Madlin Mekelburg Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas House early Wednesday approved a map for new political districts that would solidify Republican control of the chamber, protect incumbent lawmakers from both parties and reduce the number of competitive districts across the state.

Democrats criticized the map for failing to reflect the rapid growth of the Hispanic and Asian population over the past decade. They contended that the proposed maps would reduce the number of districts where nonwhite people comprise the majority of eligible voters.

But Republican Rep. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, author of the House maps, pushed back against the criticism. He has maintained that his version of the map creates three new so-called majority-minority districts: two where Hispanic residents make up the majority of the population and one with Black residents in the majority.

The issue was at the center of the 16-hour debate over the proposal in the House on Tuesday, which culminated in a 83-63 vote along party lines to adopt the map. The chamber started a new legislative day at about 3 a.m. Wednesday, a maneuver that allows lawmakers to give initial and final approval to the bill during the course of the same debate.

“We believe we’ve complied with the law and met the obligations to our citizens and constituents,” Hunter said when he presented the bill. “I appreciate everybody trying. I know that in any redistricting, some have issues and some don’t — that’s the nature of redistricting.”

Amendments focused on race

The Legislature must redraw the boundaries of political districts every decade, after the release of the decennial census. This year’s census data was delayed by the pandemic, prompting lawmakers to undertake the redistricting process during a special legislative session, instead of earlier this year during the regular session.

During Tuesday’s debate, Democrats proposed numerous amendments to address concerns that the map dilutes the voting power of Texans of color, who accounted for 95% of the state’s population growth over the past decade, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

The state’s population jumped from 25.1 million in 2010 to roughly 29.1 million.

“When communities of color account for 95% of all the growth and you actually reduce the numbers of communities of color that can elect people of their choice in districts and then increase the number of Anglo districts — I think that is a substantive failure,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, while presenting an amendment that would have killed the entire bill.

Anchia also proposed an amendment that would have redrawn the map to create more districts with Hispanic-majority populations. Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, also proposed a new map which would have added additional Black-majority districts. Neither was adopted.

Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, offered an amendment early in debate that would have required the Texas secretary of state to conduct a racial impact study of the proposed districts, using population estimates that account for citizenship as the basis of the analysis. The amendment was not adopted.

Small changes adopted

Lawmakers did approve numerous changes to the proposed map, including small tweaks to different districts across the state. Debate on each amendment was slow-moving, with lengthy pauses in public debate while members discussed the changes among themselves on the floor.

The largest changes occurred in Harris and Dallas counties, where lawmakers from each delegation worked to tweak Hunter’s proposal.

One amendment from Anchia was adopted that would create two more districts in North Texas with a majority Black population and one more district with a majority Hispanic population.

In Austin, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, made some small tweaks to the districts near downtown, slightly adjusting the borders of his district and those adjoining areas. The amendment was adopted.

The House also approved an amendment from Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, that would redraw her residence back into her district. Hunter’s original draft of the map would have moved her from House District 45 into the neighboring House District 73, a more Republican area.

Zwiener’s amendment also keeps Wimberley in the same district, instead of dividing it between HD 45 and HD 73. It was approved by the chamber.

The debate was mostly cordial, but one amendment sparked intense exchanges between lawmakers. Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, proposed a change to districts in the Rio Grande Valley that would make House District 37 more competitive for his party.

Rep. Alex Dominguez, the Democrat who currently represents HD 37, spoke in opposition to the proposal and said Lozano did not run the change by members of the Rio Grande Valley delegation before offering the amendment.

Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, also spoke against the proposed change, telling members in the chamber that this would likely be the last time he ever addressed the House during a debate. Lucio is not running for reelection in 2022.

“Please, let our delegation speak its mind and vote no on this amendment,” he said.
The amendment ultimately was adopted 72-70.

El Paso lawmakers paired

In drawing the map, Hunter said his priority was to avoid splitting precincts between districts and keeping each district as compact as possible. He said he also worked to avoid “pairing” lawmakers, or drawing more than one lawmaker into the same district.

At least one pairing remained in the final map: Reps. Lina Ortega and Claudia Ordaz Perez of El Paso were drawn into the same district covering parts of downtown. Ordaz Perez spoke against the bill and said it disenfranchised people from her current district.

“The proposed map not only dilutes minority representation in Texas, it erodes the gains of women representatives, who were elected in record numbers by Texas voters in the last election cycle,” she said. “To any judges who would review these proceedings I ask: How many more decades of minority population growth is needed before this body will actually look like the people it represents? How lopsided must the minority population of this state be before people of color are adequately represented?”

The final version of the legislative maps is expected to be challenged in court. Unlike in years past, lawmakers in Texas this year are allowed to adopt new political boundaries without first getting federal approval through a preclearance process, a requirement adopted for states like Texas with a history of discriminating against nonwhite voters during the redistricting process.

Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, offered an amendment that would have required a federal district court to first approve the state’s new political boundaries before they could be enacted, but it did not pass.

The final version of the map must be approved by the Senate. The House still has two other redistricting duties to tackle: approving new maps for the Texas Senate and the state’s congressional districts. The Senate approved both maps earlier this month.