Following through on a promise, Gov. Larry Hogan created a commission Thursday to recommend how to reform the way Maryland draws its congressional districts, widely regarded as among the most gerrymandered in the nation.
Hogan said he hopes to put a constitutional amendment before voters in 2016 to change the way the maps are drawn. The idea won immediate praise from election reform advocates such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, but it was quickly dismissed by Democrats who control the General Assembly.
"It's not going to happen," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said.
At a State House news conference, Hogan called the results of the last two redistricting cycles — both carried out under Democratic governors — "disgraceful and an embarrassment to our state."
Federal courts have agreed with critics that Maryland's current map is convoluted — one judge likened the 3rd District to "a broken-winged pterodactyl" — but have ruled that it is not unconstitutional. A conservative advocacy group nonetheless filed a lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court raising a new challenge.
Hogan, a Republican, promised that the new commission would operate in a bipartisan manner. He appointed a Democrat and a Republican to co-chair the 11-member panel — retired U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams and Cato Institute senior fellow Walter Olson.
The governor said he has invited Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats, as well as the two minority leaders of the General Assembly to each appoint a member.
The commission is charged with holding public hearings around the state and making recommendations in time for the General Assembly to consider them in its session that begins in January. To put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, both chambers would have to pass a bill approving it by three-fifths majorities — a tall order in a legislature controlled by Democrats.
Hogan said the 2011 map yielded an unfair result, with seven Democrats and one Republican in Maryland's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.
He noted that Democrats have about a 2-1 registration advantage over Republicans in Maryland. "We're not seven-to-one Democrats to Republicans," Hogan said.
The governor also pointed out that Anne Arundel County, which regularly elects Republicans to county offices, is currently divided among four congressional districts, each represented by a Democrat.
"They've been carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey," Hogan said.
Hogan's move delighted advocates of election reform,
"Maryland's current districts defy … common sense. They sprawl across the state, slicing and dicing communities and neighborhoods, discouraging civic engagement in our democracy," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "This commission is the first step toward a more open, transparent, and impartial process."
But Miller threw cold water on Hogan's proposal, saying the legislature would not adopt any plan that puts Maryland at a disadvantage compared to other states. He dismissed Hogan's call as "a chapter out of the Republican governors' playbook."
"Republicans and Democrats are both guilty of the same kind of offenses," he said. "I can't fix every state, but I would urge them all to do what we're trying to do here."
Several states, including Iowa and California, have moved to the use of independent panels to decrease the influence of politics, an idea Hogan has endorsed. The Supreme Court recently turned back a challenge to the constitutionality of such a commission in Arizona, where Republicans were unhappy with the map it drew.
Miller and Busch pointed to the results of a 2012 referendum on Maryland's congressional map, which state voters upheld by a 64 percent vote.
Maryland Democratic Party executive director Pat Murray issued a statement dismissing Hogan's call and pointing to education funds the governor has refused to release and his decision to cancel Baltimore's Red Line light rail project.
"There he goes again, dabbling in national politics instead of focusing on issues that impact middle-class families," Murray said. "Marylanders are waiting for the governor to announce the release of $68 million in school funding that he is holding hostage, or to reveal his plan to relieve traffic congestion in our metropolitan areas."
Hogan acknowledged that redistricting reform would be a tough sell, but he warned that Democrats might regret not going to an independent commission if he is re-elected in 2018 and is in charge of the 2021 redistricting. The governor gets to propose both the General Assembly and congressional district maps. Lawmakers can substitute their own General Assembly map. But to change a congressional map, they have to pass their own bill and possibly muster the three-fifths vote needed to override a veto.
A poll conducted in February by Goucher College's Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center showed that 72 percent of Marylanders preferred redistricting by an independent commission, while 22 percent wanted to leave the decisions in the hands of elected officials.
Former Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly drew the state's current map after the 2010 Census with the goal of winning another House seat for their party.
The moved irked many in Western Maryland, whose many Republicans were lumped in with heavily Democratic Montgomery County, giving Rep. John Delaney a seat that had long been held by the GOP's Rep. Roscoe Bartlett.
The Democratic leaders also drew a state legislative map that has helped them maintain overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the Assembly. Across the country, Republican leaders have done much the same thing in states where they dominate.
Miller said one measure he could foresee the Assembly passing next year is a joint resolution calling on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to implement such a solution. He also mentioned the possibility of a regional compact under which a group of states would agree to make similar reforms.
Miller said he was not sure he would take up the governor's offer to appoint a commission member, saying the panel's conclusions may be "preordained."
"If it's being preordained, I'll simply appoint another Republican member of the commission," he said.
Busch was slightly more conciliatory.
"We'll be happy to participate in the process," he said.
In the lawsuit filed this week, the conservative group Judicial Watch contended that Maryland's congressional districts are not sufficiently compact, resulting in "deliberately bizarre district lines."
In 2011, a three-judge federal panel threw out a challenge based on a claim the map was racially discriminatory. Miller said that while the Maryland Constitution requires legislative districts to be compact, there is no such requirement for congressional districts under federal law.