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Ark. focus shifts to redrawing legislative lines

Andrew Demillo

The state's legislative redistricting coordinator said Tuesday he's not pushing one set of maps over others and wants to avoid partisanship as Arkansas officials shift their focus to redrawing boundaries for the state House and Senate.

At the first of seven public hearings on legislative redistricting, coordinator Joe Woodson told an audience that he's aware of the politics surrounding the process of reshaping the state's 100 House and 35 Senate districts. Woodson works for the state Board of Apportionment, which is made up of Gov. Mike Beebe, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and Secretary of State Mark Martin.

"It would be disingenuous of me or anybody else to say that we're not all acutely aware of the politics involved. It's a highly charged atmosphere that we live in here in 2011 and we're all very aware of that," Woodson told a crowd of about three dozen people at Arkansas State University. "That said, I would encourage all of us to not take the cynical attitude ... about this process, even though it is highly political."

Woodson's comments come a little over a month after Arkansas became the first state to approve new congressional districts.

Beebe signed into law a redistricting map that made relatively minor changes to the state's political field last month after Republicans in the Democratic-controlled Legislature balked at a plan that they say would have helped Democrats in congressional races. Republicans hold three of the state's four congressional seats.

Though Republicans were able to block that plan in the Legislature, Democrats hold a clear advantage in legislative redistricting. Beebe and McDaniel are Democrats and Martin is a Republican.

Woodson told the audience Tuesday night that the legal limits in place through the law and past court decisions on redistricting prevent one party from trying to take an unfair advantage in the redistricting process.

"You have to be careful that you don't overreach, because the second you overreach and do something that's illegal or unfair, that's going to be trouble," Woodson said. "And trouble usually means a lawsuit, so my goal as coordinator is to the extent that I can influence and encourage all the participants to keep their eye on the ball and at the end of day come up with a map that's legal, that's fair, that's just and that doesn't overreach."

Woodson also downplayed any advantage either Democrats or Republicans would gain from the redrawn districts.

"Nobody is going to shift the balance of power with a new map," Woodson said.

So far, the only draft maps that have been released have come from Woodson or from Martin's office. Timothy Hutchinson, the redistricting coordinator for Martin's office, has complained that the public wasn't getting a complete picture at the hearings without seeing what changes the other two officials have in mind.

"It just seems like the public is losing out in not being able to comment on the other maps," Hutchinson said.

A spokesman for Beebe's office said the governor has not drafted any maps and didn't know if he would by the time the public hearings end July 6. McDaniel said that his office hasn't completed any drafts and he doesn't plan on releasing any until they're completed.

"I'm not going to send over a map that has one third of the state unaccounted for," McDaniel said. "I don't think it's fair to get that out."

Woodson said he viewed the maps he released as a starting point and said it's important for the board to avoid redrawing boundaries in a "vacuum" without hearing public input.

"We're not here trying to sell you a map and convince you this is the right map," Woodson said.

In drawing the new districts, the board will face many of the same factors that came up in congressional redistricting with growth in central and northwest Arkansas and a loss of population in eastern and southern parts of the state. Another question facing the panel will be whether to increase the number of districts in the House and Senate where minorities make up the majority of the population.

Using the latest census figures, each House district should have 29,159 people and each Senate district should have 89,312. Though Woodson has said the numbers can vary within five percent, Beebe said he wants to minimize the variance as much as possible.

One thing Beebe says the board likely won't be able to minimize is discontent over whatever plan is approved, especially considering past plans have faced lawsuits.

"There's winners and losers. There always has been," Beebe said. "There will be people who will be mad that they didn't get what they want, and there will be people who will be happy as a clam because they got what they wanted. That's just the nature of this beast."

During the hearing, Elizabeth Stafford of Jonesboro said she was worried that the need to expand districts in south Arkansas because of sagging population would create unwieldy districts that would make interaction between legislators and constituents difficult.

"Even though I support one person, one vote, the ability of any voter in south Arkansas to influence on a day to day basis their legislators is certainly going to be diluted by anything you're going to draw," Stafford said.

Don Hardin, a retiree from Paragould, quipped that one of the factors listed in redrawing legislative lines _ avoiding placing incumbent lawmakers in the same district _ appeared to help the "good ol' boy" system of lawmakers.

"As far that goes, they're going to stand election anyway," Hardin said after the hearing. "To me, it looks like we're going to protect our own if we can."

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Online:

Board of Apportionment: http://www.arkansasredistricting.org

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Andrew DeMillo can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo

The Associated Press