Although the impact of changes to congressional districts to Southwest Florida voters is relatively small, the fact that the state’s judicial system is set to decide the fate of a proposed new map of the 27 districts should be alarming to everyone.
Because the Republican-controlled House and Senate could not agree on a new congressional map, and walked away from each other on Friday with tempers and egos intact, the courts now have the ability to play a game of pick-em. State Judge Terry Lewis, who has ordered hearings for September, now can decide on a map provided by the House, a different version by the Senate, or draw different boundaries, because there is no unified package to present today.
The judicial system should not be deciding the political future of our state and who represents residents in the U.S. House of Representatives. This mess only perpetuates what has been happening in Tallahassee through the year – Republicans can’t get along with members of their own party, and Democrats are simply along for the ride. We saw this dysfunction on display in April when the two chambers reached an impasse over Medicaid expansion dollars and adjourned early from the regular session without a deal on the budget. They returned about a month later to reach agreement on the budget and on the Low Income Pool health-funding program, but left $50 billion of federal money on the table.
The state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature back into a special session after it ruled congressional maps in eight districts favored incumbents or one party over another, violating a 2010 amendment adopted by voters. This was the Legislature’s third attempt at producing new maps, finding a way to work together, adhering to the stipulations of the Voting Rights Act, and rebuilding at least some trust with the electorate, and once again it has failed.
Originally, the House and Senate had worked out an agreement to allow staff to redraw the districts, including the eight in question. The House, including the six representing the Southwest Florida delegation, agreed in principle with the map, then both sides began posturing and amending.
The Senate proposed to consolidate eastern Hillsborough County into one congressional district and put all of Sarasota County into another. The House rejected that bid, saying the move would force Orange County, which was to be its own district to take some of Lake County. The House said such a move would violated the “fair districts” requirement approved by voters in 2010. The House made changes to a district near Jacksonville, resulting in another lawsuit.
“We think we improved the map,” said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-village of Estero.
But so did the Senate, forcing the standoff, as legislative members complained the new maps favored Republicans in own area and Democrats in another.
Putting the maps back into the hands of the state courts is unprecedented. Federal judges did redraw maps in 1992, benefiting U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who became one of three black members from Florida elected to Congress for the first time since the Civil War. But she has filed a federal lawsuit to stop the maps, saying the changes to her north-south district to one with east-west boundaries, will dilute her ability to represent black communities as well as the black vote.
This latest battle is less about what is right for voters and minority communities and more about wanting to preserve political territories and control congressional votes.
“What you are seeing here should concern anybody in the public about the function of their government,” Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said in news reports last week.
“This should make everybody nervous,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
This rift between the House and Senate figures to grow as another special session in October to redraw the state’s Senate districts looms and with the next regular legislative session on deck for January. The Low Income Pool and Medicaid money will once against be front and center, with more funding cuts anticipated. “I am not sure the House will go along with it,” Rodrigues said. “You will continue to see disagreements.”
Yes, everyone should be nervous. We should be nervous that our legislators mishandled yet another important task. We should be nervous about whether our elected leaders are protecting our rights or their own political interests.