Redistrict plan will face hurdles
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, has been trying to put the chore of at least congressional redistricting with a bipartisan commission of non-elected officials since 1993. About a dozen other states have at least some of their redistricting performed by some body other than their legislature.
Wentworth says Texas doing so could save Texans millions of dollars in legal fees and costs of unnecessary legislative sessions, and avoid enormously bloody infighting that is a constant by-product of partisan redistricting.
"Some states have done it one way, and some have done it another," Wentworth said. "We've always done it ourselves, and we've always been sued. Nearly any system would be better than the one we've got now."
To gain votes from his Senate colleagues, Wentworth has removed from his proposal having the commission also re-draw Texas House and Senate districts.
He recently gathered 20 of the 31 senators in favor of S.B. 1068 -- 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats -- while ten Republicans opposed it. (Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston who has missed much of the legislative session recovering from a liver transplant, was absent,)
The eight-member commission would have two members each selected by the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate. They could not be elected or party officials, and would be prevented from running for office for 10 years following their service.
In case of a deadlock, the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court would appoint a ninth member to break the tie. The Legislature would vote up or down on the map produced by commission.
Wentworth proposes the commission perform redistricting beginning in 2011 after the 2010 federal census. His bill has been sent to the House. It also passed the Senate in 2005, but reached the House so late in the legislative session that it was never even heard in committee.
A House sponsor, Rep. Mark Strama, DAustin, said the House Redistricting Committee chairman -- Rep. Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita -- has said he will give the bill a hearing.
But even though Wentworth got the bill out earlier this year, it's still late in the legislative session, which ends May 28. So its prospects are uncertain. Not only would it have to pass the Redistricting Committee, but then also clear the House Calendars Committee to be heard on the House floor.
Crabb said expert witnesses will be invited to testify on May 2. Another proposal by Rep. Mike Villareal, D-San Antonio, to have a commission also handle legislative redistricting, will also be discussed, Crabb said.
He hopes that the hearings will convince House Speaker Tom Craddick to appoint an interim committee to study the matter before the 2009 legislative session. Crabb also hopes that could lead to a constitutional amendment proposal to let voters choose whether they want a commission to do some or all of the redistricting, or continue to leave it to the Legislature.
Perry called not just one but three special sessions on redistricting, to overcome efforts by Democrats in the Texas House and Senate to kill the bill by fleeing the state to break a quorum. The boycotts worked temporarily; House Democrats went to Oklahoma to break a quorum at the end of the regular legislative session, and Senate Democrats to New Mexico during the second special session. But Perry doggedly called them back until the Democrats were finally run over.
Some Republicans insisted that they were just paying back the Democrats, who in 1991 had drawn districts that gave three new seats to Democrats. But the Democrats countered that they had also made it possible for every Texas Republican in Congress to be re-elected.
Perhaps Wentworth's idea will finally lead to saving Texans money, hassle, punitive partisanship and angst. It's long overdue.
Reach McNeely at dmcneely@austin. rr.com or (512) 323-0248.