Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Written by Walter Pierce

According to the census Lafayette and neighboring parishes have grown.  This should be reflected in our future political clout.

“We know what we need to do; it’s just a matter of doing it,” admits state Rep. Rick Gallot, looking ahead to the start of a March 20 special legislative session dedicated to redrawing Louisiana’s major political subdivisions — the voting districts for the U.S. House of Representatives, Legislature, Public Service Commission, Board of Elementary & Secondary Education and Louisiana Supreme Court.

Crammed into The Ind’s conference room last week with our editorial board and four members of Lafayette’s legislative delegation — Reps. Page Cortez, Nancy Landry and Joel Robideaux, and Sen. Mike Michot — Gallot is holding court. The Ruston Democrat chairs the House & Governmental Affairs Committee — the 19-member group of state reps tasked with the initial heavy lifting of redistricting — and in that role Gallot has been touring the state, meeting with small legislative groups, chambers of commerce, economic development authorities, etc., as much to brief them on the process as to reassure them that he’s going into it with an open mind. Hackles are already being raised among the sundry constituencies scattered around the state, worried that their political clout will be diminished or diluted as districts are reconfigured.

Lawmakers will have only three weeks for the special session — that’s precious little time for a complicated task — and Gallot has done his homework. A requirement of redistricting is that voting districts for a body, be it the U.S. House, the state Senate or the PSC have — within a few percentage points — the same number of residents, and Gallot can readily tick off those numbers: 755,562 for the congressional districts, 43,174 for the state House, 647,624 for the Supreme Court, and so on.

But redistricting is more than just apportioning populations. Louisiana’s Jim Crow past makes us subject, still today, to the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act, which requires us to not only ensure that a certain number of districts have a majority black population, but that we get clearance from the U.S. Justice Department before finalizing those districts. Twenty-seven of the 105 House districts must be minority; 10 of the 39 Senate districts as well.

This process is occasioned by the release this month of numbers from the 2010 census, which, comparing them to the 2000 census, underscore what we’ve known for years: The 2005 hurricane season was devastating for southwestern and southeastern Louisiana. Rita drained Cameron Parish of 32 percent of its population while Katrina — or the Army Corps of Engineers, take your pick — decimated Orleans (29 percent population loss), Plaquemines (-14 percent) and especially St. Bernard (-47 percent).

A corpuscle of parishes in northeast Louisiana — Caldwell, Catahoula, East and West Carroll, Franklin, Madison, Richland, Tensas and Winn — also lost a sizable amount of population due, one must conclude, to the disaster of there being jack crap to do there besides whittling and square dancing, with an emphasis on square.

House leadership announced last week that 66 House districts will need to be redrawn because they are either over or under, in some cases by a lot, the ideal of 43,000. The disparities, again, point back to the 2005 hurricane season: The districts that are the most under are either in Orleans or St. Bernard parishes; the districts with the most surplus, including Cortez’s south Lafayette District 43, either took in population from the hurricane districts and/or benefited from white flight, although the case can be made that Lafayette grew more by virtue of its economy than any other factors.

It’s tough to admit, especially with regard to the hurricane-ravaged parishes, but their loss will likely be our gain, because while those parishes lost population and will lose representation — and clout — in the Legislature, many Acadiana parishes grew. Lafayette is 16 percent more populous than it was a decade ago. Acadia (+5 percent), St. Martin (+7) and Vermilion (+7) grew as well.

It’s conceivable that Lafayette alone could get an extra seat in the House, and an additional Senate seat could be created to represent at least part of Lafayette Parish. It helps that Landry, a Lafayette Republican, is on the House & Governmental Affairs Committee. However, no senators representing Lafayette — or Acadiana for that matter — are assigned to the Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee, which will play a large role in redistricting that chamber.

On Feb. 22 at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, Gallot and members of the governmental affairs committees from both sides of the Legislature will hold a redistricting forum. This is an opportunity to acknowledge that Lafayette’s relative prosperity and stability should be rewarded with a greater voice at the Capitol.

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