Our View: Legislative divide may prove costly

Editorial Board | Panama City News Herald | 09/15/2015

“Can this marriage be saved?” is a long-running advice column in Ladies’ Home Journal. Perhaps the appropriate equivalent for Florida political observers is, “Can this Legislature be saved?”

That’s because the relationship between House and Senate leaders is on the rocks.

The Legislature convened its special session on redistricting Aug. 21 without agreeing on a redrawn congressional map that had been ordered by state Supreme Court. Although the court-imposed deadline for producing a new map is Oct. 17, it might as well be eternity before the two Republican-controlled chambers agree on something.

On Sept, 4, the Florida Supreme Court sent the redistricting case back to the trial court, which will look at the House and Senate’s competing map proposals. Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis rejected the House’s request to extend the 100-day window to come up with a new set of maps, but did allow lawmakers to enact a “remedial plan” before he’s forced to pick a winner.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, took that idea and ran with it — right over a cliff: Last Wednesday he rebuffed calls for another special session unless the Senate was prepared to adopt the House map.

The sticking point remains the chambers’ conflicting interpretations of how much flexibility the court gives lawmakers to fix the congressional map. The House believes the Senate map does not apply consistent standards throughout the state that will satisfy the court; the Senate thinks it has the leeway “to influence regions of the map for community interests.”

Until they can resolve that issue, it makes no sense to convene a third special session this year (the first one, in June, was needed to pass a balanced budget). The two sides need to keep working to achieve that end. A new map drawn by Senate Redistricting Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, addresses some of the House’s concerns — not enough to satisfy Crisafulli, but it does constitute compromise, which is what is needed to end this impasse.

The alternative is for the Legislature to abdicate its responsibility to draw congressional districts and leave that decision to a judge, which should make no one happy. Some of the more cynical-minded contend that was the furtive intent of the Fair Districts Amendments, passed by Florida voters in 2010 so as to prevent districts from being drawn to favor a political party or incumbent. The amendments, they say, were designed to make compliance virtually impossible so the task of redistricting would have to be taken out of lawmakers’ hands.

That’s a juicy conspiracy theory, but it lets the Legislature off the hook too easily. It is failing not because its hands are tied, but because its politics is broken — an odd conclusion given the fact that it is under one-party control. Nevertheless, Florida Republicans have suffered the kind of ideological and turf breakdowns as a divided government.

If the Legislature can’t rediscover the art of politics, this round of redistricting will be resolved in a judge’s chamber. In the future, though, the best solution is to put it in the hands of an independent commission.

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