Senate And House Committees on Redistricting Discuss Population Counting Methods and New Boundaries' Issues
WESLACO - The Senate and House Committees on Redistricting met Saturday July 8, 2000, for a joint public hearing at the Best Western Palm Aire Hotel in Weslaco.
The committees are holding public hearings throughout the state to hear testimony relating to future legislative, congressional, and State Board of Education districts. Both the United States Constitution and the Texas Constitution require the State Legislature to redesign these district lines every ten years, upon completion of the census. The new boundaries will be used to elect members to the representative bodies in the next election cycle. Districts must have equal or nearly equal representation, and be drawn in a manner that does not have a purpose and will not have the effect of denying the right to vote on the basis of race or language.
Federal law requires the census data to be delivered to the states by April 1, 2001, and it is unlikely that it will be available much earlier. Since the Legislature must adjourn sine dieon May 28, 2001, there is little time in the regular session for the complex redistricting task. New district boundaries must be in place for the 2001 elections.
The 1990 census counted almost 17 million Texans. The projected growth of Texas in 2000 is expected to be more than 20 million; a 20% increase. Based on expected population figures, a state senate district population will increase from 548,000 to 660,000. The average state house district will increase from 113,000 to 136,000. U.S. Congressional districts will increase from 566,000 to 639,000. State Board of Education districts currently have 1.088 million and will increase to 1.132 million.
The hearing was well-attended by the public and local government officials, with more than thirty persons testifying. The main topic of discussion was whether to use statistical sampling or exact census figures when counting the population. Statistical sampling is the scientific method that measures a small group and applies the figures to the population as a whole. The 1990 census was the first census less accurate than its predecessors. This controversy lead to the passage of the Decennial Census Improvement Act of 1991, which called for studies by the National Academy of Sciences on ways to achieve the most accurate census, including the use of sampling techniques. The federal government does not require the use of sampling, but states can choose to use this counting method.
Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, a strong supporter of sampling, pointed out that this is the best way to count all the population, especially since there are many people, and even entire communities, that have not received the census forms. The scientific method would be a good way to avoid the mistakes of the past census, he said, when minorities were undercounted. Many of the local officials present at the meeting agreed with the senator. Hidalgo County Judge Jose Eloy Pulido said he contacted 20 other judges and sent letters to Governor Bush and Lt.Gov. Rick Perry, asking to use the sampling technique to avoid undercounting. Counting every person is not only important for redistricting, but also federal funds for programs like Medicaid, foster care, rehabilitation services, substance abuse and childcare are all given based on population. At one point in the meeting, Senator Barrientos suggested the committee should vote on writing a letter as a group to the U.S. President and the national congress, asking for authorization to use the sampling method when tallying the numbers. This lead to a halt in the hearing, while senators and representatives regrouped away from the microphones. Senator Troy Fraser asked the committees to seek legislative advice about the proposal, and the subject was left pending until next meeting.
All members agreed the joint committees should invite a high official from the Census Bureau to their next meeting to answer important questions that went unanswered today.
Many of those giving testimony also refereed to the problems faced by people living in colonias. U.S. Congressman Ruben Hinojosa eloquently exposed the neglect the border region has suffered historically -like very limited funds for infrastructure and services, limited access to colleges and universities, and no interstate highway. Another supporter of the sampling method, he said that 3 million people are awaiting their citizenship, and many are afraid to answer the census for immigration concerns. Many others, he said, are just distrustful of the government in general and won't give any information to it. Representing congressional district 15, a relatively thin but 150 miles long area, he said districts should be drawn to include close areas that have a lot in common.
Cristina Gonzalez, from Senator Zaffirini's office, read a statement from the senator, who could not be present at the meeting. The senator asked to maintain together the combination of the 13 counties and parts of six that she represents. She also asked the members of the committees to consider holding a hearing in Laredo, the center of the border region and the fastest growing city in Texas. Webb and Starr are the second and third counties with the highest population growth at a national level.
The following officials and representatives also presented testimony: State Representatives Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Roberto Gutierrez of McAllen; Gene Braught, Major of Weslaco; Bill Summers from Rio Grande Valley Partnership; Attorney Chris A. Brisack; Richard Borchard, Nueces County Judge; Mercurio Martinez, Webb County Judge; Simon Salinas, Willacy County Judge; Agapito Molina, Jim Hogg County Judge; Gordon Porter, San Patricio County Commissioner; Oscar Gonzalez, Jim Hogg County Commissioner; Israel Tamez, Willacy County Commissioner; Miguel Castillo Jr., Major of Mercedes; Filemon Esquivel Jr., Major of Kingsville; Hollis V. Rutledge, from the Texas Republican County Chair Association; David Perez Alaniz, Major of La Villa; Gregorio Madrigal, Major of Elsa; Gary Ellis, representing Ivan Welker, Acting City Manager of Brownsville; Cain Caceres, banker of Elsa; Ramiro Silva, Major of Edcouch; Rodolfo Saldana, Major of Lyford in Willacy County; Dick Messbarger from Greater Kingsville Economic Development; Robert S. Mendoza from the Cameron County Election Administration; Simon O. Calvillo from Mercedes; Dennis Burleron from the Mission Economic Development Authority; Ezequiel Salazar from the Santa Cruz Adult Day Care Center of Elsa; Carolyn Dorsey representing State Representative Eugene Seaman; Sylvia Ramirez representing Congressman Solomon Ortiz; Raul Besteiro Jr.; Sheila Valles-Pankratz, Deputy Chair of the Hidalgo County Republican Party; Joel Yowell from the Texas Republican County Chairman Association; and J. Gerald Hebert of Impac 2000.
The House of Representatives has a standing committee on redistricting, whereas the Senate's committee is newly selected every 10 years by the Lt. Governor. Members of the Senate Redistricting Committee include Senators Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay as co-chairman, Mario Gallegos of Houston as co-chairman, Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Mike Jackson of Houston, Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, Frank Madla of San Antonio, Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, Steve Ogden of Bryan, Florence Shapiro of Plano, and Royce West of Dallas.
Members of the House Redistricting Committee include Representatives Delwin Jones of Lubbock serving as chair, Bob Glaze of Gilmer, Fred Bosse of Houston, David Counts of Knox City, Jim Dunnam of Waco, Kent Grusendorf of Arlington, Bob Hunter of Abilene, Ken Marchant of Carrollton, Paul Moreno of El Paso, Jim Pitts of Waxahachie, and Ron Wilson of Houston.
After the meeting was over, Senators Gallegos, Barrientos and Lucio, together with members of their staff and local officials, visited some coloniasaround Weslaco and documented their situation.
The joint committees have scheduled three more meetings: August 23 in Lubbock, and in Austin and Tyler in September. The committees stand in recess subject to the call of the chairs.