Speaker of the House William J. Howell, R-Stafford, has ruled that the surprise Senate amendments to redistricting changes are not germane, throwing the future of the proposed Senate boundary moves in doubt. Senate Republicans pushed through the amendments on a 20-19 party-line vote on a day when Democrats were down one member because Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, attended inauguration ceremonies for President Barack Obama in Washington on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Because the Senate made changes to a House measure, it had to return to the House of Delegates for approval. Howell said the bill amended by the Senate was “modified to stray dramatically, in my opinion, from the legislation’s original purpose of addressing relatively technical, minor administrative adjustments to certain districts.” The rewrite of Senate districts “goes well beyond” the customary tweaks, he said. Howell told reporters after the floor session that “It wasn’t something I relished. It’s my job. I’m the only one who can make that decision. I talked to a lot of people about it, prayed about it,feel at peace about what I did. Think I did what was right.”
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, Jr., R-James City County, said in a statement that the “entire Senate Republican Caucus is deeply disappointed” Howell’s ruling. He contends that in the two weeks since a germaneness objection was raised, “we consulted with constitutional law experts and outside counsels familiar with the legislative process and precedent in the Virginia General Assembly. All have confirmed that our original determination regarding germaneness was correct, and that the Senate substitute to House Bill 259 is indeed germane.”
Howell said after every redistricting session they send a memo to registrars and ask if there are tweaks to make to the plan to make their lives easier. Those changes are what went to the Senate.
The Senate sought to create another district between Petersburg and Danville with a minority majority. But critics argued that it redraws the 2011 Senate district boundaries to give Republicans greater support in districts where they are vulnerable, and in others where Democrats could be challenged — potentially opening the door for more GOP gains in the 2015 election.
Gov. Bob McDonnell had criticized the way the Senate made its changes but would not say what action he would take if the bill made it to his desk. He said in a statement that with Howell’s ruling, “concerns surrounding the process of this bill’s passage in the Senate are over” and urged legislators to focus on the “pressing issues facing the General Assembly.”