Lawmakers return (again) for special mapping session

Gary Rohrer | Orlando Sentinel | 10/18/2015

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers are heading back to an expensive, well-worn drawing board.

For the second time in three months, the Legislature will convene a special session Monday to redraw political boundaries. The task of redrawing congressional and legislative districts has already cost taxpayers $9.6 million over six years in litigation expenses alone.

Lawmakers now face the task of redrawing 40 state Senate districts in a session scheduled to end Nov. 6.

This time, legislative leaders are hoping to reach a consensus on new Senate maps that passes muster with the courts.

Previous congressional redistricting efforts ended in a stalemate and a rebuke from the Florida Supreme Court for falling afoul of anti-gerrymandering provisions in the constitution.

"The reality is we all know we have a job to do and [Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando] is committed to producing that product as well as I," said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

Crisafulli and Gardiner directed legislative staffers of each chamber to work together to draft new Senate maps in seclusion to avoid suggestions of partisan interference. The staff deliberations were recorded, but Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa complained she wasn't able to see changes being made to districts in real time.

"It matters because we want to know what are the standards that are in place," Joyner said. "What's the big secret?"

Six "base maps" were released by staffers Thursday. Their differences alter how some areas of Central Florida are represented in the Senate.

For instance, in some maps, Osceola County is drawn into a district including southern Brevard and Indian River counties. In others, it's included in a Polk County or southern Orange County district. Orange County east of State Road 417 is linked with northern Brevard in one map and looped in with central Orange County in another.

Seminole County is kept wholly within one district in most maps, and Lake County is split between two districts in some maps and kept whole in others.

Given their previous redistricting reversals in the courts, Crisafulli and Gardiner are keen to pass Senate maps with minimal tinkering from judges. But legislative leaders are clearly frustrated by the way the courts have interpreted the Fair Districts amendments so far.

Those amendments bar lawmakers from drawing districts to benefit or harm incumbents, political parties or minority groups. They also call for districts to be compact and stick to geographical and political boundaries as much as possible.

For Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, the House redistricting chairman, the Fair Districts amendments make the deeply political task of redistricting overly burdensome by turning every changing line into an opportunity to sue for partisan intent.

"If we're being 100 percent honest, the Fair District amendments make it almost impossible to prove anything," Oliva said. "If you're a Democrat in power, you must choose the Republican advantage, otherwise you will be seen as having bad intent. If you're a Republican, you must choose the other."

However, for Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, two of the groups who sued over the congressional districts, the amendments simply require lawmakers to refrain from gerrymandering.

"Obviously Judge Lewis and the Supreme Court feel that they can be followed. It really doesn't matter what I think," said Florida League of Women Voters president Pamela Goodman.

The Florida Supreme Court threw out the congressional maps in July, ruling that GOP operatives colluded with legislative leaders to boost the number of Republican-leaning seats.

During a special session in August to redraw the maps, the House and Senate failed to agree on new maps, and lawyers for the House and Senate argued against each others' preferred maps in court. That case is still pending before the state Supreme Court.

Much of the same evidence in that case could have been used in a separate case over the Senate districts. Looking to skip a lengthy trial over similar evidence, Gardiner took the unprecedented step of admitting his chamber violated the constitution in its approach to redistricting in 2012.

That meant new Senate districts had to be redrawn in a special session. But unlike the congressional map redrawing process, which had clear mandates from the court to draw some districts in certain ways, lawmakers are left with a blank slate.

"I would suspect that you start from scratch … that you're guided by those amendments, however burdensome they might be. Guide yourself within them, and produce some maps," Oliva said.

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