By Ronnie Ellis
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — FRANKFORT — A newly drawn map of state House legislative districts sailed through the House Wednesday on a strong 83-17 bi-partisan vote.
Only 15 of the 45 Republicans voted against the bill drafted by the majority Democrats and Speaker Greg Stumbo. They were joined by two Democrats, Rita Smart of Richmond and Jimmie Lee of Elizabethtown, who objected to their counties being split five and six ways, respectively.
But Republicans who spoke during floor debate may have provided a preview of a potential court challenge as most of them cited a Georgia case which attorneys for plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the Kentucky legislative maps currently before a three-judge panel have cited in motions and pleadings.
The bill now goes to the Senate which is expected to amend it to include a plan its Republican leadership has drawn for its own districts. That plan, too, has generally been well received by the Democratic minority in the Senate and the two plans, combined into one bill, are expected to pass easily by Friday.
But that probably won’t be the end of it because the whole matter is scheduled for federal trial on Sept. 23 before Judges William Bertlesman, Gregory van Tatenhove and Danny Boggs who Wednesday denied motions by Stumbo to amend a previous order declaring the previous maps unconstitutional.
In 2012, the General Assembly passed new legislative maps but they were subsequently declared unconstitutional by state courts. While the House passed a new map for its districts this past spring, the Senate declined to act upon it.
Subsequently, the two federal lawsuits were filed and a Sept. 23 trial date was set by the federal panel. That prompted Gov. Steve Beshear to call the special session which convened Monday to pass new, constitutionally appropriate maps which the court will review before the Sept. 23 hearing.
When the judges last week declared the previous maps unconstitutional, it also prohibited their use in any future election, prompting Stumbo’s motion to amend it to allow any special elections for vacancies which occur between now and 2014 to be conducted under the old maps. But the judges Wednesday denied that motion.
Assuming the new maps pass by Friday, the legislature’s most likely course of action would be to petition the federal court to accept them as constitutional which presumably would end the law suits. But if the judges deny that motion, lawmakers may find themselves defending the new plan before the judges in September.
Speeches by Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, and Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Ft. Thomas, who has filed previous suits challenging redistricting plans, both complained the plan adopted Wednesday “packs” Republican districts by putting the greatest number of residents in those districts possible while remaining below the court-ordered maximum 5 percent deviation above the ideal district population size.
Hoover said the plan paints “an almost identical scenario of a redistricting plan that was struck down in the state of Georgia.” Hoover said he’s not likely to challenge the plan in court, but “I think someone else will probably pursue this.”
Fischer also cited the 2004 Georgia case in which a Democratic legislature lumped 38 Republican incumbents in the same districts and maximized every Republican district population in the state.
That’s the same case cited by Chris Wiest, attorney for northern Kentucky plaintiffs in the federal case challenging Kentucky’s maps, in motions before the court.
Other Republicans complained that their districts, especially those in northern Kentucky, have more than the ideal population size and will likely be out of compliance with the five percent deviation guideline long before the next U.S. Census.
Smart, one of the two dissenting Democrats, said her county is punished because it and its major city, Richmond, have grown rapidly and now the county is split into five districts. Only one of the five representatives – Smart – lives in Madison County she said. Lee made a similar argument about Hardin County where he lives and which is split six ways.
Stumbo defended the plan, noting it’s not as partisan as his past proposals or as this one might have been. The plan pits four Democrats and four Republicans in the same districts, compared to 11 Republicans and one Democrat in an earlier proposal.
But he said he hadn’t proposed a less partisan plan in response to pressure from the federal court, instead saying he was inspired by the bi-partisan cooperation last spring in the passage of a state employee pension reform bill.
In passing the bill, he said, Republicans and Democrats in both chambers “rose to the occasion and we rose together.” Kentucky still faces difficult problems and it needs all members of both parties to work together to address those, Stumbo said.
“Lord knows I’ve been guilty of partisan politics,” Stumbo said during his speech as some laughed and called out “No!” in mock disbelief.
“I want you to know from the bottom of my heart this map is not meant to punish any member or any district,” Stumbo said.
The last word, however, appears to rest with those three federal judges.