House lawmakers voted 126-19 Thursday to create a committee of House and Senate members to handle the decennial task of re-drawing the lines of Congressional and legislative districts.
The House voted 132-23 to reject an alternative plan that called for an independent, eight-member commission to take on redistricting and deliver its recommendations to the Legislature, which would have the option of rejecting them.
Republicans argued an independent commission would cut some of the politics out of the process. The last redistricting round gave rise to a controversy around House Speaker Thomas Finneran and court decisions ordered the lines to be redrawn. Finneran resigned in 2004 was eventually indicted and convicted for obstruction of justice related to his testimony in a redistricting lawsuit.
"To this day, I still have people talking to me about Chelmsford being sliced up like a Thanksgiving turkey," said Rep. Robert Hargraves (R-Groton), referring to the division of that town during the last rearrangement. "And we all know the districts that had to be re-written by order of the court."
Senate Democrats in January rejected a similar amendment from their Republican colleagues and signed off on the order.
Under the order, House members will control the committee, holding 21 of the 28 positions. Four members must be House Republicans and one must be a Senate Republican.
Rep. Michael Moran, House chairman of the Committee on Election Laws, said the process will be "open and transparent," and the redistricting committee would reach out to municipal officials. The order is a "simple housekeeping procedure" which moves them to the "first step in the redistricting process," he said.
The redistricting committee still has to staff up, purchase software and computers and find space, he said. The committee is also developing a website to solicit public comments and post minutes of the committee's meetings.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones (R-North Reading) hit Moran, a Brighton Democrat, for not including Republicans in discussions over the order. "His argument about being inclusive and solicitous of opinion and viewpoints is undercut," Jones said. "It's the first day out."
Moran said the redistricting process takes place over three years. "It's a little too soon to say you were not included in the process," he said. "The beginning hasn't even started yet."
Moran said he personally does not support an independent commission, noting that the people who would serve on the commission would be appointed by political officials and not elected. By entrusting them with redrawing district lines, he said, "I think I would be not representing my constituents to the best of my ability."
Republicans circulated a 2006 list from government watchdog group Common Cause of 36 House Democrats, including House Ways and Means chairman Charley Murphy (D-Burlington), who supported an independent commission and redistricting reform. Murphy voted against the Republican amendment on Thursday.
Democrats who sided with Republicans on the amendment included Reps. Jim Arciero of Westford, Jennifer Callahan of Sutton, Thomas Calter of Kingston, Christopher Fallon of Malden, John Quinn of Dartmouth, Stephen Smith of Everett, and Thomas Stanley of Waltham.
Rep. Jay Kaufman (D-Lexington) said a Constitutional amendment with redistricting reforms and an independent commission will be debated during the two-year legislative session.
The House also voted unanimously to approve Gov. Deval Patrick's plan to reorganize and reshuffle a handful of state agencies, including the placement of emergency shelter operations under the oversight of housing rather than welfare officials.