By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
MADISON COUNTY —
FRANKFORT — It’s a uniquely political act to comply with a uniquely American constitutional requirement: redrawing legislative districts every 10 years to reflect population changes and ensure equal representation.
That doesn’t make it easy, as demonstrated Wednesday in the Kentucky House of Representatives, which voted along largely party lines – 53 to 46 – to approve a new plan that the minority Republicans declared unfair and based on manipulated census data.
That’s because Democrats didn’t count federal prisoners housed in Boyd, Clay, Fayette, Martin and McCreary counties – which is legal as Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, pointed out. But it’s not how those prisoners were counted last year when maps were drawn for congressional and judicial maps.
No Republican voted for the bill while one Democrat – Rep. Mike Denham of Maysville – voted against it because it removes Fleming County from his district and adds Lewis County.
After Stumbo said other states have drawn districts without counting federal prisoners, Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said they did so through legislation prior to actually drawing the new maps.
“They didn’t do it behind closed doors,” Hoover said on the House floor. “They didn’t do it with just two or three members of majority leadership making that decision.”
Hoover also said Democrats should be consistent in the way they counted federal prisoners – either count them in all the maps or none.
Republicans offered several amendments, some to make minor adjustments in the plan and one to substitute their own plan. All were defeated.
The House plan pairs 13 incumbents against others – 12 of those are Republicans. The other is Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, against Republican Jill York of Grayson. It creates seven new districts where no incumbent lives and it splits 24 counties, the minimum number allowed by prior court rulings.
The ideal district size is 43,308 and no district varies more than 5 percent from that amount, according to Stumbo, another court requirement.
Rep. Joseph Fischer, R-Ft. Thomas, offered an alternative plan which was easily defeated with two Republicans – Tommy Turner of Somerset and C.B. Embry of Morgantown – voting against it and 19 other Republicans not voting at all.
Following a series of Republican speeches decrying the political nature of the Democratic plan, Stumbo responded by noting Fischer’s plan paired the same number of incumbents – but this time they were all Democrats.
“I wonder why that is?” asked Stumbo in mock amazement. He also accused Republicans of crying “crocodile tears.”
He said the court ruling last year, which threw out a previous plan by the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate, “makes (redistricting) a more mathematical calculation,” but conceded it is inherently a political act.
But York took to the floor to say the numbers that really matter aren’t the census numbers.
“The numbers we worry about the most are 55-45: 55 Democrats to 45 Republicans,” she said, speaking of the current party alignment in the House.
But it wasn’t just Republicans complaining. Denham isn’t happy Fleming County was removed from his district and placed into the district represented by one of the Democratic leaders – Caucus Chair Sannie Overly of Paris.
Denham said he’d made a commitment to all the people in his district to “do everything I could” to keep the district intact.
“I have kicked like a mule,” Denham said, but to no avail. He was the sole Democrat to vote against the plan. No Republican voted for it.
Another unhappy Democrat voted for the bill – Rep. Kevin Sinnette of Ashland.
The plan removes much of Boyd County from his district in order to move it into Adkins 99th District. To compensate for that lost population, Sinnette’s new district includes part of Ashland and then travels a narrow corridor down U.S. 23 to pick up all of Lawrence County.
Adkins – who lives in Catlettsburg in Boyd County but maintains a post office box in his native Sandy Hook in Elliott County, which he lists in legislative records as his home – also picked up York’s Carter County, pitting the two of them against each other in the next election.
York said Tuesday when the plan was first revealed that she would run against Adkins if that was the only way she could try to continue representing “my people in Carter County.”
She is also unhappy that Lewis County was moved out of her district and into Denham’s. The heavily Republican county doesn’t make things any easier for Denham either, another reason he likely isn’t happy with the new map.
Among the incumbent Republicans placed in the same district were Rep. Marie Rader of McKee and first-term Republican Toby Herald of Beattyville. Mike Harmon of Danville and Jonathan Shell of Lancaster were also paired up.
The Democrats’ plan managed to pair three Republicans in the same district centering on Warren County: Jim DeCesare of Bowling Green, C.B. Embry of Morgantown, and Mike Meredith of Brownsville. Other Repubicanss paired together are Steve Rudy of Paducah and Richard Heath of Mayfield and Lynn Bechler of Marion and Ben Waide of Madisonville.
It also splits Laurel County four ways and Graves County three ways.
It creates seven new districts: 1 – Fulton, Hickman, Carlisle, Ballard and part of Graves; 19, in Warren County; 36, in Jefferson; 49, in Bullitt; 54, in Anderson, Shelby and part of Bullitt; 88, in Fayette; and 96 in Powell, Estill and part of Madison.
The ultimate fate of the bill remains uncertain because the Republican-controlled Senate has said it wants to wait until next year to take up redistricting. Typically, each chamber draws its own map (designed to benefit the majority’s incumbents) and the other chamber accepts it.
But Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has questioned why the Senate would pass the Democratic House plan and then rely on the assurances of Stumbo that the House would then pass the Republican Senate plan next year.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.