Prospects dim for new state House, Senate maps

Audience members at the Ohio Redistricting Commission meeting May 4, 2022, chant "Fair maps now!" after the commission adjourned without action.

Credit: Jim Gaines

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Audience members at the Ohio Redistricting Commission meeting May 4, 2022, chant "Fair maps now!" after the commission adjourned without action.

Credit: Jim Gaines

Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission met Wednesday to declare they can do nothing — but subsequently agreed to meet again the next day.

The commission faces a 9 a.m. Friday deadline from the Ohio Supreme Court to pass new state House and Senate district maps. Separately, a panel of federal judges has said if the issue isn’t settled by May 28, they will order election officials to use a map the commission previously approved but that the state supreme court threw out as unconstitutional.

The five Republican commissioners argued that no maps they approve now could be in place in sufficient time for use in an Aug. 2 special primary for Ohio General Assembly seats.

Two new members joined the commission, with state Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, replacing Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima; and state Rep. Jeff LaRe, R-Violet Twp., replacing House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima. LaRe also took over Cupp’s seat as commission co-chair with state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron.

Debate on housekeeping matters took up much of Wednesday’s meeting. House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, moved for the commission to urge allocation of pay to Democratic map-drawing consultants — reallocation, really, since previously approved funds hadn’t been entirely spent but authorization for their use expired March 4, she said.

The newly arrived McColley questioned two payments of more than $50,000 each to consultant Chris Glassburn in February and March, and payments last year to consulting firm HaystaqDNA totaling $119,000.

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Russo said the House Democratic Caucus has limited staff, so had to hire outside consultants. She said the caucus had been allocated $500,000 but only spent $354,000 of it; meanwhile, she alleged, Republicans had spent $600,000 on consultants of their own, but much of that was categorized as legal expenses and so not invoiced in detail.

Glassburn worked under contract for a set amount, and submitted invoices for those large sums to meet a shortened contract deadline, Russo said. He was working on two sets of state legislative maps and a congressional district map, spending an enormous amount of time, she said.

The HaystaqDNA contract was signed before Russo joined the redistricting commission, and the firm was dropped in favor of Glassburn, she said.

McColley, noting that he and Russo chair the task force on legislative redistricting that has oversight of related spending, said if other commissioners did not object, he and Russo could agree to approve the Democratic funding request.

Russo, on the understanding it would be approved soon, withdrew her motion.

Sykes asked the commission to approve rehiring independent map-drawers Douglas Johnson and Michael McDonald to finish the work they had to abandon March 28, when the commission voted 4-3 to instead pass a slightly altered version of maps the state supreme court had already overturned. The court threw out that March 28 version, too, finding it unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans, just like the previous three tries.

Sykes said Johnson and McDonald had already put in a lot of work and were “very close” to finishing maps as the court ordered.

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Republican commissioners objected, with Secretary of State Frank LaRose saying approval of any new maps now would be too late to implement in time for a projected Aug. 2 primary.

“It’s important to note that today is 90 days from Aug. 2,” he said. LaRose said meeting all legal deadlines for election preparation takes at least that long, not even counting potential legal challenges to any new maps.

Use of any newly created maps would require state legislative action to alter some pre-election deadlines, and that would require a supermajority in the state House and Senate, he said.

LaRose said he would need assurances from all caucus leaders in both houses that the needed legislation would pass before he would vote for any new maps.

If Republicans are so concerned about deadlines, Sykes asked in response, why did they “squander” 22 days from the supreme court’s last ruling before reconvening the redistricting commission?

“The time crunch is legitimate, but we have the ability to make decisions,” he said. “It’s only been the reluctance of the majority to pass a constitutional map that has led us to where we are today.”

Gov. Mike DeWine, a redistricting commission member, urged use of Republican and Democratic staff members to “improve” the third set of maps, which the state supreme court overturned but which a panel of federal judges has said it will likely impose if the issue isn’t settled by May 28.

The commission rejected rehiring the outside map-drawers by a 5-2 party-line vote.

LaRe then asked for any discussion on setting more meetings, but got none. The commission adjourned, but less than an hour later a notice went out setting another meeting for 4:45 p.m. Thursday.

As the meeting broke up, about a dozen audience members, most wearing T-shirts or waving signs from Fair Districts Ohio, stayed to loudly chant “Fair maps now!” at commissioners.

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