TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – House lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to approve a redistricting plan for the state Senate, setting up the delicate endgame for a three-week special session called to finally bring Florida’s political boundaries into line with a voter-approved ban on gerrymandering.
After about an hour of debate, the House approved its version of the Senate’s 40 districts on a 73-47 vote. Eight Republicans joined all 39 Democrats in opposing the plan (SJR 2-C), prompted by a court settlement in which the Legislature conceded that a court would likely find the current Senate map does not stand up to scrutiny under the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” standards.
The focus now shifts back to the Senate, which passed a different map last week. The Senate could reject the changes and approve setting up a joint House-Senate negotiating team to try to hammer out a deal.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, told reporters Tuesday that the House plan made only minor changes to the Senate’s version.
“We did give them a lot of deference,” he said. “That was something that we set out to do from the beginning.”
But the House made a series of changes in South Florida that essentially dismantled a compromise that helped the Senate version pass the upper chamber on a narrow four-vote margin. Supporters say the Senate plan would increase Hispanic voting strength in one of three districts meant to elect a candidate favored by Latinos; opponents say it is a crass political move that shifts Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, out of a district with two other incumbents.
Some House Democrats raised the prospect that the divergent maps would result in another clash after disagreements between the two chambers derailed an August special session to redraw congressional districts. The Senate map also threatens to get caught up in a heated battle for the Senate presidency between Stuart Republican Joe Negron and Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala.
“I have heard nothing that gives me any comfort or assurance that we’re not going to end up fighting with the Senate and going back and forth and back and forth to settle political scores, to talk about Senate leadership races and all of those things that we shouldn’t be considering when we’re talking about drawing a constitutionally acceptable map,” said Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation.
Republicans, though, are holding out hope that a second meltdown can be avoided.
“We believe that we have a good, constitutionally compliant map,” Crisafulli said. “We believed that last time as well. Certainly, the Senate now has the opportunity to look at that and see what they think. … We’ve got plenty of time to have that conversation, and we’ll see what takes place.”
Meanwhile, House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva laced into the voting-rights organizations that challenged the current Senate map, approved in 2012. Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, has said the House version of the new redistricting plan was crafted in part to take into consideration a map that the groups released hours before the Senate vote on new districts.
Then, late Monday, an attorney for the organizations issued a new letter knocking the House proposal and suggesting two more versions of the map.
“But the bottom line is that I don’t believe the plaintiffs want to see a legislatively approved map,” Oliva said Tuesday, after the House debate. “I think that they’re using the legislative process of the people to manipulate the judicial process of the people.”
Democrats used the messy process to push a proposal, unlikely to be seriously considered by the GOP-dominated Legislature, to allow an independent redistricting commission to draw maps for the House, Senate and Congress. The political ambitions of lawmakers make them ill-equipped for the task, said House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.
“There’s politics embedded in this map, no matter how you draw it. … I don’t think anything is going to be perfect,” Pafford said. “But this is just wrong.”
The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.