Redistricting session enters final days without plans

Published 10:42 pm Sunday, April 10, 2011

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Not a single map is complete and passed as lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday for the final three days of a special session to redesign political boundary lines.

While the state House and state Senate district remaps are expected to be wrapped up before the deadline, legislators are unsure if they’ll finish a congressional revamp or end in stalemate amid partisan disputes, regional splits and charges of minority voter suppression.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and five of the state’s congressmen are asking for the congressional map to be scrapped for now as the haggling has grown increasingly angry, but it’s unclear if legislative leaders will acquiesce or continue trying to reach a compromise.

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“It becomes iffy to get the bill through,” said Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, of the last-minute negotiating. Riser has one of the two congressional bills still alive in the process.

The session must end by 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Lawmakers are reshaping the districts for legislative seats, U.S. House seats, the Public Service Commission, and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to account for population shifts over the last decade as shown in federal census data. Louisiana is losing a congressional seat because of its anemic population growth.

All work ground to a halt late last week when House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, raised technical concerns over the Senate’s map for redesigning its 39 districts, seeming to violate a longstanding tradition that House members don’t meddle with Senate maps and senators don’t tweak House maps.

Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, said the redesigned Senate districts complied with the law and had no technical problems, but the dispute caused both sides to adjourn for a long weekend to see if they could reach a deal.

Every other map got tied up in the disagreement, though the House and Senate were expected to start giving final passage to redistricting plans Monday.

The congressional remap effort, however, had far more complaints and disputes.

Chaisson and Tucker said they thought all the work could be done on time, but that assumed fruitful negotiations over the congressional map behind the scenes through the weekend.

“Everything could be completed by Wednesday, everything. There’s no problem,” Tucker said.

Instead, during the weekend recess, five of the state’s six Republican U.S. House members and the state’s Republican governor asked for the congressional redesign work to be postponed until next year.

The congressmen — U.S. Reps. Rodney Alexander, John Fleming, Steve Scalise, Bill Cassidy and Jeff Landry — said the state has more pressing financial matters to worry about right now. Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany and Democratic U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond asked for lawmakers to wrap up the congressional map this session.

Jindal’s chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, said it’s difficult to get anyone to reach a consensus because there’s a year left before the congressional maps need to be drawn for the 2012 fall elections.

“We’ve got time. We can do it next year,” Teepell said.

Of course, if they wait until a January 2012 special session, term limits will have wiped out several of the longtime Democratic leaders in the Senate, many of whom have opposed Jindal’s preferred congressional map.

Jindal, along with much of the Republican leadership, is pushing a map that would preserve two north Louisiana-based congressional districts as currently represented by Alexander, of Quitman, and Fleming, of Minden.

The districts, one anchored in Shreveport and the other containing Monroe and Alexandria, would have to stretch much further south to pick up population and would carve up south Louisiana. But the move would protect Alexander and Fleming.

Democrats, backed by GOP lawmakers worried the vertical districts would split their regions, are seeking an alternate map that would create a north Louisiana district running along Interstate 20 and including Shreveport and Monroe and a central Louisiana district. Jindal threatened to veto such a map.

Alexander and Fleming would still remain in separate districts, but the proportion of black voters would increase in the north Louisiana district, and Republicans fear that could make the seat more favorable for a Democratic pick-up.

Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, accused Jindal of trying to suppress minority voting strength and ignore public comment around the state about regional ties as he fights for the two north Louisiana districts.

“It’s a concentrated effort by this Republican governor to diminish the influence of black people,” Jackson said.