On their way out of town yesterday, Republican House and Senate leaders pushed through one final piece of legislation - House Bill 719, redrawing county commissioner districts in Guilford and Mecklenburg counties.
Both counties were in the process of redrawing their own districts without help from Raleigh. Guilford commissioners had scheduled a meeting last night to review maps prepared by a redistricting subcommittee, while Mecklenburg commissioners had arranged a public hearing next week for comments on map options generated by an independent citizens’ commission.
Those meetings are now moot. And if the new law stands, citizens of those counties won’t be allowed to change those maps any time soon. The law bars Guilford from redrawing its commission maps for seven years; Mecklenburg is barred for ten.
The new law also blocks an attempt to restructure Buncombe County’s commission. That's in place for a decade, too.
You might expect such changes would have drawn protests from the counties affected. But commissioners didn’t have time to react to the new law – they didn’t even know about it.
When it passed the House back in April, H719 was a bill dealing with expunging records for teen driving offenses. That’s how it was listed on the public notice for the Senate Judiciary 2 committee meeting Wednesday, too. But the bill that emerged in committee had nothing to do with drivers’ licenses. It had been gutted and amended to become “Omnibus local election laws.”
It took roughly 25 hours from its unveiling for the new H719 to move through committees, two Senate votes, and a House concurrence vote to become law. Because it’s a “local” bill, it is not subject to veto by Governor Bev Perdue.
H719’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, said the legislature had to step in to redraw the maps to protect the interests of small towns and suburban areas he says are being run over roughshod by urban interests. But Democrats from Guilford and Mecklenburg say the legislative maps give Republicans more power on the county commissions than they would have had under locally-generated maps.
The bill passed the Senate on straight party-line votes, all Republicans supporting it. Three Republicans voted against it in the House, where it passed 63-53.
“I was caught off guard yesterday when that happened,” said Matthews mayor Jim Taylor, a Republican. He said didn’t even see the new map before it became law. “I feel it’s a local issue that should have been worked out at the local level, not dealt with at the General Assembly the way it was.”
“I do agree with the ultimate map that was made into law, but I don’t agree with the process in which it was done,” he said.
Taylor said the map which the county commission appeared to favor, called Stetson 5, would have given more power to the center city of Charlotte. “I do think the voice of the small towns would have been diluted,” he said. “The map that they [legislators] passed was, I believe, fair to the entire county, and helps preserve our fair representation on the county commission.”
Still, Taylor said he wished his fellow Republicans had let the county find its own solution. “This session seems to have whittled away more and more and more of local control. It’s Big Brother Raleigh taking control and not letting the local municipalities govern,” he said.
“State plan on steroids”
Senate Democrats held a press conference Thursday to protest the bill and the process behind it.
“It’s about the minority party in Mecklenburg County – the Republicans – asking the majority party in Raleigh – the Republicans – to do them a little favor at the expense of the citizens,” said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg.
“This bill has undercut local control. That’s a sad way to do business. That’s Big Brother not trusting local people who sent them up here,” said Sen. Charlie Dannelly, D-Mecklenburg. “That is wrong, and one day, they will pay for it.”
Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, said Senate Leader Phil Berger had agreed weeks ago to give Guilford county commissioners until August 16th to approve new maps. “I consider that a lack of integrity, for him to back up on his word,” she said. “I think that says to the people, you cannot trust what the leadership says.”
Robinson said the legislature's Guilford map packs the county’s African-American voters into three majority-minority districts, two of them with black voting-age populations of over 62%, making surrounding districts more friendly to Republican candidates.
“We think there’s a clear pattern here. They are attempting to racially resegregate this state politically. Now they’re going to the local level,” said Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt. “It’s clearly just what they did on the state plan - on steroids.”
Sen. Don Vaughn, D-Guilford, said he expects the map will run into trouble in federal pre-clearance. Guilford is covered by Section 5 of the VRA, which requires public input on voting changes. “They gave no notice to anyone of what they were doing, had no citizen input, no public hearings, no nothing,” Vaughn said. “I can’t imagine that being in compliance with the Voting Rights Act, much less good government. That’s the government they use in third-world countries, is the government of surprise, and that’s what they did.”
Watch the press conference video at right.