‘High-drama’ release of political maps to define Capitol week

The Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul
The Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul. The once-a-decade redrawing of political maps comes to a conclusion this week as a special court panel gets set to issue new legislative and congressional boundaries.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News 2021

Updated 11 a.m.

Expect a bit of a frenzy this week at the state Capitol and in the Minnesota political world.

Tuesday will bring new congressional and legislative district maps that will set the political playing field for the next decade. 

“For elected officials, redistricting and Election Day are these very high-drama events because they're events — some of which are outside your control — that have a lot of influence over your future personal and professional life,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “So we're all very anxious to see what those lines will look like.”

Redistricting happens once every 10 years after the census. The goal is to make all districts for the Legislature and Congress roughly equal in population.

The Legislature and governor have first crack at reconfiguring boundaries. But they’ve failed to agree on a joint set of maps the last several rounds, putting it into the court’s domain.

State law gives the Legislature until 25 weeks before the primary to complete the job. And that happens to fall on Tuesday. 

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A special five-judge court panel has been hearing arguments and working through the data for many months now. It says it will release the new maps at noon on Tuesday.

In November, the court issued its principles and said the ideal U.S. House district would contain 713,312 people, a state Senate district 85,172 and ideal state House districts 42,586. The panel said it would aim to keep communities intact as much as possible, give heed to communities of interest and craft lines that are “reasonably compact.”

The judicial panel said in an order that lines won’t be “based on the residence of incumbent officeholders and will not consider past election results.”

At the Capitol, it’s one of those stop-everything moments. And in today’s era, it’s refresh, refresh and refresh until the maps appear on the internet. Politicians have some sense of what might happen, but this is the irreversible verdict.

The election following redistricting tends to produce some pretty heavy turnover in the Legislature because some members get drawn into tougher districts or get paired with a colleague. 

Kurt Zellers was the Republican House speaker in 2012 when the current boundaries were released. 

“There's still nothing that can prepare you for ‘Oh, my God, one of my colleagues who I sit on the floor with, who I vote with, who I vote for their bills, who I signed on to their bills’ is now paired in the same district as I am, and which one of us is going to either have to move or retire, or are we going to go to a convention or primary and fight it out?” Zellers remembers. “And that's the reality, what happens on that fateful day when they do come out.”

Current Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said he’ll try his best to keep his members on the session’s tasks.

“There's always added noise during the election year. And there's added excitement this year with the new maps. So everyone is eagerly looking forward to seeing those,” Miller said. “But at this point, Senate Republicans are just focused on the 2022 legislative session, and we'll worry about the maps and the election after the session.”

The shifts seen between the 2010 and 2020 census will push more seats toward the Twin Cities metropolitan region at the expense of greater Minnesota. Which party that benefits remains to be seen.

But in recent years, Democrats have ceded a ton of territory in rural areas. Republicans have counted on gains there and growth in the exurbs to counteract their inability to claim urban seats.

All eyes are on the suburbs where the battle for control of the House and Senate is likely to be determined this fall.

Minnesota clung to its current eight U.S. House seats despite fears the state would lose one due to population booms elsewhere in the country.

Right now, Republicans and Democrats each hold four of the seats. There are two solid DFL seats, one that leans in their favor and one true swing district. Republicans have three solid seats and one that’s been seriously contested in recent cycles.

That might be something close to the outcome we see with the new maps.

Talks on unemployment fund, COVID hero pay, masks continue

The political fortunes of lawmakers isn’t the only thing on tap this week.

The Republican-led Senate will vote, probably Monday, on the $2.7 billion plan to shore up the state’s unemployment fund. That’s needed to avert business tax increases.

“There's a timeline that would be helpful if we got it done by mid-March to click off some of those additional taxes and fees that our businesses are paying,” Miller said. “So we're focused on getting it done next week and we hope House Democrats will join us in those efforts.” 

The DFL-led House is moving faster on a $1 billion bill to reward workers who were on the front-lines during the pandemic in a range of industries.

“Our priority is workers and we are moving expeditiously to get the front-line workers the bonuses that are overdue that they have earned by putting themselves and their families at risk when many of us could work at home behind a computer screen,” Hortman said. 

Leaders of each chamber say their bill deserves immediate passage, so something will have to give.

Meanwhile, as mask mandates and other restrictions expire in schools, cities and elsewhere, there are signs that limitations on Capitol access could change soon as well. 

There are no masking restrictions in the Senate and the space it controls. But the Senate office building still has limited access.

The House offices are closed to the public, the floor is more limited than the Senate’s and masks are mandatory for House members who attend in person. House Republican leaders have blasted the restrictions as denying public input as key issues are debated. 

One lawmaker, Republican Rep. Jim Nash of Waconia, held office hours in a Capitol hallway last week to drive home his point.

Hortman said the COVID mitigation policies are presently being reviewed and there could be a loosening of things as soon as this week.

“I'm in active conversation with our team to see what changes we'll make and when and I would hope we'll be able to announce some changes [this week],” Hortman said. “I’m not flip about this stuff.”