Groups call for Florida lawmakers to speed up redistricting

By BRANDON LARRABEE | The News Service of Florida | 06/14/2011

Supporters of a new set of constitutional standards for redistricting are calling on lawmakers to accelerate the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state lines and remove a “gag order” they say has been placed on legislators ahead of next week’s launch of public hearings.

The organizations — including the state NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Hispanic advocacy group Democracia and Common Cause Florida — also asked the House to drop out of a lawsuit brought by two members of Congress asking a federal court to toss one of the amendments to the Florida Constitution passed in November.

“Please let us know that you will do your duty, abide by your oaths to enforce the Florida Constitution, and comply with the Fair Districts amendments,” the groups said in a letter to legislative leaders dated Tuesday.

The letter’s authors contend that the Legislature’s current timetable for maps — which lawmakers will hammer out during a session beginning in January — could cause chaos during qualification and the 2012 campaign, particularly if the maps are successfully challenged in court. A lawsuit on the maps is considered a certainty by many advocates and lawmakers.

The groups say the decision by legislative leaders to ask lawmakers to not speak at the meeting could actually fuel fears that the Legislature will eventually ignore the new rules, aimed at curbing partisan gerrymandering.

“An order to remain silent creates the impression that there is something to hide,” the letter says. “We urge you to reconsider this gag order and encourage a productive give-and-take at each of the hearings.”

Republican leaders, who have long suspected that the amendments were meant to tip the balance of power more toward Democrats and who waged a fierce campaign to try to block them in last year’s election, responded that many of the complaints seemed politically motivated.

“While I would hope that is not the case, how else can we interpret their suggestion that members of the public have less time to speak and to offer input prior to the maps being drawn,” said House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who is scheduled to become speaker late next year.

Lawmakers also contend that their schedule for redrawing the lines is set by the Florida Constitution. They also highlighted the fact that the session was moved up from its usual March start date to January so the Legislature can get an earlier start on drawing the lines.

“Since the Fair Districts Now group is so concerned about redistricting, I once again invite them to submit their own maps so everybody can see their concept of a ‘fair district,’” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. “If the past is any indication though, they’ll come up with an excuse not to participate in this important process.”

Last year, Haridopolos repeatedly pressed for supporters of the amendments to release their vision of maps; Fair Districts Florida, the group that pushed for the amendments, contended that was impossible because of how outdated the 2000 Census numbers were.

Public hearings on redistricting begin Monday in Tallahassee.

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