TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – A key state senator floated a last-ditch effort Thursday to strike a compromise with the House on new congressional districts, while voting-rights groups that challenged the current congressional map called for the Florida Supreme Court to take over the process.
The two moves came as justices were expected to issue a ruling as soon as Friday pointing the way forward after a special legislative session collapsed last week without an agreement on how to fix congressional districts. The special session was called after the Supreme Court ruled in July that the current map violated the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” standards approved by voters in 2010.
In an effort to reach a deal that would avoid the unpredictable outcome of a court-drawn map, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano released a new draft of congressional lines that largely abandoned the upper chamber’s earlier drive to consolidate eastern Hillsborough County into one district.
The map would put Sarasota County in one district — another goal of the Senate — by splitting it off from Manatee County, which would be pushed into a district with parts of Hillsborough County. As a result, Hillsborough would comprise a greater share of Congressional District 16 than it would under a plan supported by the House, potentially representing at least a partial victory for Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who had pushed for the county’s eastern side to be consolidated.
But in the process, the new Senate proposal would shatter a largely rural district in the center of the state currently represented by Republican Congressman Tom Rooney and shift the incumbent’s home town of Okeechobee into a reliably Democratic district that stretches northward to Orange County.
“It is my hope that this map is something that my … fellow legislators, in both chambers, can support as a compromise, and that we can fulfill our obligation to adopt a congressional reapportionment plan,” wrote Galvano, R-Bradenton, in a memo to senators.
Galvano said he asked Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, to try to set up a meeting with the House to see if the draft map could restart the legislative process. Since last week’s chaotic ending to the special session, the Senate has held out hope that negotiations could resume.
But in a memo to House members issued shortly after Galvano’s plan was released, House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva did not appear to offer much hope of a resolution. The House passed a proposed map during the special session that was largely drawn by staff members and attorneys to carry out the Supreme Court ruling.
“What we passed (during the special session) was not just the ‘House Map,’ it was produced cooperatively by House and Senate staff as directed by the presiding officers, and the vast majority of the map was approved by both bodies. … Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will likely speak to the process by which a constitutional redistricting plan will be established. Until that time, I am reticent to offer any feedback on the latest Senate map,” wrote Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.
Reactions among the affected members of Congress were mixed. While Republican Congressman Dennis Ross’ office has expressed concerns about whether Lee’s earlier proposal would pass muster with the Supreme Court, Ross’ chief of staff was measured in comments Thursday about the new Galvano plan.
“Congressman Ross remains hopeful that the House and Senate will find a reasonable compromise that addresses the Supreme Court’s directives,” said Anthony Foti, the chief of staff. “Today’s announcement by the Senate demonstrates that leaders continue to work in good faith to achieve that goal.”
Lee’s proposal would have shifted Ross out of his current district and, some noted, could have allowed Lee to run in a congressional district without an incumbent — though U.S. House members don’t have to live in their districts. The new proposal would keep Ross in his district, though the shape of that district would change somewhat.
Rooney, though, said his district would be “pulled apart at the seams” by Galvano’s proposal. Currently, the district contains largely rural areas including parts or all of 11 counties — which Rooney says gives Florida agriculture its own district.
“If they do this new Senate map, that basically is gone,” Rooney told The News Service of Florida.
Under Galvano’s plan, Rooney would end up in a district that President Barack Obama carried by more than 10 points in 2012.
Meanwhile, a coalition of voting-rights groups that spearheaded the legal challenge to the districts filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that justices should decide what the new lines look like. The House and Senate, while arguing about the reasons and the timeline, have pushed for Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis to get the first crack at the map if the judiciary draws it.
But lawyers for the voting-rights organizations said the 2016 congressional elections are coming up quickly, and the Supreme Court should review alternatives from all sides and decide which, if any, to use.
“Faced with the Legislature’s disregard of its mandate, this court should promptly adopt a remedial plan,” the filing said.
The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.