Editorial: Drawing legal Senate districts a long shot

Editorial Board | Tampa Bay Times | 10/16/2015

The Florida Legislature opens still another special session this week, one last chance to follow the state Constitution and draw state Senate districts that meet the requirements voters approved five years ago. Don't hold your breath. There are too many political careers at stake, too many feuds between Republican lawmakers and too many ulterior motives to expect this bunch to agree on new districts that would pass the legal tests. The courts have drawn new congressional districts, and it's a safe bet they will take charge of the Senate districts as well.

Legislators have ignored the will of the voters every step of the way. They opposed the 2010 Fair Districts amendments that require congressional and legislative districts to be drawn without any intent to favor political parties or incumbents — and lost. They fought being forced to testify in court when their new maps were challenged — and lost. They defended in court the lines they drew for congressional districts — and lost so badly that the Senate acknowledged it violated the Constitution in drawing the Senate districts rather than try to defend them.

There is a real cost to this blatant disregard for the rule of law in Tallahassee.

Halfway through this decade, Floridians have yet to vote in congressional and state Senate elections that would be more competitive if the districts had met the constitutional requirements they approved. The state's congressional delegation and its Legislature are still too politically imbalanced toward Republicans, resulting in too many one-sided policy decisions. Voter confidence in their legislators has been eroded. And the cost to taxpayers for a series of special legislative sessions and legal fights over redistricting is expected to surpass $11 million.

Tampa Bay will be one of the hot spots during the special session on redrawing the 40 Senate districts. One issue is the minority access district that covers portions of Hillsborough and south Pinellas County now occupied by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. A half-dozen maps drawn by legislative staff keep that district in both counties, but it is possible to draw a similar district solely in Hillsborough County. A second issue is which one of the two districts now occupied by Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Jack Latvala of Clearwater will extend outside Pinellas (speculation that Latvala and Brandes would wind up in the same district seems unfounded unless one of them moves). And a third issue is Latvala's quest to become Senate president after the 2016 elections, which will be affected by how districts statewide will be redrawn and who wins those districts.

There are broader issues to consider as well. While legislators should follow the Constitution in drawing districts that respect political and geographic boundaries, rigidly following county lines would have a downside in Tampa Bay. That would promote parochialism when the key to the area's success is a regional vision.

There also will be a push for lawmakers to approve one of the Senate maps drawn by staffers without making any adjustments. The Fair Districts amendments should not strip all decision making from the officeholders elected by the voters. There has to be a way for legislators to follow the Constitution and still propose changes. Yet the most probable outcome of this special session is for the Senate to make adjustments to staff-drawn districts, the House to reject the map because senators tinkered with the staff's lines — and the whole issue to move back to the courts.

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