|Updated: 4/14/2011 2:58 pm
||Published: 4/14/2011 2:54 pm
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Gov. Mike Beebe on Thursday signed into law new boundaries for Arkansas' four U.S. House seats, making the state the first in the nation to finalize its congressional redistricting map this year.
Coming months after Democrats lost two congressional seats in an election that gave Republicans a 3-1 majority of the state's U.S. House delegation, the new boundaries make relatively minor changes to the state's political field.
The Democratic governor didn't fully endorse the new map, calling it "status quo," but his signature allowed Arkansas to finish its congressional redistricting work before any other state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Political observers said the map keeps two of the state's four seats - the 3rd District in northwest Arkansas and the 2nd District in central Arkansas - as solid Republican territory.
It moves some southeastern Arkansas counties from the 4th District to the 1st District in eastern Arkansas, making that district more competitive for Democrats. Republican Rep. Rick Crawford represents the 1st District, while Democratic Rep. Mike Ross represents the 4th District.
Ross' district gains some counties from northwestern Arkansas - a traditionally Republican territory - in a move that isn't expected to hurt his re-election bid next year, but it makes the district questionable for Democrats if Ross makes an expected run for governor in 2014.
Though the proposal won bipartisan support in the Legislature, where Democrats hold the majority, neither party's leaders have wholeheartedly endorsed the map. It was a compromise reached after the Legislature had deadlocked over competing House and Senate proposals.
Beebe likewise didn't fully embrace the plan but said it was one he could live with.
"I think it's relatively status quo," Beebe told reporters at the state Capitol. "That's evidenced by the vote between the Republicans and Democrats for and against. I think both parties think that probably the congressional districts that are in play are still in play, and those that aren't, aren't."
Beebe said he wished the Legislature could have split up fewer counties. The new map splits five counties, the first time Arkansas hasn't kept counties intact in congressional districts.
The Legislature wrapped up its session on Wednesday after approving the redistricting plan in an extended session that had focused solely on redistricting since April 1. Beebe said he brought legislative leaders together and encouraged them to find a compromise after they deadlocked over each other's proposals.
Beebe said he did not like a House-backed proposal supported by many Democrats that would have moved the city of Fayetteville into Ross' district. Republicans said the shift was designed to help Democrats by moving the historically Democratic area into a district already held by a Democrat.
"I think it would have alienated a lot of people in the Democratic base who didn't like it and wouldn't have liked it, and I think it would have been counterproductive," Beebe said. "I think it might have backfired."
The state must still redraw the lines for its 100 House and 35 Senate seats. That task falls on the state Board of Apportionment, which is made up of Beebe, Secretary of State Mark Martin and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. That board aims to finish its work by July.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)