BATON ROUGE- Under a looming deadline and unprecedented challenges, lawmakers opened a three-week special session Sunday to begin the task of redrawing Louisiana's political lines based on new population data from the 2010 census.
"This is a redistricting like we've never gone through before, since the Voting Rights Act was put in place in the mid-60s," said House Speaker Jim Tucker, R- Terrytown. "We have extraordinary population shifts, loss of districts in both the House and Senate, and congress in the metropolitan area."
And that means, the once-a-decade process could get heated. Governor Bobby Jindal, who is expected to play a minimal role overall, had this advice Sunday for lawmakers.
"Despite what disagreements may happen over the next three weeks, it's important that we come together," said Jindal. "We have many important challenges and opportunities ahead of us."
One of the biggest challenges stems from the metro New Orleans' population loss after Hurricane Katrina.
Now, the city of New Orleans could lose at least three House seats, and the metro area as a whole could lose half a dozen.
"I think we all realize how difficult this task is going to be, and how personal it is on some level," said Rep. Neil Abramson- D, New Orleans. "But at the end of the day, we have to do the best job we can for New Orleans and the New Orleans area."
There are a number of issues that come into play as the legislature works to reshape boundaries for the state House and Senate, the Public Service Commission, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and possibly the state Supreme Court and appeals courts.
Among the challenges, Louisiana's congressional delegation is shrinking from seven to six due to stagnant population growth.
Meanwhile, some are hoping redistricting will provide an opportunity to add another majority minority district.
"Population shifted in many different areas," saidi Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith, D- Baton Rouge and head of the Louisiana Black Caucus. "There's growth of the black population in Louisiana, and because of that, the individual might be able to choose the person that can represent them."
And this year, there's a new sense of urgency with an upcoming election this fall in the House and Senate, especially because the new political boundaries must be approved by the Justice Department.
While experts say lawmakers may not be able to tackle everything on their plate during the special session, they're expected to take on what's most pressing for this fall's elections.
"I don't want to wager anything on what the legislature might do because this is a free for all," said Clancy DuBos, WWL-TV political analyst. "You have many of them who want to run for re-election, so they're going to be looking very closely at these boundaries, and frankly looking at it from a selfish point of view."
For the first time this year, all redistricting meetings will be streamed live over the internet. For more information, go to house.louisiana.gov/H_REDISTRICTING2011/.