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Fla. Senate Panel Introduces Redistricting Plans

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(Source: AP)

(Source: AP)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — The House and Senate committees tasked with redrawing the state’s political boundaries each took a step closer to approving new legislative and congressional maps Tuesday as some of the behind-the-scenes negotiations over Florida’s political future began spilling into public view.

The Senate Reapportionment Committee took its first vote on an overall redistricting plan in an afternoon meeting, voting 23-3 to submit GOP-backed measures redrawing congressional and Senate lines as committee bills. Six Democrats joined the committee’s 17 Republicans in voting for the measure, though it was unclear whether that support would hold when a formal vote on approving the maps is held next month.

Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, blasted the map as an attempt to carve up the state in a way that would preserve political power for the dominant Republican Party, despite voters’ approval last year of constitutional standards aimed at curbing the influence of politics on the redistricting process. Rich said the plans still closely resembled those passed in the last round of the once-a-decade exercise.

“I think that the voters tell us they wanted a clean slate, not a map-making adjustment to gerrymandered maps that were adopted ten years ago,” she said.

Republicans bristled at the suggestion.

“There’s been no evidence that our process has been tainted in any way by political consideration,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Before the vote, the committee heard dozens of comments about the proposals submitted by state residents through email, social media and voice mail. Many applauded the maps, but several also said that the plans fell well short of what they expected when the “Fair Districts” amendments were approved.

Many of the criticisms continued to focus on Congressional District 3, which snakes from Duval County to Orange County to create a district where almost half the voters are black — though the questions about the maps weren’t confined to that.

“Both of them gerrymander the crap out of Orlando,” said Jamie Bue, who lives there.

The Senate meeting also revealed more of the negotiations that have been going on about the shape of the maps. Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he and professional staff had held conversations with some incumbent lawmakers about the shape of their districts. But he rejected a question about whether that violated the constitution’s new prohibition on drawing maps to favor or disfavor incumbents.

“I never asked the incumbents how (they) wanted the districts to be drawn,” he said. “That’s a wrong characterization of what everyone here said today.”

Gaetz stressed that no partisan elections data was used in those conversations, and noted that the Senate redistricting software does not include those numbers. But Rich said that distinction wasn’t meaningful.

“The Senate redistricting committee may not be using partisan performance data, but the members certainly know what areas of their districts perform well for them or didn’t perform well for them,” she said.

Gaetz also said the Senate requested and received a copy in recent months of the House committee’s latest thinking about congressional maps — though the House Redistricting Committee unveiled five proposed congressional maps Tuesday and said no final decision had been made. Staff members said the Senate committee received the proposal around the weekend before Thanksgiving.

“We felt that the congressional map that was voted on today was much more faithful to Amendment 6, and was much more sensible in terms of the testimony that we’d heard from constituents,” Gaetz said. “With all due deference to the House, we think we might have improved on their work rather considerably.”

The congressional maps revealed by the House would likely make, at most, modest adjustments to the state’s delegation to Washington. The current plan includes 15 districts that voted for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008, and 10 that went for Democratic President Barack Obama.

Under the maps released Tuesday, and including two new seats the state has gained because of population growth, the McCain-Obama split would range from 14-13 to 16-11, according to an analysis of the maps by the News Service of Florida.

The maps could also whittle away at the 81 state House seats won by the GOP in November.

Under the current plan, 76 of the districts voted for Republican Gov. Rick Scott last year, with 44 that were carried by then-Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the Democratic nominee. Three of the five maps released Tuesday would include 73 districts carried by Scott, while two would lower the number to 72.

Like Gaetz, House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford said no special measures were taken to protect incumbents — and that Weatherford’s party might bear the brunt of that.

“Almost for sure, there will be many more Republicans who will be disappointed in some of these maps than Democrats,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

House subcommittees are expected to begin considering their maps Thursday. Gaetz said he anticipated a Senate vote as soon as Jan. 18, and that differences with the House over congressional maps would be hammered out in public meetings.

“The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.”

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