Senate must fix its map-making mess

Sun Sentinel | Sun Sentinel | 07/31/2015

The Florida Senate pleaded guilty this week to a political crime. The admission will cause heartburn in the 2016 elections, but will benefit the public.

Having seen the Florida Supreme Court this month invalidate the largely Senate-drawn 2012 map of the state's 27 congressional districts, Senate leaders realized they ultimately would lose a legal fight over the map of the 40 Senate districts.

Rather than go to trial in September, the Senate will hold an October special session to draw a new map that finally complies with the Fair Districts amendment. A September session already had been scheduled to craft a new congressional map.

Normally, just 20 Senate seats — those ending in odd numbers — would be up next year. But the plaintiffs — among them the Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause — challenged 28 of the 40 districts as unconstitutional because they had been drawn to help the Republican Party or an incumbent or both. Redrawing those will change some or all of the other 12 districts.

So the first unanswered question is: Which senators will have to face re-election next year? The consent order does not speak to whether any senator whose district changes must face the voters. A spokeswoman said in an interview Thursday that the Senate would decide the issue.

Call us old-fashioned, but we believe current constituents should choose their senators. Such a strict application would not please Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach. She would be running in District 34, which includes coastal portions of Broward and Palm Beach counties, for the third time since 2012. Republican mapmakers have been especially unkind to her.

How, though, could the Senate create exceptions for some members whose districts changed just a little? Even though Sachs wasn't complicit in the crime, the map of her district is fraudulent. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, won a four-year term last November and is term-limited in 2018. Yet he has opened a 2016 campaign account because he expects to run from a new district.

Other issues the Senate must resolve are whether district numbers will change and which incumbents will have term limits extended. In staggering election cycles to place just 20 seats on the ballot every other year, some new senators will start with terms of two years, not four. But if voters re-elect them, those senators will be able to serve 10 years, despite the eight-year limit.

More elections will mean more public expense. The two special legislative sessions will mean added costs, even if they overlap partially with committee meetings. Then there are the millions of taxpayer dollars already spent to create the corrupt maps, and to pay attorneys' fees to defend them.

Place all blame on the Senate leadership. David King, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said in an interview that the Senate allowed Republican consultants "to infiltrate the map drawing in a spectacular fashion."

As King pointed out, before the first map came out in late 2011, those consultants knew more about them than all but one member of the Senate's redistricting committee. King said that for all the problems with the congressional map, the Senate map was worse, because it was personal for so many legislators.

In the Panhandle, for example, the map broke up several counties, ignoring the new constitutional requirement that districts follow geographic and political boundaries. The move ensured that Republican incumbents Sen. Don Gaetz — then the Senate president — and Sen. Greg Evers would not be in the same district. And a business associate of then-House Speaker Will Weatherford got a promising Senate district north of Tampa that he won in 2012.

Districts of key GOP senators became more favorable to Republicans. South Florida Democrats Eleanor Sobel and Gwen Margolis got adjustments that helped their chances for re-election. Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, who at the time was House minority leader, told the Tampa Bay Times that the Senate map left "every (sitting) Republican and every (sitting) Democrat in better shape than they are today."

The action defied the voters, who in 2010 amended the Florida Constitution to prohibit the Legislature from drawing districts "with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent."

The stipulation by the Senate that it violated the constitution is an extraordinary admission. Credit the Florida Supreme Court for its strong opinion in the congressional case and the determination of the plaintiffs, who also were behind the amendments.

Still, what happened in 2012 could happen again in 2022 with the next scheduled redistricting. The makeup of the court could change. Two justices opposed the ruling in the congressional case.

To permanently keep politicians from picking their voters, Florida should keep politicians out of redistricting by assigning the work to an independent commission. Politicians might pick some of the members, but the work would happen in public, unlike the sham of 2012. One confession doesn't mean that the Legislature will go straight.

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