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Senate passes House redistricing plan

By Staff | Aug 22, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – Two special sessions later, West Virginia lawmakers completed the once-a-decade task of redistricting Sunday with final passage of a plan for the House of Delegates.

The Senate narrowly voted 15-14 to send acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin a House plan to replace the one he vetoed last week because of technical errors. The flawed bill, which overlapped delegates districts in both Kanawha and Morgan counties, had been approved during an Aug. 1-5 special session.

Tomblin has already signed the state Senate and congressional redistricting plans passed during that earlier session. Following Sunday’s Senate passage of the corrected bill, lawmakers ended this latest special session after four days.

But the tight vote reflected criticism of the House plan, as did its 55-38 passage by delegates on Saturday. At least one opponent of the House approach, Charleston lawyer Thornton Cooper, has already advised state officials that he plans to challenge it in court.

The final bill does not radically change the current map for the 100-seat House. Responding to the 2010 Census results, it adds seats to the Eastern Panhandle and Morgantown areas at the expense of the southern coalfields and the Northern Panhandle.

The House plan contains 47 single-seat districts, up from the current 36, while placing another 40 seats in two- and three-member districts. It includes a pair of four-seat districts and increases a Monongalia County’s district, home of Morgantown, from four to five seats.

Cooper, a Democrat, advocates single-member districts for all 100 seats. Other supporters of that approach include GOP lawmakers, who sought without success to amend the plan Saturday in the House and Sunday in the Senate.

Sen. Clark Barnes proposed the 100-district alternative Sunday. The Randolph County Republican cited how groups such as West Virginians for Life and the state Chamber of Commerce called for single-member districts. Barnes also recounted comments favoring this approach that the Senate’s redistricting task force heard throughout its statewide series of 12 public forums.

Other Republican senators also attempted amendments, without success, to alter district lines in Mineral County and to ensure Mason County its own district. The House plan divides Mason County between one single-seat district, in which Mason County has a majority, and a second single-member district with a somewhat larger Putnam County population.

Such regional outcomes helped prompt nay votes by eight of the majority Democrats present for Sunday’s vote, including Senate Minority Whip Richard Browning of Wyoming County and Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale of Wayne County. Democrats hold all but six seats in the 34-member chamber.

“Wyoming County was chopped up pretty badly, and the people back home are pretty upset,” said Browning, who noted that he also voted against the initial, vetoed bill.

Plymale cited the results for Mason County, which neighbors his Senate district. Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said he voted against the bill because he philosophically favors single-seat districts.

To remedy some of the regional concerns, a Saturday amendment from House Majority Leader Brent Boggs shifted a seat between two Raleigh County districts while tweaking boundary lines and populations for nearly half of the House plan’s 67 districts. But complaints about the plan persist among lawmakers from Putnam, Raleigh, Summers and Wyoming counties.

Several delegates in these regions, and in such areas as Brooke County, face running against each other. Boggs, D-Braxton, said such outcomes undermines the criticism that the plan protects incumbents

“We’ve made some tough decisions all over the state,” Boggs said. “I think the plan accurately reflects the changes in the population, and does not necessarily benefit Democrats or Republicans.”

In control of both chambers since the 1930s, Democrats now occupy 65 of the House’s 100 seats.

Advocates of single-member districts, meanwhile, question whether the House plan passes constitutional muster. While West Virginia has always had multi-member districts, federal court rulings in the 1960s and 1970s have directed the states to embrace the principle of one person, one vote.

“When the courts asserted jurisdiction over this process, it became very clear that you couldn’t have these huge disparities among the sizes of districts,” said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

Armstead said Republicans are seriously considering a legal challenge, but must first review the final version. Others are as well, he noted.

“I think it’s very likely that there will be more than one lawsuit,” Armstead said Sunday.

But West Virginia has also had multi-member districts since the 1970s. Boggs cited how the approved plan increases the ranks of single-seat districts while splitting the largest current district, with seven delegates representing Kanawha County, into three- and four-member districts.

Boggs also challenged critics of the House’s overall approach. The House’s redistricting committee held two meetings, both at the Capitol, as well as a public hearing on the opening day of the initial special session. Like the Senate, the House accepted online comments but also had its own toll-free call line. Both chambers also posted draft bills, maps and other resources on the Legislature’s website.

“Our process worked almost identical to the Senate’s,” Boggs said Sunday. “The only difference is they went around the state. We chose to have our members go out locally and in the communities and in the places where they serve and work.”