Editorial: A better congressional district map for Tampa Bay

Editorial Board | Tampa Bay Times | 08/19/2015

A revised map of proposed congressional districts that the Florida Senate will consider today would make sensible improvements in the Tampa Bay area and across the west coast. The changes would enable more residents in neighboring communities to be represented by the same member of Congress, giving these districts a voice in Washington that would be stronger and more representative of the character of the area. It may be a long shot, but it is better for Tampa Bay than the base map and should be pushed by the Senate as it works with the House to agree on a new map by Friday.

The revised Senate plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and adopted Monday by the Senate Redistricting Committee, builds on the base map that legislative staffers produced in response to the Florida Supreme Court opinion that invalidated eight of the state's 27 congressional districts. The court found that the district boundaries lawmakers approved amounted to gerrymandering, in violation of the Fair Districts amendments that voters adopted in 2010. Lawmakers are meeting in special session in Tallahassee to take a third, and hopefully final, shot at drawing legal congressional districts.

Lee's plan would create more sensible congressional districts across the bay area and the Gulf Coast by grouping more like-minded areas in a single congressional district. His plan would move about 158,000 residents in south Hillsborough into a Hillsborough-centered district, which would be expected to give county voters control of two districts instead of one. Most of those residents now are represented by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee. In the base map approved by the House on Tuesday, those residents would be shifted to a district covering all of Manatee County and half of Sarasota County, areas now represented by Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota.

The revised map the Senate will consider today would bring more tidiness to the area's congressional lines. The current District 15 represented by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, is viewed as a Polk County seat, although slightly more than half of its residents live in Hillsborough. The Senate's map would increase that Hillsborough majority to 75 percent. The entire county would be in three congressional districts (Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, would still have a sliver of northwest Hillsborough), an improvement from the current four districts.

The new Senate map would also keep Buchanan's congressional district centered in the coastal areas of Manatee and Sarasota counties, rather than pushing it into Hillsborough and east to the rural interior of the state. That makes sense. The Senate's maps also would keep District 14, now held by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, in Tampa. District 13, now held by Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, would cover virtually all of Pinellas south of Clearwater and would become a competitive open seat as Jolly runs for U.S. Senate.

The Senate map pushed by Lee is better for the region and fair for the state. But the Florida House voted 76-35 on Tuesday to accept the base map, and it will be difficult for the Senate to negotiate a compromise. Many lawmakers are loath to test the court's clear direction by making any adjustments to the base map that was drawn by the legislative staff. Today's debate in the Senate could be the last chance to build a case for fine-tuning the districts in a way that would benefit millions of Floridians and could still meet the Florida Supreme Court's requirements.

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