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Redistricting plans gelling at state Capitol; Pulaski County trisected in map backed by panels

by Jeannie Roberts, Rachel Herzog | October 6, 2021 at 7:20 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

Lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature on Tuesday advanced proposals to redraw the district lines for the state's four U.S. representatives that would split the state's most populous county, Pulaski, among three districts.

Congressional districts are reconfigured each decade based on U.S. census data to account for population changes in regions of the state. The Arkansas General Assembly reconvened last week after taking an extended recess to wait for the federal government to provide that data. Tuesday marked the 115th day of the 2021 regular legislative session.

The Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs voted Tuesday afternoon to send Senate Bill 743 by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, to the full Senate for consideration.

Less than two hours later, the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs advanced House Bill 1982 by Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home. The two proposals are identical as amended.

The bills would split both Pulaski and Sebastian counties between multiple congressional districts. The bulk of Pulaski County, including most of the capital city of Little Rock, would stay in the 2nd Congressional District, while a southeastern portion of the county would go to the 1st Congressional District and another area in the southern part of the county would go to the 4th Congressional District.

Pulaski County is one of a few counties that consistently votes for Democratic candidates in deep-red Arkansas. It is also more racially diverse than the rest of the state, and some lawmakers objected to the proposal because it would put majority-minority areas in separate districts from the rest of the county. It grew to nearly 400,000 people in 2020, according to the census data.

A section of Little Rock along the city's southeast border would go into the 4th Congressional District, while North Little Rock would be divided between the 1st and 2nd districts.

Gallery: Arkansas State Capitol

The northern part of Sebastian County, which includes the state's third-largest city of Fort Smith, would go in the 3rd Congressional District, while the southern portion would be in the 4th District.

Sebastian County is one of five counties that is split between congressional districts currently; the others are Crawford, Jefferson, Newton and Searcy counties.

DIVISION DEBATE

Dividing counties between congressional districts has been contentious as lawmakers have debated redistricting proposals over the past few weeks. Some have argued it is necessary to balance the populations of the four districts, while others said there were maps that didn't split any counties.

The 3rd Congressional District, covering Northwest Arkansas, experienced population growth over the past decade, as did Central Arkansas' 2nd District. The 1st Congressional District, which covers eastern Arkansas, and the 4th District covering the southwestern part of the state, lost population.

[ARKANSAS MAP: Interactive state and Pulaski County maps not appearing above? Click here » arkansasonline.com/2021maps/]

English told the Senate committee that SB743 was the result of balancing the populations of the four districts while accounting for those changes.

"This is what we have come up with as a map that makes that happen," English said when she presented the bill to the panel in the morning, adding that she wasn't happy with everything but it was "the best that we have been able to come up with."

The Senate committee met twice Tuesday, before and after amending the bill. The amendments to SB743 and HB1982 make the cities of Sherwood and Jacksonville not divided between districts and put some rural precincts of Pulaski County up Interstate 30 along with Lincoln County in the 1st Congressional District. The amendment also adjusts the 3rd District to encompass Greenwood Public School District in Sebastian County.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, tried to persuade the committee to vote the bill out with the understanding that it would be amended later, but members of the panel said they wanted to make changes first. Hickey also tried to extract the bill from committee to be heard by the full Senate after the panel voted down the unamended version, but that motion failed.

Hickey said making the motion to extract was something he "never wanted to do," but said, "We arrived here to do redistricting, and we've got to do something."

Arkansas' population grew to 3,011,524 over the past 10 years, making the ideal population for each district 752,881. Deviation refers to how much the population of a congressional district in a proposed map varies from that number.

Under SB743 and HB1982, the population of the 1st Congressional District would be 752,509, a negative 0.05% deviation; the population of the 2nd District would be 752,710, a negative 0.02% deviation; the population of the 3rd Congressional District would be 753,219, a 0.04% deviation; and the population of the 4th District would be 753,086, a 0.03% deviation.

Democratic senators raised concerns about the way the bill splits Pulaski County, while supporters of the bill said splitting Pulaski and Sebastian counties balanced the population of the four districts.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, asked English if she was concerned about moving predominantly nonwhite areas of the county into different congressional districts.

"We've said many times we're not using racial demographics to draw maps, so if you're always going to revert back to discussion of that, you're de facto using racial demographics to draw maps," said the committee chairman, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway.

English said she didn't think legislators had looked at any map to "decide whether something was African American or white or whatever the case may be."

Tucker said he was focused not on the intent of lawmakers but on the impact the map would have on those residents. He referred to testimony from Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, and others about living in a county or municipality that is divided between congressional districts. Pitsch had spoken against bills that would keep Sebastian County divided.

"When you have little pieces of a county or a town that are cut into a different congressional district, they're like the stepchild of that congressional district and they don't get the same representation that everyone that's in the bulk of the same congressional district does," Tucker said.

He said the state's most-populous county often works with the federal government on large projects and dealing with multiple members of Congress would make that process more complicated and cumbersome.

"I believe we're hurting Pulaski County generally, and then by cutting off these two specific communities and putting them in separate congressional districts, we're hurting them more than the rest of the county," Tucker said.

SENATE ACTION

After coming out of the committee on a divided voice vote, SB743 went to the full Senate, which adopted the amendment Tuesday afternoon.

On the Senate floor, English fielded questions and criticism about the bill.

"It just happens that the whole area you're cutting out is represented by me. The area is majority-minority," said Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, noting that she represents the eastern part of Pulaski County. "It is predominantly Black. It doesn't have a lot of rich people in it. So you had a choice. You could have kept all the counties whole, and now my fellow senator in Pulaski County is saying to me that my district just doesn't matter."

Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said it was his understanding that the rationale behind splitting up Pulaski County was to account for future population growth.

"And if you do that concept, it's almost impossible not to take the southern part of Pulaski County in the 4th and the eastern part of the 1st, because geographically, you can't come around, and that was a consideration more than any other kind of consideration; that geographical reality to get those in those other districts is what motivated our decision, your decision, to put that in there, not really any racial or other kind of consideration?" Garner asked English.

"Right, the 1st Congressional District had to have more people, the 4th had to have more people, there was no way, other than those two areas to decrease the population amount," English said. "There was no place else to go."

Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, whose district includes Sebastian County, said he was concerned the county was going to be worse off than when the lines were last drawn in 2011.

Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, said if Sebastian County was whole, it would put the 3rd Congressional District almost 10,000 people over the ideal population, so that's why 9,698 people were put in the 4th Congressional District.

HOUSE BILL

On the other side of the Capitol, the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs met three times and ultimately endorsed the amended version of HB1982.

The bill is similar to Speaks' previous House Bill 1971, which the committee overwhelmingly supported in a written ballot vote last week. Legislators then sent HB1971, which kept whole all counties except Pulaski, back to the drawing board for changes.

Anika T. Whitfield, who spoke against the bill, said she was concerned that Little Rock was not kept whole.

"There's not a lot of diversity on this committee, but in our state there are at least 17% African Americans in our state and [they are] disproportionately concentrated in certain areas," Whitfield said. "What I don't understand is, why Little Rock would be carved out as one of the districts that would not be made whole while there are specific areas in the city of Little Rock that would be pulled away -- that are more concentrated on African Americans that are in that area -- pulled out of the 2nd Congressional District into the 4th."

Because Little Rock is the largest city in the largest county in the state, it was necessary to dip a little into the adjacent district, Speaks said.

Some House committee members objected to the process by which HB1982 came to be voted on.

Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, told the committee that he was going to vote against HB1982 because the original process of considering only the three top bills that scored the highest in the committee's written ballot vote was not followed.

The committee was no longer considering HB1971, which garnered the highest ranking, but a new bill altogether, Payton said.

"To vote on this bill is to vote your approval on the process," he said.

Rep. Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge, echoed Payton's sentiments, saying that while the new map was superior to the original, the altered process was "less than transparent."

Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said HB1982 was "almost spot-on" and it would be derelict not to support it.

Print Headline: Redistricting plans gelling at state Capitol

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