Special legislative session to redraw congressional districts collapses

BRANDON LARRABEE[ck_comma] THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA | WPTV | 08/22/2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A special session called to redraw state congressional lines was derailed Friday, the latest sign of growing acrimony between Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

The end of the session without agreement on the shape of Florida's 27 congressional districts likely means the final decision will be made by the courts, though some lawmakers held out slim hopes for a resolution in the coming days that could avoid such an outcome.

The special session was sparked when the Florida Supreme Court threw out eight of the state's congressional districts, saying they violated the "Fair Districts" prohibition on favoring political parties and incumbents.

Negotiations between the House and Senate broke down Friday over a Senate proposal that emerged last week to amend a staff-drawn base map (HB 1B). The Senate proposal would have consolidated eastern Hillsborough County into a single congressional district and drawn all of Sarasota County into one district.

But the House balked, saying the cascading population trade-offs required to make the numbers in all districts equal would force a district now wholly combined in Orange County to pick up some territory in Lake County —- something the House said could run afoul of the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" requirements approved by voters in 2010.

The Senate requested Friday that the two chambers set up a formal House-Senate "conference committee" to hammer out a deal. The upper chamber also voted twice to extend the session through Tuesday, but both efforts were shot down by the House.

"We went in this morning with an understanding that there is a little bit of a divide," said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. "We kind of thought that when you have a divide between chambers, then let's put together a conference."

But House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said a conference committee was generally used to negotiate budget issues and wouldn't gel with the Supreme Court's insistence on a fair redistricting process.

"Having two people get into a room, public or not, make all of these decisions without any of your inputs and come back and have you have to accept those decisions might be workable in a budget, and some have even questioned it in that capacity. It is certainly not workable in this one," Oliva told the House.

Earlier Friday morning, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, walked out of public meeting with Oliva as the House continued to press its concerns. Galvano referred to a decision by the Senate to record conversations between senators and staff members during discussions of potential maps —- a decision that the Senate said was aimed at preventing suspicions of improper political meddling.

"I put our members in the very uncomfortable position, for really the first time that I know, historically, where they would sit with staff and be recorded and have those sessions recorded, which yielded hours of tape, just to make sure that we didn't have to deal with some speculative presumption," Galvano said. "And if the House has a speculative presumption nonetheless, then this process was done from the start. Frankly, we were damned if you do, damned if you don't. And so I think, at this point, I'm just going to, chairman, respectfully reiterate the Senates' request for conference and leave it at that. Thank you."

Talking to reporters after the senator's walk-out, Oliva cast doubt on the prospect of a conference meeting.

"But something that's very concerning is the nature and the way that this meeting ended," he said. "I don't think that, again, in business, if you invite me over to your office to talk about something and we're in the middle of that discussion, you don't get up and leave unless you're trying to cast an impression of, 'I no longer have an interest in talking to you.' "

Asked whether the courts could draw the maps, Oliva didn't rule it out.

"Based on what I saw today, if I'm just the average citizen, I'd say with what you've seen today, we're looking at the court redrawing the map," he said.


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