Special session shows need for an independent panel to draw lines

Bill Cotterell | Tallahassee Democrat | 08/22/2015

If Florida Democrats weren’t so fussy about church-state separation, the House minority caucus might post a little picture of Saint Jude in its little conference room at the Capitol.

He’s the patron saint of lost causes.

Legislative Democrats, who cast roughly one-third of the votes in the House and Senate, are accustomed to being the Chicago Cubs fans of Florida politics. Lost causes don’t deter them.

So now, they’re rallying behind a proposal to create a special non-partisan, independent and apolitical commission to draw the state’s congressional and legislative districts.

Exhibit A in their argument is the special legislative session we’ve seen for the past two weeks. It was required for the redrawing of Florida’s 27 congressional districts, following the Florida Supreme Court’s determination on July 9 that the Republican leadership cheated in drawing the current districts.

Exhibit B in support of creating a special commission, as if any further proof is desired, would be the special session coming in October to realign the state’s districts for the same reason they needed a do-over of the congressional maps. The legislative leaders didn’t even wait for the court to smack them around on that one, but conceded they couldn’t win — without admitting they did anything wrong — and agreed to a special session.

Somehow, they managed to redistrict 120 House seats without cheating badly enough to get caught. But succeeding with one out of three maps is evidence that maybe somebody else ought to do it.

Which is why Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood, introduced his bill to set up a nine-member commission that would draw the congressional and state legislative districts for the 2022 apportionment session. His bill specifies that two commissioners will be named by the House and Senate presiding officers, two by the minority leaders, and five by the governor – who could name one Democrat, one Republican and three members from some minority parties or no party at all.

To prevent anybody switching parties or going independent just to get on the commission, appointees would have to be in their current political status for five years. The special commission would set up shop in Orlando – both to get it away from Tallahassee and make it accessible to the greatest population – and would take public testimony from all interested citizens.

And it would be a felony for anyone to try secretly influencing commissioners, or flying under some false flag. Without rehashing a lot of ancient history (like 2012), that’s what got the congressional and state Senate plans in trouble with the courts last time.

Of course, the Democrats used to tilt the table their own way, when they ran the Legislature and drew the maps. But that was before the state Constitution was amended in 2010 to make gerrymandering illegal.

At a news conference last Wednesday, House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, assembled a group of Democrats to endorse Jenne’s bill as one of the top caucus goals of 2016. They said that, not only have the elected legislators shown they can’t put politics aside and draw maps that don’t protect incumbents or favor either party, they shouldn’t do it even if they could.

It’s too much like sending lettuce by rabbit. It’s not that they are tempted to be influenced by politics, it’s that being influenced by politics is their stock in trade, their nature.

There are two reasons this is an utterly lost cause.

The people who will vote on House Bill 21 next year — if it even gets a hearing — are the people who would be giving up the enormous power of drawing the political boundaries of districts they and their friends need. And the party that holds that power, now and for the foreseeable future, is in charge of the whole system.

The idea of an independent commission has shown good results in other states, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently approved the concept. It has come up before in Florida, with a couple of petition campaigns to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, but there’s no big money behind the idea.

Other public petition campaigns — the lottery, minimum wage, workplace smoking ban, medical marijuana — have had well-funded, or at least well-organized, backers and widespread public support. Even with the Legislature’s repeated failure to follow the public mandate, there doesn’t appear to be any deep pockets or public outrage for an initiative campaign.

Realizing he has no chance in the Legislature, Jenne would like to at least get the conversation started on an independent redistricting committee. After all, elected legislators rejected the lottery and a lot of other things, until they were forced on them by public petition.

“We’re the good guys on this thing,” Jenne said. “We’re on the side of the angels.”

Maybe Saint Jude could work a miracle for them.

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