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Minority leader Saunders hopes for a redistricting boost

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House Minority Leader Ron Saunders

By Tom Flanigan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-990070.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Florida lawmakers will soon face the once-every-ten-years challenge of redrawing voting districts. The legislative leadership had been hoping they'd be able to do that with few distractions when they convene this coming January in Tallahassee. Tom Flanigan reports they probably won't have that luxury.

Florida House Minority Leader Ron Saunders of Key West is an old hand when it comes to the reapportionment game.

"Well I previously served in the Florida House from 1986 to '94, so during the 1992 session was the last reapportionment session I served in and I was actually in the majority party. I'm a Democrat and the Democrats were in charge so I certainly understand what the Republicans who are now in charge are going through."

Based on data from the 2010 U-S Census, Florida lawmakers will be deciding how and where to draw two sets of voting district lines: those for themselves and also for U-S House and Senate districts. Saunders says that job was tough enough when he and his colleagues did it some twenty years ago. He believes it will be even tougher now because of Amendments Five and Six. Passed by Florida voters last year, they impose new rules on district line drawing that give incumbents less of an advantage.

"I never thought that reapportionment was a good thing for the legislature to do because there's such a conflict of interest, but that's the way the Constitution has it and at least now we have standards to follow and the courts hopefully will enforce those standards."

Saunders says this will very much consume the attention of lawmakers when they meet in Tallahassee this coming January - two months earlier than usual - for the 2012 session.

"Reapportionment's such a personal thing to legislators. They all want to know what their districts are going to look like, or may the district they're going to want to run for will look like, and that tends to dominate the discussion. And it's hard for leadership to get them to focus on anything else and so I think for the most part that you're not going to see controversial bills passed this session. You're going to see a lot of focus on the redistricting and of course after that you're going to have the court battles and so it's going to be a pretty long, drawn out process."

But Saunders says there's a one-point-six billion dollar problem facing lawmakers who'd hoped to concentrate on who will vote for whom where in next year's election. That's the amount of the state budget deficit estimators now project for 2012-13.

"Well budget deficits can only be resolved mainly in one of two ways. One is to raise revenues, meaning taxes and fees, or two you make cuts and that usually comes in the two biggest areas, education and health care. And obviously both those things are politically unpopular, it just depends on which medicine you want to take during a redistricting year, during an election year. And at this point the legislative leadership - the Republicans at least - have said they don't want to see any new revenues , so that leaves the other option, making cuts."

Of course most of the low-hanging budget cut fruit is long gone in Florida after four straight years of relentless slashing. The next round of cuts, Saunders thinks, will slice deeply into services enjoyed by large numbers of so-called "average" Floridians....meaning average voters. Meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott is again pushing for even less immediate revenue in the form of more tax cuts for business. Given the other circumstances, Saunders doesn't think that will fly, even among pro-business lawmakers.

"I think it's very unlikely. The two things he's really pushing, one would be the corporate tax cut, which is only paid by the largest corporations in the state of Florida. The second is more regulation reform, meaning cutting regulations."

Unlike twenty years ago, Ron Saunders and his Democrat colleagues no longer drive the legislative bus in Tallahassee. But even so, he says he doesn't really envy the Republicans who now hold the wheel and will be trying to keep that bus on a very slippery road come January.