Redistricting chairs huddle after Senate approves map

BRANDON LARRABEE The News Service of Florida | Daily Commercial | 08/20/2015

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers took the first tentative steps Wednesday to try to bridge a gap on how to redraw the boundaries for Florida’s 27 congressional districts, as the chairman of a House panel working on crafting new lines signaled he was open to a proposal approved by the Senate hours earlier.

For now, the two chambers remain separated on competing versions of the redistricting measure (HB 1B), which is aimed at fixing problems with eight districts that prompted the Florida Supreme Court to throw out the existing lines in July.

Justices ruled that the current map violates the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” standards approved by voters in 2010, sparking a special session to come up with changes.

The House has moved forward with a staff-drawn “base map” that would, supporters say, satisfy the court ruling. But Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, led a charge in the upper chamber to tweak the base map, consolidating eastern Hillsborough County into one district and preserving a district that includes all of Sarasota County, which was broken up under the base map.

But after a meeting Wednesday with Senate counterpart Bill Galvano, House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva indicated a willingness to consider the upper chamber’s proposal. Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, noted that the Senate plan would also result in two fewer cities being split, in keeping with part of the Fair Districts amendments.

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I can say that that’s an improvement,” Oliva said.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, also told members in memo late Wednesday that the House might agree to some changes in the map, though he didn’t specify what those might be.

“Chair Oliva has informed me that after his review, he may file an amendment to the Senate amendment,” Crisafulli wrote.

The open meeting between Oliva and Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who chairs the Senate Reapportionment Committee, was a striking contrast to closed-door negotiations over the first draft of maps that lawmakers approved three years ago.

Wednesday’s meeting came hours after the Senate voted 28-8 to approve its version of the plan. The House had already passed its redistricting map on Tuesday.

Supporters of the Senate plan used the debate Wednesday as an opportunity to promote the proposal to the House, even as they helped vote down other potential changes to the map. Galvano said the proposal was superior to any alternative that had been proposed, including those floated by a coalition of voting-rights groups that sued to overturn the existing maps.

“This map beats them all,” Galvano said. “And this map beats what came out from across the hall as well.”

Lee also bristled at the idea that lawmakers would defer to a handful of legislative aides who drew the base map ahead of the special session. House leaders have argued that the base map is the safest way to avoid further legal challenges.

“Let’s not let this come down to a pride of authorship question or, for goodness’ sakes, suggest that we were all sent up here simply to adopt and rubberstamp a map that was drawn by three people ... that’s going to affect 20 million people that we were all elected to represent,” Lee said.

Senators clashed over the role of the Supreme Court, which House Republicans slammed on Tuesday. The criticism centered on whether the court overreached in its rejection of the congressional redistricting plan and in the specific orders justices gave on how to redraw the map.

For the most part, the court discussion was more muted on the Senate floor, though Sen. Don Gaetz got in a not-too-subtle shot at the five justices who voted to strike down the plan.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who led the drawing of the original lines during the once-a-decade redistricting process in 2012, said the map’s opponents have “been brilliant.”

“They’ve out-lawyered us,” he said. “Of course, it always helps when the referee’s wearing the same color jersey as the opposing team.”

But Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, rebuked those who have targeted the justices.

“This is not the time for hubris,” she said. “It is the time for humility. Frankly, it’s time for someone to apologize to the citizens of this great state.”

Other lawmakers pushed additional changes to the Senate proposal, only to be shot down. The Senate rejected a proposal that would have united some African-Americans in the same South Florida seat and another proposal that would have made sure two districts in Broward and Palm Beach counties ran vertically instead of more horizontally.

Sens. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, and David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, failed in their drive to add Gainesville to a district running from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west. The pair argued that it would help lessen the effects of watering down the African-American vote in the district, which currently ambles from Jacksonville to Orlando.

“You’re not just talking about a couple of percent,” Simmons said. “You’re talking about a lot of history, and you’re talking about lives. You’re talking about the future.”

That proposal, like the others, was defeated on a voice vote.

And while Galvano pledged after his meeting with Oliva to be “open-minded” about taking up the base map, he sounded out a firmer line hours earlier in the wake of the Senate’s approval of its own plan.

“This is a genuine product and we’re standing by it,” Galvano said. “Unless we’re shown the error of our ways, that’s our product.”


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