The Texas House tentatively passed SB 4 on Tuesday afternoon, following nearly four hours of debate in which Democrats argued that the congressional redistricting plans under consideration would "ensure" minority voters will lack proper representation in Congress. The bill now heads to third reading, though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge the issue is likely to be settled in court.
The plan approved by the lower chamber largely resembles the version that came out of the House Redistricting Committee on June 9. In short, it preserves the GOP's overwhelming majority the state's congressional delegation.
Democrats proposed several amendments that would have created more so-called minority opportunity districts to account for growth in the state over the last decade that was fueled by increases in the Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American populations. Those efforts were tabled along party-line votes.
State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, called SB 4 an example of "purposeful, intentional discrimination" because it keeps the heavily Anglo population in West Austin in one district while it splits the eastern part of the city, largely inhabited by Hispanics and African-Americans, into nine districts. She said that "diminishes" their power as a voting bloc.
This "ensures that for the next 10 years we won’t have a voice in Washington,” she said, before asserting that GOP members have told her privately they know the plan goes too far in favor of their party.
The fight wasn't just between Democrats and Republicans. Early in the debate, state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, attempted to move 300 acres of undeveloped land and 28 voters out of U.S. Rep Kevin Brady's district and back into the district represented by U.S. Rep Ted Poe, R-Humble. She called the parcel the "crown jewel" because it is expected to be the site of the new world headquarters of ExxonMobil.
"This 300 acres was Ted Poe’s. ... This is in my district. This is in my county, and this is important to my district and my county that Ted Poe have that 300 acres," Riddle said. "It is a power grab for Brady to come in and grab this."
Riddle's amendment failed, but it represented yet another example of how the redistricting process can lead lawmakers to be territorial. However, the vast majority of the House debate centered on the issue of minority representation.
State Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Forth Worth, argued that SB 4 is "blatantly illegal" and "dilutes" minority votes. While the current congressional lines include 11 minority districts, he said the new plan only draws 10. Veasey asked House Redistricting Committee Chairman Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, how he could justify adding three out of four new congressional seats to Anglo districts, ignoring the fact that 90 percent of the state's population growth came from minority communities.
Solomons defended the bill as the Legislature's best effort to recognize historical lines combined with population growth and the number of voters in each district.
"In context, this is the map we came up with," Solomons said several times, in addition to pointing out no one would be perfectly happy. "What we did with the map was fair and legal. We’re probably going to go to the courts and decide whether we’re right in that issue.”
Updated: On Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, responded to the House's passage of SB 4 with the following statement:
"Cutting Travis County into five crooked congressional districts, each connected to distant communities across Texas, is maliciously designed to prevent any Austinite from serving our community in Washington during an entire decade. Whether, like me, Austin is the only place you've ever called home, or you are new to our community, all can see how the Republicans, cunningly schemed to deny a voice for our unique city. Rep. Dawnna Dukes and her colleagues spoke eloquently about the harm this scheme imposes. The courts should reject this illegal plan."
The Tribune also just heard from Brady's office regarding Riddle's comments on the floor over the ExxonMobil land. Spokeswoman Tracee Evans said she and Shaylyn Hynes from Poe's office have offered the following statement:
“There is no animosity between Rep. Poe and Rep. Brady over the current map. These Members of Congress have a close relationship and share the belief that the Texas Legislature, not the Congress, should be drawing redistricting maps. Both Members remain committed to representing their constituents and appreciate the efforts of the legislature to create a fair plan.”