 150 ways.”
Flory said her county was affected; in one district two incumbent members of the General Assembly will have to go head to head because Rutland County is losing a representative in the House. Flory supports the plan though, because she said it was developed as fairly as possible.
“Every one of us can see things we don’t like in it, and as soon as we start messing with one area, we’re all going to find areas to start messing with,” Flory said.
A proposal to move the Bennington-Windham county line, in order to make it easier for residents of Somerset to vote, was ruled not germane.
Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, who sued on behalf of his Townshend when the original House map was issued and throughout the debate on Thursday interrupted the proceedings with comments, points of order and the like (as a result, there were six recesses during the floor debate), insisted that the map would lead to another lawsuit, which would, in his view, be successful and lead to a special mid-term election. He wanted a plan that didn’t split town boundaries and was a truer approximation of the county system.
Chittenden County Sens. Ginny Lyons and Philip Baruth said they would vote for the map, but they were both concerned about constituents in the county who feel the state’s most populous county is underrepresented.
One of the options would have been dividing Chittenden County into two districts and combining voters from the Burlington area with voters from Addison and Franklin counties.
“I don’t enjoy the idea of Chittenden County spinning off towns,” Baruth said. “I don’t think it’s a long-term solution or that it will work 10 years from now.”
The vote on the floor was 26-2-2.
Sen. Randy Brock, a Republican senator from Franklin and a candidate for governor, voted against the plan because he believes the state can be sued over the Chittenden County Senate district. Galbraith cast the other dissenting vote.
Editor’s note: This story was updated between 5:30 a.m. and 6:45 a.m. April 20.
ERRATA: We originally stated that Hinesburg would be part of the Addison County district. We should have said Huntington. Many thanks to the alert reader who pointed out the error. We also mistakenly said Brock is from Grand Isle; he represents Franklin. Lastly, the Senate did change four Bennington House districts, resulting in a 24 percent deviation rate.