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House redistricting plan advances to Senate

JACKSON (AP) — The Mississippi Legislature’s redistricting debate is now shifting to the Senate, where Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant has said he won’t automatically accept a plan passed by the Democratic-controlled House.

Legislators are redrawing the 122 House districts and 52 Senate districts to reflect population changes revealed by the 2010 Census.

They’re under time pressure because the new maps must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which checks to ensure that minority voting strength is not diluted. Lawmakers say the department could take up to 60 days to examine the plans, and candidates face a June 1 deadline to qualify for this year’s legislative races.

The House passed its own plan Friday, then returned to the Capitol briefly Saturday morning to remove a procedural block that had been placed on it. On a loud voice vote and with no debate, the House disposed of the motion to reconsider. That advances the House plan to the Senate.

In the past, the House and Senate have accepted each other’s redistricting plans with little debate, but Bryant, who’s running for governor, has said repeatedly that he doesn’t think there should be such an agreement this year.

The Senate has a Republican majority.

“The fact that 56 Republicans and Democrats in the House voted against the House leadership’s reapportionment plan indicates that the members of the Senate should carefully examine the plan for fairness,” Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said Saturday. “The lieutenant governor believes … the House should do the same with the Senate plan. More importantly, the voters should have time to examine both plans.”

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said the two chambers should honor the tradition of accepting each other’s plans without challenge.

“That’s the way it’s been all these years,” McCoy said Saturday. “We have three separate branches of government, all equal, and two equal bodies of the legislative branch. They will not have one thing to say about our business, now or ever.”

The Senate is expected to release its own redistricting plans Monday. In an unusual twist, some top lawmakers say there are likely to be two maps — one from the Senate redistricting committee led by Republican Terry Burton of Newton and one from Bryant.

People familiar with the Senate redistricting process say a key difference between the two maps will be the location of majority-black Senate districts. The committee plan could include one district in the Hattiesburg area, while Bryant’s plan could increase the black population in one of the Jackson-area districts.

Redistricting could help shape politics for a decade to come because the demographics of each district could influence whether a seat goes to the Democrats or Republicans.

Mississippi voters don’t register by party, but race is used as a measure of which way a district could tilt. Generally, districts with higher white populations are seen as easier for Republicans to win, while districts with higher black voting age populations are seen as easier for Democrats to win.

Mississippi’s 2.9 million population is about 37 percent black.

The House plan would increase the number of majority-black districts from 39 to 44. It would also reduce the number of split precincts from 449 to fewer than 200 statewide. It would maintain the same number of districts on the Gulf Coast, which was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And it would add districts in the state’s fastest growing area, DeSoto County, which is just south of Memphis, Tenn.

The House vote for its own plan Friday was 65-56, with one member recorded as not voting. Most Democrats supported it and most Republicans opposed it.

On Saturday, the House gave unanimous consent to let Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, change from not voting to a yes vote, bringing the tally to 66-56. Straughter said Friday that he pressed the yes button on his voting machine but it didn’t record. It’s not unusual for House members to allow one of their colleagues to change a vote in such cases.

Several Republicans who voted against the plan said they don’t like the overall map but they’re satisfied with their districts.

“I’m very happy with my district. I sure am,” Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville, said Saturday.

Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, the House redistricting chairman, said most members — Republican and Democrat — came to him with individual requests about territory. He said Republican lawmakers from Rankin County, for example, “initialed what they wanted.”

“We had more inclusion in this process, and I’ve got it over there on file, where members came and made their suggestions,” Reynolds said.

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