ANNAPOLIS – Before Maryland legislators can start the battle over the budget in the 2002 General Assembly session, they will have to deal with drawing the lines. District lines, that is.
By law, the first order of business for the General Assembly will be the governor’s legislative redistricting plan, which he must submit Jan. 9, the first day of the session, and which must be passed by both houses and signed by the governor.
In a deficit year, the budget will be the pervasive issue for the session, said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, “but redistricting will be even more so as far as emotion.”
“It has the potential to set a tone of discontent,” Stoltzfus said.
The discontent will come from the decennial shifting of the state’s political boundaries, a process as much a political tool as it is a requirement established by the Supreme Court’s 1962 “one person, one vote” ruling that called for equally populated districts to guarantee equally valuable votes.
This year’s battle promises to be difficult. The five-member Redistricting Advisory Committee, appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, submitted its report Monday. It is recommending that the once all-powerful Baltimore region lose two Assembly seats to the state’s new power base, suburban Washington, D.C.
One new seat in Prince George’s County would favor minority candidates.
Glendening may modify the plan before he submits it as a bill, but the roadmap provided by the committee already strongly favors the governor’s Democratic Party.
Democrats account for four of the five advisory committee members, and they worked to safeguard their party’s massive advantage in the General Assembly by drawing districts that favor their legislators.
The public hearing on the panel’s proposal is set for Friday night in Annapolis, timing that critics charge was designed to stifle dissenting opinions since it’s so deep in the holiday season.
Fueling that criticism is the fact that the committee worked in secret, emerging only Monday with its draft proposal.
The President of the Senate and Speaker of the House will submit the governor’s legislative redistricting plan as a joint resolution Jan. 9. The Legislature will then have 45 days to adopt another plan. If it does not, the governor’s plan automatically becomes law.
The chance of another plan defeating the governor’s is slim.
Even if some Democrats oppose the plan, it is unlikely that an alternative could win enough support.
“You might not like the governor’s plan but you will never find a majority in both houses that won’t like it in the same way,” said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore.
The rhetoric has flowed from both sides throughout the process and seems to be intensifying as the session draws near.
“I can’t wait,” said Delegate Martha Klima, R-Baltimore, who expects the session to be even more contentious than usual.
“If they (Democrats) do too much damage, we’ll be taking it to court,” Klima said.
It certainly would not be the first time.
Redistricting and legal action go hand-in-hand, with accusations of gerrymandering, the manipulation of district lines for political advantage, as plentiful as alternative maps.
The alternative receiving the most attention over the past year is the Maryland GOP’s plan to carve the state into 141 single-member districts. It’s unknown whether that plan will be submitted as an alternative to the governor’s. Maryland has 47 Senate districts with one senator and three delegates in each.
“The single-member plan is a powerful idea for minorities because it empowers them,” said Michael Steele, executive director of the state’s Republican Party.
Single-member districts would result in greater minority representation in the assembly because it would be cheaper to campaign in the smaller districts and candidates would essentially be representing their own neighborhoods, Steele said.
However, Democrats are suspicious of the Republicans’ real intentions.
“I’ve never known a Republican Party interested in electing more minority representatives,” said Delegate Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore City, chairman of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus.
Branch said it is beneficial to represent mixed-race districts and worries that incumbents would be practically invincible in the smaller, single-member districts.
The battle lines are forming and Republicans say they are ready for a fight.
“In the beginning I just wanted to stir debate, but now I want the plan,” Steele said.
However, the reality of the situation is not lost on the plan’s supporters.
The Democrats have the clear numerical advantage.
“If we were within a few seats it would be a completely different game,” Steele said.
“It’s almost impossible, once it’s (the governor’s plan) submitted, to change anything,” Stoltzfus said.
Conceding that the administration has the upper hand, Senate Minority Whip Larry Haines, R-Carroll, said, “we’re pretty much spectators.”