BOBBY HARRISON: Legislature eventually must wrestle with redistricting

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Much has been written about the slow start the Legislature is off to and for good reason – it is off to a slow start.
The framers of the state Constitution took into account that at the start of a new four-year term it would take additional time for a new Legislature – and presumably new leadership like the state has now – to get organized and start legislating.
That is why the first session of a new four-year term is slated for 125 days while the other three are 90-day sessions. At times in recent years when there were not big changes in the leadership, the full 125 days were not needed.
In 1996, for instance, incumbent Speaker Tim Ford, D-Baldwyn, and Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, along with new Democratic Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, collectively agreed not to use the entire 125 days. Musgrove was a freshman lieutenant governor, but was a former senator and knew the legislative process inside and out.
I am sure the combative Fordice figured the less time the Legislature remained in session the better it was for not only him but the state.
This time around, with the session entering its second month, one bill – the Ryan Pettit Child Protection Act – has been taken up by the House. No bill has been taken up by the Senate.
The fact that the Legislature is off to a slow start is not that surprising or bothersome. There are a lot of moving parts, and organizing legislators must be a lot like herding cats – only cats are cute and cuddly.
What is surprising to a certain extent is that the legislative leadership did not use this opening lull to get redistricting out of the way.
The Legislature must redistrict during the opening session of the new term because the Legislature could not agree on redistricting in 2011 due to partisan bickering.
Theoretically, the federal courts could ultimately require new legislative elections this year because elections were held last year under the malapportioned districts.
At any rate, when the legislators do take up redistricting it will be the focal point of the session – to the exclusion of all other issues. No issue grabs the attention of legislators like redrawing their districts. After all, redistricting is dealing with their self-preservation.
While the leadership was in the process of getting organized, it could have completed the process of redistricting. With the current computer software, the 122 House districts and 52 Senate districts can be redrawn in a short time to adhere to population shifts found by the 2010 census.
In fairness to the leadership, the time-consuming aspect of redistricting is meeting with members to garner input from them in finalizing a plan.
But at this point in time the Legislature must deal with existing deadlines, such as March 6 to pass bills out of committees where they originate and March 15 to take up those proposals in the full chamber.
In other words, the process is about to start moving fairly quickly because of mandates set forth in the legislative calendar. Redistricting does not face such a deadline and could be initiated and completed during the final days of the session.
At some point in that process, though, legislators will have to take up redistricting.
A conspiratorial notion of what is going on would be that the leadership has decided to wait until late in the session to take up redistricting as a method of holding a hammer over members.
And it could be an effective hammer to tell a member if you don’t vote with me on this issue I will ensure you are in a district where you can’t win.
But surely no politician would do that.
Right?
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.