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House panel rejects Senate redistricting bill

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers remained deadlocked over competing ideas to redraw the state's congressional districts and planned to extend their session into next week after a House committee rejected a Senate-backed redistricting plan on Thursday.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers remained deadlocked over competing ideas to redraw the state's congressional districts and planned to extend their session into next week after a House committee rejected a Senate-backed redistricting plan on Thursday.

The House State Agencies Committee rejected a redistricting proposal that had been passed by the Senate as a compromise to a House bill that faced widespread opposition from Republican and some Democratic senators. House Speaker Robert Moore said he wants the Senate to vote on that proposal anyway, a move that would require at least a majority of the 35-member Senate to approve pulling it out of committee.

"The House of Representatives sent a bill down there that's a good bill. We believe it's the best bill, and we'd like for the Senate to act on it," Moore said. "If they can't get it out of committee, we'd like to see them do that."

The House and Senate didn't plan to meet again until Monday. The Senate bill was drafted after a day of closed-door negotiations between Republican and Democrat members of that chamber.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed. I think that was a hard-working compromise for Democrats and Republicans alike...I thought that's what we were supposed to be down here doing, work out a compromise," said Senate President Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro.

At this point, each chamber has passed its own redistricting proposal but neither has cleared a committee. The House-backed proposal would move the northwest city of Fayetteville to the 4th Congressional District, the only district in the state held by a Democrat. Republicans have assailed that plan as a partisan gerrymander that is only aimed at helping Democrats after an election where they lost their hold on two congressional seats.

The Senate-backed proposal would keep Fayetteville in the 3rd congressional district, and like the House plan, it would move some Delta region districts from the 4th congressional district to the 1st.

The House proposal - dubbed the Fayetteville Finger by some legislators - passed that chamber on a mostly party-line vote, while the Senate bill passed with a mixture of support with 13 GOP members and seven Democrats voting for it.

House Republicans said they believed that Democrats were trying to force a vote on the Fayetteville proposal by rejecting the Senate bill.

"Their goal is to have no other resort other than the Fayetteville Finger," House Minority Leader Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, said.

But such a move already faces serious obstacles. The House bill failed before the Senate committee, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and moving it to the floor for a vote anyway would require a majority vote of the Senate. Democrats hold 20 of the 35 Senate seats, but some Democrats have said they don't support extracting the bill from the committee.

"We're not talking about extracting any bills right now," Senate Majority Leader Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, told reporters after the House rejected his redistricting proposal. "That's a last resort if we can't find a compromise, and we're not moving in that direction right now."

The panel rejected Thompson's proposal on a voice vote after an amendment that would have changed the map slightly was voted down. Thompson objected to the amendment and told the panel he wanted his name off the bill if it was adopted.

It's unclear how the Legislature could resolve the impasse before it formally adjourns April 27. The Legislature recessed its regular session on Friday, but House and Senate leaders called lawmakers back to the Capitol on Monday to work solely on redistricting.

Lawmakers have spent much of the week in public and private meetings on the issue, with dozens of proposed maps being floated around the state Capitol hallways.

Gov. Mike Beebe could call a special session if it's not wrapped up during this session, but Beebe has said that's not an option he's considering now.

Another possibility is a conference committee between the House and Senate to work on a compromise, but neither chamber's leader has called for one. Moore wouldn't rule that possibility out.

"Everything's on the table," Moore said. "It's just a matter of how our communication progresses. We'll just take a deep breath and a break this weekend and just continue deliberations to get a resolution that's acceptable on both ends."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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