Fla. lawmakers giving redistricting another try

TALLAHASSEE — Senate Republicans said they don't envision a complete redrawing of their chamber's redistricting map as the GOP-controlled Legislature convened in special session Wednesday to try again after the Florida Supreme Court kicked it back.

House members as well as senators returned to Tallahassee only five days after ending their 60-day regular annual session.

The high court upheld the House's 120-district map, so most of the action will be on the Senate side. House leaders agreed to defer to the Senate as they did when the maps initially were drawn during the regular session.

The justices ruled that the Senate map violated a new Fair Districts anti-gerrymandering amendment to the Florida Constitution. That's because the map favored incumbents and Republicans, included districts that weren't compact and failed to follow political and geographic boundaries whenever possible.

The high court also faulted the Senate for failing to use voter registration figures and past election performance to conduct functional analyses of minority districts as the House had done.

Friday's 5-2 opinion invalidated eight Senate districts and the chamber's scheme for renumbering all 40 districts so more incumbents could potentially serve 10 rather than just eight years before being term-limited out of office.

"The remedy should not exceed the problem," Senate Reapportionment Committee chairman Don Gaetz told his panel. "Having said that, I don't think you can only affect eight districts."

The Niceville Republican said his intent is "to go through the Supreme Court's opinion with tweezers" rather than "start with a clean sheet of paper" as urged by critics of the Senate's map.

Those opponents include the Florida Democratic Party and Florida League of Voters, which challenged both chambers' maps during the Supreme Court's review.

"It's going to be very difficult to just tweak the map," League of Women Voters lobbyist Ben Wilcox said after the Senate panel met. He said changing the eight defective districts is "going to have a ripple effect."

Other Republicans sided with Gaetz.

"Where specific districts were mentioned by the court and upheld by the court, my common sense would tell me it's a very risky proposition to go changing those boundaries," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Gaetz, whose Panhandle district is among the eight invalidated, said he will propose a fix by noon Saturday.

The committee will meet again Tuesday to vote out a new map after considering Gaetz' proposal and any others suggested by lawmakers or the public. The full Senate will vote on the new plan and send it to the House by the end of next week. The House will convene the following week to take final action before the 15-day session ends on March 28.

"I wouldn't use the term rubber stamp," Gaetz said when asked what he expects from the House. "I think they'll be thoughtful," he said but added that "the House expects us to tidy up our own chamber."

Once the map secures final legislative approval it will go back to the Supreme Court. If the justices still are not satisfied they can redraw it themselves.

Much of the committee's discussion focused on the numbering system.

Senators serve four year terms, half of which expire every two years. Due to redistricting, though, all 40 seats will be up for election this year. Senators elected from odd-numbered districts will serve full four-year terms and those in even-numbered districts will serve two years.

The Florida Constitution also limits lawmakers to eight consecutive years, but a senator who has served only six or seven years due to redistricting or a special off-year election can run for another four-year term and get in a total of 10 or 11 years.

The Senate renumbered its map so at least 16 and possibly as many as 28 of 29 incumbents eligible for re-election this year could serve for 10 or 11 years, the Supreme Court noted. The justices said that showed intent to favor incumbents.

There are several options for redoing the numbering scheme. Gaetz said he intends to propose some sort of random method although he excluded simply flipping a coin.

"I don't know that we have a coin with 40 sides," he told reporters.

So, how about dice or a roulette wheel?

"I vote against gambling generally," Gaetz joked. "I don't know."

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, wasn't sold on the idea. She questioned what would happen if all minority districts randomly drew two-year instead of four-year terms.

"There isn't going to be anything we're going to be able to do to convince anybody that the fix wasn't in," she said.

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