Lines in the balance

Redistricting is dead…for now.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Friday declared congressional redistricting dead for the current special session but said it will pass even if it takes two more sessions.

“Sooner or later, we’re going to have a new plan,” Dewhurst said.

Dewhurst said he expects Gov. Rick Perry to call a second special session on congressional redistricting soon after the current session ends.

Each special session costs taxpayers an estimated $1.7 million.

Dewhurst said it would be almost impossible to pass redistricting in the current special session, which ends at midnight Tuesday, because there are not enough votes in the Senate to bring the bill up for debate.

“In essence, redistricting in this session is dead,” Dewhurst said.

Whether the Democratic Senators will boycott another session, and whether anyone has the authority to drag them back to Austin if they do boycott, is open to debate.

When House members fled to Ardmore, Okla., in May, House officials sent the Department of Public Safety in search of them. A lawsuit sparked by that action has produced a preliminary ruling by a state district judge saying that the DPS cannot hunt down AWOL lawmakers.

Although the Texas Constitution gives the Legislature the power to compel attendance, it leaves it to each chamber to decide on enforcement.

Austin attorney Keith Hampton, advising Senate Democrats, has told them that the Senate’s GOP leadership cannot have them arrested and returned to establish a quorum.

“They can just go home,” Hampton said. “I don’t think one member or one group of members could exercise any force against the others.”

Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office is expected to ask state District Judge Charles Campbell on Monday to narrow or change his ruling on the use of law enforcement agencies, and Abbott has said he will appeal the decision.

Hampton also thinks the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms cannot use his staff or hire private investigators to track down senators.

“If the senators aren’t doing what the people want, then the people can throw them out of office,” he said.

On apparent side effect of all this is the death of SB22, the Death Star government reorganization bill, and its provision to remove power from the Comptroller’s office.

It remains unclear whether the government reorganization legislation would return in a second special session. The bill’s House sponsor watched as a variation of the bill died during the regular session.

“I don’t know how many times a bill can die, but that one has a long and storied history of being dead,” said Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas.

The bill’s apparent death on Friday was a major blow to Perry, because it would have given him greater authority over state agencies, and to Dewhurst, because his responsibilities would also have expanded.

But the demise of Senate Bill 22 was a huge victory for Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who managed to beat back an attempt to strip her agency of the authority to audit the state’s bureaucracy and transfer the duties to the Legislative Budget Board, which Dewhurst heads.

She had blamed Dewhurst for the legislation, saying the lieutenant governor had ushered the bill through the Senate on Thursday. Strayhorn had earlier angered her fellow Republicans leading the Legislature by criticizing their budget priorities.

“This is political payback — and it has no place in state government,” Strayhorn said.

If nothing else, all this has been good for the various pollsters and political scientists who get quoted in analytical articles like this one.

Political scientists and polltakers agreed that few voters care deeply yet about the prolonged redistricting battle, though they differed about whether the public eventually will punish one side or the other.

“It’s an activist fight,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “The mass public does not have a way to relate to how redistricting is affecting their interest.”

Mr. Buchanan said he was surprised that Republicans and Democrats are not spending advertising dollars to sway the public to their side.

Democrats packed field hearings with critics of the push for a new redistricting plan by such Washington Republicans as U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land and senior White House adviser Karl Rove.

For instance, at seven meetings the Senate held across the state, 89 percent of the 2,620 witnesses opposed any change in the congressional maps drawn by federal judges two years ago, after the Legislature failed to produce a plan.

Ordinary Texans may not be aware of the redistricting battle at all, said Mr. Montgomery and Mike Baselice, a GOP pollster in Austin.

However, Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said he thinks a good many voters are watching the spectacle at least sporadically and with casual interest.

“The public is sitting back, sort of bemused at this point,” Dr. Jillson said. “It’s having a hard time sorting out fact from fiction. Republicans say it’s a matter of fairness, that they’ve got 58 percent of the vote in this state. … Democrats say this is a heinous act of political hardball.”

Tune in Monday for more.

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7 Responses to Lines in the balance

  1. M. L. Foster says:

    Sounds to me like some people looked around and decided they really wanted to represent their current district instead of trying to come up with a permanent hegemony. Maybe there are some ethical pols remaining.

  2. Whether the Democratic Senators will boycott another session, and whether anyone has the authority to drag them back to Austin if they do boycott, is open to debate.

    It isn’t open to debate, Charles. The Texas Constitution says that the legislature can ‘compel’ legislators to return and then mete out ‘punishment.’ ‘Compel’ is synonymous with ‘force,’ not ‘asking nicely.’ Accordingly, Hampton is full of crap. Wishful thinking does not an argument make.

  3. Owen, if I understand it correctly, the earlier ruling said that the DPS had no statutory authority to go out and grab missing lawmakers. The legislature could change the law to give them that authority, of course–but only once they’ve got a quorum. Until then, even though the Constitution gives the government the power to do something, there’s no legislation implementing that power.

  4. Steven,

    You don’t need legislation when the State Constitution says so: “[A] smaller number [than a quorum] may adjourn from day to day, and compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner and under such penalties as each House may provide (Section 10, Article 3).” The House rules give the sergeant-at-arms the power to arrest fleeing legislators and enlist others to assist, which, of course, would include the DPS, and the remaining House members approved this.

    In any case, Hampton is arguing that even the sergeant-at-arms himself doesn’t have the authority to arrest fleeing legislators, which is pure nonsense. That’s piling ridiculous upon ridiculous.

  5. Owen, it’s open to debate until a judge rules one way or the other. That’s why Attorney General Abbott is asking Judge Campbell to clarify and/or narrow his recent ruling about DPS. Why is that fact so hard for you to grasp?

  6. Charles,

    It isn’t open to debate that the House has the authority to arrest legislators! That authority is explicitly written into the Texas Constitution, so even if I granted that there was some ambiguitity with regards to the use of the DPS (and I don’t), there’s still the matter of using the sergeant-at-arms.

    And simply because a judge rules on something doesn’t mean the position he presents is reasonable, or that the issue is ‘open to debate.’ Just because the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the free speech rights of bloggers doesn’t mean that it’s ‘open to debate’ that they don’t exist.

  7. Whatever you say, Owen. Must be nice to have the world behave as you expect it to all the time. Here on Planet Earth, we’re about to find out – according to the Quorum Report, the Dems appear to have left the Capital.

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