Senate debates redistricting


CHRIS TOMLINSON,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Advocates for minorities in Texas blasted the process by which the state is considering new political maps, complaining on Thursday that lawmakers are not giving poor people outside of Austin the chance to testify and the versions under consideration would discriminate against minorities.

Minority senators, all of them Democrats, vehemently opposed adopting interim maps drawn by a federal court, saying they did not do enough to guarantee that minorities will have their voices fairly heard in the 2014 elections. They complained that while 89 percent of new Texans since 2000 are minorities, the temporary maps do not reflect their voting power.

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Republican Sen. Kel Seliger, the chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, said neither the state nor court-drawn maps discriminate against minorities, but he said he wanted a public and transparent process for adopting them. He promised to consider amending the interim maps to make them “more legal,” but said he would reject changes solely for political or personal purposes.

At stake is the balance of power in the Texas Legislature and the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. The composition of legislative and congressional districts decides who has the upper hand in election season. The U.S. Census, which takes place every 10 years, gives lawmakers the chance to choose their voters by drawing district maps.

While all sides decided to accept the maps for the Texas Senate, the Texas House and congressional districts remain in dispute.

In Texas, the maps are drawn by the Legislature, which is currently controlled by Republicans. There is nothing illegal in members of one party drawing maps that will benefit them, but it is illegal to draw maps that discriminate based on ethnicity.

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A federal court in Washington D.C. ruled that maps drawn by Republicans in 2011 intentionally discriminated against minorities and threw them out. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Abbott also has asked the Legislature to officially adopt interim maps drawn by federal judges in San Antonio for the 2012 election, before the Washington court made its ruling. Abbott’s attorneys told the San Antonio court on Wednesday that if the Legislature adopts the interim maps, the problem is solved.

Not so, said minority senators and activists representing the NAACP, unions and Hispanic groups. In testimony before the Senate Redistricting Committee on Thursday, they said the San Antonio maps were temporary and that final maps for the Texas House and Congress should be based on the Washington court’s ruling, which calls for more profound changes.

“I neither condone these maps, nor the process by which they are being ratified,” Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, said of the interim maps. “There has been a demonstrated and disturbing willingness to pursue partisan advantage at the expense of the voting rights of minority Texans.”

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Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, asked that Seliger schedule statewide hearings to give more people the chance to testify in person about the maps and complained that the Republican majority in both chambers of the Legislature were ignoring minority concerns.

Seliger said people outside of Austin were welcome to submit written testimony and rejected the criticisms.

“I believe the proposals before us are legally sufficient. Clearly there is some debate and disagreement about that, and that’s what the hearing process is for,” Seliger said.

The Senate parliamentarian cleared up one major concern Thursday afternoon, ruling that while Gov. Rick Perry’s order for a special session called on lawmakers to “ratify and adopt” the court-drawn maps, lawmakers could modify the maps as they see fit.

The legal maneuvering over redistricting is nothing new to Texas. Federal courts have found problems with Texas’ political maps following every redistricting process since 1970, and litigation frequently drags on for years. These court cases frequently cost taxpayers millions of dollars and delay the adoption of permanent maps until just before the next Census.