By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Byrant apparently will submit his own redistricting plan to compete against the proposal Senate Elections Chair Terry Burton, R-Newton, will unveil Monday.
“It is unprecedented for the lieutenant governor to get this intensely involved in redistricting,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who confirmed he was in a meeting where Bryant announced he would submit his own plan. “No past lieutenant governor has ever done this – opposing a plan produced by his committee chair and to be working against his committee chair.”
The lieutenant governor’s office would not respond to questions about the issue.
Burton, who was appointed by Bryant, said, when asked about the lieutenant governor’s plan, “I want to talk about my plan. We put together a plan, which we will unveil Monday, that I think is fair … It is a good plan for the state of Mississippi. I believe, our attorneys believe, our staff who has been involved in redistricting believe, the Justice Department will approve it and keep us from having to run two years in a row. I don’t think the other plan does that, based on what I have heard.”
Burton has said from the beginning of the contentious process one of his primary goals was to finish redistricting on time to save the cost to the state that would come from legislators having to run this year under the current districts and next year under new districts.
The Legislature is racing the clock to redraw its 52 Senate districts and 122 House districts based on the 2010 census. Federal law mandates that districts must be close to equal in population.
Plus, federal law requires any changes to elections in Mississippi to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The House already has passed its plan.
It appears senators, who are expected to vote next week, will have the option of two plans – one submitted by Burton and the other by Bryant.
Under the Burton plan, a new black district is drawn in the Hattiesburg area. Byrant opposes that district, Bryan and others have said. The district will replace one currently held by Tom King, R-Petal, who is running for Southern District Transportation commissioner.
“I believe with the Hattiesburg (black district) the chance of preclearance by the Justice Department is in excess of 95 percent,” said Bryan. “Without the Hattiesburg (majority black district) the chance of preclearance, I think, is a long shot.”
Bryant has been vocal in recent days, complaining about the fact Mississippi must undergo Justice Department approval of election chances.
In an Associated Press story, Bryant, who is running for governor, was quoted as saying “So the Obama Justice Department’s going to tell us how we ought to be doing things in Mississippi?”
He went on to say he “was offended by the fact that the federal government does not trust members of this Legislature to draw these lines.”
The law requiring Mississippi to undergo preclearance dates back to the 1960s, but was recently renewed during the President George W. Bush administration.
Currently, Hattiesburg is divided up among three Republican senators – King, Billy Hudson and Joey Fillingane.
After the 2001 redistricting when the city was divvied up among the three Republicans, a group of blacks in the area sued. They lost their case, but Bryan said since then, because of population shifts, there is a stronger case for a black majority district.
Under the Bryant plan, there is presumably a new black majority district dipping into southern Hinds County in lieu of the black majority Hattiesburg area district.
When Bryant was elected lieutenant governor in 2007, the Senate was composed of 28 Democrats and 24 Republicans. For the commitment of the Democrats not to try to craft Senate rules to strip Bryant of many of his powers, which are derived from the Senate rules, Bryan said the new lieutenant governor pledged not to redistrict the Senate in a manner that harmed Democrats.
Bryan said he does not believe the plan proposed by the lieutenant governor honors that commitment. The Bryant plan is presumably drawn by Josh Gregory, a campaign consultant for the lieutenant governor, who is widely credited for drawing the congressional redistricting plan adopted by the federal courts in 2001.
Byran said the Burton plan is drawn in a way to be more advantageous to Republicans, but he said that is acceptable because the Republicans are now in a majority and preside over the Senate.
“The Burton plan is fair to both parties,” Bryan said. “It is more Republican than the existing plan, but that is OK.”