The Senate Special Committee on Redistricting began a series of regional hearings on Jan. 25, giving the audience a picture of what Senate hearings may look like for the 87th legislative session. The Committee is using a hybrid hearing model, with members appearing in-person in the chamber and witnesses appearing via videoconference. Many COVID-19 safety precautions were in place for the Senate members and staff in attendance, such as masks, social distancing and plexiglass shields.
Although the pandemic prevented the Committee from conducting in-person regional hearings across the State, Chairwoman Joan Huffman (R-Houston) emphasized that the Committee is still intent on receiving feedback from local communities throughout Texas. The Jan. 25 hearing was the first of 12 scheduled throughout the next month. The aggressive schedule will have the Committee hear testimony from 11 distinct geographic regions: West Texas, South Texas, North Texas, Central Texas, East Texas, the Brownsville/Harlingen/McAllen area, the San Antonio area, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the Houston area, the El Paso area and the Austin area. The last hearing is reserved for discussion regarding all regions.
Members of the public, as well as advocates for local government, have two avenues to provide input: signing up to testify virtually during one of the hearings or submitting public comment through the online portal. It is critical that county officials contribute feedback to the redistricting process as no one knows better about communities of interest that need to be preserved during the redrawing of the electoral maps.
After collecting public input, the Committee will be forced to wait until receiving 2020 Census data from the Census Bureau before it is able to draw maps. This session, the Legislature is tasked with drawing maps for the house, the senate, and the State Board of Education (SBOE), in addition to U.S. congressional maps. Article III, Section 28 of the Texas Constitution provides that if Texas senate or house districts are not drawn during the first regular session following the publication of the decennial census data, the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB) then takes over. The LRB, made up of the lieutenant governor, speaker, attorney general, comptroller and commissioner of the General Land Office, would then meet within 90 days after final adjournment of the legislative session to draw those maps. However, it is important to note that this constitutional provision is triggered only if the Legislature does receive the census data prior to final adjournment and is still unable to pass maps. Furthermore, the LRB does not have the ability to draw congressional or SBOE maps. If the Legislature fails to pass any of the required maps, the Governor may call a special session to accomplish that purpose at his discretion.
Dr. Lloyd Potter, the State Demographer, informed the Committee on Jan. 25 that the earliest the Census Bureau has stated it will be able to deliver the apportionment file to the President will be on or after March 6, three months later than the planned date of Dec. 31, 2020. Historically, the President has sent reapportionment data to Texas in late February or early March, however, it is clear that timeline will not hold this year. Indeed, as of Jan. 27, the delay appears even more significant. During a National Conference of State Legislatures webinar, a Census Bureau official announced that census numbers are not expected to be released until April 30, with the apportionment data being released to the states likely after July 30 (see associated slide here). With this new development, it appears a special session on redistricting is indeed on the horizon, as predicted by Dr. Potter and other experts.
For additional information on this article, please contact Amy Befeld.