Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Status quo: Louisiana lawmakers approve bills that preserve current balance of power in congressional delegation, state legislature

by BIZ Magazine

By Piper Hutchinson and Alex Tirado, LSU Manship School News Service

On the final day of the redistricting session, Feb. 18, the Louisiana House and Senate passed bills Friday that turned back efforts to expand minority representation and preserved the current balance of power in the state’s congressional delegation and the Legislature itself. 

After extensive negotiations, both chambers advanced amended congressional maps, sending two identical bills to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk. Black lawmakers immediately called on Edwards to veto at least the congressional map.

HB1, authored by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and SB5, authored by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, came out of closed-door negotiations with a compromise: south of Alexandria, the map is faithful to Schexnayder’s proposal, north of Alexandria, the map is faithful to Hewitt’s proposal. 

The Senate passed the amended version of HB1 along party lines with a 27-10 vote. 

Across the hall, the House passed the amended SB5 by a vote of 64-31, with three Republicans joining Democrats to vote against the bill and one Democrat voting in favor of passage. 

Notably, Rep. Travis Johnson, D-Vidalia, voted against the bill. Johnson, a conservative Black Democrat, had been in the hot seat with his party after voting in favor of Schexnayder’s similar congressional bill earlier in the week. 

Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, was the lone Democrat to vote in favor of the bill. 

Both chambers advanced maps for the Public Service Commission, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Louisiana House and Senate with relatively little fuss. None of the bills that passed increased minority representation at any level. 

The next stop for the bills is the governor’s desk and then probably a courtroom. 

Both the House Democratic Caucus and the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus issued statements after adjournment asking Edwards to veto maps. 

“These Congressional maps do not comply with the Voting Rights Act, and they do not comply with the will of the people. Therefore, the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus is requesting that the Governor veto SB5 and HB1,” the group said in a statement. 

“This is another sad chapter in Louisiana’s long history of suppressing minority representation in government,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins said. “We urge the Governor to veto the Congressional map and any other map that violates the Voting Rights Act.” 

Rep. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Gray, and Rep. Michael Firment, R-Pollock, voted against the GOP-led congressional bills, citing their frustration with how some of the parishes they represent were split between districts. 

Firment was overheard by an Advocate reporter on the House floor saying that he would “seriously consider” sustaining a veto in an override session. 

There has been much speculation about whether Gov. Edwards, a Democrat, will veto some of the maps. Edwards has said that he was not overly concerned about the Public Service Commission or Board of Elementary and Secondary Education districts but has said that he thinks it is fair if two of the state’s congressional districts are majority Black. 

Edwards also released a statement following adjournment. 

“I remain adamant that the maps should reflect the growth of the African American population in our state over the last 10 years, allowing for minority groups to have an opportunity at electing candidates of their own choosing, and I do have concerns that several of the maps do not fulfill that moral and legal requirement,” Edwards said.  

Throughout the 2 1/2-week session, Republican leaders have steered the bills toward limiting Black-majority districts to the number that exists now, deflecting a number of alternative maps proposed by Black Democrats that would have added a second majority-Black congressional district and two additional majority-minority districts in the state Senate.

Republicans nationally do not want to lose any congressional seats as they attempt to take control of Congress in the midterm elections, and state GOP leaders hope to reach supermajorities in both chambers in the Legislature.

The 27 votes in the Louisiana Senate for the congressional redistricting plan on Friday would be enough to override a veto by Edwards. But the 64 votes in favor of the plan in the House fell short of the 70 votes that would be needed to override a veto.

Even if Edwards signs off on the maps, they are likely to end up in court. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has said that if the Legislature declines to increase minority representation, it is likely to be in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices or procedures on the basis of race. 

The group has argued that if lawmakers could draw more minority districts, and decline to, they are putting themselves in peril of losing lawsuits and being forced to redraw the lines. 

Sixteen congressional maps were filed by Black lawmakers, each showing a different way to add a second majority Black district. These bills would likely be referenced as evidence that the Legislature had the ability to add more minority representation. 

The Legislature declined to vote on Supreme Court maps. 

The only Republican bill that would have increased minority representation through redistricting, a Supreme Court proposal authored by Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, was killed on the House floor Wednesday, prompting its author to give his fellow lawmakers a tongue-lashing. 

“We’ll just continue to get by here in Louisiana, because we are too stupid to work together,” Ivey said in a no-holds-barred condemnation. 

“The apathy throughout the state is evident in each of you when you fail to act, when you can, when you should,” Ivey said. “I’ve bit my tongue over the last nine years, and I’m not going to do it anymore.” 

“I tell people this institution is the laziest group of people I’ve ever worked with because it’s true, because we’ve got problems everywhere and we don’t want to solve them,” Ivey said. 

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