By Ronnie Ellis
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — FRANKFORT —The fate of new legislative district maps now is in the hands of three federal judges after the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed the bill Friday on a largely bipartisan basis.
The Senate map places no incumbents together and passed the Senate Friday morning 35-2. The two nay votes were from senators objecting not to the Senate plan, but to the House map. The two chambers usually agree to pass the other’s plan without changes.
The Senate map “treats the minority (Democratic) caucus in a way they’ve rarely been treated,” said Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro. It represents a “new attitude by the Senate majority,” he said.
Several Democratic senators, including Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, commended the Republican leadership and President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, for the fair treatment they received. Palmer said Stivers even consulted him on the new map.
About the only question that had raised about the map is that District 4, represented by Democrat Dorsey Ridley of Henderson, is 6.75 percent below the ideal district population size. The courts have set a general limit on population deviance from the ideal size at plus or minus 5 percent.
But Stivers said courts have allowed such deviations if they are the result of other compelling state interests, which in this case, he said, was the desire not to split counties or pair incumbents. He contended the district diminishes no one’s vote because it’s actually under the ideal size, although others have said that means all votes in the other 37 districts are diminished, no matter how slightly.
“It is defensible within the realm of the Kentucky Constitution and the U.S. Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment,” Stivers told the Senate before the vote.
Sen. Dennis Parrett, D-Elizabethtown, objected to the way the House plan divides Hardin County six ways while Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, voted against it because some of his constituents are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the previous legislative districts and asking the judges to draw new ones.
A handful of senators — Robin Webb, D-Grayson, Jimmie Higdon, R-Lebanon, and Brandon Smith, R-Hazard — said they weren’t happy at losing some counties they’d previously represented, but they all supported the plan and said it is fair and reasonable.
The House map splits the minimum number of counties and pits eight incumbents — four Democrats and four Republicans — in districts with another incumbent. That raised fewer objections than what Republicans say is “packing” of Republican-majority districts at the maximum level above the ideal population size while remaining inside the 5 percent deviation ceiling.
Diane St. Onge, R-Lakeside Park, repeated northern Kentucky Republicans’ complaint that their districts are packed in order to limit the number of Republicans elected to the House, which she said under-represents those voters.
She also pointed to earlier complaints by Democrats Rita Smart of Richmond that Madison County was split five ways and Jimmie Lee of Elizabethtown that Hardin County is split six ways. Smart and Lee were the only two Democrats to vote against the plan.
But with little more debate, the bill passed the House 79-18.
Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he hoped the federal judges interpret the wide bipartisan support as proof the plan is fair to minority parties.
The U.S. Constitution requires state legislatures to re-draw legislative districts every 10 years following the U.S. Census count. Typically, majority parties draw maps to benefit their incumbents and punish the minority and plans passed in 2012 by the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate did just that.
But those plans were declared unconstitutional by Kentucky courts. This spring, the Democratic-controlled House passed a map for House districts but the Senate did not act on it or pass one of its own.
Subsequently, two federal lawsuits were filed and a Sept. 23 trial date was set by the federal panel. Last week the court declared the existing maps, drawn in 2002, unconstitutional and prohibited any more elections under that map.
Stumbo contends that creates a problem if there is need for a special election before the 2014 election cycle governed by the new maps. The Senate attached an emergency clause to the bill which makes them immediately effective and declares any special elections before 2014 are to be conducted under the new lines.
However, Stumbo maintains that denies voters of the previous districts the right to select their replacement for any representative who might vacate the office and petitioned the court to allow special elections under the old map. But the court denied the motion.
The bill passed Friday includes a “severability clause,” which, according to Stumbo, means that if the section on immediate effect of the new maps is declared unconstitutional, the remainder of the plan remains intact.
Gov. Steve Beshear quickly signed the bill into law Friday afternoon. Stumbo said he will file a motion asking the court to accept the new plans and dismiss the suits. He said that’s not likely to occur until Monday.