Hand duty for maps to commission: Where We Stand

Opinion | Orlando Sentinel | 11/07/2015

Watching the Florida Legislature deal with redistricting has become like sitting through the movie "Groundhog Day." There is a certain predictability to events.

Unfortunately, the legislative players aren't nearly as endearing as Bill Murray's character, who is forced to relive the same day over and over again. And it can't be amusing for ordinary Floridians after paying the bills for their representatives and senators to spin their wheels in the state Capitol.

Another legislative session dedicated to redrawing districts ended in failure Thursday when the House and Senate were unable to agree on new maps for the state's 40 Senate districts. Just a couple of months ago, the two chambers reached a dead end over the state's 27 congressional districts in another session. Legislators have now blown through $11 million from taxpayers on fruitless redistricting efforts.

How much longer will citizens have to wait, and how many more of their dollars will be wasted, before their leaders in Tallahassee concede what events have rendered painfully obvious? The time has come for legislators to turn over responsibility for redistricting to an independent commission, an approach adopted in at least a half dozen other states. That group includes red and blue states.

Such a reform in Florida would require another amendment to the state constitution. That can't happen in time to straighten out the Senate and congressional districts in time for the 2016 elections. So it's now left to the Florida Supreme Court to do what legislators couldn't, and approve final maps for next year.

It was the high court that found earlier versions of the Senate and congressional maps out of compliance with the state constitution's Fair District amendments, and ordered legislators to redraw them. The amendments, ratified by voters in 2010, bar legislators from manipulating district boundaries to benefit a particular politician or party.

This gerrymandering — allowing politicians to pick their voters, instead of vice versa — has been going on for decades in Florida. Both parties have been mixed up in it.

A coalition including the League of Women Voters of Florida, which led the Fair Districts campaign, has run the table in court since filing suit to challenge both maps. In July, the state Supreme Court threw out the Legislature's congressional map, concluding that Republican leaders in the Capitol colluded with political operatives who drew districts that favored the GOP. Then, to settle the coalition's suit against the Senate map, Senate leaders admitted to violating the Fair District requirements and agreed to go back to the drawing board.

Not surprisingly, these repeated defeats have put many legislators in a sour mood. After this week's train wreck at the Capitol, Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who chairs the Senate's redistricting committee, grumbled, "The plaintiffs' goal was to be able to keep this in the courts. The plaintiffs' goal was not to have a legislatively drawn map, but a court drawn map."

Whether that was the plaintiffs' goal or not, legislators could have thwarted it by doing what legislators should do: work together to hammer out a compromise. One would think that in a Legislature where the Republican Party has strong majorities in both chambers, a deal on both maps would have been possible. That it turned out not to be — even with level-headed leaders like Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli in charge — is a strong argument for delegating the job to a commission.

Some senators tried to blame a long-running battle over who would become the next Senate president, finally settled this week in favor of Stuart Republican Joe Negron, for their chamber's failure to agree with the House on a map. But if routine politics can pre-empt legislators from faithfully executing their constitutional responsibilities on redistricting, we have to agree with Fort Lauderdale Democrat Chris Smith, who said, "Legislators don't need to be drawing maps."

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