By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The Senate redistricting plan developed by the Joint Legislative Redistricting Committee was approved Thursday by an overwhelming 35-16 margin over a proposal offered by Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.
The vote came after a debate of about two hours. Only two Northeast Mississippi senators, Republicans Nancy Collins of Tupelo and Gary Jackson of Kilmichael, backed the Bryant proposal. Each chamber now has approved its own redistricting plan, but not the proposal of the other chamber.
While Thursday’s vote in the Senate was a key step in the contentious and convoluted redistricting process, it will not be the last.
Bryant, as the presiding officer of the Senate, has taken the unprecedented position that he might work to reject the House redistricting proposal because he says it is unfair to Republican voters.
Normally, each chamber rubber-stamps the proposal from the other house.
The fight on the Senate floor Thursday pitted Bryant against his chairman of the Elections Committee, Republican Terry Burton of Newton.
Bryant opposed the redistricting plan developed by Burton and passed by the Joint Legislative Redistricting Committee because it created a black majority Senate district in the Hattiesburg area.
Burton argued that under federal law and based on the 2010 census, the state needed to create another black majority district and that the Hattiesburg area was a logical place to do that because of the population.
Plus, it could be done without affecting an incumbent senator since the black majority district would replace one currently held by Tom King, R-Petal, who is stepping down to run for the Transportation Commission.
Describing his plan to fellow senators, Burton said, “It’s fair. It’s right. It was done the right way, sitting down and talking to you about the interests of your communities.”
He said his plan would win federal approval while the Bryant plan ran the risk of being rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice, perhaps forcing legislators to have to run two years in a row.
But the three Republican senators who currently represent parts of Hattiesburg disagreed. Sen. Joey Fillingane R-Sumrall, said the other senators were sitting idly by and letting the Hattiesburg area be redistricted because it was not happening to them.
“I understand the NIMBY syndrome – as long as it’s not in my backyard,” he said.
King said, “My friends and supporters in the Pine Belt area feel we are the red-headed stepchild. This is wrong.”
And Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, referring to the hard work that members said Burton had done on the redistricting effort, said, “My granddaddy had a mule that worked hard, but not smart. And the end of the day, he was just a jackass.”
Hudson said the districts were gerrymandered to create the black-majority district. But Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, produced maps showing that to preserve the three white majority districts in the Hattiesburg area, more counties were split under the Bryant plan.
In the end, the chamber’s 24 Democrats voted for the Burton plan. One Democrat, Jack Gordon of Okolona, has been absent for about a week because of an illness. Under the plan, his district would be merged with an adjoining district that stretches into the Delta.
Eleven of the chamber’ 27 Republicans also voted for the Burton plan.
After the vote, Bryant said he would not try to revive his plan later in the process.
“I think that we’re at the point that the chairman’s been pretty determined about … I don’t expect that to occur,” he said.
The Senate plan was held on a motion to reconsider that will have to be disposed of before the plan is transmitted to the House. But normally, in situations where the vote is as one-sided, disposing of the motion to reconsider is a formality.
When the plan does get to the House, the House leadership is expected to merge the two plans and try to get another vote in the Senate. The vote would be to concur, meaning the two plans would have been passed, or to invite negotiations.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.