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Louisiana lawmakers open debate on new maps for state House of Representatives

Rep. Kenny Cox (D-Natchitoches) addresses the House and Governmental Affairs Committee as they consider a redistricting proposal that would eliminate his northwest Louisiana district. Feb. 7, 2022.
Paul Braun
Rep. Kenny Cox (D-Natchitoches) addresses the House and Governmental Affairs Committee as they consider a redistricting proposal that would eliminate his northwest Louisiana district. Feb. 7, 2022.

Despite civil rights groups calling for more minority representation in the state House and debate over the issue during a House committee meeting Monday, redrawing the 105 districts will likely look similar to how they’re drawn now.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee devoted their hearing to a single proposal — HB14 by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder (R-Gonzales) — which maintains the current racial makeup of the state’s House districts and accounts for population shifts by dissolving one majority-Black district in northwest Louisiana and moving it to New Orleans.

“In my opinion, I’ve done a good job of meeting the diversity of the state, and it’s not dissimilar to my colleagues,” said Rep. John Stefanski (R-Crowley), who crafted the bill Schexnayder sponsored. “This is a very good effort to comply with the demographics of the state and the realities of what federal law mandates.”

But civil rights groups and Democratic state lawmakers said it fails to address unequal minority representation in Louisiana, where one-third of the state’s population is Black, but only 27% of state House districts have a majority-Black population.

Chris Kaiser of the ACLU of Louisiana responded to the House maps by saying the proposal violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited states from diluting the political power of racial minority communities through the redistricting process. This was just hours before the U.S. Supreme Court cast doubt upon that provision of federal law with an emergency ruling on an Alabama redistricting case.

Last month, a federal court in Alabama ruled that the state’s recently drawn congressional maps, which pack Black voters into a single district where they stood a chance of electing the candidate of their choice, was unconstitutional and required the state to redraw the maps. The higher court overruled the three-judge panel in Alabama.

It is unclear what effect, if any, the ruling would have on redistricting in Louisiana. Civil rights groups and lawmakers alike have widely expected that the debate over the state’s congressional maps will likely be settled in court.

House lawmakers’ effort to redraw the state maps is made more difficult by a self-imposed requirement that districts not split voting precincts.

The requirement has confounded Democratic state lawmakers and civil rights advocates, who have not yet submitted an alternative to the GOP leadership’s proposal that better meets their goals.

Rep. Sam Jenkins (D-Shreveport), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, submitted two proposals with the same number of majority-Black districts as Schexnayder and Stefanski’s bill.

Both Duplessis and Jenkins pulled their proposals from Monday’s agenda shortly before the committee met.

Duplessis said he pulled his bill because it did not go far enough to create new majority-Black districts. He will likely redraw the map to include more majority-Black districts, but may have to split precincts to do so.

Rep. Kenny Cox (D-Natchitoches), who represents the 23rd House District in rural northwest Louisiana, called the dissolution of his rural, majority-Black district “heartbreaking.”

“It’s like you threw a landmine into my district and blew it into pieces to be represented by five different people,” Cox said. “We’re dealing with the destruction of a district that has finally given the people in my district the right to vote and give them a reason to vote.”

Schexnayder and Stefanski’s plan would shift District 23 voters to the overwhelmingly white, solidly-Republican 5th, 7th, 22nd and 25th Districts.

Lawmakers entered the redistricting session knowing that they would have to reconcile their maps with population loss in north Louisiana and growth in the southeastern portion of the state and likely move districts across the state.

As is a common practice in redistricting negotiations, the underpopulated districts of term-limited representatives are often on the chopping block. District 23, which is represented by the term-limited Cox, fits that description.

Stefanski’s proposal also reduces the Black population of the majority-Black 91st District in New Orleans, currently represented by Democratic Rep. Mandie Landry, to 40.7% of the voting-age population. To maintain the status quo of 29 majority-Black House districts, Stefanski proposed shifting Black voters from the majority-Black 63nd District in East Baton Rouge Parish to the 62nd District, which covers the northern portions of the parish and East and West Feliciana.

The 62nd House District is currently represented by Independent Rep. Roy Daryl Adams.

Civil rights groups have proposed applying a similar concept in majority-Black districts in Baton Rouge, Shreveport and New Orleans to create districts that may send more Black-preferred candidates to the state legislature.

“There are current House districts that are 60%, 70%, even 80% Black,” Kaiser said. “These districts could be unpacked to create minority opportunity districts.”

Kaiser would not endorse the new majority-Black district proposed by Stefanski, saying his organization had not had an opportunity to analyze whether that district would “perform” for a Black-preferred candidate.

Discussions of racial proportionality have dominated the once-in-a-decade redistricting session that began last week.

But the sheer complexity of drawing a 105-district map that satisfies state and federal redistricting principles, and the 105 representatives it would directly affect, pushed the start of debate over the House maps into the second week of the session.

Legislative leaders filed their first map of House districts on Friday — four days after they submitted maps for the state’s congressional districts, Senate, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Public Service Commission and Supreme Court Districts.

Committee leadership decided to delay the vote on the proposed House map until Tuesday to give lawmakers and members of the public ample time to analyze the bill.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.