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Lawmakers Told "Fair Districts" May Not Be Possible

By Gina Jordan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-888554.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Standards for drawing congressional and state legislative districts got their first review of the session Tuesday. The Senate Reapportionment Committee addresses the redistricting process once every ten years, and Gina Jordan reports there could be some big changes in store.

The committee heard a presentation by staff director John Guthrie, who began by stressing the importance of the census.

"This is our opportunity to make sure that all Floridians get counted so that we get our fair share of representation in the U-S Congress, our fair share of federal funding, and that districts are redistricted properly within the state."

Guthrie reminded everyone that census forms will start arriving in the mailboxes of nine-million Florida households in about two weeks, with April 1st being census day.

"Every ten years, we count the population to reapportion the U-S House of Representatives and to ensure proper district representation in state and local governments. Census data also are used to determine how more than $400-billion in federal funds are distributed each year to the states and communities."

That brings us to district boundaries and how those lines should be drawn. A group called Fair Districts Florida got enough petition signatures to put two amendments on the November ballot. The amendments would, among other things, keep lawmakers from drawing legislative districts that favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties. But what does that mean? Guthrie tried to explain.

"Do I favor this, yes or no, true or false? Well, if I favor it, then not favoring it is going to be the opposite of that So if favor is true, then not favor is false."

Committee Chairman Mike Haridopolos invited members of the media to a workshop this Friday. He sent a letter saying Senators and Representatives are committed to making redistricting technology fully accessible to the public. Guthrie says the letter expressed concerns that the proposed standards will jeopardize voting opportunities for minorities, are too ambiguous to be applied, and will lead to increased litigation.

"The committee provided to the Fair Districts dot org organization copies of the software, the data, links to transcripts and other committee records from 2001-2002. At the workshop, what Senator Haridopolos is going to do is provide those same materials to other interested parties and journalists so that they can more fully explore what the implications of the fair districting dot org amendments might be."

Workshop participants will be able to apply current standards as well as the amendment language as they attempt to draw boundaries using redistricting software. The workshop will try to tackle whether it's even possible to draw a map that complies with the proposed standards. Guthrie walked the committee through an exercise with five Panhandle counties to show how difficult that might be.

"So, by striving to put in whole counties, keep Bonifay intact, create a district that was compact, we violated one of the subsection-one standards of the Fair Districts dot org amendments."

Senator Haridopolos said the committee's goal is to be absolutely transparent on the issue.

"We've all agreed I think on healthcare reform. Everyone's for it, it's just when you actually define it, it becomes something slightly different. I had also asked some of the folks who'd asked me a question on this, saying, if any member of the Legislature had proposed a constitutional amendment, I think that the standard that we would hold to ourselves is we would hold extensive hearings. I have a feeling everyone would want to see where the contributions came in on either side, and that you'd ask the fundamental question .Can this actually work?"

Haridopolos plans to send a letter to the man he called the architect of the amendment, former House Speaker turned law professor Jon Mills, asking him to appear before the committee to answer their questions.