Texas House panel approves political map with fewer majority Black and Hispanic districts

Madlin Mekelburg
Austin American-Statesman

A new district map that would strengthen the GOP majority in the Texas House passed its first legislative hurdle Tuesday when the House Redistricting Committee voted 8-6 along party lines to approve the plan.

During a 16-hour hearing that ended early Tuesday, the committee adjusted boundaries for several Austin-area districts to ensure that current officeholders will not be drawn out of the districts they represent.

Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, chairman of the redistricting panel and author of the plan, told the committee Monday that the map was the result of feedback from House members, regional stakeholders and a law firm hired to advise lawmakers through the process.

The hearing included about 10 hours of public testimony, followed by one hour of feedback from several House lawmakers, who highlighted concerns about proposed maps in their communities. The committee finished its work at 1:30 a.m. and then reconvened Tuesday afternoon for a vote on final approval.

Texas reps watch and listen to remote video testimonies at a House Redistricting Committee hearing on proposed Texas House maps as part of the redistricting process on Oct. 4, 2021.

More:Texas Senate gives final OK to Senate redistricting map

Hunter faced criticism from lawmakers and members of the public over the pace of Monday’s proceedings, which some argued did not afford enough time for a complete review of feedback submitted during the hearing or a comprehensive discussion of proposed amendments before the entire proposal was put to a vote.

Several Democratic lawmakers also have questioned the role their party played in drafting the new political boundaries. 

Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, told the American-Statesman that the delegation from Travis County was asked to draft its own district maps and submit the proposals to committee leaders. But the draft before the committee Monday did not reflect their suggestions.

Hunter said he spoke privately with Democrats and Republicans while drafting the map, but he would not identify specific lawmakers.

“When members meet with me, I keep it confidential,” he said.

More:GOP's new map for U.S. House districts advances in Texas Legislature

The Legislature must redraw the boundaries of political districts every decade, after release of the decennial census. The release of 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.

Hunter’s proposed map of the 150 House districts would bolster Republicans’ hold on power in the chamber by increasing the number of districts that favored Donald Trump during the 2020 election and by decreasing the number of competitive districts in the state, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan redistricting site PlanScore.

There are currently 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats in the chamber. Under Hunter’s original proposal, the number of Republican-leaning districts would jump to 86. The number of competitive districts, where the general election was decided by fewer than 10 points, would fall from 29 to 18.

But in one change to the bill Monday, House District 70 in Collin County will go from being a Republican district to a Democratic-leaning district, bringing the total number of Republican-leaning districts to 85 in the proposal approved by the committee.

Democrats have criticized the map, saying it does not reflect the growing population of nonwhite communities in the state. The number of House districts with a majority Black voting-age population would drop from seven to four under Hunter’s plan, and the number of districts with a majority of Hispanic voters would fall from 33 to 30.

White voters tend to favor Republicans and nonwhite voters tend to favor Democrats.

More:Texas Republicans, Democrats set to begin redistricting battle Monday

The original map drew three Austin-area lawmakers out of the districts they represent: Goodwin and Reps. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood.

The original proposal essentially swapped Goodwin's and Howard's districts. While Goodwin remained in District 47 and Howard in District 48, Howard would have represented portions of West Austin and Bee Cave, and Goodwin would have represented West Lake Hills and some southern reaches of Austin and Travis County.

An amendment adopted by the committee swapped the districts again, ensuring the lawmakers can continue to serve the same communities that elected them.

The original draft also drew Zwiener out of District 45 in Hays County, moving her residence to District 73, which was drawn with a Republican majority. An amendment to move the precinct including Zwiener’s residence back to her district was withdrawn during the debate, but author Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said he planned to propose the same amendment when the bill comes before the full House for consideration.

The committee voted down an attempt to tweak the proposed boundaries for District 52, which covers Round Rock, Taylor and southern Georgetown. The district was redrawn to include rural communities to the north, endangering the reelection chances of Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, and an amendment to remove those rural areas from the district failed.

More:Texas House redistricting map shows a shift in favor of Republicans

Early in the hearing, Hunter fielded questions from Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, about how the proposal was drafted and what input was given by Adam Foltz, a Republican redistricting operative known for his work on Wisconsin’s 2010 redistricting process, which drew condemnation from federal judges for its secretive nature.

Hunter said he made the decision to hire Foltz based on his résumé, which reflected data experience that Hunter thought would serve the Legislature well through its redistricting work. Foltz's role in the process was first reported by the Texas Tribune.

“I do not know what happened in Wisconsin and did not even inquire,” Hunter said. “I looked at him and hired him on what I saw he could do.”