Lawmakers set timetable for new Senate maps

By Aaron Deslatte | Orlando Sentinel | 03/15/2012

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature convened an extra-innings "extraordinary" session Wednesday to redraw its state Senate map after the Florida Supreme Court decided its lines violated the new anti-gerrymandering law by favoring incumbents.

And with a multifront redistricting fight on its hands, legislative lawyers are also blasting a "helter-skelter" legal challenge to their congressional work product — and asking to delay any court decision on whether 27 newly drawn congressional seats are compliant until after the 2012 political season.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-2 last week that eight of the Senate's 40 redrawn districts violated the new Fair Districts standards, while signing off unanimously on all 120 House districts.

The defective Senate districts stretch to all corners of Florida and flunked the high court's review for different reasons, including being drawn to protect incumbents and failing compactness or geographic standards.

Though the seats are held by Republicans and Democrats, the parties disagreed Wednesday over whether they should start drawing new maps from scratch — as Democrats demanded — or just try to fix the specific districts cited.

The new standards require lawmakers to draw congressional and legislative maps without intentionally helping or hurting incumbents or political parties, without damaging minority-voting rights and — to the extent possible — without looking like modern-art masterpieces.

Though the proposed new House districts appear to make some seats more competitive, the Senate's lines virtually ensured that none of the 28 likely returning incumbents would be running in a more-competitive district.

One of the rejected seats is held by Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. His proposed District 10 takes in parts of eastern Lake and western Orange counties and then hooks north into central Orlando in what the court called a "bizarrely drawn appendage" that runs between a predominantly Hispanic district on the east and a black district to the west.

Gardiner said the "appendage" — home to 120,000 mostly white voters — enabled creation of minority districts on either side.

"There's 120,000 individuals that you've got to find a location for," he said. "If you put them in, one way or the other it's going to impact those [minority] districts. That's just the reality."

The court found incumbents also had been helped by the assignment of district numbers. Senators are limited to two four-year terms. But because all 40 must run in a redistricting year, and because terms are staggered, the numbers determine who will run for an initial two-year term and who for four years. That in turn could enable some senators — all but one incumbent, the court said — to serve for 10 years.

The timing of the changes will be tight.

Lawmakers must pass new maps by March 28, triggering another 30-day legal review. And if the Supreme Court rejects the redone maps, the justices will draw the districts themselves — leaving just days before the June 4 start of qualifying for federal and state candidates.

"This is our second and last shot," said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

At the same time, lawmakers are trying to avoid having to simultaneously defend their congressional map.

The League of Women Voters, La Raza, Common Cause and the Florida Democratic Party have filed lawsuits arguing the congressional districts — which were not reviewed by the Supreme Court — also don't meet Fair Districts muster. But the Senate says that fight can't be resolved in time for candidates to qualify. or 850-222-5564

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