Florida lawmakers say failure to agree on maps doesn't indicate legislative gridlock

Tia Mitchell | Florida Times Union | 11/06/2015

TALLAHASSEE - The Legislature’s special session to draw a new Senate map ended without an agreement, and now courts will complete the job.

It was the third time this year things ended like this.

Lawmakers couldn’t agree on a congressional map during an August special session. And the regular session ended when the House left abruptly — 3.5 days early — after declaring a budget impasse with the Senate.

In fact, the only time in 2015 legislators adjourned and declared success was a June special sitting to complete the budget. If lawmakers hadn’t approved a spending plan then, there was a risk of the state government being shut down.

Despite going 1-for-4 this year, lawmakers are not blaming one another. And they say it doesn’t mean that the upcoming 2016 regular session is poised for gridlock.

Instead, Republicans have blamed anti-gerrymandering amendments approved by voters as changing the redistricting process in way that makes it much harder to build a consensus around new maps. That is what bogged down the two special sessions on redistricting, they said.

“Amendment 5 and 6, we’re trying to learn how to work and learn how to accommodate” the new requirements, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said. “It’s a very difficult thing.”

The Senate voted 23-16 on Thursday to reject the House version of the map that set the boundaries for 40 State Senate seats. Senators accused the House of packing South Florida Hispanics into too few districts, reducing the black voting-age population in a Jacksonville seat intended to elect a minority, and slicing The Villages retirement community of Central Florida in half.

The House was also unwilling to accept the Senate’s proposal, especially after changes were made in Miami-Dade County that representative said indicated senators were trying to protect incumbents. So the session ended a day early and with no agreement.

Now it will be up to a Leon County circuit court judge to review various maps that have been proposed, including those from a coalition of left-leaning voter groups that have challenged the redistricting process since it began in 2012. Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court will decide.

A similar process is already underway for the congressional map and its 27 seats.

Meanwhile, legislators have returned home after a three-week special session that cost taxpayers roughly $12,800 a day. That doesn’t include the cost of at least one round-trip home for each of the 160 lawmakers.

After lamenting the Legislature’s .250 batting average this year, Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, wrote on Twitter that Floridians deserve better. “I hope as FL Legislature travel safely back 2 districts they join in reflecting on how we can come together next session,” she wrote. “FL deserves better”.

But not all lawmakers believe failure to reach an agreement is the same as a failed session. Members voted their conscious, Sen. Thad Altman said, and sometimes the chambers don’t agree with each other.

“The system is working the way it was designed,” Altman, R-Melbourne, said. “It’s working and now it is in the hands of the courts.”

The one bright spot on Thursday was the end of a bitter battle over who would become Senate president in 2016. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, conceded to rival Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and in return will serve as Negron’s budget chief. The competition between the two men had divided the Republican caucus and could have dragged on through the 2016 general election.

Latvala said he decided to bow out of the race after watching his colleagues divide into camps and determining more attention should be paid on issues affecting Floridians as the 2016 session looms.

“I’ve been totally consumed in the political side of being in the Senate and not in the policy side, and that’s what people send us here to do,” Latvala said. “It just occurred to me that we need to start focusing on what the people send us here to do, try to solve some of the problems.”


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