Bookout: Redistricting unlikely to be completed

By Andrew Demillo

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 31 2011 4:10 p.m. MDT

Sen. David Johnson, D-Little Rock, speaks with committee staff as he holds copies of a proposed redistricting map before a meeting of the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, March 31, 2011.

Danny Johnston, Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Senate President Paul Bookout said Thursday it's unlikely Arkansas lawmakers will vote on a congressional redistricting plan by the time the Legislature wraps up its session this week, with a House-backed proposal facing heavy opposition from Republicans and some Democratic senators.

Hours after the House approved a plan to move Fayetteville to the only Democratic congressional district in the state, a Republican senator blocked efforts to assign that bill to the committee that handles redistricting. That makes it unlikely the plan will receive final approval before the Legislature recesses Friday.

"I just don't see that we're going to be able to vote on that tomorrow," Bookout told reporters. "I just don't. We haven't even gotten it in committee yet."

The House passed the redistricting proposal on a 52-46 vote, hours after a Senate panel rejected an identical congressional redistricting bill. The disagreement increases the chances that lawmakers will have to return to the Capitol later this month to work on the issue.

The proposal would move the city of Fayetteville from the 3rd Congressional District to the 4th district, represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Ross. Republicans hold three of the state's four congressional seats.

Supporters of the move say it would achieve the goal of keeping the four districts relatively equal in population by moving a large number of people out of the 3rd district, which predominantly covers northwest Arkansas

"You've got to look at the options and weight the fact that you've got to get 110,000 people out of northwest Arkansas," said Rep. Clark Hall, chairman of the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. "Fayetteville was the logical place to go."

The proposal faces heavy opposition from Republicans in the majority-Democrat Legislature. GOP opponents claim it's an attempt to help Democrats after the November election where they lost two congressional seats.

Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, said partisanship was being taken too far with the proposal.

"If you force this down our throats with rough edges and hot sauce, you risk overplaying your hand," Collins said.

The proposal faced opposition from one Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Uvalde Lindsey of Fayetteville. Lindsey said the move would damage a community that northwest Arkansas had banded together over the years.

"If this goes through, we will lose everything we worked for 20 long, hard years," Lindsey said.

An identical version of the proposal was rejected earlier Thursday by the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, receiving 2-4 vote in favor of the bill.

Sen. David Johnson, a member of that panel, said the proposal would keep the districts competitive but denied that helping Democrats was the aim. Johnson, D-Little Rock, said he believed the proposal was the best way to keep the districts relatively equal and said that most cities probably don't want to move from their district.

"We can't make everybody happy," Johnson said.

The panel also rejected a competing redistricting proposal by Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, that would have moved the northwest city of Fort Smith to the 4th district. The panel voted 3-3 on that measure.

The Senate panel's vote on the Fayettevile plan — dubbed the "Fayetteville Finger" by one sponsor — was an early sign that the proposal faces major obstacles in the Senate. The panel is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Sen. Kim Hendren, a Republican who sits on the committee, voted to block the second reading of the legislation, a procedural move that keeps it from being assigned to the committee. Sen. Gilbert Baker, the committee's vice chairman, said he believed the Legislature needed more time to work out a compromise.

"There are some negotiations going on, but too late in the process for us to get it done," Baker, R-Conway, said.

Congressional redistricting was one of the last major jobs facing the Legislature before it recesses on Friday. Legislative leaders, however, have the option of calling lawmakers back to finish work on redistricting before the Legislature formally adjourns on April 27.

Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, said Thursday he hoped the Legislature would find a resolution on redistricting. Beebe has said he won't publicly weigh in on which proposal he prefers.

"Obviously, I wish they'd get it resolved because, one way or the other, they need to get it resolved," Beebe said.

Even if it makes its way to the floor, the proposal could face an uphill battle in the Senate. Sen. Jerry Taylor, D-Pine Bluff, said he's opposed to the proposal because he said it would take away south Arkansas' clout by moving Fayetteville into the 4th district. That district currently covers most of south Arkansas.

"They call it the Fayetteville finger for a reason, and that's because they're giving south Arkansas the finger," Taylor said.

Associated Press Writer Chuck Bartels contributed to this report.

Online:

H.B. 1322: http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2011/2011R/Bills/HB1322.pdf

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