BOBBY HARRISON: Legislature reached 1991 accord; courts killed it

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Guilty as charged. I have been helping perpetuate a myth – an outright falsehood – that the Mississippi Legislature could not reach agreement on a redistricting plan for the 122 House seats and 52 Senate seats in 1991. In reality, they did reach agreement.
An unnamed state senator called recently to point out the mistake and to clarify what actually happened in 1991.
The issue of what happened in 1991 has come up because the Legislature again faces the challenge of redistricting on an extremely short timetable.
The state is expected to get the 2010 U.S. Census data in February. The Legislature then must redraw House and Senate districts to coincide with population shifts determined by the 2010 Census. And it must be done and approved by the Justice Department before the June 1 candidate qualifying deadline.
Traditionally, each chamber develops its own redistricting plan and it is simply rubber stamped by the other house. The House does not involve itself with trying to have influence over the Senate plan and vice versa.
But there has been speculation that because of the ever-growing partisan nature of the Legislature that the laissez faire attitude toward the redistricting effort of the other chamber might be thrown out the window in 2011. More specifically, there has been speculation that the House Republicans might not like the plan drawn by the House Democratic leadership. The House Republicans then would convince the Republican leadership of the Senate to not pass the House plan.
In retaliation, the Democratic leaders of the House would not pass the Senate plan.
And presto, the issue would end up in the courts like in 1991, prompting an unwelcome scenario where legislators would run in the regular November elections under their old district lines and be forced to run again the following year under the new districts.
That is what happened in 1991 when the House and Senate could not agree on the plan, I and numerous other journalists in the state have written and said.
The only problem is that is not what happened in 1991.
We have a short memory.
In reality, the House and Senate did reach agreement on redistricting plans in 1991. In late April, the House and Senate both approved two joint resolutions – one redistricting the House and the other redistricting the Senate.
The hiccup occurred later in 1991 when African-Americans, led in part by Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, challenged the redistricting plans approved by both the House and Senate, saying more should have been done to create black majority districts. The overall black population of the state was large enough to warrant additional minority majority seats, they argued.
Ultimately, the U.S. Justice Department agreed and in August 1991 a federal court panel ruled legislators would run under the old districts during the regular 1991 elections and run again in 1992 under newly formed districts.
In 1992, the Legislature approved new district lines, giving African-Americans unprecedented strength in the legislative process. The new districts included 38 minority majority districts in the 122-member House and 12 majority black districts in the 52-member Senate.
The new district lines compelled by the federal courts resulted in 42 black legislators – an increase of 17 – being elected in the 1992 special election.
It is important to note that both House Apportionment and Elections Chair Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, and Senate Elections Chair Terry Burton, R-Newton, have said they are working closely together to ensure that an agreement can be reached during the 2011 session so elections can be held as scheduled under the new districts later in the year.
“We have worked together very well to this point,” Burton said recently. “I don’t see that changing in the near future if at all. We have spoken with a common voice. We don’t want to see a process where we run twice.”
Burton said it would be costly to the state and politically messy.
Plus, despite media reports, it would be unprecedented in recent history for the House and Senate to not be able to agree on a redistricting plan.
Contact Bobby Harrison, the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief at bobby.harrison@djournal.com, or call (601) 353-3119.