The Biggest Legislative Battle May Not Be Over The Budget

It may be the ugliest, cruelest, and most vicious process engaged in by the Legislature. It is called “redistricting.” In some ways it is reminiscent of the Civil War: North against South and friend against friend, with significant racial implications added to the mix. It is the most contentious process legislators are engaged in—and it begins soon.

On February 3, all of the key population numbers for parishes and legislative and congressional districts will be available. Public hearings will then be held around the state and on March 20 the Legislature will convene in Special Session to draw the lines. When the opening gavels bang, the Capitol may quickly devolve into a spectacle reminiscent of the opening scene of the movie “Gladiator.”

Compounding the situation for the current redistricting process is Louisiana’s loss of a congressional seat. That means two sitting congressmen will have to oppose each other in 2012 regardless of how the lines are drawn, and, at this juncture, none of the incumbents are planning not to run for re-election. Congressional redistricting will be the opening volley in the North versus South war. In essence, either one of the two North Louisiana congressional districts is going to disappear, or one of the South Louisiana seats will be merged into a neighboring district. Since no consensus plan appears to be evolving from the congressional delegation members, a real fight is brewing in the Legislature over how to configure the remaining six districts.

Population losses from hurricanes and out migration are also driving the controversy surrounding redistricting. It appears likely at this juncture that the New Orleans area will lose one Senate seat and three House seats. The question is: where will they go? The racial implications enter the picture here.

In spite of the population losses due to the hurricanes, Louisiana’s African-American population has not declined. Under Voting Rights Act guidelines, that means that the number of minority districts cannot be reduced. The Orleans Parish minority districts that disappear must reappear elsewhere as minority districts. That will have a significant domino effect on the surrounding districts in the vicinity of where the new minority districts are located.

There are two possible approaches to creating these new districts. Under one scenario, heavy numbers of black voters can be crammed into the new districts almost assuring the election of a minority candidate. This method would likely create strong conservative districts surrounding the minority districts, almost assuring the election of Republicans. The other scenario (and the one less likely to be employed) would create districts with not as strong a black majority and more whites in them. This would create a little less likelihood that a black candidate would win in those districts, but it would give Democrats more of an opportunity to win in the surrounding majority white districts.

For 35 years, I have watched the redistricting process unfold. In those 35 (and four redistricting special sessions) I have watched close friends and strong political allies become blood enemies during these battles. Redistricting to congressmen, legislators, public service commissioners, BESE board members, and judges isn’t about issues or philosophy—it is about survival. Elected officials become competitors for precincts that they believe will offer them an advantage in their next run for re-election, and that competition can become brutal.

Pundits and political analysts have written much about the big budget battle that is going to ensue in the Regular Session of the Legislature that begins in late April. But after the bloodshed that will likely occur in the redistricting session, addressing a $1.5 billion hole in the state budget may seem like a piece of cake.



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