Lots of sniping, little hope for changing Florida redistricting plan

Palm Beach Post | Palm Beach Post | 08/11/2015

TALLAHASSEE — Republican lawmakers sniped Tuesday at the Florida Supreme Court for rejecting the Legislature’s congressional redistricting map, but appear likely to follow justices’ approach to fixing troubled boundaries.

A proposed “base” map drawn by legislative staff members includes most of the court’s proposed changes and was pored over for hours Tuesday by House and Senate redistricting committees.

Three Palm Beach County congressional districts, held by U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, and Alcee Hastings, D-Delray Beach, are revamped in the map, which could be voted on Thursday by legislative committees.

A handful of county leaders and civic groups are fighting the Palm Beach County overhaul.

Chastened twice by courts that rejected their mapmaking as intended mostly to help Republicans, GOP leaders continued to grumble.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the court had effectively diluted the Legislature’s authority by effectively forcing three staffers to draw a map affecting “20 million people’s futures.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, was angered after learning who proposed a critical change ordered by justices that reconfigures Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s Jacksonville-to-Orlando district into one stretching from Jacksonville west beyond Tallahassee.

Senate attorney Raoul Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice, said testimony submitted to the court showed that the map was “drawn at the behest of the Democratic Party.” But he added, the “court didn’t seem to care.”

Amid a cascade of questions about the court-required shift of Brown’s district, Senate redistricting chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he expected some alterations could still be made to the base map.

“Significant issues were raised and obviously there’s some angst about how we got into this map from a procedural standpoint,” Galvano said.

Galvano added that he didn’t think lawmakers were ready to “rubber-stamp the base map.”

But, when asked whether the Legislature should follow the court’s map-making guidelines, Cantero told lawmakers, “My advice would be yes.”

Lawmakers spent part of last summer in a special session after a lower court rejected the Legislature’s congressional map, first completed in 2012. The Supreme Court’s ruling last month forced lawmakers back to the Capitol through next week — again in an attempt to recast boundaries ruled unconstitutional.

At the heart of the struggle are constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010 that bar lawmakers from drawing districts that intentionally help or hurt incumbent lawmakers or a party.

U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, cited those provisions in telling legislators that, once Brown’s district is redirected, the new map turns his home District 10 into a seat almost certain to elect a minority Democratic candidate.

“It makes that seat impossible to win. … The new plan disfavors an incumbent,” said Webster, a former Florida House speaker and state senator.

He added, “It makes it uncompetitive for anyone in my party, including me.”

But Webster conceded he doesn’t see any way to legally fight the ruling by the state’s highest court.

Republican legislative leaders have opposed the voter-approved “Fair Districts” amendments 5 and 6 since well before they appeared on the 2010 ballot.

Some of Tuesday’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s ruling echoed past claims that the measures diminish the federal Voting Rights Act, limit free speech and allow justices to intrude on the Legislature’s turf.

Palm Beach County activists also are criticizing the proposed congressional map for realigning Frankel’s and Deutch’s districts from ranging side-by-side, from north-south, to districts stacked on top of each other, and coursing east-west.

County Mayor Shelley Vana, a Democrat, and County Commissioner Steve Abrams, a Republican, are among several officials considering coming Thursday to the Capitol to argue against the change.

In their ruling last month, justices left open the possibility that the north-south districts might continue, if lawmakers could show they meet constitutional standards.

But the legislative staff went ahead with the stacking approach in drawing the base map.

Richard Pinsky, a lobbyist for West Palm Beach’s Rybovich Boat Co., told lawmakers Tuesday that the change is wrong, because it disrupts like-minded communities.

“We all know there are two Floridas,” Pinsky said. “Coastal Florida and inland Florida.”

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