September 26, 2003
Off to committee

As expected, the job of drawing a new Congressional map has landed in the lap of a joint House-Senate committee, and they're pretty much starting from scratch.

"When I'm walking in, I think everything is on the table," said Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, chairman of the House negotiating team. His counterpart, Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, agrees: "The House and Senate versions are distinctly different."


When the House and Senate work out differences in legislation, the rules usually confine the negotiators to the parameters of each bill.

For redistricting, it's different. The map that eventually emerges for a final vote by the Legislature can resemble what's already been passed or be totally different.

The only sure shape of the things to come?

"It will be shaped like Texas," King said.


Although Perry reportedly wants a quick resolution, King and [Sen. Todd] Staples were predicting difficult negotiations.

"I don't think we'll argue over the shape of the table," King joked. "But it will take a while."

Staples and King have the same challenge. They must find common ground that a GOP majority few Democrats even support redrawing congressional boundaries this year can support in both chambers.

For example, the House map splits Waco, which Sen. Kip Averitt, R-McGregor, cannot accept. The Senate map divides Webb County, which Craddick said illegally dilutes the influence of Hispanic voters in Laredo. The House map gives state Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton, a suburban-rural East Texas district from which to run for Congress. The Senate map doesn't.

And the biggest dispute is whether Craddick's hometown of Midland can be given a district without upsetting West Texas senators.

I think we can all now agree, after one entire special session that produced wildly different House and Senate maps, and two weeks into the second fully-attended special session with no resolution in sight, that the notion expressed recently by Rick Perry's spokesman Gene Acuna that "congressional redistricting could've been taken care of during the regular session had Democrats not bolted in May" is hogwash. If redistricting is such a high priority for Republicans, I think it's fair to ask why they haven't gotten their act together yet, nearly six months after Tom DeLay first foisted a new map on us. If the third session ends with no agreement on a map from the GOP, can any supporter of redistricting honestly say that a fourth session is justified? Is there no point at which failure is admitted?

It's not just West Texas, Central Texas, and East Texas that are points of contention any more. You can now add South Texas to the dispute.

A day after the Senate passed a bill redrawing congressional districts, House Speaker Tom Craddick declared that a last-minute amendment that would affect Bexar and Webb counties could cause the Justice Department to reject the entire state plan.

The amendment by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, would split Webb County into two districts and remove about 130,000 residents in South Bexar County from U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez's 28th Congressional District.

"It's simple. That amendment causes retrogression, and it will not pass Justice Department (scrutiny)," Craddick said.

Texas is one of 16 states required to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department before it can change political boundaries. The clearance is intended to verify that changes to political districts do not disenfranchise any of the state's minority voters.

Responding to Craddick's comments, Wentworth said the Republican House speaker was poorly advised.

"I've gotten very different legal advice from lawyers we pay a lot of money to," Wentworth said. "I'd like to know who is advising (Craddick), but it's not very good (advice)."

Meanwhile, there's now a disagreement over the reason to split Webb County in the first place.

During a debate earlier this week, Wentworth pushed through the amendment, which he said was intended to bolster the re-election of his fellow Republican, U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla of San Antonio.

Bonilla, one of a handful of Mexican American Republicans serving in Congress, has a district that stretches from Bexar County to the Texas-Mexico border and includes all of Webb County.

During debate, Wentworth said he had spoken to Bonilla and that Bonilla was agreeable to splitting Webb County in two. Webb County, with a population that is 95 percent Hispanic, is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

But Thursday, [Sen. Judith] Zaffirini said she had spoken twice with Bonilla, who told her he was unaware of Wentworth's amendment and that he did not favor splitting Webb County.

"I find it ironic that the Republican Party is trying to help Bonilla with his re-election, and he hasn't even been contacted" about the effort, Zaffirini said.

Bonilla could not be reached for comment.

Nothing surprises me at this point.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 26, 2003 to Killer D's | TrackBack

Kuff writes,

If the third session ends with no agreement on a map from the GOP, can any supporter of redistricting honestly say that a fourth session is justified? Is there no point at which failure is admitted?

I'll be the first to agree that the state's Republican leaders in the executive branch and both legislative branches have hardly covered themselves with glory yet. A compromise ought to have been hammered out before the start of the third session, and hammered through on the first day of it.

But I do indeed contend that there is no point at which failure can be admitted on legislative redistricting.

This is a function that the US Constitution assigns to the state legislatures. It is a function that the US Supreme Court has said must be done by legislatures at least once every ten years, lest an older map be "constitutionally suspect." It is a function for which court-created redistricting is not an equally acceptable alternative; court-created maps are the last, worst alternative of all, worse than however many special sessions are required.

There were grounds to believe that special sessions in 2001 would never, ever have gotten past deadlock based on the split in party control of the two chambers in the Texas Legislature then. But the squabbling and bumbling and inefficiency so far in this special session -- while justifiably subject to criticism and even ridicule -- isn't yet enough to merit a conclusion of "impossibility."

That it's hard and messy is not a good enough excuse to quit. Quitting would be a failure of small-d democracy, and ought not be accepted.

Posted by: Beldar on September 27, 2003 12:12 AM