Senate approves new congressional districts

Posted on from Austin American-Statesman in In the News

A congressional redistricting plan that would divide Travis County among five U.S. representatives instead of the current three was approved Monday by the Texas Senate.

The final vote on Senate Bill 4 was 18-12, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats voting against it.

The bill now goes to the GOP-controlled House, where approval is expected.

Sen. Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting, said the plan is fair to all Texans and will pass court muster. But critics said the subdivision of Travis County highlights how the map is unfair to minority voters.

“We can do better than this map and what it does to the State of Texas,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, insisting the new district boundaries “silence the voices” of Travis County residents by “slicing, dicing and dividing it in an inexplicable way.

“Not one of the five districts that come into Travis County will represent more than 24 percent of Travis County. No single district is contained in Travis County, unlike what you see across the state.”

Because of Texas’ population growth since the last U.S. census, four new congressional districts will be created statewide. Under the Senate plan, one will be in the Arlington area, one in South Texas, one that stretches from San Antonio to Austin and one that goes east from Houston.

Seliger said the map is drawn to divide Texas’ population of more than 25 million into districts containing 698,488 Texans apiece, as required by law. He rejected critics’ suggestions that the boundaries were drawn intentionally to enable Republicans to be elected in 72 percent of the districts.

Sens. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Mario Gallegos Jr., D-Houston, said the map will divide Hispanic voting constituencies at a time when the state’s Hispanic population is growing fast.

“Minorities across the state will be offended by this plan,” Zaffirini said, echoing criticisms that some minority districts are being packed with more minority voters even as other minority voting blocs such as those in Travis County are being divided.

Seliger said the plan complies with the federal Voting Rights Act and will be approved by the courts.

Even so, Democrats harshly criticized the plan because of the boundary changes in Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio, Austin and Houston, predicting it will be overturned by expected lawsuits. “This plan belongs in the 20th century, not the 21st century ,” said Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville.

Seliger said that in Austin’s case, where the new boundary lines will force U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, into a new district, there are no districts that are designated as minority-dominated and thus “protected,” as there are in other areas, and that affected how the lines were drawn.

Doggett, who lives in East Austin, would end up in a GOP-leaning district that runs to western Travis County, out to Blanco County and northwestern Hays County, and up to the Fort Worth suburbs. The new district would run from southeastern Travis to San Antonio. The other three would be GOP-friendly districts that stretch to Waco, San Antonio and the Houston area.

In a statement late Monday, Doggett labeled the Senate plan “a blatant violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

“This outrageous scheme would do immeasurable harm to our community and the values that set it apart as such a unique place in which to work and live,” he said.

A plan offered by Gallegos that redrew many districts statewide — and would have given Travis County four representatives — was turned down 18-12. So was a plan offered by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, that would have left Travis County with just two districts.

“The blue jerseys have been shut out of this entire process,” said West, referring to Democrats.

mward@statesman.com