House, Senate advance differing redistricting plans

Lloyd Dunkelberger | The Ledger | 08/17/2015

TALLAHASSEE — The issue of splitting Sarasota County into two congressional districts remained unresolved Monday, as the Senate and House advanced differing special session plans on redrawing Florida’s 27 congressional districts.

The Senate Reapportionment Committee, headed by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, unanimously backed a map (SB 2B) that would put all of Sarasota County into Congressional District 16, which is now represented by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key. The proposal is now slated for a Senate floor debate on Wednesday.

But the House rejected an amendment from Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, that would have accomplished the same goal. The voice vote came after House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami, objected to Gonzalez’s amendment, saying it would make CD 16 and Congressional District 17, which is represented by U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, less compact.

Gonzalez, who was working with Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, had argued that lawmakers could back a plan to make Sarasota County whole while still meeting the mandate of a state Supreme Court decision that has forced lawmakers to redraw eight districts in way that does not violate the constitutional provisions banning maps that favor political parties or incumbents.

“In my district there’s a great concern about keeping Sarasota County together in its representation before Congress,” Gonzalez said. “That is a nonpartisan concern. It is simply a concern about fair and adequate representation.”

Gonzalez said splitting the county into two congressional districts would heighten concerns about “disparate treatment” between the northern two-thirds of Sarasota County versus the southern third and put the southern portion of the county into a district that sprawls eastward into Okeechobee County, a region with different populations and concerns than a coastal area.

The House rejection of Gonzalez’s amendment means the chamber will likely vote out its congressional map (HB 1B) on Tuesday, leaving Sarasota split between CDs 16 and 17.

But the issue is far from over as the Senate now appears poised to vote out a map later this week that would keep Sarasota in one congressional district. The differences in the House and Senate plans will have to be worked out in negotiations between the two chambers before the 12-day special session ends on Friday.

Although the House has thus far rejected any changes to the “base map” for the congressional redistricting, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said the Senate proposal would be considered once it is voted out by that chamber.

The Senate Reapportionment Committee backed an amendment from Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, that moved all of Sarasota County into CD 16 and kept the bulk of Manatee County’s population in the district. Lee said his primary objective in advancing the plan was to consolidate the representation of eastern and southern Hillsborough County into Congressional District 15, which is represented by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland.

At the same time, the proposal kept Sarasota County whole and made districts in the Orlando area more “compact,” Lee said.

Raoul Cantero, the former Supreme Court justice who is advising the Senate on the redistricting changes, said the map changes did not violate the Supreme Court’s order on redrawing the districts, noting it actually made more cities whole, 388 versus 386 in the “base” map.

“In my view it’s a legally defensible amendment,” he said.

Senators withdrew two amendments that sought to revamp the configuration of Congressional District 5, now represented by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. The amendments sought to increase the black voting age population in the district, which runs from Jacksonville east to the Tallahassee area, by allowing it to include minority populations in Alachua and Marion counties.

Senators, who have been critical of the court ruling, argued the court order endorsing a 45 percent black voting age population in the district may make it harder for a black candidate to prevail. But they also said they are likely to keep the map in compliance with that order, while expecting Brown and others to challenge the new map as a violation of minority voting rights in federal court.

Senators also refuted charges raised by the Florida League of Women Voters in a letter contending changes to two Southeast Florida congressional districts in the base map seem to favor U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Kendall. “Those allegations are baseless,” said Galvano, who chairs the Senate redistricting panel.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, complained that the LWV had made the allegation in the letter but would not appear before the committee to provide the evidence that the map changes were unconstitutional.

“Bring it forward. We’re here,” Bradley said. “That didn’t happen and that’s very disappointing.”


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