Senate moves on map but rocky redistricting road ahead

Gary Rohner | Orlando Sentinel | 10/23/2015

TALLAHASSEE – With grudging support, a Florida Senate panel approved a plan Friday that would put all 40 seats in the chamber on the ballot in 2016.

The panel passed a new map redrawing district boundaries and renumbering all the districts. Under normal circumstances, only the 20 senators with odd-numbered districts would be up for election next year.

That was a point of contention among members earlier in the week when Senate lawyers suggested senators whose districts shift wouldn’t have to seek re-election.

But the new map still faces other objections from senators and possibly tough sledding when it goes to the Senate floor next week.

The map passed by a 4-3 vote, with Democrats on the panel voting against it. But Republicans also voiced grave doubts about the plan.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, voted for the map but said it didn’t address the issues of those challenging the districts in court. He called that “defiant” and “recalcitrant.”

“I just want us to restore in this process a little public confidence that this institution has learned its lesson,” Lee said.

Lawmakers are in the middle of a special session to redraw the Senate districts because of a court case brought by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. Senate GOP leaders admitted this summer the maps it approved in 2012 violated Florida’s anti-gerrymandering laws.

The Fair Districts amendments passed by voters in 2010 prohibit lawmakers from drawing districts to help or hurt incumbents, political parties or minority groups.

They call for districts to be drawn as compact as possible using geographic and political boundaries as much as possible.

To prevent suspicions of partisan intent, legislative leaders ordered staffers to be sequestered and draft six “base” maps that would pass muster with the courts.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said the map selected by Senate redistricting chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, was in danger of being smacked down by the courts again because it splits Daytona Beach, one of the issues specifically raised by the plaintiffs.

“I think what we need to really guard against is falling in the same trap that we fell a couple of years ago when we passed our original plan,” Latvala said. “We’re repeating history there.”

Latvala is currently locked in a battle with Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to succeed Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, after the 2016 elections.

Galvano defended the map as the best of those drafted by staffers, saying it has the most even distribution of population among the districts. He said there were several legal considerations that narrow the ability of lawmakers to tweak the districts.

“This isn’t easy stuff we’re doing, and it wouldn’t be easy in a perfect world. But we are not in a perfect world legislatively,” Galvano said.

But Democrats and Republicans raised issues about how districts were drawn around the state. Districts that split Alachua, Sarasota and Volusia counties were derided.

Questions were also raised about one district crossing Tampa Bay into Pinellas County, after the Florida Supreme Court ruled districts couldn’t cross the bay in a ruling tossing out Florida’s congressional districts.

One area of the map that didn’t receive much criticism was the Orlando area, where most of the incumbents are either term-limited or running for higher office.

Galvano, also the Senate Majority Leader in charge of counting votes on the floor, admitted he has some work to do before Tuesday, when the full Senate is expected to vote on the map.

“I’m going to have my work cut out for me, quite frankly,” Galvano said.

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