(Note: This is an unedited version of Sunday’s News Sentinel column.)
Gov. Bill Haslam recently made a first, tentative step recently toward using his office a bully pulpit to prod the state Legislature into action – or maybe inaction, in this case.
His proposal, basically, was that the General Assembly should reduce the number of bills filed every year. There were about 2,200 bills this year – his administration had only about 20 of them in its package – and the governor said he would like to see that number reduced by about a third, say 700 or so.
House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey indicated they are supportive of the governor’s idea, though other lawmakers voiced some misgivings about what they perceived as an executive branch intrusion into legislative branch functions.
On the other hand, when asked last week what role he would play in the developing wrangle over redistricting of Tennessee congressional and state legislative districts, Haslam had a rapid response of one word, “Zero.”
This is, of course, understandable and in keeping with a history of general gubernatorial disengagement from the reapportionment process. There’s serious political risk in getting involved in a process that will likely leave a lot of legislators mad.
You have to go back to the time when Tennessee suffered something akin to national embarrassment over failure to reapportion legislative seats to find much trace of gubernatorial engagement in the process. That began in about 1955 when a state judge declared the Legislature should be redistricted, laying the legal groundwork that ultimately led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Baker v. Carr in 1962.
Gov. Frank Clement faced some public pressure to prod the Legislature into action, according to the Clement biography, Lead Me On. In his first term, after the Nashville judge’s ruling, he asked the Legislative Council to consider whether or not there should be a redistricting – and was completely ignored.
He was urged to call a special redistricting session as one point and, the biography says, refused, “quite properly saying that the Assembly had shown it would do nothing, whether in regular or special session.”
Gov. Buford Ellington did call a redistricting special session in 1962, resulting in a 1963 reapportionment deemed “a crazy quilt” by a federal judge and rejected. The courts ordered a new plan by June 1, 1965, and Clement – back in office again – did call a special session, signing the resulting plan on May 28, 1965.
That, too, was rejected by the courts as far shy of the “one person, one vote” standard. Ultimately, the courts redistricting was done by the courts.
The congressional district population variance in the 1965 plan ranged from a low of 341,468 in the highly-Democratic 6th District of Middle Tennessee to a high of 453,448 in the Republican-oriented 2nd District of East Tennessee.
Today, the current population in congressional district ranges from a high of 792,605 in the Republican 7th District to a low of 610,823 in the Democratic 9th District. That’s all due to population shifting over 10 years, since the districts in 1992 had zero population variance.
Under court decisions that are now law of the land, the Legislature now must redistrict every 10 years. But against that historical backdrop, it would be a remarkable thing for the governor to try prodding the Legislature into taking the next step, which would be fair, non-partisan reapportionment that abandons the tradition of incumbent protection.
Yet, perhaps not too remarkable for a new Republican super majority that wants to show it can better the Democratic majorities that proceeded it in state history. There’s no way, of course, that our lawmakers are going to set up a non-partisan, independent commission to handle reapportionment, as some other states have done.
But a fair plan without weird gerrymandering would be nice for a change. And, given the state’s population shifts, it might even be politically practical this time around.
Some incumbents – including incumbent Republicans as well as Democrats – are inevitably going to face political suffering in the new district arrangement.
It might thus be preferable to tell the suffering, “Well, sorry, but when we follow the new, fair-to-all plan, this is the way if falls out?
As opposed to, “Well, it was either you or Joe who had to suffer and the committee decided it liked Joe better than you. Besides, one of Joe’s friends is a really good contributor to the party caucus.
“Oh, yes, and Joe promised to introduce fewer bills than you do.”
(Note: Edited version of this column is HERE)