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Arkansas Legislators Debate Proposed Congressional Maps Ahead Of Session

Arkansas Capitol
Michael Hibblen

U.S. Census data has been sent to the states to allow for the redrawing of Congressional district lines and that process began Monday in the Arkansas Legislature. Three bills, HB1959, HB1960, and HB1961 were presented in committee and each provided changes to the four Congressional districts that were drawn in 2010.

Arkansas lawmakers will meet next Sept. 29 to vote on new Congressional district lines. There are two other committee hearings scheduled before the session reconvenes.

HB1959, sponsored by State Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, proposed a map that would remove Lincoln County from the First district and add Boone and Marion counties. In the Second district, Van Buren County would be removed and added to the Fourth.

In the Third district, Crawford and Sebastian counties would be fully intact, while the district would lose Pope County in addition to Boone and Marion. Lincoln, Newton, Pope and Van Buren counties would be added to the Fourth district.

Speaks said her map doesn’t divide any counties and each district would hover near the 1% deviation or threshold of the 750,000 people per district population number that each has to adhere to.

“This map will pass any legal challenges,” she said.

HB1960, sponsored by State Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, would take Marion and Newton counties from the Third to the First district along with parts of White County. The Second district would lose part of White County, while the Third district would lose Marion, Newton and Pope counties. Ladyman’s bill also takes precincts in Crawford and Sebastian counties and splits them between the Third and Fourth district, while all of Pope County moves to the Fourth. His measure also takes a few precincts in Searcy County, currently in the First, and moves them to the Third.

Ladyman’s rationale for his map was simple. He wanted to adhere closely to the map that was already drawn without semblance of gerrymandering any districts to favor one party or another.

“The primary purpose is a minimum number of changes,” he said.

State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, asked Ladyman if his map took into account future growth trends during the next 10 years, and he said he thinks the Second and Third districts are likely to grow at the fastest rates. Ladyman pushed back noting that two of the top seven fastest growing counties in the state, Craighead and Greene, are in Northeast Arkansas and are projected to grow faster that many counties in the central part of the state.

HB1961, sponsored by State Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, proposed a map that would take Desha and Chicot counties out of the First and add Madison County to the Third among several changes. The centerpiece of his bill was to bring Madison County back into the Third district due to the county’s historical and cultural ties to other counties in the district.

One problem that map would create is it would give the Third District 762,000 people which is far above 750,000. Whitaker told committee members not to concentrate too heavily on the 1% deviation standard. Federal courts have not established a percentage deviation standard.

“I’m certainly happy to work (with Ladyman and Speaks) to bring the deviation down,” he added.

Several members of the public were not pleased with some of the proposed changes and other changes that were not proposed.

Robert Walker, a Pulaski County resident, asked why Jefferson and Pulaski counties were not in the same district. He said the proposed congressional maps put any candidate from Pulaski County at a competitive disadvantage.

Sarah Dunklin, a farmer in the First district, said that Desha and Chicot counties need to remain in the First district. She went on to further say that other counties with strong row crop growing ties such as Lincoln, should remain in the district due to the counties sharing strong economic ties and interests.

Rebekah DeWitt, who owns houses and properties in at least five counties, agreed with Dunklin. She said farmers in the region need to have a congressional representative that is intimately aware of the issues in the Arkansas Delta, and those interests don’t need to be divided among multiple districts.