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Redistricting scheme fails with House speaker's ruling

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House speaker Bill Howell averts a redistricting furor with his ruling that a controversial Senate plan to redraw voting lines was improper.

By Landmark News Service

RICHMOND — The Republican speaker of the House of Delegates quelled a partisan firestorm over a controversial Senate redistricting scheme last week, making a procedural ruling that killed the GOP-engineered plan without a vote.
Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford County) ruled that the Senate plan — attached as an amendment to a House bill — was not germane to the original legislation. The parliamentary ruling voided a Republican-drawn redistricting plan that had inflamed partisan tensions in the evenly divided Senate and threatened to block compromises on the state budget, transportation funding and other issues.
The proposal would have placed Carroll, Grayson and Galax within the 40th Senatorial District effective with the 2015 election.
However, the three jurisdictions will remain split among three districts. The 20th District, represented by Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County) includes Galax and part of Carroll. A portion of Carroll County is within the 19th District, represented by Sen. Ralph Smith (R-Roanoke County). The 40th District, represented by Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) includes all of Grayson, but none of Carroll or Galax.
The original bill (House Bill 259), which the House passed last year, made minor changes to the boundaries of 39 House districts. By attaching a new Senate redistricting plan, Howell said, the Senate had amended to bill to “stray dramatically, in my opinion, from the legislation’s original purpose.”
“This vast rewrite of Senate districts goes well beyond the usual legislative electoral precinct tweaks that are customary in each redistricting cycle,” Howell said as he explained his ruling to the House.
The House passed its version of the bill last year and the Senate carried it over to the 2013 session.
On Jan. 21, Senate Republicans exploited the absence of a single Democratic senator and brought the bill to the floor with a Senate redistricting plan attached to it. Richmond Democrat Henry Marsh was at President Barack Obama’s inauguration that day and missed the Senate floor session at which the vote was taken.
The plan created a more favorable map for Republicans, and passed on a party line vote of 20-19.
The maneuver took Democrats by surprise and reopened partisan wounds from last year, when Republicans used Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tie-breaking vote to seize working control of the Senate.
This year, however, Bolling said he didn’t support the GOP plan and worried “that it could create a hyper-partisan atmosphere that could make it very difficult for us to address other important priorities like transportation and education reform.”
In Western Virginia, the plan would have overhauled Senate districts in the Roanoke and New River valleys and forced veteran senators Creigh Deeds (D-Bath County) and Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County) into the same district. Had the plan been enacted, the redrawn districts would have been in effect for the 2015 Senate elections.
The House delayed action on the issue until Feb. 6, a day after the legislative session reached its procedural midpoint. No one in the Republican-dominated House formally challenged Howell’s ruling.
“Bill Howell is a man of integrity,” Deeds said after the speaker’s ruling. “Anybody who’s looked at Bill Howell’s rulings over the last 10 or 11 years as speaker couldn’t come to any conclusion but that, if he was going to be consistent, he had to come out this way. He’s a man of integrity, so I’m not surprised.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell, who feared the redistricting controversy would jeopardize his legislative agenda, said Howell’s ruling put the matter to rest.
“Now it is time for all legislators to focus on the pressing issues facing the General Assembly,” McDonnell said in a statement issued by his office.
But Senate Republicans weren’t surrendering Feb. 6, vowing to make another attempt to put their redistricting plan in place.
Senate Republican Leader Thomas Norment of James City County said his caucus was disappointed by Howell’s ruling and “remains committed to correcting the egregious hyper-partisan gerrymander that has resulted in the current tortuously drawn Senate districts.”
“While the speaker’s judgment today means that House Bill 259 will not be promptly enacted, we are confident that the districts approved by the Senate on Jan. 21 will be the districts under which the 2015 elections will be conducted,” Norment said.
Deeds said Norment’s reaction could hurt efforts to get parties to work together in the closing weeks of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end Feb. 23.
“The wound, instead of allowing it to scab over, you pour more salt into it,” Deeds said. “I would like to think we could heal up over the next 2 1/2 weeks. We still have a lot of work to do, and this charade, this redistricting fiasco really screwed things up.”
The General Assembly draws new legislative district boundaries once a decade to account for population shifts reflected in the U.S. census. The process typically involves public hearings and committee deliberations. It is not unusual for lawmakers to make minor changes to district lines, such as eliminating split precincts, between redistricting sessions.
The General Assembly approved the current House and Senate district maps in 2011, when Democrats held a slim Senate majority. McDonnell vetoed the first Senate redistricting plan that Democrats passed in 2011, calling it “partisan gerrymandering.”
The plan that McDonnell later signed into law passed the Senate by a 32-5 margin with 11 Republicans, including Norment, voting for it.
Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke), whose district would have changed dramatically under the GOP plan, said the controversy has “poisoned the waters this year and it’s affected the relationships in the Senate.”
“Had this [Howell’s ruling] not happened, it would have affected the budget, transportation and other things,” Edwards said.