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Black senators: Diversity needed in redistricting

JACKSON (AP) — Several black senators said Friday they’re unhappy that Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed three white Republican men as negotiators for Mississippi redistricting.

Bryant said he appointed three senators who’ve been deeply involved with the effort to redraw legislative districts that will be used for the coming decade.

However, it’s unclear whether talks between the House and Senate will even take place because Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy said this week that he won’t appoint any House members to act as negotiators on a redistricting conference committee. Usually, three members from each chamber are appointed to work on final versions of bills or resolutions.

Mississippi legislators are trying to redraw the 122 state House districts and 52 state Senate districts to reflect population changes revealed by the 2010 Census.

Traditionally, each chamber draws its own plan and the other chamber rubber stamps it.

This year, both chambers have passed a Senate-drawn plan for the Senate. The House has passed its own House map, but McCoy said he’s upset that the Senate has rejected the House map.

The House and Senate maps are on hold because they’re included in a single resolution.

Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, and Democrats hold a majority in the House. Bryant said Friday he wants to see more Republican input into the new House map.

“You’ve got 49 (House) Republicans who voted against the House plan,” Bryant said. “Surely, they have some opportunity to be heard. And that’s what I think the conference committee would do, would give them an opportunity to be heard.”

Legislative redistricting is a racially sensitive issue because it deals with elections in a state where black residents faced violence and intimidation when they tried to vote decades ago. Any redistricting plans must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which checks to ensure that the new maps will not dilute minority voting strength.

Democratic Sens. Alice Harden of Jackson and Willie Simmons of Cleveland were among the Legislative Black Caucus members who said Friday that Bryant should’ve appointed at least one black senator to negotiate on redistricting. Mississippi’s population is about 37 percent black.

“I represent 52,000 people in Hinds County, but my voice is not going to be heard on this conference committee,“ Harden said. ”Where’s the input? Where are the rest of the chairs that ought to be pulled to the table?”

Simmons said he’s not questioning the integrity of the Senate negotiators, but he believes the state’s racial makeup should be considered in any matter involving elections.

“We’re really talking about the future of Mississippi for the next 10 years and we’re talking about a very diverse population in this state,” Simmons said.

Bryant said two of the three negotiators are leaders of committees that have been working on legislative redistricting. Sen. Terry Burton of Newton chairs the Elections Committee, and Sen. Billy Hewes of Gulfport chairs the Rules Committee. Bryant said he chose Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville as the third negotiator because McDaniel is an attorney with experience in federal court.

Several other senators, including Democrats, are attorneys with federal court experience.

The 2010 Census showed significant growth of black and white residents in DeSoto County, just south of Memphis, Tenn.

Parts of the economically struggling and largely rural and black Delta lost population.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour will not get to either approve or veto any redistricting plan because the maps are being handled as required by the state constitution in a resolution, not in a bill. Resolutions don’t go to the governor.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said Friday that even if negotiations don’t take place on the existing redistricting resolution, a new resolution could be filed and redistricting could be resolved before the legislative session is scheduled to end in two weeks.

“There’s a lot of time on the clock,” Flaggs said. “It’s time for cool heads to prevail.”

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The resolution is Joint Resolution 201.

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