BOBBY HARRISON: Special interests shaped districts

After the Senate ended the 2011 session without reaching a compromise with the House on redrawing legislative districts, a group of men in business attire congregated outside the office of Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, looking rather proud of themselves.
The lobbyists making up the group included the state’s Manufacturers Association, Hospitality Association, Bankers Association and others. While they shied away from publicity, it is common knowledge in the Capitol that they worked feverishly during the 2011 session to ensure the plan to redraw the House districts developed by that chamber’s Democratic majority was rejected in the Senate.
When the Senate ended the session late last week, the group had for all practical purposes won a major battle.
Whether they will win the war remains to be seen. That outcome, in large part, will be determined by the federal courts.
The fight over redistricting is all about control of the Mississippi Legislature.
The above-mentioned group wants a redistricting plan that would favor House Republicans and presumably help them elect a speaker. They, along with most Republicans, said the plan passed by the Democratic majority in the House is not fair to Republicans.
Democrats disagree. And it is true that after everything is said and done under the Democrats’ plan, there are more than 20 Democratic incumbent House members who will run in districts where voters selected the Republican candidate in recent gubernatorial, presidential and congressional elections.
But I think an impartial observer would conclude the plan approved by the House favors the majority Democrats just like the plan passed by the Senate tilts toward the Republican majority in that chamber.
With the issue now heading to the courts, it is not clear what the ultimate goal was of the group of lobbyists that has spent so much time in the lieutenant governor’s office in recent days as they devised a redistricting strategy.
Some believe it has been the ultimate goal of Republicans to force two sets of elections – the regularly scheduled elections this year under the old districts and a new round of elections in 2012 under newly drawn plans. That is what occurred in 1991 and ’92 when legislative redistricting ended up in the federal courts.
Many Republicans believe that would favor them. In general, Democratic candidates in Mississippi have far fewer campaign resources so they could not as easily afford to run two years in a row.
Plus, the legislative candidates would be on the ballot next year with Democratic President Barack Obama, who popularity is low in Mississippi.
At any rate, the lobbyists mentioned above have deep pockets that could be used to help Republicans having to run two years in a row,
For the most part, most of the other associations, roaming the halls of the Capitol lobbying for their members, such as the doctors, nurses and pharmacies, have stayed out of the contentious and partisan redistricting fight.
The one notable exception, most believe, is the Mississippi Hospital Association. Many believe the group has sided with Democrats on the issue.
But Sam Cameron, executive director of the Hospital Association, sent out a letter stating his group’s goal is to elect legislators who are “pro-hospital.” It is no secret, though, that many Democrats have sided with the Hospital Association to oppose Gov. Haley Barbour’s efforts to increase taxes on hospitals.
In the letter, Cameron said, “While we are like most every other taxpayer in Mississippi and would want to avoid all of that additional cost, you should know that we here at MHA believe our election prospects in 2011 using the current districts would be a little better than having to support candidates in the new districts … Also, MHA’s financial resources dedicated to campaigns and elections far outweigh those of any other group in Mississippi. Should the Legislature run again in 2012, I feel we’d be one of the last remaining groups able to support our candidates that year.”
It is of note that many Democrat-leaning groups are calling on the courts to develop a new plan and not force legislators to run in the current districts because they are substantially malapportioned.
But it could be argued that those malapportioned districts provide a number of distinct advantages to Democratic candidates and could even give Democrats a chance to regain control of the Senate.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal