Under a pressing deadline to avoid more redistricting gridlock, Florida lawmakers formally began talks late Wednesday to resolve the differences in their plans to redraw 40 state Senate districts.
The House and Senate have passed competing redistricting plans, with the main differences centering on districts in Miami-Dade County. The special session to redraw the districts is scheduled to end at 3 p.m. Friday.
"I don't think there's any way that politicians can even-handedly draw their own maps," Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said after senators voted to reject a version approved Tuesday by the House. "If we really want to fulfill the intent of the fair districts amendment, we need an independent redistricting commission."
Now, staffers from the House and Senate will likely draw another map in an attempt to reconcile the chambers.
Three staffers have already drawn six "base maps" designed to follow anti-gerrymandering provisions in the constitution. One of those maps was selected by the Senate, but was amended by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, to protect three Hispanic districts. He doesn't believe the changes made to those districts by the House will result in three Hispanic seats in the county.
"That map takes three Hispanic seats in Miami-Dade County and turns them into two," Diaz de la Portilla said.
The House proposal also would merge the Senate districts of three Palm Beach Democrats –Clemens, Joseph Abruzzo, of Wellington, and Maria Sachs, of Delray Beach.
Abruzzo and Clemens both said they are not focusing on how any one map would influence their seats. Sachs did not attend Wednesday's Senate session.
"Clearly none of these maps were drawn by people who have an intimate working knowledge of South Florida," Clemens said. "But as long as they're fair, I don't have a problem with that."
Every proposed map, Abruzzo said, maintains a "strong" western district.
"That is encouraging," he said. "I think keeping the western community together is vital. I would be against any breaking up of the African-American community in the Glades."
No matter what map — if any — the two chambers end up agreeing on, Abruzzo said he "anticipates strong legal challenges."
One of the sticking points in reaching consensus on a new map could be the Senate's own internal politics. The Senate version of the new districts narrowly passed by a 22-18 vote last week, with four Republicans joining the 14 Democrats voting against it.
Among the Republicans voting against it was Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater. He's vying with Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to become Senate president after the 2016 elections. He has been heavily critical of the process of drawing new districts, noting that none of Negron's supporters are drawn into districts with each other.
House leaders, however, have been wary of tinkering too much with "base maps" drafted by legislative staffers. The maps were drawn in a sequestered room with help from House and Senate attorneys to guard against allegations of partisan gerrymandering.
The Florida Supreme Court threw out 27 congressional districts in July, ruling GOP leaders had colluded with political operatives to draw maps favoring Republicans.
That case is pending before the Supreme Court again, after Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, the House redistricting chairman, and Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, leader of Senate redistricting efforts, failed in an August special session to agree on new congressional maps.
So far, the Legislature's redistricting efforts have cost taxpayers about $11 million, mostly in attorneys' fees.