Redistricting heads to final showdown on House Floor

Feb 2, 2012

Redistricting is headed for final action in the Republican controlled Florida Legislature. James Call reports, the House began floor debate Thursday with a final vote expected Friday.

Lawmakers need to approve three maps in time for the fall election. Every ten years the boundaries for state legislative districts and the congressional seats are redrawn to reflect changes in population. The three maps before the House passed out of committee along party line votes. Democrats say they are not consistent with the new standards approved by voters in 2010. The so-called Fair Districts amendments require political districts to be as compact and contiguous as possible.  Spring Hill Republican, Rep. Ron Schenck is a subcommittee chairman. He explained on the House floor why the House proposal complies with Fair Districts.

“The state house map drawn 10 years ago kept only 21 counties whole, this proposed state map keeps 37 counties whole. By population it is possible to keep only 38 counties whole and we keep 37. The state map 10 years ago split 170 of Florida’s 411 incorporated municipalities. This proposed state map splits only 75 municipalities.”

Three groups in the Fair Districts coalition which sponsored the anti-gerrymandering amendments say the proposed maps fail the fairness test. They contend, for example, the proposed Senate map leaves every incumbent in better shape for reelection. Democrats lack the numbers to influence the outcome of committee meetings or even floor action but they do have a plan. They can question the bill’s sponsors on the House Floor.

Fort Lauderdale Representative Perry Thurston is briefing Democrats about their strategy for the redistricting debate. They want the Republicans to explain themselves.

“On the Congressional map, we’ve got Taylor and Steinberg will be handling the bulk of the questions..”

Lawyers for the Democrats crafted a series of questions designed to shed light on Legislative intent. Key West Representative Ron Saunders says the minority party wants to help the Republicans explain how the proposed maps comply with the Fair Districts amendments.

“By our questions we are trying to find whether the maps do meet those requirements. And obviously the questions will be directed towards the eventual court battle. There is no question these maps will go to court. So we use this opportunity to find legislative intent for example and also the effect of the maps.”

Democrats also plan during the debate to call a Republican bluff. Saunders says they will propose an amendment that would strengthen Republican majorities in two districts. They expect the amendment to fail and thereby demonstrate that the minority party was shut out of the process of drawing new political boundaries.

"The Republicans cannot say as they did in the Senate, ‘well Democrats didn’t offer any amendments how do we know they couldn’t have done a better job with it.’ Even on an amendment that helps only Republicans, if republicans vote no, why would they vote for one that helps Democrats?"

Wesley Chapel Representative Will Weatherford led the House in drawing the new maps. He says this year’s redistricting process has been the most open, inclusive and transparent exercise in history. A Times-Herald analysis of the proposed House map found it could increase the minority party’s strength by up to 11 members. It pits 38 incumbents against each other, in essence drawing a third of the House membership out of their district. Weatherford says that is because he followed the letter of the law and honored the constitution. He appears unconcerned about any potential lawsuit.

“I’m not going to try to predict what’s going to happen in court or what litigation may or may not come. My job has been to do just the best job I can to try to make this fair, to try to make this open, and try to make it legal and I think we achieved all three.”

The House is expected to pass the three maps Friday and send them to the Senate. Once the Senate acts on them they will be sent to the Florida Supreme Court for a 30 day review. Redistricting maps were challenged in court in 1992 and 2002 and most observers expect a court challenge again this year.