OPINION COLUMNS

Citizen input precedes redistricting debates

By Ed Sterling | Published Wednesday, June 12, 2013

{{{*}}}An issue of a supremely contentious nature, redistricting, is the reason lawmakers are still at work in a 30-day special session, and a great deal of citizen input is being gathered before the coming House and Senate floor debates.

When Gov. Rick Perry called the special session on May 27, it was his intention that the Legislature would move quickly to make “permanent” the redistricting maps drawn by a federal court last year and used in the November 2012 election. With that task behind them, the Legislature then might take up other matters of the governor’s choice.

But Perry has added nothing to the call, perhaps seeing that redistricting is sufficiently demanding on its own.

Meanwhile, the Texas House of Representatives on June 3 met briefly and recessed until June 17 to give its Select Committee on Redistricting time to conduct public hearings in Austin and other cities (Dallas on June 6 and San Antonio on June 7). The Texas Senate adjourned until June 12 and its Select Committee on Redistricting met at the Capitol, received citizen input and scheduled more hearings to receive additional input from citizens in Corpus Christi on June 7 and in Houston on June 8.

June 17, when the full House next meets, will be 21 days into the special session, leaving only 9 days for legislation to pass. If the Legislature had succeeded in drawing legally viable redistricting maps in 2011 – the year after the decennial U.S. census was taken – lawmakers would not be spending this month in Austin. But the current maps are interim maps: They were not meant to have a long shelf life or furthermore last until the 2020 census.

Lawmakers and citizens have already noted that the population clusters in urban areas have grown mightily since the 2010 census, suggesting that today the court-drawn maps would not survive the scrutiny Texas must undergo by the U.S. Department of Justice or the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, because of Section 5 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act. Section 5 subjects Texas and certain other states and jurisdictions to enhanced scrutiny in voting-related matters because of a history of racial discrimination.

A potentially dynamic aspect to Texas redistricting is the pending outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case in which Shelby County, Alabama, is seeking to have Section 5 declared unconstitutional, asserting that racism in voting practices is no longer an issue. The high court, after months of processing and deliberation, should render its ruling any day now.

SERVICE ANIMAL BILL SIGNED

Gov. Perry on June 7 ceremonially signed HB 489, legislation passed in May that enables citizens with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals in all public places without having to show the animal’s qualifications or certificates.

“For veterans suffering from (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a service animal can be a strong part of their recovery and a comforting presence in the midst of what can feel like chaotic and stressful situations,” Perry said.

Authored by state Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, and sponsored by Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, HB 489 takes effect Sept. 1.

DPS JOINS IN ROADCHECK

Texas Department of Public Safety announced last week its troopers, inspectors and investigators would participate in intensified commercial vehicle inspections from June 4 through June 6 as part of Roadcheck 2013, a nationwide three-day enforcement effort to increase motor carrier, vehicle, driver and cargo safety and security.

DPS troopers looked for 18-wheelers and buses with serious equipment violations involving brakes, tires, lights and loading standards and drivers not in compliance with state and federal requirements, the agency said. DPS officials said personnel also would be on the lookout for aggressive passenger vehicle drivers, the cause of most commercial vehicle crashes.

BEXAR DISASTER DECLARED

Gov. Perry on June 6 issued a disaster declaration for Bexar County because of severe flooding there May 25 through May 27. Three people are known to have died as a result of the flooding, and according to the City of San Antonio, the city and Bexar County have identified more than 200 homes that have been affected.

Ed Sterling is director of member services for the Texas Press Association, headquartered in Austin.

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