Miss. lawmakers end session without redistricting

Published 1:18 pm Friday, April 8, 2011

Mississippi lawmakers abruptly ended their 2011 session Thursday without finishing one of their top jobs — drawing new state legislative districts that could shape state politics for the decade to come.

It’s unclear what happens next.

Federal judges could draw new maps for the 122 districts in the House and 52 in the Senate, to reflect population changes revealed by the 2010 Census.

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Or, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour could call lawmakers back to do the job.

Or, candidates could run in the outdated legislative districts this year and a new group of lawmakers could draw new maps in 2012. Then, a second round of legislative elections could be held in 2012, with winners serving the final three years of the four-year term.

The decision to end the session came after Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Billy Hewes of Gulfport refused to bring up the latest House map for a vote in the Senate.

The House on Wednesday inserted its new map into a Senate resolution that was intended to give lawmakers more time to work on redistricting. Bryant said the House’s action was “in effect, slapping the hand who reached out to them.” He also called it unconstitutional.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said Thursday that lawmakers had “failed” to do their duty of drawing the maps, and he put the blame squarely on the Senate leadership.

“It’s very apparent, the lieutenant governor and Sen. Hewes never intended to have a resolution. They’re playing to the Republican primary,” a frustrated McCoy said after the session ended.

For decades, each chamber handled its own redistricting and the House and Senate accepted each other’s new maps. Bryant, who’s running for governor, said he didn’t want to follow that tradition this year.

Redistricting hit a road block last month after the Senate rejected the House’s first map. Bryant had said the map was unfair to Republicans.

Democrats in both chambers have accused Bryant of trying to break down the process and force court action in hopes that a panel of federal judges would draw Republican-friendly districts.

The new House map would’ve reduced the number of districts that cut into the Starkville and Oktibbeha County. Some senators had said they were concerned the original House map divided the area too much.

On Thursday, Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman was at the Capitol meeting with House and Senate leaders.

“The changes significantly improved representation of our area,” Wiseman said.

The Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit last month that seeks to block this year’s elections in the current districts because some districts have many more residents than others. The House Elections Committee and the Senate Democratic Caucus voted to join the lawsuit.

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said the House maps maintained the status quo and were fair to Republicans in the House.

“I don’t understand their logic,” said Blackmon, an attorney who’s considering joining one of the sides in the lawsuit.

Blackmon said the U.S. Justice Department could intervene to prevent a lawsuit. The agency must sign off on Mississippi redistricting plans to ensure the maps don’t dilute minorities’ voting strength.

After redistricting efforts locked up 20 years ago, Mississippi held two legislative elections during a single four-year term. The first was in 1991, under outdated districts. The second was in 1992, under new districts.

McCoy said history could repeat itself, and he blames Bryant and Hewes.

“Their actions will force the members of both bodies to engage probably in two races and cost the taxpayers untold hundreds of thousands of dollars unnecessarily,” McCoy said. “They have failed the citizens of this state.”

Bryant said for three weeks, Senate leaders have invited House leaders to negotiate on redistricting. He said the answer “has been a deafening ‘no.’”