Smith takes heat for withholding redistricting bill from committee vote

A state legislator from Columbus is taking heat from constituents statewide after he stopped a committee vote on a bill to establish an independent redistricting commission.

Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, who chairs the Indiana House Elections and Apportionment Committee, said he has concerns with House Bill 1014 because it could waste legislative time and taxpayer dollars and diminish the integrity of the General Assembly.

As chairman, he blocked a committee vote Wednesday after one committee member made a motion to approve the bill, which was seconded by another committee member. However, only the committee chairman can call for a vote, Smith said.

Smith tipped his hand during Monday’s Third House session at Columbus City Hall, telling constituents that he had serious concerns about turning over statewide redistricting for state and federal offices to an independent committee.

Although he didn’t elaborate then, Smith explained in a telephone interview Friday that there needs to be more work on the bill before it moves forward.

The bill, written by Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, is designed to create an independent redistricting commission. The bill, co-authored by Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, has been assigned to Smith’s committee since Jan. 4.

Smith’s issue with the bill is that it calls for a special legislative session before Oct. 1 of the year redistricting is to happen, with the General Assembly voting on the independent commission’s recommendation — including the option of turning down the recommendation, Smith said.

Then, another special legislative session would have to be called to consider a second recommendation from the independent commission, after which the General Assembly could also turn that proposal down, Smith said.

When Smith asked Torr what happens if legislators vote against the commission twice, Torr told him redistricting would revert to current laws, which is having the General Assembly do the redistricting, Smith said.

“My job is to make sure the bill has the right intent,” Smith said of its language. “We do all this stuff, spend all this taxpayer money for special sessions, then the General Assembly turns down the (independent commission) maps and then approves our own maps,” he said. “How are people going to feel about that? They are going to say we (the General Assembly) never had any intention of approving the commission’s redistricting.”

Smith said if Indiana is going to have an independent redistricting commission, the bill creating one won’t pass out of a committee he chairs unless he is sure it will work.

“The bill doesn’t even say we revert to the current law after the independent commission maps are turned down,” Smith said of the bill. “It’s like a dog chasing its tail.”

Smith acknowledged he was sticking his neck out a bit with Republican House leadership as Bosma’s office contacted him Tuesday and told him the Speaker wanted a hearing on the bill.

“I’m taking on the Speaker a little bit. But I think this bill has the potential to hurt the reputation and integrity of the Indiana General Assembly,” Smith said.

Bosma was in meetings Friday and unavailable to comment about the bill’s status, said Erin Reece, a Bosma media staffer.

The bill has been supported by statewide groups including Common Cause and League of Women Voters, who attended Wednesday’s hearing, asking questions and giving testimony, Smith said.

The League began a social media campaign after Smith’s decision Wednesday, asking constituents to demand Smith allow a committee hearing before next week’s Tuesday’s deadline for bills to pass out of committee to stay alive in the Legislature.

Theresia Shearer, Plainfield, fired off a letter to the editor to The Republic on Thursday contending that Indiana’s voting districts are “a poster child for gerrymandering.”

“I feel very strongly about this bill,” Shearer said Thursday in a telephone interview. “Indiana has some of the worst gerrymandering in the country. Democrats are not fairly represented with the current districting. Everyone’s vote should have value.”

Shearer contends that gerrymandering has continued whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge and a bipartisan effort to redistrict wouldn’t be any better than what is in place now.

“It needs to be independent,” she said. “They even have computer programs that can do redistricting. How much more independent can you get?”

Shearer said Smith has a responsibility to voters in Columbus and all of Indiana to not interfere with the committee voting on the bill.

“Holding the vote from the committee is an unacceptable show of contempt for the members of the committee and the voters,” Shearer said in her letter.

Smith said he understood that people were upset at the committee meeting and many of those in the committee hearing audience appeared to support the bill.

“But there are 6.5 million people in Indiana and all of them weren’t here today and we need to listen to them too, Smith said. “Passing a bill to appease a group of people — I’m not going to do it. We need to have something that has some integrity —  not a bill that makes us look like we never intended to do this (what the independent commission recommends) anyway.”

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House Bill 1014, written by Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, is designed to create an independent redistricting commission for the state that would redraw state and congressional districts in Indiana. The bill is co-authored by Speaker of the House Brian Bosma. It has been in the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, chaired by Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, since Jan. 4.

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The deadline for a House or Senate bill to clear committee is Tuesday.

At a Third House Session at Columbus City Hall on Monday, Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, said 681 bills had been filed in the session and 118 had been approved in committee as of Monday.