SOUTH FLORIDA KEY ISSUE AS REDISTRICTING TALKS OPEN

Brandon Larrabee | The News Service of Florida | 11/04/2015

TALLAHASSEE - South Florida emerged Wednesday as the final barrier to an agreement between legislative leaders about a redistricting plan for the state Senate, even as resistance to other parts of a House-passed map raised questions about whether a majority of senators could be persuaded to back the proposal.

An evening negotiating session between House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, and Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, didn't produce an immediate compromise on a plan to redraw lines for the Senate's 40 seats.

Whether Oliva and Galvano can agree could determine whether the Legislature will successfully end a three-week special session called to redraw the map. The lines are being overhauled under a court settlement reached with voting-rights organizations that argue an original plan, drawn in 2012, violates a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering. The session is set to end Friday.

After the Wednesday evening meeting, Galvano indicated to reporters that districts in Miami-Dade County were the only part of the House version of the map he was still wrestling with.

"The concerns that I've raised at this point are with regard to South Florida," Galvano said.

But that produced outrage among Senate Democrats, who said Galvano was brushing aside other issues in the House plan that had been raised just two hours earlier on the Senate floor. During the floor discussion, Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, questioned the division of Lake County, though the county was split in earlier versions of the map.

Several Democrats are also concerned with a decision by House mapmakers to decrease African-Americans' share of the vote in a Duval County district meant to favor candidates supported by black voters.

"Just now a decision was made arbitrarily by one person that we're not going to address those issues at all, that we're not going to address anything outside of South Florida," said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, after the meeting between Oliva and Galvano.

Braynon raised the prospect that nagging concerns about the map could prevent it from passing the Senate. That would lead to the second failed redistricting session this year for lawmakers, after the House and Senate deadlocked in August on a plan to redraw congressional lines.

"I think we're heading down a path of not having 21 votes," Braynon said. "And what happens at that point, I don't know."

The main sticking point between the two chambers remains three seats in Miami-Dade County meant to elect candidates favored by Latinos. The Senate approved a compromise authored by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, that supporters say keeps Hispanic voting strength high enough to ensure Latinos can influence the outcome of the elections.

But opponents say the Senate map is a crass political move meant to shift Diaz de la Portilla out of a district where his current home would be in the same district as the residences of two other Senate incumbents.

Diaz de la Portilla said earlier Wednesday that he couldn't support the House plan.

"I think that that map takes three Hispanic seats in Miami-Dade County and turns them into two," he said.

After the meeting between Galvano and Oliva, legislative aides were supposed to discuss the lines in South Florida and see if a compromise could be struck. That meeting would be held behind closed doors, though a spokeswoman for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said it would be recorded.

Lawmakers said looking at some of the "base maps" drawn by those aides earlier in the process could provide the basis for an agreement.

"I think for now the priority is looking at those South Florida districts and comparing it against other base maps," Oliva said.

But Diaz de la Portilla suggested earlier Wednesday that there were other parts of the House map that "are very shaky and make me kind of uneasy."

There were signs that the House map would have failed even if Senate leaders had brought it up for a vote Wednesday. As it was, the Senate's plan for its own districts passed by a narrow, four-vote margin last week.

"Wouldn't be going into conference if the votes were here," Diaz de la Portilla told reporters.

But Galvano said before the negotiations began that leaders never took a formal poll of the members on the House plan and said he didn't think a vote would have been taken even if the Senate could have passed it.

After meeting with Oliva, Galvano did not directly respond to a question about whether the House plan, with changes to South Florida, could get a majority in the upper chamber.

"I think that would be the goal, for sure, and we're not going through this without that goal in mind," he said.


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