Lawmakers redraw senate maps

The Republican- controlled Florida Legislature is working on a new map for state senate districts. The Florida Supreme Court invalidated a previous proposal, saying it did not follow new rules approved by voters. James Call reports a plan has been posted to the Senate Reapportionment Committee website and will be discussed at a Tuesday meeting with a Senate floor vote scheduled for the end of next week.

The Fair Districts amendment to the Florida Constitution calls for districts to be compact, respect city and county borders whenever possible and not favor any candidate.  Supreme Court justices identified eight proposed senate districts they said failed the test.   The League of Women Voters was part of the legal challenge to the map. Ben Wilcox is with the League and says lawmakers are mistaken if they think they can fix the redistricting plan by just focusing on the disputed districts. Wilcox says the Senate should throw out the map and start working on a new one.

 “I think it is going to be very difficult to do. Because when you start tweaking those eight districts it is going to affect a lot of the surrounding districts. So you know they are going to find it very difficult to do just a minor tweak to the plan.”

The legislature always seems to have difficulties with redistricting.  It is the act of dividing the state into zones for statehouse and congressional seats. It is done every ten years to reflect changes in population.  The court rejected the 2012 plan on the very last day of the legislative session.  Senate President Mike Haridopolos says lawmakers weren’t surprise. They expected a special session to draw a new map.

“I don’t think that anyone is surprised is that we are back.  It happened in 1982, it happened in 1992 and 2002, but I am glad to see that four out of five districts are intact.  And I am sure we will look at things like numbering of districts and other things.”

It is very much a numbers game. A math problem with constantly changing values, move x number of people from one district produces problem y in another. Then there’s the complexity of eight-year term limits mixed with four-year terms and incumbents forced into a reelection campaign in mid-term.

“That is not a hard one to fix.  It’s just not a fix that a lot of people over there are going to like.”

Rod Smith is the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, which also was part of the legal challenge. He had just laid out a plan fixing a district re-numbering scheme the court ruled unconstitutional. It doesn’t translate well into a radio story. Senate seats are staggered with half up for reelection every two years except in a redistricting year like 2012. Then all seats are up, which means some incumbents have a two-year term. The Senate dealt with this by making it possible for some Senators to be in office for 10 years.  The court ruled this was not an accident of math but was done with intent.

“The underlying  goal here, as the court said, every time you try to give someone more than eight years and you purposely do that in a pattern that is indicative of a desire to protect incumbency.  And they struck that down.”

Smith, like Wilcox, has called on the Senate to throw out its original proposal and go back to the drawing board and come up with a new map of 40 districts.  Destin Senator Don Gaetz is leading the Senate’s redistricting committee. It held one meeting after the session ended and will meet again Tuesday.   Gaetz says there is no good reason to redo a whole new map. He thinks his critics are misrepresenting comments he and Senate President Haridopolos have made about focusing on the eight districts the court identified that failed to meet the new rules.

“Unless we are allowed to go out in the Gulf of Mexico or go into the Atlantic Ocean and Georgia and Alabama, and I don’t think we are allowed to do that, we will have to adjust. If we adjust borders of an inland district or really of any district, then it is possible we will have to adjust borders of a contiguous district.  But the idea of starting over again and throwing it all out, all of the public testimony we have received and all of the suggestions, you know, that was finally developed into a map that was largely compliant with the constitution only people who enjoy chaos would want to do that.  And apparently there are some.”

Critics like Smith and Wilcox also complain about much of the work being done by staff behind closed doors.  Gaetz’s proposal to fix the senate map will be discussed at Tuesday’s meeting. He says the committee will continue to solicit public input.

“Additional suggestions, criticism and comments by the public are still being received the web site is still open to receive any suggested plans. And we will provide time as time allows in our committee meeting for public comment.”

The committee is expected to vote on a map at the Tuesday meeting and then it will be debated on the Senate floor Thursday with a vote coming Friday.  Then the House will meet and vote on the proposal Monday, March 26th.  Lawmakers need to reach an agreement by March 28th, the conclusion to the special session.