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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – After a second consecutive redistricting session fell apart Thursday and the Legislature went home yet again without passing a map, lawmakers’ message was more or less: We told you so.
Five years ago, with voters set to decide whether to add the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” amendments to the Florida Constitution, legislative leaders argued against it. The standards were unworkable, they argued. Despite language calling for cities and counties to be kept whole, communities that had similar interests could be divided or disregarded. The amendments would lead to endless litigation and could become a quagmire.
And with the collapse this week of a special session called to redraw the 40 state Senate districts, two of the three maps once controlled by the Legislature will instead be selected by the courts. Next week, the Florida Supreme Court will consider whether to accept a Leon County judge’s recommendation that a map submitted by voting-rights groups be used for Florida’s congressional elections.
“I think the amendments may be unworkable, to be frank with you,” said Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, after a bipartisan group of senators rebelled and defeated a House-drawn Senate map that legislative leaders wanted both chambers to adopt.
Not even all Republicans share Galvano’s opinion. After all, a state House map drawn in 2012 as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process has not been challenged and will apparently stand until the lines are moved again in 2022.
“This is a difficult process,” said House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes. “It’s not impossible. It’s certainly not ideal.”
David King, an attorney for voting-rights organizations that challenged the current Senate and congressional districts in court, blasted lawmakers for their comments about standards that were approved in 2010 with 63 percent of the vote.
“By blaming the amendments, rather than themselves, they are simply perpetuating their opposition to the will of the people and engaging in the very conduct that Florida voters clearly wanted to eliminate from our state,” King said.
But lawmakers were already beginning to consider new approaches to drawing lines for the state — including ideas that Republicans had all but ruled out just weeks ago.
Oliva, who is set to take over as speaker of the House after the 2018 elections, said in the wake of the failed session that he was ready to consider an independent redistricting commission that would recommend maps to the Legislature. The House and Senate also failed to agree on a congressional redistricting plan during an August special session.
“I’m for looking into it, because I certainly think that we need to have maps that aren’t disputed halfway into the next Census,” Oliva said.
At the same time, he pointed out some of the pitfalls for a commission.
“Where will we get these people?” Oliva asked. “Who will appoint them? Will they have ever … had a motivation ever during their lifetime? Probably. Could they possibly have had an intent to have an outcome sometime in their lifetime? Probably.”
Democrats, who have argued for a commission for months, note that the current system has shown that lawmakers seem to be incapable of drawing lines without considering the political implications.
“These are political animals,” said House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “Everybody seems to be worried about where they’re going to go next, in the Senate, in the House, and you cannot possibly have a system that extricates that political type of thought out of a map process. It’s going to be in it.”
Some lawmakers were looking in another direction: tweaking the Fair Districts amendments, perhaps to include a provision melding “communities of interest” into the list of standards that have to be considered by map-drawers.
In 2010, during the fight over Fair Districts, legislative leaders tried to add a third redistricting amendment to the ballot — one that would have allowed them to essentially ignore the proposed standards, known as Amendments 5 and 6, in order to protect minority voting rights and communities of interest.
But the Supreme Court struck that proposed amendment from the ballot, saying the wording of a summary that would have been shown to voters was misleading.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, blamed an excessive reliance on compactness scores and other redistricting formulas for the anger displayed by senators who voted down the proposed Senate map Thursday. Communities of interest were, Gardiner said, central to many of the arguments that senators made.
“Unfortunately, in the eyes of the court, and in the eyes of Amendments 5 and 6, they are irrelevant,” Gardiner said. “And that’s the sad part of where we are. It is strictly Reock (one of the redistricting) scores, numbers, and that’s the sadness of 5 and 6.”
The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.