On the Lege

Some Opinions Are More Equal Than Others

Senators Robert Duncan of Lubbock (l) and Todd Staples of Palestine (r) have been the Senate's point men on re-redistricting, but the conference committee appears stacked to favor the House's map -- which treats Lubbock in a way Duncan vigorously opposes.
Senators Robert Duncan of Lubbock (l) and Todd Staples of Palestine (r) have been the Senate's point men on re-redistricting, but the conference committee appears stacked to favor the House's map -- which treats Lubbock in a way Duncan vigorously opposes. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

The state Republican leadership has heartily embraced proportional representation in its crusade for congressional re-redistricting. The number of Republicans in the state's D.C. delegation doesn't match the number of Republican voters in Texas, they say, so the current map needs to be redrawn to more "fairly" represent actual Texas voting trends.

But the GOP's enthusiasm for "fairness" has its limits: Consider the appointed membership of the House-Senate Redistricting Conference Committee. Of the 10 members (five from each chamber), two are Democrats -- rather less than the 41% share that Dems hold in the Legislature as a whole. One of those two Democrats is Rep. Ron Wilson of Houston, who has steadfastly supported House Speaker Tom Craddick's effort to redraw the map despite overwhelming party (and public) opposition. (The only other House Democrat to vote for redistricting is Corpus Christi's Vilma Luna, who may find herself changing her tune if, as is quite possible, Nueces County is not made whole, which she early on declared to be her solitary goal in the matter.) That leaves freshman Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, as the only anti-redistricting voice among 10 members of the conference committee, as well as the sole Hispanic member of the panel and the sole member from South Texas.

The other four senators on the conference committee are Todd Staples (Palestine), Robert Duncan (Lubbock), Jon Lindsay (Houston), and Jane Nelson (Lewisville). Staples is carrying the Senate's map, and Duncan is chair of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, which has been blessed with the redistricting mess on the Senate side. No other members of that committee were sent to conference by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. The other four House appointees are Phil King (Weatherford), Joe Crabb (Atascocita), Kent Grusendorf (Arlington), and Peggy Hamric (Houston). King is carrying Craddick's preferred redistricting map. Wilson has been more elephantine than the elephants on this issue, and the other members (especially Grusendorf) are leaders of the red-meat Republican junta and unlikely to tease their fellow representatives with thoughts of compromise. Basically, this would appear to be a committee designed by Craddick and Dewhurst to steamroll Duncan -- the only moderate GOP voice -- into delivering a new, empty district to the speaker's hometown of Midland (and thus screwing Duncan's hometown of Lubbock) and a blueprint for hard-right dominance to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. It's not really surprising that Dems might be in short supply, but Dewhurst's apparent willingness to sacrifice Duncan is telling.

Hinojosa is in the awkward position of trying simultaneously to oppose redistricting altogether, as the Dems have tried to do through a summer of fight and flight, while still doing what he can to defend South Texas and Hispanic-majority districts. Should the Republicans decide to dismantle one or more other majority-minority districts (e.g., Martin Frost's District 24 in Dallas) or go after Travis Co. and Lloyd Doggett, South Texas would in theory stand to gain a Hispanic seat, and Hinojosa would likely do what he could to make that happen. A floor amendment to the Senate map by San Antonio Sen. Jeff Wentworth split Webb Co. -- reportedly a slap at Laredo Sen. Judith Zaffirini -- but Craddick immediately declared that change "retrogressive" under the Voting Rights Act, a signal that it won't likely survive through the conference committee.

All of this is only slightly more than idle speculation, based on hints, guesses, and rumors, since the Republicans' deep commitment to open government has dictated that the conference committee hearings be held behind closed doors. (Legislative committees, although normally public under House rules, are not in fact subject to the Open Meetings Act). Gov. Rick Perry is predicting a resolution by Monday, Oct. 6 (the putative deadline to enable a Department of Justice review of a new map in time for primary filing in January). As of this Monday, the whole conference committee had yet to meet, though Staples, Duncan, and King (under the watchful eye of Perry and national party eminences) were reportedly having private sessions around town. (If they can't resolve the standoff by next week, the Republicans say, they'll push back the filing date and reschedule the March primaries.) A House motion to open the meetings to the public, proposed by Waco Democrat John Mabry, was rejected mainly along party lines (two Democrats, Wilson and Allan Ritter of Nederland, voted with the GOP). Commented Mabry, "Government should never shut out the public, and with so many issues left to be resolved, I fear what will happen behind closed doors." Can't hardly be any worse than what they've already done in public.

Meanwhile, under the reorganization bill (HB 7) authored by David Swinford in the House and carried by Steve Ogden in the Senate, the Infinite Lege moved to strip the comptroller's office of its authority to do performance reviews of government agencies as well as of school districts. The suggestions in these reviews have been credited over the last decade (when implemented at the discretion of legislators) with saving millions of state and local tax dollars. The review function would be moved to the Legislative Budget Board, unlikely to have either the staff or the independence to do the job. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn's increasingly open warfare with her fellow Republicans on budgetary matters has put the Lege elephants in a vengeful mood. They would have stripped Strayhorn of her authority to conduct tax audits as well -- but that maneuver turned out to be mightily opposed, for various reasons, by the business lobby, foreclosing the argument.

Increasingly a restive Republican, Strayhorn told Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News, "The Legislature is spending their time climbing up [redistricting] hills when we have a mountain looming out there. And the mountain looming out there is school finance reform." Gov. Perry, confirming simultaneously that he is grammatically as well as democratically challenged, responded, "Everyone has their opinion. I disagree with it."

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78th Legislature, congressional redistricting, Ron Wilson, Tom Craddick, Juan Hinojosa, David Dewhurst, Robert Duncan, Todd Staples, Vilma Luna, Phil King, Rick Perry, John Mabry, David Swinford, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Wayne Slater

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