OUR OPINION: Legislators prep redistricting effort

By NEMS Daily Journal

Speaker Philip Gunn’s election by acclamation in the Mississippi House of Representatives on Tuesday started the 2012 session on a positive note ahead of issues almost certain to stir opposing passions as the four months of work develop.
Gunn, R-Clinton, started his third term Tuesday, and he is the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction following the Civil War. He succeeds two-term Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. McCoy retired after more than 30 years in the Legislature.
The Senate will organize itself Thursday after Lt. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves, also a Republican, is sworn in. Republican Gov.-elect Phil Bryant’s inauguration is Jan. 10.
Many members are anxious to settle the redistricting issue hanging over both chambers from the lack of agreement in the 2011 session, followed by a federal court order to run under the existing district boundaries.
The new Republican majorities in the House and Senate logically make finding agreement on a new map within the Legislature more probable, but the intricacies of district apportionment are well known.
The map finally drawn by the legislators to meet requirements of decennial, Census-driven reapportionment, must comply with the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Its provisions require that maps not dilute the power of minority voters.
Legislators had to run in consecutive years in 1991-92 because of their inability to agree on redistricting.
The common-sense approach to redistricting is a bipartisan plan that can pass Justice Department pre-clearance approval and withstand a court test, if one or more are filed.
Redistricting is specifically assigned to the legislatures by the U.S. Constitution, and every failure to achieve that mandate shakes public confidence in the legislative process.
It is not known yet who will oversee the redistricting efforts until committee chairman are announced by the speaker and the new lieutenant governor. Those leaders could be named later this week or early next week.
There has been speculation that the Republicans might want to strip the rule that makes appointment to the two money committees – Ways and Means and Appropriations – based on seniority. However, Republicans also achieve seniority, and some might see reform as shooting themselves in the foot as tenure builds in the GOP majority. Legislators historically live by seniority, and it is hard to envision a wholesale change in that system.