Watson Wants Travis Whole in SBOE

Senate committee moves map keeping Travis split

This is how the Senate Redistricting Committee would divide Travis County for SBOE districts. Currently, the county is divided along the Colorado River.
This is how the Senate Redistricting Committee would divide Travis County for SBOE districts. Currently, the county is divided along the Colorado River.

The Senate Redistricting Committee today sent its committee substitute for State Board of Education districts to the full Senate this morning. The Travis County portion of the plan is markedly different from the House plan, but both keep a major feature of the current districts: dividing the county into two districts.

That drew protest from Austin Sen. Kirk Watson, who is not a member of the committee. He both spoke to the committee and submitted a letter detailing his objections. In the letter, he complained that, “Travis County has a population of 1,024,266, enough to serve as the anchor of a complete State Board of Education district without dividing the county. Instead, the proposed map cuts the county in two parts for no apparent reason.”

Of course, there is an apparent reason – to keep one of the seats on the Republican-dominated board from going to a Democrat. Currently, despite being the most liberal county in the state, both the northern (District 10) and southern (Dist. 5) halves are now represented by conservative Republicans, because those districts also include enough suburban and rural counties to outweigh the Austin vote.

To see Senate and House proposals and current districts, go to the state's DistrictViewer website.

Watson’s letter hints that the new map might have Voting Rights Act problems, although the current districts have been in effect for possibly a decade (the state’s website containing historical redistricting maps doesn’t include SBOE maps). “[I]t divides the minority community of Travis County,” Watson wrote. “This community has revealed itself to be very effective at building coalitions to elect the candidates of their choice in Travis County.”

In redistricting parlance, especially where it pertains to the Voting Rights Act, these are known as “communities of interest.” Such COIs can be racial, ethnic, or governmental, among other possibilities.

And on the governmental line, Watson notes it divides a community of interest that is especially pertinent to the SBOE: Austin Independent School District. “This district is the fifth largest district in the state of Texas,” Watson wrote. “It is fifty-nine percent Hispanic, nine percent African American (not of Hispanic origin), and three percent Asian. Over sixty-three percent of the students come from low-income families and twenty-nine percent enter schools English-language learners.”

Asked what he thought of Watson’s points, committee chair Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would only say, “It’s worthy of looking at, and we will. … Is there a compelling reason to change [the split] is the question.”

Given redistricting history – politicians of either party use redistricting to consolidate party majorities, and Republicans have a history of carving Austin up to weaken the city’s voice – it’s hard to imagine a “compelling reason” will be found. Expect similar carvings in upcoming debates on redistricting Congressional and Senate seats – including the one Watson currently holds.

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