Thursday, April 7, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – The final bill of the 2011 session is the most politically difficult, and it also best illuminates how the American system of representational government works.

Proposals to redraw the boundaries of the four Congressional districts in Arkansas generated headlines, as various plans were bounced between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

A map was finally approved by the House, but when it was sent to Senate committee it failed. Then the Senate approved its version of a new map, but it was sent to a House committee and failed.

Each time a group of legislators unveiled a new idea, they ran into a wall of resistance. But after each stalemate, a new compromise would appear and raise hopes for a final agreement. After each round of stalemate and failed compromise, the opposing sides had moved a little closer together.

The legislature is required under the United States Constitution to redraw Congressional district boundaries every 10 years, after the U.S. Census. The reason is to preserve the principle of "one person, one vote."

Based on last year's Census data, each district in Arkansas should have almost 730,000 people. That means the boundaries of the First District in eastern and northern Arkansas must be expanded so it can gain about 44,000 people. The boundaries of the Fourth District in southern and western Arkansas also must expand, so it can add about 66,000 people.

The geographic boundaries of the Second District in central Arkansas have to shrink, so that it reduces its population by about 14,000 people.

The Third District of northwest Arkansas has had the highest rate of population growth in the past 10 years, therefore its boundaries have to shrink the most. The Third District must reduce its population by about 95,000 people.

The constitutional principle of "one person, one vote" preserves equality under the law. An individual who lives in a district with more than 800,000 voters will not be heard as forcefully as an individual who lives in a district with 650,000 people.

In like fashion, the influence of a local economic development corporation or an association of water users would be more diluted and thus weakened in a district with 800,000 people. A similar group of equal size in a district of 650,000 would be significantly more influential.

The four members of Congress that Arkansas sends to Washington, and whose home districts are going to change, don't get to vote on the matter. Drawing the new maps is the duty of 135 members of the state legislature - 35 in the Senate and 100 in the House. However, the four Congressmen from Arkansas are lobbying intensely behind the scenes trying to influence the outcome.

Arkansas is a diverse state in many ways. The battle over redistricting brings to the surface our divisions, not just between the two major political parties but along cultural, racial and economic lines. Some Arkansans make their living by raising row crops. Some raise livestock and some work in the timber industry. Some work in computers, others drive trucks. Drawing a new political map every 10 years makes us recognize our differences, but it also makes us realize how much we all have in common.

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