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Congressional districts looked at in session

By Staff | Aug 4, 2011

CHARLESTON (AP) – West Virginia’s three congressional districts would all exchange territory, while splitting both Harrison and Kanawha counties for the first time, under a draft plan that emerged for debate Wednesday in the state Senate.

The draft prompted partisan sparring, setting the stage for debate today. The Senate on Wednesday also passed, 28-4, a plan for its own 17 districts to the House of Delegates.

All six non-redistricting items from acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s special session agenda advanced from the Senate to the House on Wednesday. Five passed unanimously. Those included a phased-in plan to repeal the sales tax on groceries by 2014, if the state builds up its emergency reserves.

Earlier in the day, Tomblin had amended what had been a one-time tax cut on his agenda. Other Senate-passed agenda bills promise coal-producing counties more severance tax revenues, allow for a state agency land sale and supplement the budget by $95 million.

Still pending in the House is a redistricting plan that would keep 53 of that chamber’s 100 seats in multi-member districts. With one defector, the Democratic majority rebuffed a GOP-led bid to allow for all single-seat districts in a 61-36 vote.

The 2010 Census requires states to revisit their legislative and congressional boundaries, to ensure equal representation. The draft being discussed by the Senate’s redistricting committee would achieve that for the three U.S. House districts. It would put each at exactly or within 1 person of the ideal size of 617,665 residents.

It would also result in relatively compact districts, which is also a goal of the once-in-a-decade process. But it reshapes them greatly in the process, and officials for the delegation’s two GOP members cried foul Wednesday.

With debate slated to resume today, the draft would keep the 1st District anchored in the state’s Northern Panhandle. But that district would cede northeastern and Potomac Highlands counties to the 2nd District, in exchange for several in the mid-Ohio Valley, including Jackson County.

The 2nd District would still begin in the Eastern Panhandle, but also take five east-central counties from the 3rd District. That southern coalfield district would gain Mason and Putnam counties.

But the draft also removes Kanawha County, the state’s most populous, from the 2nd District and divides it between the other two. Charleston, the county seat and state capital, would become part of the 1st District.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, the redistricting committee’s chairman, said staff prepared the draft by attempting exactly equal districts. The Berkeley County Democrat also argued that court rulings demand this approach.

“Every state that has done redistricting up to this point has done this method,” Unger said Wednesday, adding that “if we depart from this, the courts are going to want to know a compelling reason why.”

Aides to U.S. Reps. David McKinley and Shelley Moore Capito, both R-W.Va., denounced the draft Wednesday. Both McKinley Chief of State Andy Sere and Capito campaign spokesman Kent Gates cited how Unger raised funds to run for Congress in 2008. Each alleged personal political or partisan motives behind the proposal.

“The approach that everyone else has seemed to reject is a radical, wholesale change to a system that has seemed to serve West Virginia well,” Sere said. “That is whole counties, (and) not favoring one party over the other.”

McKinley represents the 1st District, and resides in the Northern Panhandle. The plan removes Capito’s Charleston residence from her 2nd District into McKinley’s.

“West Virginia would be the only state in the country that is not gaining or losing a seat that is pitting one member of Congress against another,” Sere said.

The U.S. Constitution does not require that members of Congress reside in the districts that they represent. It instead says they must inhabit their district’s state at the time they are elected.

“It’s common sense that most people would want to represent their community,” Sere said.

Gates cites how the West Virginia Constitution mandates that congressional districts “shall be formed of contiguous counties.” That renders the draft unconstitutional, because it does not leave counties intact, Gates said.

“I believe West Virginia is the only state that makes reference to it in its constitution,” Gates said, adding that Unger “is trying to create a district for himself to run in. This is partisan politics at its worst.”

Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall resides in Raleigh County, which would remain in his 3rd District.

“I continue to respect the role of the West Virginia Legislature in redistricting, and I leave the matter to its collective wisdom,” Rahall said in a Wednesday statement.

Unger argued that the state constitution does not require intact counties. He said the burden will be on opponents of the draft to show they aren’t trying to protect incumbents with any proposed amendments.

“That’s the way for the public to measure if there’s gerrymandering going on,” Unger said. “If there are reasons, (members) have to articulate them to the public.”

The Senate and House have each posted maps of the legislative and congressional proposals on the Legislature’s website.

The plan for the Senate would keep 42 of the state’s 55 counties intact within districts but divide the remaining 13 each among two or three districts. Senators agreed to slight tweaks to the plan before Wednesday’s passage. Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, opposed the plan along with Democratic Sens. Walt Helmick of Pocahontas County, Truman Chafin of Mingo County and John Pat Fanning of McDowell County.

The plan would split Chafin and Fanning’s counties for the first time.

“This is a catastrophe,” Fanning said of the process’ outcome before the vote. “This is an embarrassment for this Senate.”

Unger called the process perhaps the most open and transparent in the state’s history. Half the Senate, one member from each district, sat on the redistricting task force. The Senate’s plan emerged after a dozen public forums held around the state starting in May. Individual lawmakers met with constituents and groups during that time. The public also weighed in through online comments.

Delegate Harold Michael, D-Hardy, sided with Republicans in Wednesday’s failed bid to allow for 100 single-seat districts. That bill is up for passage Friday.

The supplemental spending bills include $62.5 million for roadway needs, $22.7 million to build a new wing at the state’s psychiatric hospital in Lewis County, and $310,000 to help election officials adjust to the redistricting changes. Tomblin added that latter item to his agenda Wednesday.