Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Special session ends with approval of two majority Black congressional districts

by BIZ Magazine

By Elizabeth White and Claire Sullivan | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE—The Legislature on Friday passed the original congressional redistricting map backed by Gov. Jeff Landry after stripping out a House committee’s amendment that would have divided East Baton Rouge Parish into three congressional districts.

The bill now goes to Landry’s desk, along with a separate bill to approve his proposal to switch from open primary elections, in which candidates from all parties compete against each other, to more closed ones run by each party. 

But that change came only after lawmakers amended Landry’s plan to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in one of the party primaries.

Both chambers then voted to end the special elections session without taking any action on a proposal to create new district maps for electing state Supreme Court justices.

Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, presented the congressional redistricting bill to the House on behalf of Sen. Glen Womack, R-Harrisonburg, and proposed an amendment to remove the changes made in Thursday’s House committee hearing.  

“It’s my thought this instrument was in its best posture when it came over here from the Senate, and so I am offering an amendment to put it back in that posture,” said Beaullieu on the amendment.  

The amendment, presented by Rep. Les Farnum, R-Sulphur, was debated heavily on Wednesday in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee and passed 14-1. Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-East Baton Rouge, opposed the amended bill because it divided East Baton Rouge Parish into three districts. Farnum was trying to avoid splitting Calcasieu and Ouachita parishes into more than one district each, but that now will be the case.

Beauilleu’s amendment passed 84-16, returning the Congressional map to its initially proposed version. 

Louisiana’s population is more than 30% Black, and a federal judge had ordered the Legislature to create a map in which a second of the six congressional districts had a majority-minority district. Landry said he preferred to have the Legislature create the map rather than having the judge do it. Another Republican goal was to protect the seats of U.S. Reps. Mike Johnson, Steve Scalise, and Julia Letlow.

“I firmly submit that the congressional voting boundaries represented in this bill best achieve the goals of protecting Congresswoman Letlow’s seat, maintaining strong districts for Speaker Johnson and Majority Leader Scalise, ensuring four Republican districts and adhering to the command of the federal court in the Middle District of Louisiana,” said Beaullieu in support of the original version of the bill.  

The House passed the bill outlining Womack’s originally proposed Congressional map 86-16, and the Senate reapproved it 27-11. 

Also Friday, the Senate passed an amended bill 29-9 that would allow unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries for federal elections and several state offices, and the House then approved the Senate’s changes, sending that bill to Landry as well. 

The inclusion of those not registered in a party sought to address concerns that the bill would disenfranchise those voters. It does not include people who are registered with a group called the Independent Party.

The Senate also voted 28-9 to add back the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Public Service Commission to the list of offices that would select candidates through party primaries. Congressional seats and the state Supreme Court were already included in the bill.

Under the state’s present primary system, candidates of all parties compete together on the ballot. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the first contest, then the top-two vote-getters compete in a runoff. 

If this bill becomes law, parties would vote to select their candidates to compete in a general election. With the amendment added Friday, unaffiliated voters could choose to vote in one of the major parties’ races.

Those in favor of the legislation said it would help voters more easily vet candidates through a shorter ballot and allow parties to pick who they want to compete in a general election. Those opposed said it would be costly and confusing and that it was being rushed unnecessarily through the Legislature.

Chief among the disagreements was the question of why the issue had been brought up at this moment. Gov. Jeff Landry added it to the list of issues to address in a special session primarily focused on drawing new Congressional and Supreme Court maps. 

“Why are we rushing this through?” said Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, who voted against the bill. “Why is this suddenly the biggest emergency you could imagine when we don’t even know what this would cost?”

Sen. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, who also opposed the bill, echoed similar sentiments.

“We heard Gov. Landry talk about three things, primarily: crime, jobs and education,” he said. “I listened very intently when he gave his inaugural speech. Even in his inaugural speech, he didn’t mention closed primaries.”

Sen. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, defended the timing.

“We have been forced to be here because a federal judge has asked us to draw our redistricting maps for Congress, but we serve the people and we’re here to work for the people,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t take up other important issues.”

Miguez carried the bill on the Senate floor. He argued that the current primary system put Louisiana’s congressional members at a disadvantage. If they have to compete in a December runoff, he said, they could be a month behind their colleagues from other states in preparing for office and jockeying for committee assignments.

Duplessis rejected the idea that Louisiana’s representatives had paid a cost in D.C. because of the state’s primary system.

“Colleagues, the speaker of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress is from Louisiana. The majority leader for the House of Representatives is from Louisiana,” he said. “I am not sure how we are suffering as a result of this schedule.”

Miguez also dismissed objections to the cost of the switch. Senators were not clear when they voted what that exact cost would be due to the adding and subtracting of offices over the days to the list of what would fall under party primaries.

“It holds our democracy together, and it’s well worth the money,” Miguez said.

Luneau raised specific concerns about including Supreme Court races in the bill, which he said would increase partisanship. His amendment to exclude those offices was rejected 28-9.

Sen. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, criticized him for “picking away bits and pieces” of the compromise that had already been reached. “Let’s stick with the deal that was made yesterday,” he said.

“I’m trying to reach a compromise,” Luneau responded. “And I think it’s a reasonable request because it doesn’t say we’ll never do this, it doesn’t say we should never do this, it says let’s put the brakes on, let’s just pump the brakes just a little while.”

The bill, authored by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, will head back to the House for possible agreement on the amendments. 

If passed into law, the legislation would not go into effect until 2026, a delay from the governor’s original plan.

With Friday’s amendments, the Legislative Fiscal Office estimated the bill would cost over $19 million in the next fiscal year. 

And though Landry has spearheaded the push for closed primaries, not all members of his party are in agreement. The bill, without the provision for unaffiliated voters, had passed on a narrower margin in the House Thursday on a 64-40 vote, with some Republicans opposed. 

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