Panel begins redistricting project

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MONTPELIER -- Every 10 years, Vermont re-draws the lines of its state Senate and state House districts to conform with shifts in population and ensure that all its people and places are represented fairly.

On Tuesday, the process began anew with an organizational meeting of the Vermont Apportionment Board, a seven-member panel that crunches U.S. Census data, examines maps and draws legislative district lines that then go to the Legislature for approval.

By July 1, the Apportionment Board will issue a report, but lawmakers don’t necessarily have to endorse it. Typically, they make their own changes, but they won’t do so -- establishing the new lines for state Senate and state House districts -- until 2012, voting in the session after next.

It’s an inherently political process, so the board is structured to represent all three of Vermont’s major political parties:

--Its "special master," or chairman, is Tom Little of Shelburne, a former Republican lawmaker who now serves as general counsel to the Vermont Student Assistance Corp.

--Democrats appointed former state Sen. Gerry Gossens of Salisbury.

--Republicans appointed former GOP Chairman Rob Roper, who’s now the party secretary.

--Progressives named former lawmaker and lieutenant governor candidate Steve Hingtgen.

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--Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, has named his administration secretary, Republican Neale Lunderville, and Democrat Frank Cioffi of St. Albans Town to the board. He still has another appointment to make and is expected to do so next week.

The last redistricting, begun in 2000 and completed in 2002, came after a bitter fight between a Republican-controlled House and Democratic Senate. Both houses have big Democratic majorities now.

Traditionally, the two parties have jockeyed for advantage, trying to draw districts that will make it more likely their candidates will be elected in future legislative races.

With a Democrat about to replace Douglas and Democratic majorities in both the state Senate and the state House, Republicans will be on guard this time -- on the board and in the Legislature.

"Certainly with the legislature that will be overwhelmingly Democratic and the governor a Democrat, Republicans will want to watch the process very closely," said Lunderville, who is in his last days as secretary of administration under Douglas, who did not seek re-election.

The panel first has to get census data for Vermont, which is expected sometime in February, according to Little. Then board members will work with a computer software program, known as "Maptitude," to begin drawing boundaries.

"If a change isn’t necessary, you don’t make a change for no reason, just to get rid of somebody," Secretary of State Deb Markowitz told the panel.

The Secretary of State’s office provides administrative support for the board’s work.

"If we don’t do it well and pay attention to what the people want, we’re going to hear about it," said Gossens.


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