News Column

Texas House Pushes Through GOP-preferred Districts

June 21, 2013

Texas' Republican-led House on Thursday made the state GOP's preferred set of political maps permanent and in the same stroke shifted the Lone Star State closer to yet another court battle over redistricting.

A trio of electoral boundaries drawn by a San Antonio federal court last year was tentatively approved by the House with some minor changes. The maps approved Thursday were originally put in place on an interim basis by a three-judge panel to ensure Texas could hold primaries while the Legislature's 2011 redistricting plans were being challenged in court.

Democrats spent hours raising objections and unsuccessfully offering amendments to create new minority districts around the state before lawmakers pushed through voting maps for the state House and Senate and the U.S House of Representatives.

With the exception of a few minor tweaks to the Texas House maps, separate proposals for all three political boundaries were passed unchanged -- exactly what Gov. Rick Perry called for when he put the Legislature back to work in a special session.

The House willtake a final vote Friday. The Senate approved the same bills last week but will have to sign off on any changes made by the lower chamber.

In approving the redistricting bills, the House set the stage to end another contentious round of Texas redistricting at the state Capitol, not long after a Washington, D.C., federal court rejected 2011 election maps because they were "discriminatory." It also opens the door for the next court challenge, one telegraphed continually over the course of the last three weeks.

Civil rights groups and Democrats have said from the start of the special session that they plan to go back to court if Republicans muscled through redistricting maps drawn by federal judges without major changes. They argue the court-drawn maps still discriminate against minorities and were only intended to serve as temporary boundaries to facilitate a 2012 primary.

"All we did today is tell the federal courts in San Antonio that we do not have the courage or the will or the depth to do redistricting and do it fair and to do it right," said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat and chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, one of a number of minority groups that sued the state over its 2011 redistricting maps. "Nothing ends today."

The court-drawn political boundaries are what Texas lawmakers used to run in 2012. They solidify Republican majorities in the state House and Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.

The GOP switched up its entire strategy for the special session after the San Antonio court held a hearing in late May and made clear it would frown upon legislative efforts to ratify interim maps without a thorough process.

Republicans walked back statements that the special session would take only days to complete, stretching the process out over several weeks by scheduling multiple hearings at the Capitol and across the state. Republicans shot down every change to the election maps proposed by Democrats until Thursday when Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican and the House redistricting chief during the special session, did the unexpected: He accepted some tiny changes to the Texas House map, allowing some lawmakers to swap a couple of neighborhoods to shore up minor issues. Even then, those tweaks were passed with the federal court in mind.

"Hopefully the court will recognize that we've listened and responded and we've tweaked the maps and made them a little bit better," Darby said. Those accepted amendments allow lawmakers in Dallas, Laredo and Harris County to exchange a couple of precincts to "reunite communities of interest" that were split by the last round of rewrites to the state's election maps.

An amendment to incorporate more Hispanic voters back in San Antonio Democrat Phil Cortez's district was yanked before a vote because there wasn't a consensus from the Bexar County Delegation on the plan.

Meanwhile, all of the statewide amendments to the House maps -- which collectively included efforts to carve new districts for minority candidates in West Texas, Dallas, Harris, Nueces and Bell Counties -- were killed by party-line votes.

Likewise, proposals offered by Democrats, which included amendments to create a new minority district in Dallas and anchor a district in Travis County, were also scrubbed by Republicans.

"What we'll be doing ... is arguing for legal changes to maps in a court room because we could not make changes on the floor," Martinez Fischer warned lawmakers during Thursday's debate. "We are setting ourselves up for a much bigger remedy."

drauf@express-news.net

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