TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House put its mark on the Senate redistricting map Monday, approving a new plan that merges pieces of the Senate plan and that of the challengers with its own additions in a way that slightly improves prospects for Democrats.
But before the map could come up for a floor debate as scheduled Tuesday, the challengers offered up two more alternatives late Monday — this time proposing a fourth Hispanic seat in South Florida and an African American district contained solely in Hillsborough County.
The coalition of voter groups led by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida "is concerned that the Legislature's proposals continue to reflect constitutional infirmities and evidently fail to take into account ongoing developments in minority voting in certain communities," wrote David King, lead attorney for the groups that have challenged the Legislature's redistricting maps. He urged lawmakers to update its redistricting data, start over, or consider the plaintiffs' maps.
Lawmakers are in the third week of a three-week special session to redraw the state Senate map after agreeing that the plan they enacted in 2012 was unconstitutional. Once they finish the map, a trial court has scheduled a hearing on it beginning Dec. 10 and then it must pass a review by the Florida Supreme Court early next year.
"We have taken everyone's concerns and put them in a numerically superior map in the hopes of being able to pass it," said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, chairman of the House Select Committee on Redistricting after the panel approved his map on a 9-4 party line vote.
Oliva's proposal takes pieces of the map (S9124) passed 22-18 by a bitterly divided Senate last week and merged it with parts of the first proposal offered last week by redistricting challengers (CPS-1).
Election data shows that the revised map (S9079) could reduce the Republican majority in the 40-member chamber from 26 to 22 in a presidential election year, but make it much tighter for Democrats to hold some of those swing seats in a mid-term election year. The Senate plan, by contrast, could have elected 23 Republicans to 17 Democrats based on 2010 election data.
He also rejected a call from the challengers to update the election data to include the primaries of 2012 and 2014 to better demonstrate the the voting strength of minority voters. House redistricting attorney George Meros told the House committee that validating such data would take as much as a year and the existing data used by the House is "the gold standard."
King blasted the House for offering "unreasonable excuses" and he said it suggests "the Legislature is intent on limiting its consideration to stale data that it considers more favorable to its partisan goals."
Senators from both parties complained that the House map was an example of partisan and incumbency protection, suggesting that the map favors a faction of Republicans who have taken sides in the fight over who will become the next Senate president in 2016.
"There is no doubt in my mind they are not happy with me because I spoke my mind about the process and because they don't want me to be Senate president," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is facing off against Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, for the Senate presidency. Negron is the candidate House leaders quietly prefer.
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said House leaders appeared to take parts of the challengers' maps only when it suited the Republican majority. Unlike the maps selected by the House and Senate, the challengers proposed a map that would have favored 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats.
"It's interesting how they pick and choose," Braynon said. "In order to make it fair, you can't add more Republicans. To get to fair you are eventually going to have to add Democrats. That's what's happening."
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, criticized Oliva's map for making changes in Duval County, even though neither the Senate nor the challengers' map had made them.
Oliva's proposal reduced African American voting age population in proposed District 8, the district she now represents, from 43 percent to 41.3 percent.
"It's comical and certainly unnecessary," Gibson said.
Oliva defended the change as necessary to improve the compactness score of the district.
"The court has said it is very important to have compact districts," Oliva told reporters.
In other parts of the map, questions were raised about proposed Senate District 2, now held by Sen. Greg Evers, a Republican. The Oliva map moves his tiny hometown of Baker into a district with Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Gaetz is term limited out and his son, Matt, is running for his seat in a tough primary.
Evers was among a handful of Republicans who voted against the Senate map last week when it passed the chamber. He is a supporter of Latvala's. Latvala sees revenge in the House's actions.
"They have made changes for some very shaky reasons," he told the Times/Herald.
But Oliva said he believed all the changes made the map stronger and more constitutionally sound.
"I don't anticipate a collision course with the Senate because I don't believe there is a collision course," he said.
He would not comment on Latvala's claim that changes were aimed at retaliation against Latvala, or intended to create more Republican-leaning Senate districts in Jacksonville.
"The only thing that this does is create tremendous palace intrigue of all sorts into the drawing of these maps," he said.
Part of the intrigue is the number of incumbent Democrats paired into the same districts in the Oliva map, compared to Republicans.
The House map puts Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove, into the district of Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables. Palm Beach Democratic Sens. Maria Sachs, Jeff Clemens and Joe Abruzzo are all drawn into the same Palm Beach County district. And Sen. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, a Latvala supporter, is drawn into the same district as Latvala.