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Florida House Approves Congressional Redistricting Plan

Florida Senate

A plan to redraw Florida's 27 congressional districts overwhelmingly passed the state House on Tuesday, inching closer to a potential faceoff with the Senate over districts in Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area.

Nine Democrats joined with the majority of Republicans in approving the new map on a 76-35 vote. Nine members of the GOP, some of whom fulminated against a Florida Supreme Court decision that prompted the ongoing redistricting special session, joined the majority of Democrats in opposing the proposal (HB 1B).

Lawmakers returned to Tallahassee last week after the court struck down eight of the state's current congressional seats for violating the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" requirements approved by voters in 2010. It marks the third time the Legislature has drawn congressional districts since the once-a-decade redistricting process began in 2011.

While Democrats ticked off a list of reasons for objecting to the maps Tuesday, some of the harshest commentary came from Republicans who blasted the 5-2 Supreme Court majority that ordered the Legislature to redraw the lines. They said the ruling went far beyond the judiciary's traditional role.

"Our constitutions are under attack," said Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach. "The United States and Florida constitutions have been assaulted. ... Our Constitution allows the Supreme Court to offer an opinion, but it is a myth to say that they are the final arbiter of our laws."

That drew a rejoinder from Rep. Javier Jose Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who voted for the plan.

"We are not here because the Florida Supreme Court has overstepped," Rodriguez, an attorney, said. "We are here because the Legislature has overstepped and violated the Constitution."

Democrats who opposed the plan criticized closed-door meetings that produced the "base map" drawn by legislative staff. They also questioned why the state was relying on 5-year-old Census numbers that include prisoners and undocumented immigrants to craft the districts.

"Who are we trying to fool?" asked Rep. Hazel Rogers, D-Lauderdale Lakes.

The more substantial challenge to the House plan, though, might be a conflict with the Senate over changes made to the base map and authored by Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican and former Senate president. The Senate will take up its revised version of the map Wednesday.

A Lee amendment, approved Monday by the Senate Reapportionment Committee, would consolidate eastern Hillsborough County into one congressional district shared with the northwest corner of Polk County and put all of Sarasota County into the same district, one that also includes western Manatee County and the far southwestern corner of Hillsborough.

The ripple effects of the proposal would also cascade through Central Florida and recast the one district that would have been completely contained in Orange County.

During Tuesday's House debate, Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican running for a seat in the Senate, praised the House for sticking to the base map and blasted the upper chamber's plan.

"And rather than lamenting it, and rather than jumping all over the court, rather than forecasting court reform ... let's just go ahead and pass the map," he said. "And I think that we're acting responsibly in the House in doing that. But meanwhile, across the rotunda, they're tinkering with the maps. The nerve!"

House leaders were more muted in their comments about the Senate map, but still seemed lukewarm to the idea of moving away from the base plan. House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, stressed that any plan would face scrutiny from the House to ensure it followed the Fair Districts standards.

"If we return here to contemplate any revisions, please understand that it will have had to meet all of that criteria," Oliva said.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said he didn't believe that any conflict with the Senate would lead to an extension of the special session, set to end by noon Friday. But Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, citing lingering tensions from a budget crisis earlier this year, said he wouldn't advise members to book Friday afternoon flights.

"It would not surprise me to see some sort of deadlock on this issue Thursday or Friday," he said.

Democrats also started to prepare for future battles. The House Democratic caucus scheduled a press conference Wednesday to support legislation (HB 21) for next year's regular legislative session that would establish an independent redistricting commission. Republicans are exceedingly unlikely to allow that bill to come up for a vote.

Meanwhile, Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, sent instructions to redistricting staff on his proposal for a new map of state Senate districts. A special session to redraw those lines is set to begin Oct. 19.

"Rather than limiting public scrutiny to a few days prior to House or Senate committee consideration, starting the work over a month in advance allows for full public participation in a process that affects everyone," said Braynon, who will lead Senate Democrats after the 2016 elections.