Not for the Faint of Heart

Lock up the whiskey: Redistricting is upon us.
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Posted July 21, 2010 by DAVE McNEELY in News

If redistricting weren’t so serious, it would be funny. As Forrest Gump’s momma says about life in the 1994 movie, “It’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Most folks don’t know or care about legislative and congressional redistricting, to be done here in Texas during the legislative session that begins in January, by the legislators mostly chosen in this year’s election.

They don’t care, that is, until they see a relatively compact Austin-based congressional district split into three — one reaching to Houston, one to South Texas, and one to San Antonio and West Texas.

Or see a popular and powerful committee chairman from their hometown paired in a jumbled district with another popular incumbent.

Or see a district drawn so goofily long and narrow that if you drive from one end to the other with your car doors open, you’ll kill everyone in it.

One thing you do get is a figurative bar-room knife fight, among people in suits. It’s a slight departure from Darwin’s observation about evolution: survival of the slickest. Of course, considering the new provision that allows folks with a concealed handgun license to avoid the capitol’s metal detectors, the redistricting dustup might conceivably change from political knifings to actual shootings. Probably not, but when you take people who are very serious about guarding their sense of power — and who are already facing divisive quarrels over budgets, taxes, healthcare, and education — then throw in a battle for political survival, who knows what long nights, frayed tempers, a little whiskey, and a few handguns might produce?

Some districts are drawn illogically because an incumbent wants it that way. Lawmakers who represent sizable cities don’t always want to share the same turf with a popular mayor who might start getting Austin fever once mayoral term limits kick in.

It also can help the incumbent to have his or her district cover parts of more than one TV market — incumbents usually have the advantage over opponents in raising money for TV ads in multiple markets.

Some other ingredients for the stew:

•  Democrats worry about an undercount in the census, particularly of Hispanics. No one disputes that at least some of them are illegal aliens. But they, just like people in prison, are supposed to be counted for the census — the basis for redistricting and federal funding allocations.

• The House and Senate have each traditionally drawn the districts for their own body, and the other body routinely rubber-stamps the plan. Or used to. In 2001, the Democratic House majority narrowly passed a plan. The Senate Redistricting Committee voted it out 8-0. But the senators couldn’t reach a consensus on their own districts, so they shelved the House plan too.

• Both House and Senate districts were then drawn by the five-member Legislative Redistricting Board (House speaker, lieutenant governor, attorney general, land commissioner, comptroller) – which also drew the districts in 1971 and 1981. In fact, the LRB has ended up drawing the districts all but one time since the federal Voting Rights Act and one-person/one-vote requirements changed the game in 1965. Odds are very good that the legislature will deadlock in 2011, and the LRB will again draw the districts for both bodies.

• The LRB is called into action only if the legislature fails to draw its own districts. If the legislature fails to draw congressional districts, the governor can call it into special session or let the chore go to a three-judge federal court.

• The federal act requires that any changes in voting districts be reviewed, either by the Justice Department or a three-judge federal court in Washington, D.C., to be sure they are not discriminatory. This will be the first redistricting year since that became law that the Justice Department is in Democratic hands.

• Texas senators serve staggered four-year terms. But all have to run in 2012 because the lines will have changed. The victors will draw lots in January 2013 to see who will get two-year initial terms and who gets the full four-year terms.

• In 2001 the reallocation of congressional districts among the states meant that for the first time Texas had more members of the U.S. Congress (32) than the Texas Senate (31). With Texas set to gain another three or four congressional districts next year, each state senator will have several thousand more constituents than the folks in Congress.

Veteran Texas political writer Dave McNeely can be reached at davemcneely111@gmail.com.


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