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Drawing Arkansas congressional districts will require special session because of census delay, lawmaker says

by Doug Thompson | February 14, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

A special legislative session to redraw the state's congressional district boundaries now appears unavoidable, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, said at a legislative forum Saturday.

The U.S. Census Bureau cannot provide the data needed for redrawing congressional and state legislative districts before Sept. 30, it announced Friday. This means 2022 legislative candidates will have no clear idea who they are running to represent while are deciding whether to run, lawmakers in a forum said Saturday.

Hendren made his remarks at a video-link forum hosted by the Rogers-Lowell and Greater Bentonville chambers of commerce. Reps. Delia Haak, R-Gentry, and Gayla McKenzie, R-Gravette, also participated.

"There's no way we're going to stay in session until after September," Hendren said of the current, regular legislative session. The Legislature draws boundaries for the state's congressional districts after each U.S. Census. Legislative district boundaries are drawn by a "Board of Apportionment" made up of the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state.

The U.S. Constitution dictates a census count every 10 years. Redistricting results were first scheduled to go to states earlier this year. The Census Bureau said in a statement Friday the delay is mainly caused by the difficulties of conducting a census during a pandemic.

By state law -- Arkansas Code 7-7-203 -- filing for the next party primaries will begin Feb. 22, 2022, and close March 1. This will now be less than five months after the apportionment board gets the information it needs to ensure that whatever district boundaries it draws are as equal as possible in population. The equal representation requirement is required by federal law.

Drawing district boundaries is an exacting process taking most of a year that, in the most recent years, included public hearings throughout the state to allow citizens to play a role. The last such process, for instance, gave citizens and city leaders in Springdale time to scotch efforts to divide their city into multiple state Senate districts.

Therefore, even a rushed district boundary redrawing will leave potential legislative candidates, including incumbents, wondering exactly what district to file for and which area's constituents they would represent. The situation is serious enough the Legislature may have to consider moving filing deadlines back, Hendren said. The Legislature is currently in session.

Northwest Arkansas stands to gain a state Senate seat and as many as four House seats thanks to the region's growing population, Hendren said. Meanwhile, areas of the state losing population face the prospect of not knowing how many of their representatives will be drawn into the same district, forcing those incumbents to run against each other if they seek reelection.

The biggest concern brought up by chamber members was Senate Bill 289 by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton. The bill would allow a health care provider to refuse to participate in a health care procedure that violates his or her conscience.

Bea Apple, a Bentonville businesswoman, said businesses are very concerned about a law "where employees can come to a hospital for care and be denied that care because the physician disagrees with their lifestyle," she told the group. Forum moderator Jon Moran of the Rogers-Lowell chamber had also emphasized to the lawmaker that the bill was a major concern of chamber members. The lawmakers at the forum said they will examine the bill closely.

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at dthompson@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWADoug

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