Redistricting spills into regular session

Advocate, The (Baton Rouge, LA) - Tuesday, April 19, 2011
The Louisiana Legislature is preparing to handle some unfinished redistricting business during its regular session opening Monday. 

Lawmakers ended a rancorous 25-day special session Wednesday in which it redrew districts for Congress, the state House and Senate as well as the Public Service Commission. 

Now lawmakers have filed 18 bills dealing with the election lines they drew as well as redistricting issues that went unresolved in the special session agenda. 

The Legislature failed to adopt a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education plan, with efforts dying in the last minutes of the special redistricting session. That issue is back since BESE elections are set for this fall. 

State Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville, wants to redraw the state Supreme Court districts - a topic on the special session agenda that went untouched by lawmakers. 

Yet a 19th bill is aimed at changing the redistricting process in the future. State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, wants an independent constitutionally created commission instead of lawmakers to handle it. 

House redistricting committee Chairman Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, said many of the bills were filed in case congressional, legislative and PSC plans run into trouble gaining required U.S. Justice Department approval. 

If the Justice Department notifies lawmakers on a timely basis, the fixes can be done before the regular session ends June 23, averting another costly special session, Gallot said. 

Legislators are scheduled to run in the new districts this fall so time is of the essence in getting a plan OK'd, he said. 

"It would not be my intent to move anything until we hear something from Justice," Gallot said. 

Justice must pre-clear changes in Louisiana election laws before they can be implemented. Louisiana is a Voting Rights Act state because of its history of racially discriminatory practices. 

The back-up plans are both mirrors of those headed to the Justice Department for Congress and the Legislature as well as rewrites proposed by lawmakers unhappy with the final versions. 

For instance, state Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, re-filed his legislatively approved plan for Louisiana's six new congressional districts, which contains two vertical north Louisiana-based districts. 

But Gallot and state Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, have bills that would rewrite the congressional plan to include two horizontal, east-west north Louisiana districts.. 

"I don't know if Justice is going to act that quickly, but I wanted to be ready in case they do," said Jackson. 

Other lawmakers have filed rewrites to take care of problems their areas had with the congressional plan adopted. 

"As far as I'm concerned, it ain't over until the fat lady sings so to speak," said state Rep. Greg Cromer, R-Slidell. "If perchance we don't get DOJ clearance, I want to have a bill in the hopper that is more favorable to my area and constituents." 

Cromer's legislation would put more of the Florida Parishes together in the 1st Congressional District. 

State Rep. Damon Baldone, D-Houma, has submitted a congressional remap that would put Terrebonne-Lafourche in one congressional district - the Baton Rouge-based 6th District. The current plan splits them, and parish officials want to stay together. 

Four lawmakers have filed plans to redraw the eight elected districts for BESE. 

Lambert said he filed the Supreme Court redistricting measure because the current election districts are "way out of whack." 

If equalized, the population ideal would be 647,624 for each of the seven districts. Today, a New Orleans-based district is 209,423 below that population ideal while a Baton Rouge area district is 143,657 above. 

"It's not fair to the people running. It needs to be equalized," said Lambert. 

Supreme Court spokeswoman Valerie Willard quoted Chief Justice "Catherine" Kitty Kimball as saying that neither federal nor state law requires the court to redistrict and courts are not under the one-man, one vote requirement of legislative bodies.