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Partisan politics harmful to Texas ag constituents

Petty, petulant and partisan. As descriptive a trio of words as I can come up with to describe the Texas legislature, which, after wrangling from spring through summer and into the fall — wrangling that encompassed three, or was it four, sessions counting the first one they all had to go through anyway — finally passed a redistricting plan that baffles common sense.

But whoever said legislators were in possession of that commodity?

At first it was Republicans against Democrats, the latter party fleeing to Oklahoma (house members) and then to New Mexico (senators) to preclude a quorum and thus prevent a vote on the redistricting plan.

Then, when the renegade (heroic?) legislators finally returned, the Republicans, like a pack of cur dogs fighting over road kill, turned on each other to brawl over who got to reap the hard-won spoils. When the dust finally settled, the majority got a lot of what they wanted, more districts likely to elect Republicans to the U.S. Congress.

Not everyone came out ahead, however. The big loser from the debacle that most Texas citizens neither asked for nor supported will be farmers, ranchers and rural communities that depend on the well-being of the ag economy to survive.

Texas has played a huge role in formulating agricultural policy, not just for the state but the nation, over the past decade. Two stalwarts, Congressman Larry Combest, a Republican, now retired, from Lubbock, and Congressman Charlie Stenholm, a Democrat from Abilene, masterminded the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act. Flawed as it may be, that piece of legislation stands head and shoulders above the act it replaced and brought some semblance of a safety net back to farmers across the country. Combest was chairman and Stenholm the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, an unusual opportunity for one state with two members so highly placed on such an important committee.

Combest and Stenholm crafted the farm bill by eschewing partisan politics and working for what was best for Texas agriculture. When Combest retired last summer, he was replaced by Randy Neugebauer, who got a seat on the ag committee. So far, he's been a staunch supporter of Texas agriculture. Unfortunately, with the newly gerrymandered redistricting maps, Stenholm and Neugebauer wind up in the same district. Both say they will run in 2004, so voters will have a hard choice between two apparently capable legislators. Only one will be re-elected. West Texas agriculture loses a voice on the House ag committee, regardless of who wins next November.

If the Texas Republican leadership targeted Stenholm as part of their “replace all the Democrats” plot, their notion was misguided and ill-conceived. Stenholm, along with several other mostly Southern, moderate Democrats known as the Blue Dogs, stands firmly in favor of fiscal responsibility, a desperately-needed attitude in the current economy.

But apparently nothing mattered save the party line, which assumes that a bad Republican congressman will be better than a good Democrat.

How absurd.

It would be the height of irony, though highly unlikely, if the electorate in the newly gerrymandered districts turned the tables on the mapmakers and elected the best candidates for Congress, irrespective of party affiliation. Obviously that's too naïve a prospect to warrant consideration, but it certainly would be refreshing to see the people take control of the electoral process again instead of having a few well-placed politicians dictate to them.

Meanwhile, more folk than farmers and ranchers are upset about the new districts and have asked that the courts review the partisan maps to make certain that minority interests have not been sacrificed. Perhaps the courts are in possession of and will exercise more common sense than the legislature.

Unfortunately, a court likely will pay little attention to the watered down voting rights of the state's ignored minority, farmers and ranchers, who now have even less clout at the polls than they did before.

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