Waco Rep. Dunnam, Democrats decry change to redistricting hearing process

Michael W. Shapiro
Waco Tribune-Herald
July 12, 2010

Preparations for next year’s Texas redistricting hit a snag as state House members bickered about whether a decision to increase the number of members studying the topic was a partisan maneuver.

The redrawing of legislative and congressional maps is a deeply political and often contentious process. It has direct bearing on the fates of 181 state legislators, 32 members of Congress and countless citizens who want to break into the political arena.

That’s magnified in Texas, where the memory of former Republican U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay’s unorthodox middecade redistricting is still fresh.

Given the heightened state of edginess surrounding the process, state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, faulted GOP leaders for a recent decision to include a heavily Republican committee in hearings on redistricting scheduled across much of the state.

“People are paranoid enough without you giving them a reason to be paranoid,” Dunnam said Thursday, a week after sending a memo about the change to Democratic colleagues titled “The summer of long knives.”

The House Redistricting Committee — which includes eight Republicans and seven Democrats — has traditionally toured the state in the interim year before redistricting to get a read on statewide concerns and questions about the process.

But the committee will not do it alone this year. The eight Republicans and three Democrats on the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee will now take part in joint hearings, which were agreed to by the respective committee chairs.

Opponents of the move say that will give Republicans a distinct advantage in the process, with 16 members involved versus the Democrats’ 10.

‘Totally unprecedented’

“It’s totally unprecedented, it’s in violation of the House rules, and we still haven’t gotten an explanation for why it’s being done from the speaker,” said Dunnam, the leader of the House Democrats.

A spokeswoman for Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, deferred questions on the topic to Rep. Dan Branch, R-Houston, a Straus ally who sits on the Judiciary panel.

Branch said the motivation behind the change was boosting the House’s breadth of knowledge of key challenges ahead with the upcoming redistricting.

He dismissed the notion that it was an example of partisanship, even if the new committee is lopsided in favor of the Republican Party.

“What I understand the speaker was trying to do was expand the groups,” he said. “Usually the more inclusive, expansive process is a one my good friend Mr. Dunnam likes to espouse.”

Dunnam disagreed that the joint-committee structure would lead to increased wisdom on redistricting.

The enlarged joint committee has been split into regional subcommittees, with the smaller panels’ members required to attend hearings in prescribed parts of the state.

Dunnam predicted committee members would skip meetings outside their region. An East Texas representative might be inclined, for example, to play hooky during the hearing in El Paso.

And that, Dunnam argued, would mean at the end of the process, lawmakers would not have a comprehensive statewide sense of the key issues at play.

“There are real problems with growth in the state that will require tough changes,” he said, “and if there’s not someone talking about the importance of a cohesive voice in Texas, it’ll get lost in the process.”

Calling Dunnam’s argument about the small subcommittees a fair point, Branch said “what outweighs that type of a critique is that you have more people involved.”

He said past attendance of Redistricting Committee hearings has not been perfect, and it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will hear more or less public comment this time around.

The first hearings of the joint committee were held in Austin and San Antonio.

Scheduled hearings

Three hearings are scheduled later this month in McAllen, Laredo and Corpus Christi; two in August in El Paso and Lubbock; three in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in September; hearings in Beaumont and Marshall in October; and in Houston in November.

There hasn’t been a hearing scheduled in either McLennan or Bell counties, but Redistricting Committee chair Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, said he would consider adding a hearing in Waco if there’s a demand for it.

Neither Dunnam nor Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, sits on either of the House committees studying redistricting during the lead-up to the legislative session.

Newly sworn-in state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, is also not on the Senate’s redistricting panel.