Florida Senate votes down compromise map; special session ends with no result

Mary Ellen Klas | Miami Herald | 11/05/2015

After three weeks and mounds of draft maps, Florida legislators ended another special session on redistricting Thursday without a resolution, leaving 40 Senate districts in limbo for the 2016 election and renewing calls for an independent commission to handle the drawing of political boundaries.

“We’re in a new era,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, after the Senate rejected the House map on a 23-16 vote. “It has nothing to do with party, it has everything to do with process.”

Nine Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate joined with Democrats to reject the House plan and, with no prospect for resolving the impasse, both chambers adjourned, ending the session a day early.

“What we saw today is an example of years of arrogance and selfishness,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, House Democratic leader from West Palm Beach. He said the vote was a rejection of the decision by House and Senate leaders to create a conference committee of two Republicans to work out the differences in the map with no input from others.

“This was an example of a party that got punched in the face by its own system.”

The job is now left to Tallahassee Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds, who had scheduled a Dec. 10 trial to review the Legislature’s plan.

If the Florida Supreme Court follows the precedent set in the congressional redistricting process, it will order the trial court to choose a map from drafts submitted by the House and Senate as well as the coalition of voters groups that challenged the redistricting maps.

Legislators called themselves into the three-week special session after agreeing to end a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause of Florida and a group of Democrat-leaning voters who alleged the 2012 Senate maps violated the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Florida Constitution.

Lawmakers tried and failed to redraw the congressional maps, after the Florida Supreme Court invalidated them in July, but a special session in August also ended with an impasse, and the trial court was left to decide among three legislative maps or two drawn by the challengers.

“It’s going to be the plaintiffs” who draw this map, warned Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the Senate Reapportionment Committee chairman, before the vote. The House map would have given Democrats the edge in an estimated four additional seats in the chamber now controlled by Republicans 26-14, while two maps proposed by the plaintiffs give Democrats either a 21-19 edge or 20-20 parity.

But several senators said they could not get past the flaws in the House proposal, saying it divided communities in unreasonable ways and became a mechanical, “soul-less” process driven by numerical scores.

Miami’s three Hispanic Republicans blasted the House map for dividing the Miami-Dade districts in a way that could weaken the ability of three Hispanics to win in a primary and be elected to the Senate.

“The way you see these maps drawn they have diminished their voice,” said Sen. René García, R-Hialeah.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, complained that the sprawling retirement community of The Villages was divided into three districts to improve “compactness scores.”

“This process has removed the soul from map drawing and it has de-personalized it,” he said. “The people of Florida deserve better than to be treated like a bunch of numbers.”

The vote capped a bitter and often personal battle over the future of the state’s political boundaries that has spanned four years, involved numerous legal challenges, and cost taxpayers more than $11 million.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who is scheduled to be House speaker in 2016, said the impasse had convinced him that legislators should consider bills pending next session to create an independent commission.

“The system is completely broken and it needs to be fixed, and I’m completely open to a commission,” he told the Herald/Times.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, who has proposed a bill creating an independent commission to handle the state’s redistricting, said he has been approached by several Republicans who are ready to consider taking the job away from legislators.

“The Legislature is incapable of drawing its own maps that don’t have political intent,” he said. “You can’t put 40 people together and have them set aside their own personal viewpoints and ambitions to have an unbiased process. It’s just simply impossible.”

But David King, attorney for the coalition of challengers, said lawmakers should not blame the Fair Districts amendments, which were approved by 63 percent of the voters in the 2010 election, for their inability to reach an agreement.

“Change is very hard to accept — especially when it requires our elected officials to set aside their own personal interests,” he said.”By blaming the amendments, rather than themselves, they are simply perpetuating their opposition to the will of the people and engaging in the very conduct that Florida voters clearly wanted to eliminate from our state.”

In addition to the political challenges, the personality politics of a Senate leadership fight between Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also made it difficult for the Senate to reach consensus.

Latvala and three of his supporters joined with Senate Democrats to reject the Senate map last week, but it passed on a 22-18 vote, after three Miami-Dade Hispanics backed an amendment to strengthen Republican districts in the county.

The House then rejected those changes, angering the Miami Republican senators, and made other changes in the map that prompted Latvala to question the House’s version as an attempt at revenge against him.

After Latvala conceded Thursday that he would no longer be pursuing the Senate presidency but would become the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee under Negron, even more of his supporters joined with Democrats to kill the House map.

The map merged several senators into the same districts, including having Sen. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, drawn into the same district as Latvala, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, drawn into the same district as Sen. Dwight Bullard, R-Cutler Bay.

Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, the chairman of the House redistricting committee, told his House colleagues before they adjourned that the inconvenient matchups of incumbent senators were a sign that the map drawers were not protecting incumbent lawmakers and that would be a selling point when the map was brought before the court.

He noted that the House paired dozens of lawmakers together when it drew its map in 2012 and the Fair Districts coalition did not challenge it as a result.

“It was a tough price to pay to follow the law,” Oliva said. “But we paid that price, and because we paid that price, today our maps are not being contested.”

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