Work resumes on congressional map despite request

Associated Press State Wire: Louisiana (LA) - Monday, April 11, 2011
Author: MELINDA DESLATTE - Associated Press

State lawmakers refused Monday to give up on redrawing Louisiana's congressional districts, despite a push from Gov. Bobby Jindal and five of the seven congressmen to delay the work for a year. 

The Senate passed a new version of the congressional map in a 22-17 vote, sending it to the House for debate with a tight timeline remaining in the redistricting special session, which must end by Wednesday evening. But the two chambers remained far apart on an agreement. 

The congressional map has been mired in partisan and regional disagreements, with the state's congressmen at odds with how to reshape the districts and shrink the U.S. House seats from seven to six. Jindal and a majority of the state's congressmen, all Republicans, asked for the work to be scrapped until 2012. 

Senators said the delay would be irresponsible and would waste taxpayer dollars that are being spent on the special session. 

''For us to turn our back on this and go home and explain to our constituents that we put it off for a better time, for a better day is wrong,'' said Sen. Gerald Long, R-Natchitoches. He added, ''There are no perfect bills. There are no perfect amendments. Whatever we pass, if we pass anything, someone is going to be shortchanged.'' 

Lawmakers are redrawing political boundary lines to account for population shifts over the last decade as shown in federal census data. While they continued behind-the-scenes negotiations over the congressional map, the House and Senate on Monday gave final passage to plans to redesign the 144 legislative districts. 

The House backed a map for the 39 Senate districts, and the Senate backed the map for the 105 House districts. Both chambers upheld the longstanding tradition of not meddling in each other's district reshaping. The maps go next to the governor's desk. 

Despite previous suggestions he'd steer clear of much of the redistricting debate, Jindal has gotten heavily involved in the congressional map redesign. 

U.S. Reps. Rodney Alexander, Bill Cassidy, John Fleming, Jeff Landry and Steve Scalise sent a letter to the governor Friday but not to the legislative leadership asking for postponement of the congressional remap until early next year, and Jindal supported the delay. The governor's chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, said the congressional district reshaping could be done in a January special session when the new legislative terms begin. 

Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany and Democratic U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond didn't sign the letter, saying they want to see the work done now. 

Several lawmakers objected that the congressmen directed their request to Jindal, rather than to the people in charge of drawing the maps. 

''The last I checked, I do not work for Gov. Jindal, under 'Gov.' Teepell or for five of the seven congressmen. I work for the people of this great state,'' said Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans. 

Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, said, ''It's my commitment that we're not going to quit working on trying to get a congressional bill passed.'' 

House members continued to talk with senators about a possible compromise. 

Among the central disputes is whether to maintain two north Louisiana-based districts, which would have significant ripple effects on the districts of south Louisiana because the northern districts would have to stretch farther south to account for population losses. Jindal threatened to veto any bill that didn't maintain the two northern districts, which would protect Fleming and Alexander. 

Any maps from the redistricting session must be cleared by the U.S. Justice Department to ensure compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against minorities. 

In both the House and Senate, black lawmakers voted in a near bloc against the legislative district maps, arguing that they don't do enough to protect minorities. 

''If we do not do this right, we will be revisiting these matters in the courts and with the Justice Department. Deficiencies clearly have been recognized,'' said Sen. Cynthia Willard-Lewis, D-New Orleans, of the House redistricting. 

The House plan includes 29 minority districts, up from 27 now. Two sets of incumbents will be forced into merged districts: Reps. Charmaine Marchand Stiaes, D-New Orleans, and Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; and Reps. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, and Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans. 

Several other lawmakers' districts, however, will be heavily reworked and may create problems for their re-elections. 

The Senate voted 30-9 for the House plan. 

The Senate plan includes 11 majority black districts, up from 10 now. It pits two New Orleans Democratic incumbents against each other in the fall election: Morrell and Willard-Lewis. New minority districts would be created in north Louisiana, stretching from the Alexandria area, and along the Mississippi River in south Louisiana. 

The House voted 71-28 for the Senate plan. 

Late last week, House Speaker Jim Tucker stalled approval of the Senate plan, saying he thought there were technical problems with the map. Senate leaders disagreed. 

''At this point in the process we're going to agree to disagree, and we're going to honor the Senate request not to amend their plan,'' Tucker, R-Terrytown, said Monday before the House approved the map.