Speaker Howell kills controversial redistricting plan

Wednesday, House Speaker Howell killed a controversial redistricting bill that earned national attention.

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Update #2 — February 7, 2013; 6:32 AM

Yesterday afternoon, Virginia House Speaker William Howell (R-Stafford) killed the controversial Senate redistricting plan that last month passed the Senate in a surprise vote (see below).

“This is not a decision I made lightly,” said Howell in a statement. “I am committed to upholding the honor and traditions of both the office of speaker, the institution as a whole, and the commonwealth of Virginia.”

As House speaker, Howell can rule if a redistricting plan is germane to attached legislation. In this instance, the redistricting plan was attached to a bill left over from last year that would make “technical adjustments” to House district boundaries.

Because the bill was not meant for Senate redistricting, Howell ruled the plans not germane, effectively killing it.

Senate Republican leader Thomas Norment, Jr. (R-James City County) said in a statement: “The entire Senate Republican Caucus is deeply disappointed by Speaker Howell’s unilateral ruling today.”

Howell hopes the bill’s demise will allow other legislative goals to be fulfilled.

“It is my hope today that we can refocus on the issues facing the Commonwealth. Jobs, K-12 Education, and transportation will require all of our attention and energy over the final weeks of this legislative session,” he said.

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Update #1 – January 22nd, 10:16am

Here’s a statement from Ibbie Hedrick, Lt. Governor Bill Bolling’s Deputy Chief of Staff:

“Lieutenant Governor Bolling has grave concerns about the adoption of a revised redistricting plan at this point in the process, and it is not something that he supported. He fears that this action could set a dangerous precedent for future redistricting actions, and he is concerned 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 order to address these important issues, we need Republicans and Democrats to work together for the good of Virginia, and we cannot allow divisive partisan issues such as this to make it more difficult for us to address these issues.”

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Original – January 22nd

Yesterday afternoon, Senate Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly won a 20-19 vote on a bill that would radically remap Senate districts across the Commonwealth. But to better understand what transpired yesterday afternoon in the Senate chamber, we should go back a couple of weeks.

It was then that Senate Republicans made it known to Lt. Governor Bill Bolling that they wanted to vote on a hefty redistricting measure–a technical adjustment of an already passed 2011 plan- The vote was destined to split between Senate Republicans and Democrats 20-20, requiring Bolling’s tie-breaking vote for passage. But Bolling told Republicans that he would not vote in favor of that redistricting bill, thereby dooming the Republican initiative.

So Republicans waited until yesterday afternoon when one of the bill’s opponents, Sen. Henry Marsh III (D-Richmond), a 79-year-old Civil Rights leader, was in Washington, D.C. attending the presidential inauguration to make their move. With Marsh out of the Senate chamber, their redistricting bill passed 20-19, despite outcry from Democrats that they had not even seen the proposed changes, let alone had time to review them.

After the surprise passage of the bill, Democrats finally got a look at what the bill entailed: of the Commonwealth’s over six million registered voters, nearly three million, or about 45 percent, would end up in a new Senate district. It would also remove a Democratic seat in western Virginia.

Senate Democratic leader, Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), said that “If this plan stands, there will be litigation, you can be sure of that,” arguing that the redistricting measure is illegal. “The Virginia Constitution says that the Virginia General Assembly shall redistrict in 2011 and every 10 years thereafter.” Although courts have permitted some technical adjustments to redistricting measures after passage, few seem to approve of changes as sweeping as what is contained in the current bill (Kenton Ngo has a helpful breakdown of the prospective district changes).

The Senator who pushed the bill forward, Sen. John Watkins (R-Midlothian), said the new map would promote minority-led districts, which would put the Commonwealth into closer compliance with federal civil rights laws. “It will clean up the lines, protect us against the threat of litigation, and provide an excellent opportunity to allow the demographics of this Senate to more closely align with those of the Commonwealth at large,” he said. Despite his praises of the bill, Watkins resorted to filibustering yesterday when Democrats raised objections to the bill.

Most notably, the redistricting would move Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) into the predominantly Republican Augusta County. Several other Democratic seats would also be put into jeopardy as their redrawn boundaries would include more Republican voters (one estimate allows the possibility of the current 20-20 Republican-Democrat Senate split to turn into a 27-13 super majority for Republicans).

Even Republicans have derided the Senate actions. Shaun Kenney, the former Communications Director of the Republican Party of Virginia, and current contributor to the conservative Bearing Drift website, wrote, “I’m wincing pretty hard at this, guys. This is dirty, dirty pool. To do it on MLK Jr. Day? Doubles the embarrassment.” He said Senate Republicans, in passing the bill in such a sneaky way, have endangered the relationship with their cohorts across the aisle. “Even if it’s legal and it passes muster, even if people forget that it ever happened, you’ve now established precedent…and all pendulums swing.”

The bill will now go before the GOP-controlled House of Delegates for a vote. Should it pass, it will then move to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s desk.

Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the Governor, said McDonnell “has not seen this legislation. If the bill gets to his desk he will review it in great detail at that time as he did with prior redistricting legislation. The governor’s priorities this session are transportation, education, and the budget. Not redistricting.”

A federal judge or the US Justice Department must approve any changes to district boundaries even if McDonnell were to sign the bill.

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photo by Dougtone

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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