Our opinion: Non-partisan commission needed

Editorial Board | Tallahassee-Democrat | 11/03/2015

As recovering alcoholics know, there are no half measures or middle grounds – they just have to quit drinking and accept their new reality. Not even just one sip of just one beer.

Florida legislators, particularly senators, would do well to take the pledge to abstain from politics when drawing political boundaries. As the focus of the special legislative session moved from the Senate to the House this week, it’s clear that – despite all their promises that this time really will be different – they still have a heavy hangover from the era when members weren’t shy about protecting their own political interests.


Last week, the Senate voted 22-18 for a new map of its 40 districts, sending the bill to the House. On Tuesday, the House voted 73-47 for its own version of a Senate map, and it’s not clear if the Senate will go along with the changes. We could have another failed special session, with the Senate map punted to the courts — which are already doing the congressional redistricting.


In years past, the House pretty much did the House and the Senate did the Senate, with each chamber dutifully approving the other’s districts. One time, when the Senate reduced its membership from 48 to the current 40, the House actually increased its own seating by a single district.


In the spirit of inter-chamber comity, the House and Senate used to leave each other’s maps alone. There was partisan gamesmanship, but it was legal and seemed to stay within socially acceptable limits.


Ah, the good old days, when Democrats drew maps in secret and Republicans took what they could get. The GOP took over the Legislature in the mid-1990s and, in barely 20 years, Republicans have become as fractious and predatory as the old Democrats once were.


It burst into the open on the Senate floor last week. Quite apart from complying with court orders to draw fair districts, the Senate debate was overshadowed by a struggle between Sens. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Joe Negron of Stuart for the Senate presidency.


Not since longtime Senate boss Dempsey Barron publicly told then-Gov. Reubin Askew to “stay the hell out of the Senate,” 40 years ago, has there been such a public breach of Senate decorum. Back then, the ugliness involved Senate rejection of Askew’s appointee to head the old Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. It also involved the Senate presidency, with Barron undercutting one designee and installing his own man.


This time, it was all in the Republican family. Latvala publicly accused Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, of tilting the redistricting process to favor allies of Negron in his bid for the Senate presidency. Gaetz, who chaired the Senate redistricting panel back then, hotly denied the accusation.


Almost as a subplot, there was lengthy argument over divvying up Miami-Dade County, to protect the Republican Party’s interests in the unique drama of Cuban-American politics.


That’s all very interesting, but it’s not what the Constitution requires in drawing political boundaries.


What’s changed since the era of “Doghouse Democrats” and bipartisan coalitions is the addition of two constitutional amendments forbidding gerrymandering and political self-preservation in drawing district lines.


The Republican legislative leadership fought to keep those constitutional amendments off the 2010 ballot. Once the proposals passed, they publicly pledged sobriety and proceeded to have unannounced meetings, delete various email messages and covertly share maps with Republican campaign consultants.


Those activities, among others, got the congressional districting plan tossed. Legislators were unable to agree on a new one in a previous special session this year. The Florida Supreme Court will rule on a congressional revision crafted by plaintiffs who sued successfully in Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’s court.


In view of the high court’s ruling on the congressional case, the Senate tossed in its cards in a separate lawsuit over its 40 districts. The Legislature is trying, with time running out, to draw legal Senate lines this week.


They say you can’t take politics out of politics. But Florida’s Constitution says legislators have to when drawing district lines.


Maybe it’s asking too much of them. Wanting politicians to forget self interest and party advantage may be like asking sharks not to feed in a frenzy.


That’s why there should be a special, independent, non-partisan commission created for redistricting of Congress and the Legislature.


The Democrats have filed such legislation to stop the Republicans from doing what they did, themselves, back when it was legal. There is utterly no chance of such a bill becoming law – and, if it did, where would we find these fair-minded experts to fairly draw the lines?


If this special session ends in futility, or if the courts reject whatever legislators produce, maybe both parties will agree to create an independent commission to draw future lines.


But, like drunks admitting they are powerless to control their drinking, the first step will have to be getting legislators to admit they can’t handle this redistricting thing any more.


Legal battle over state Senate districts coming to an end

01/20/2016
TALLAHASSEE - A contentious battle over Florida state senate districts is coming to an end. read more »

Senate won't appeal redistricting ruling

01/20/2016
Clearing the way for elections later this year with a map that could boost Democrats' numbers in the Senate, Republican leaders decided Wednesday not to appeal a Leon County judge's ruling setting districts for the chamber's 40 seats. read more »

Florida Senate won't appeal ruling on new districts

01/20/2016
TALLAHASSEE — Senate leaders said Wednesday that they will not appeal last month's court ruling that sided with a voters' coalition in setting new district boundaries. read more »

Florida Legislature won't appeal redistricting ruling

01/20/2016
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature is giving up the fight and will not contest a court ruling that redraws all of the state's 40 state senate districts for the 2016 election cycle. read more »

Editorial: Republicans should accept redistricting defeat and drop talk of appeals

01/10/2016
For a brief moment last week it appeared the Florida Legislature had come to its senses and was willing to accept a judge's ruling on the boundaries for new state Senate districts. read more »

Renumbering state Senate districts triggers political scramble

01/10/2016
TALLAHASSEE — It may sound like a simple process, but the Florida Senate's random renumbering of all its districts statewide Tuesday touched off a series of complicated twists that one key lawmaker said only adds more chaos to a continuing redistricting saga. read more »