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GOP lawmakers invoke ‘precedence’ to stall on 2nd Black congressional district

Louisiana legislators, Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt (middle) and her GOP colleagues Sen. Barry Milligan (left) and Sen. Glen Womack, study new congressional district maps proposed at the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
Louisiana legislators, Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt (middle) and her GOP colleagues Sen. Barry Milligan (left) and Sen. Glen Womack, study new congressional district maps proposed at the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

A proposed Louisiana congressional map with two majority Black districts failed to advance Thursday from a state Senate committee after Republicans insisted on honoring a procedural tradition of letting the bill lay over for 24 hours.

The time element is critical because the Legislature faces a federal judge’s Monday deadline to approve such a map before the court draws one for them. With fewer than four days left in a second redistricting special session, lawmakers have yet to move a single bill out of committee.

U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick ruled last week that GOP state lawmakers racially gerrymandered the state’s congressional map to tilt elections to favor white conservative candidates. Although Louisiana’s population is nearly one-third Black, lawmakers kept majority-white strongholds in five of the state’s six U.S House districts during a February redistricting session.

In the latest judicial development Thursday, Dick denied a motion from House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, to extend the June 20 deadline, calling his efforts to draw a second majority-Black district “disingenuous” and “insincere.”

The Republican legislative leaders are defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by a group of Black voters to stop Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the state’s top election official, from recognizing the congressional map approved in February. The defendants’ appeal in Robinson v. Ardoin remains pending, though a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel denied a stay of Dick’s ruling, writing in their opinion that the defendants — which include Ardoin, the GOP lawmakers and Attorney General Jeff Landry — are unlikely to win on the merits of their appeal.

At Thursday’s meeting, Democrats on the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee tried three times to advance Fields’ map, filed as Senate Bill 1, to the senate floor but failed on each attempt with a 3-6 vote along racial and party lines.

After hours of debate in which Democrats repeatedly cited the federal court order and Republicans repeated many of the same arguments that led to the court order, it appeared as if a compromise would develop. Sen. Mike Reese, R-Leesville, proposed an amendment that would automatically revert the map to its original version — with one majority-Black and five majority-white districts — if the GOP defendants eventually win their appeal of the federal lawsuit.

Senators were unsure if such an amendment was actually necessary, but Fields, eager to advance the legislation with enough time for the House to consider it, did not object to Reese’s change.

Reese then proposed another amendment that made relatively minor changes to keep the Fort Polk military installation from being divided between two districts — changes that don’t affect the two majority-Black districts. Fields again agreed to the proposal.

With those agreements seemingly in place, committee chair Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, then proposed to sit on the bill until Friday. The move followed a common but not required tradition of allowing legislative staffers time to engross the amendments into the bill, which gives the public a chance to see the newly amended map online.

But when Hewitt asked about this, a committee staffer said there was no engrossment prepared that would allow the public to view the latest version of the map. Still, Hewitt insisted the slow-down would allow lawmakers to hear from more people at Friday’s committee hearing.

In response, Fields asked Reese to temporarily withdraw the amendments and instead offer them on the floor, but Reese declined. Fields said the layover is not required and added that such a move would leave the Senate with no maps to consider when it convened later that day.

Hewitt said they could still consider her map bill, Senate Bill 2, which has only one majority-Black district, but she ultimately decided not to bring it up for committee discussion.

Sen. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans, questioned whether Republicans were acting in good faith to comply with the court order.

“If this is a situation in which we’re trying to keep it in committee and we run out of time, that’s not what I’m here for,” Harris said, adding that the Reese amendment should be offered on the floor.

With his multiple pleas falling on deaf ears, Fields’ voice gradually inched louder.

“Tell me how we’re going to do it starting tomorrow.” Fields said. “Now we’ve lost two days. Let’s not play games with a federal court.”

Fields referred to a private law firm Republican legislative leaders hired earlier this year for “redistricting advice,” saying the lawyers have been telling lawmakers to hold out for the U.S. Supreme Court to ultimately rule against the Black voters in Robinson v. Ardoin.

“I know y’all got some good lawyers giving y’all good advice, but so far it’s been bad,” Fields said. “Keep listening to them, and see where it gets you. You might win, but you just might not. I’m not willing to roll those dice. And as a member of this Senate, I’m telling you you need to get a bill out of this committee now.”

Sen. Barry Milligan, R-Shreveport, said allowing an amended map to lay over for 24 hours is part of the “precedence” the committee set in February.

“We are only given six [days],” Sen. Barry Milligan, R-Shreveport said. “But I don’t think we ought to violate the precedent that we adopted and used in the previous redistricting session to hurry hurry something to the floor that needs to be changed and looked at and considered with another bill that’s coming up that we’ll hear tomorrow in this committee.”

The committee adjourned just before 2 p.m.

When the full Senate met later on the chamber floor, Democrats attempted a seldom-used procedure to release Fields’ bill from committee and bring it to the floor, but the maneuver failed in a 9-18 vote.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House is moving at an even slower pace. Committee debate hasn’t even begun because Schexnayder told representatives to stay home Thursday in the interest of “transparency” so the public would have another day to look at four map bills lawmakers filed.

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