Florida legislators forced to draw new state Senate districts, return for 19-day session

Associated Press | News JAX 4 | 10/19/2015

Despite a bumpy and contentious year, the Republican-led Florida Legislature returns to the state Capitol on Monday with the goal of trying to draw up new maps for 40 state Senate districts.

This marks the third special session of the year for legislators, and also marks the third time that lawmakers have altered the boundaries of state Senate districts since 2012. This session is scheduled to last up to 19 days.

This latest go-round on the Senate maps followed an extraordinary confession this summer where the Senate conceded in court filings that it had violated the state constitution by creating districts that benefited Republicans and incumbents. A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, had filed a lawsuit contending the Senate districts violated the state's "Fair Districts" measure passed by voters in 2010.

Republicans currently have a 26-14 majority in the state Senate and the proposed overhauls could change that balance. The final shifts could also potentially affect a still-unsettled contest among GOP senators on who will succeed current Senate President Andy Gardiner.

But it may not be easy for GOP leaders in the House and Senate to reach agreement over how to change the maps, given the political and personal allegiances at work.

The two chambers feuded earlier this year over health care and spending and in August the House and Senate deadlocked on changing boundaries to congressional districts, leaving the final decision up to the courts. This past week, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli tried to downplay any ongoing animosity among Republican leaders, but GOP leaders are beginning their session with six different proposals.

"We are putting ourselves in the best situation to have the methodology to pass a map but it remains to be seen," Gardiner conceded.

Voters approved a measure that mandated legislators cannot draw districts intended to help incumbents or a member of a political party. A three-year legal battle over congressional districts led to a stinging ruling this past July where the Supreme Court said legislators had allowed the process to draw districts to become "tainted" by the involvement of GOP political operatives.

The same groups that sued over the congressional districts had filed a separate lawsuit challenging state Senate districts. But this time the Legislature agreed to settle the lawsuit two months ahead of the trial and to draw up a new map.

Legislative staff and lawyers have worked on the six initial map proposals without any guidance or direction from legislators. So far political analysts contend that any of the new maps would potentially give the Democrats an opportunity to pick up some seats. Some legislators, however, have made it clear that they believe they have the authority to change the boundaries as long as they can show they are not doing it to help an incumbent or a political party.

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