Sine Die? Sine Don't!

Legislature ends regular session, back in minutes for redistricting

Austin Democratic Reps. Mark Stram and Donna Howard wait for the 83rd regular session to end, and the first special session to be called
Austin Democratic Reps. Mark Stram and Donna Howard wait for the 83rd regular session to end, and the first special session to be called (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

It was a slow day in the Texas Legislature. The House and Senate were wrapping up business, preparing to declare Sine Die and head home for the interim. The most exciting sight was a bunch of lawmakers in seersucker. Then Gov. Rick Perry dropped a long-awaited bomb: He wants everyone back for a special session on redistricting. As in, right now.

The plan is simple. To quote from the call, he wants:

Legislation which ratifies and adopts the interim redistricting plans ordered by the federal district court as the permanent plans for districts used to elect members of the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate and United States House of Representatives.

And why wouldn't the governor want to adopt the interim maps? After all, they had served the GOP very well in the last elections. But then again, why would Perry want to shoehorn this through now when the US Supreme Court is still working on a pivotal ruling on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the preclearance section?

In what may be the most unpolitic move in a tone-deaf career, Perry sent the call out mere minutes after the House had actually adjourned, meaning that his message was delivered to an empty chamber. Many reps were already headed to parties or relaxing with their families after a rough and long weekend. Let's just say that the move is being dealt with poorly: A semi-joke quickly did the rounds that lots of seats on flights to Las Vegas were coming open as staffers cancelled their post-session vacation plans.

The one bright spot was that it's tightly focused. Perry had seemingly resisted calls from both parties to add extra measures in, any of which could extend the session (and potentially give opponents of the maps tools with which to block them.) With mere hours to go before sine die, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said, "With this governor, you’ll never know what’s on the call."

The House is scheduled to reconvene at 10am on Tuesday, but the Senate has already gaveled in. At 6pm on Monday night, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst gathered the troops long enough to tell them that he had assembled a Select Committee on Redistricting, which will meet at 9am on May 30 in the Capitol’s Extension Auditorium. The committee consists of nine Republicans (Chair Kel Seliger, John Corona, Robert Duncan, Kevin Eltife, Craig Estes, Troy Fraser, Joan Huffman, Dan Patrick, and Tommy Williams) and six Democrats (Vice chair Carlos Uresti, Sylvia Garcia, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, Eddie Lucio Jr., Royce West, and Judith Zaffirini.) No word from Seliger whether this will be the only hearing, so expect redistricting and voter rights advocates to scramble to sign up to speak. However, in what could be a bad sign about the speed of the process, Dewhurst has said he will reconvene the entire Senate at Noon.

In what could potentially be even worse news for fans of legislative process, there was a testy exchange this evening between Dewhurst and Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, after the lite guv announced that he is quite prepared to jettison the two-thirds rule. That will mean that even the most controversial measures will only had to pass on a regular majority vote. However, Dewhurst could come to regret that if there are any further legal challenges, as the San Antonio court that drew the interim map has already expressed its frustration with legislative short cuts.

UPDATE: The House convened briefly this morning (defying some expectations that Speaker Joe Straus wouldn't be able to roust enough members out of bed to be quorate.) There were two orders of business: First, to call a 19 member redistricting committee. It will consist of 12 Republicans ((Chair Drew Darby, Travis Clardy, Brandon Creighton, Larry Gonzales, Linda Harper-Brown, Dan Huberty, Todd Hunter, Jim Keffer, Geanie Morrison, Rob Orr, Walter Price, Jason Villalba) and seven Democrats (Vice-chair Yvonne Davis, Joe Deshotel, Trey Martinez-Fisher, René Oliveira, Joe Pickett, Richard Raymond, Senfronia Thompson.)

Straus' second item on the agenda? To gavel out until Monday, June 3. Before then, the committee is scheduling two hearings, both at 9am, on Friday May 31 and Saturday June 1. In an interesting step, Straus has said he will allow the discussion of revisions to the maps. If that happens, a key question will be whether lawmakers use the 2010 census data, or the more recent 2012 population estimates from the US Census Bureau.

According to Michael P. Li at txredistricting.org, Davis has already filed her own House and Congressional maps.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

83rd Legislature, Legislature, Texas Senate, Texas House of Representatives, Rick Perry, Kirk Watson, Redistricting, Judge John Dietz

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