Senate committee rejects Burton's redistricting plan

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The effort to redraw the state House and Senate districts in time to hold elections this year became more complicated Tuesday when the Senate Elections Committee changed the plan drawn by its chairman.
The committee Tuesday rejected the plan offered by Chair Terry Burton, R-Newton, even though it had been approved Monday by the Joint House and Senate Redistricting Committee.
The Senate Elections Committee also tabled the House redistricting plan, which was approved by that chamber last week.
Both votes were victories for Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate. Bryant opposes both the House plan and the Burton plan, even though he appointed Burton to lead the redistricting effort for the Senate.
The Legislature is facing a tight deadline to redraw the districts, based on populations shifts determined by the 2010 census, before the June 1 qualifying deadline.
The plan also must be approved by the Justice Department, which normally has up to 60 days to approve or reject it.
While the plan supported by Bryant was approved by the Senate Elections Committee, the fight over the issue is far from over. An effort to return to the Burton plan is expected when the issue is taken up by the full Senate, probably on Thursday.
Burton had hoped to have that vote Wednesday. But Bryant slowed down that process by taking the unusual step of also referring the plan to the Rules Committee.
Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, who chairs the committee, opted to postpone a vote by his panel until today.
Bryant and others say they oppose the Burton plan because it creates a black-majority district in the Hattiesburg area.
Bryant said he fears that such a district would elect a Democrat to replace outgoing Sen. Tom King, R-Petal, who is running for Transportation commissioner for the Southern District.
Bryant said the area was “gerrymandered” to create the black-majority district. But Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who supports the Burton plan, said that is not true.
In creating the black majority district, Bryan said Burton reduced the number of split precincts in Forrest County from 13 – some split three ways – to three. He also made Lamar County, which includes portions of Hattiesburg, a single-county district.
“This charge of gerrymandering is a bit much,” Bryan said.
Under the lieutenant governor’s plan, as in the Burton plan, District 8, represented by Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, is still merged with District 14, represented by Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona.
But Northeast Mississippi would lose representation under the Bryant plan because more Delta residents and fewer Northeast Mississippi residents are in the merged district.
On top of the fight among senators was the Senate Elections Committee’s unprecedented step of blocking the House plan. Bryant, Gov. Haley Barbour and others have said the House plan is unfair to Republicans.
No rubber-stamping
In the past, each chamber had merely rubber-stamped the redistricting plan of the other house.
“We have a constitutional job and they have a constitutional job,” said House Apportionment and Elections Chair Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley. “If they want to have the federal courts to draw the districts they can do that.”
If a timely redistricting agreement cannot be reached, Reynolds said, the courts could order the Legislature to run this year under the old districts and next year under new districts. That happened in the early 1990s.
“The taxpayers of the state will be the losers,” Reynolds said.
Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, one of the vocal opponents of the Burton plan, said a compromise is still possible without the courts’ involvement.
“We can come to a middle ground where nobody will be completely happy,” he said, “but we can satisfy a vast majority of the House and Senate.”
On Tuesday, supporters of the Burton plan released a memo in which Andy Taggart, former chief of staff for GOP Gov. Kirk Fordice, endorsed it.
He said that running twice would be costly and that he fears more involvement by the Justice Department if the black-majority district is taken out of the plan.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.