Census leads legislature to special session

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 19, 2001

Staff Writer

Jan. 18, 2001 10 PM

Legislators are still just over two weeks away from going back to work on the state’s business and are already planning a special legislative session this summer.

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On Feb. 6, State Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, and Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, will head to Montgomery for the opening of the 2000 Legislative Session.

But, the beginning of those three months of work are being overshadowed by talk of a special session.

When representatives and senators gather on the house floor, there will be plenty of talk of reapportionment.

Boothe said that particular topic "will lead the ticket" during the upcoming session.

However, the hot topic will not be fully addressed until a special session.

The Legislature is supposed to design new districts for its members, the state’s congressional delegation and the State Board of Education after each census. But the lawmakers won’t tackle that in their regular session; instead, they will wait for a special session, likely to be set in summer.

Recently, the Census Bureau released early figures so state legislatures can begin the process of redrawing district lines.

"Redistricting will be a big issue," Boothe said, adding he can almost guarantee his district will change "some."

However, how much change will not be known until the Census 2000 numbers are all reported in April.

"You’ll hear a lot about it," Boothe said of reapportionment. "You’ll probably get sick of it."

The Legislature won’t get detailed census figures until around April 1. By that point, the Legislature’s regular session will be more than half over and the lawmakers will need to focus on the state budgets.

Although those numbers indicate Alabama will neither gain nor lose a seat in the United States House of Representatives, Boothe is predicting the state’s seven congressional districts will change and it will not likely be taken lightly.

"The congressional districts will change and you can expect that to be a fight," Boothe said.

It is not only the congressional district that may change.

State Senate and House of Representatives districts are also likely to be redrawn.

For example, growth in the northern portion of Senate District 30 ­ including Butler, Crenshaw, Dale, Pike, Autauga, Elmore and Lowndes counties ­ all of which is represented by Mitchell will likely be altered.

That will, in turn, have an impact on Boothe because "unnesting" could affect with whom he works in the Senate.

Mitchell’s district ­ which includes Pike, Autauga, Crenshaw, Butler and parts of Dale and Lowndes counties ­ was pinpointed for a lawsuit regarding gerrymandering that was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court in late November 2000, opening it up to have the Legislature to draw the district lines.

Mitchell doesn’t expect his district will change all that much, even after the census results are taken into consideration.

He is predicting "the slightest modifications" in his Senate district.

Sen. Steve French, who is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Reapportionment Committee, said he would like to get the issue handled in one special session. But, the Republican from Birmingham believes it will take longer since it has taken more than one session before to deal withreapportionment. That’s because the Legislature either failed to pass a new set of districts or the districts were rejected by the U.S. Justice Department.

French said the Legislature needs to have district lines drawn for by Labor Day because the Legislature needs time to see if the U.S. Justice Department will approve the districts and, if not, make any changes so that candidates can qualify for the next election by April 2002.

The Reapportionment Committee met Wednesday to begin planning a series of public hearings it will hold across the state between Feb. 26 and April 12 to get public comment on how the districts should be designed.

The committee is recording each of its meetings because of the state’s long history of having every set of new legislative districts challenged in court.

Boothe said reapportionment is not an easy issue, but it is one that needs to be settled soon or the federal courts could get involved.

Boothe knows all too well how little sense some of the district lines mean. One example is the city of Ozark, which is the point where three separate legislative districts, including Boothe’s District 89, come together. Other districts, he said, have lines drawn down the middle of roadways and those on one side voting in one district and their neighbors across the street voting in another.

House Clerk Greg Pappas said a special session costs about $300,000 if it lasts the maximum 30 days allowed by state law.