By ROB MORITZ
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — The Legislature reconvenes today with a singular purpose: Come to an agreement on how to redraw boundaries for Arkansas’ four congressional districts.
Lawmakers had to put off plans to end the regular session Friday after the only congressional redistricting plan to pass out of one of the chambers stalled in the other.
The House and Senate are to return this afternoon and wait to hear from the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is to meet to consider redistricting bills.
The House has approved a redistricting proposal that would move Fayetteville in Northwest Arkansas from the 3rd District to the 4th.
House Bill 1322 by Rep. Clark Hall, D-Marvell, dubbed the "Fayetteville Finger," does not sit well with Republicans and some Democrats. GOP opponents describe the proposal as "gerrymandering," designed to help Democrats win back the 1st District, which they lost last year for the first time since Reconstruction, and to retain the 4th District.
Critics don’t like idea of moving the heart of Northwest Arkansas to the 4th, which includes most of south Arkansas.
"I think that map’s a bad map, but the House passed it," said Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, the House minority leader. "I hope the Senate gives some better consideration to some alternatives because I think there’s better alternatives out there."
The Senate state agencies committee has already rejected four Senate redistricting proposals, including one similar to the House proposal. Today, the panel is expected to consider the House bill, as well as all Senate bills and any new ones.
"I wish I had that crystal ball," said Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, chairman of the state agencies committee, when asked how long it might take for the committee and the Senate to agree on a redistricting map.
Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, a member of the committee, said "it’s still wide open what could come out of the committee."
Key said he and others on the committee planned to work through the weekend developing a new map.
The committee is made up of four Democrats and four Republicans, and a bill has to get five votes to clear the committee.
Madison said she doubts the panel will support the House bill. If members cannot agree on any proposal, there could be a move in the Senate to pull one of the measures out and vote it up or down on the floor.
However, Senate rules would require a two-day waiting period before a vote, so the earliest the Senate could vote is Thursday.
"We’re not at the point of making that decision," Madison said. "I’m just pointing out what the timeline could be."
Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, a member of the committee, said the panel should be open-minded and willing to consider alternatives to the House bill.
"If your starting point is you have to stick it to Fayetteville, then it’s going to be very difficult to find a compromise," Baker said.
Up until last week, lawmakers considering the congressional districts based the boundaries on a series of criteria presented to them at the beginning of the session by lawyers with the secretary of state’s office. The lawyers said at the time that the Legislature followed their advice they would avoid a legal challenge.
Those factors included equal population, each district with a population of about 730,000; that they be geographically compact; and that each district include communities of like interests.
Last week, however, Sen. David Johnson, D-Little Rock, said while presenting SB 871, which is identical to HB 1322, that new criteria should be considered, including political competitiveness of the districts and coupling growth areas with areas of the state that are losing population.
Johnson also said the population of each of the districts 10 years from now should be considered, so the districts will remain relatively equal population-wise over the next decade.
Baker and Key disagree.
"They are policy factors," Baker said. "I respect his policy factors, but I’ve got to go with legal factors first. I don’t think those should be discussed now."
Baker said redistricting should be based on the 2010 census, not what future populations of the districts might be.
Key agreed, saying "the concept presented of trying to tie a fast growing region to some declining region, that’s such a new concept, that hasn’t, as far as I know, been vetted in any case so far. I just think that’s a policy issue on which several of us disagree."
Under HB 1322, not only would Fayetteville be moved from the 3rd District to the 4th, but all Delta counties that border the Arkansas River would be in the 1st District, along with many of the northeastern Arkansas counties.
The Senate redistricting bills currently before the state agencies committee include:
• SB 942 by Sen. Bill Pritchard , R-Elkins, which would, among other things, move Franklin from the 3rd to the 4th District and split Johnson between the two. It also would move Marion and Boone counties from the 3rd to the 4th District. The proposal has been rejected by the committee.
A new version of the proposal, which was presented to the committee last week but not voted on, would, among things, split Saline County between the 2nd and 4th District. Benton, Bryant and Bauxite would remain in the 2nd, with the rest of the county moving to the 4th.
• SB 981 by Key, which would, among other things, split Franklin County in the western part of the state roughly along the Arkansas River, with the northern part remaining in the 3rd District while the southern part would joint the 4th District. That version has already been rejected by the committee.
A new version of the bill, also rejected by the panel, would put Sebastian County in the 4th District and move Desha and Chicot counties from the 4th to the 1st, creating a 1st district that includes all of the Delta counties bordering the Arkansas River.
• SB 871 by Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, and Johnson, which is identical to SB 1322. The measure was rejected by the committee last week.
Gov. Mike Beebe said last week that there is always a fight over redrawing congressional boundaries.
"Every time population moves, inevitably folks want to stay where they are," he said. "That’s human nature. So when you’re forced to move because of population shifts, whoever ends up getting moved, they don’t like it."