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Legislators tread lightly on redistricting

One in an occasional series previewing the Florida Legislature, which begins its session Jan. 10.


Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE -- Many lawmakers and other key players in Florida’s process for drawing new congressional and legislative districts have adopted their own don’t ask, don’t tell policies.

That includes Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Don Gaetz.

The Niceville Republican insists he doesn’t know, nor does he want to know, how the maps proposed by his panel will affect incumbent members of Congress and the Legislature.

“If you were to pump me full of truth serum I could not tell you where incumbents or challengers live unless I happened to have already known,” Gaetz said.

The same goes for whether the proposed maps will help or harm Republicans or Democrats.

Gaetz doesn’t want to know that information because of a pair of anti-gerrymandering amendments voters put into the Florida Constitution in 2010, one each for congressional and legislative districts. Both ban drawing lines with the intent to benefit incumbents or political parties.

For the first time lawmakers will have detailed guidelines they must follow when redrawing district lines after every 10-year census.

Redistricting will be one of the major issues -- for some lawmakers it’ll be the major issue -- the Republican-controlled Legislature will face when it convenes its annual 60-day session on Jan. 10. The Legislature must draw 120 House districts, 40 Senate districts and 27 congressional districts.

The session is starting two months earlier than usual to make sure the plans are passed and reviewed by the courts and U.S. Justice Department in time for the 2012 elections.

Besides the incumbent and political party provisions, the amendments prohibit “the intent or result” of denying racial or language minorities the opportunity to participate in the political process or “diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”

A second tier of standards says districts should be compact and “where feasible, utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.”

Most analyses of the proposals that have been released so far contend that they’ll give Democrats a chance to cut into the GOP’s huge majorities in the Legislature and congressional delegation but not gain the upper hand. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida, but the GOP has majorities of 28-12 in the Senate and 81-39 in the House. Republicans also outnumber Democrats 19-6 in the congressional delegation. Florida is gaining two more congressional seats next year due to an 18 percent population increase.

“These maps certainly are an improvement off of 10 years ago,” said Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux. “You really can’t get maps that are worse than what we’re living under right now.”

But no matter how they are drawn, there is a good chance someone will challenge them in court and lawmakers are well aware that anything they say that indicates intent contrary to the amendments’ instructions may be used against the redistricting plans. Some critics already say various proposals drafted so far by House and Senate committees would violate the amendments.

“You do get a sense that a lot of legislators have been told not to say how they really feel,” said former Sen. Dan Gelber, a lawyer for the Fair Districts Florida coalition that sponsored the amendments. “It’s a new age in a sense. ... I think the Legislature is trying to feel its way around.”

That wasn’t necessary 10 years ago when Democrats challenged the current redistricting plans drawn up by the Legislature, which then also had GOP majorities in both houses.

The legislative maps, but not the congressional plan, automatically go to the Florida Supreme Court to make sure they comply with the state constitution. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has veto power over the congressional map but not the legislative plans.

All maps also must be reviewed by the Justice Department to make sure they comply with the federal Voting Rights Act because of past racial discrimination in five of Florida’s 67 counties.

Until the Fair District amendments were passed the Florida Constitution required little more than the districts be contiguous and adhere to the one-person, one-vote concept.

Based on that limited criteria, the Supreme Court upheld the House and Senate maps drawn in 2002. They justices rejected Democratic complaints that the districts were obviously gerrymandered to benefit Republicans.

A panel of three federal judges, though, in 2002 ordered lawmakers to redraw the Florida House map because it reduced the number of Hispanic voters in a South Florida district. That revision also required changes to two neighboring districts.

It’s not only majority Republicans who are watching their tongues, acknowledged House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West.

“We’ve asked our members, for example, in the redistricting meetings to not offer a lot of off-the-cuff comments because it’ll look different in a deposition or videotape, and we don’t necessarily want to be laying the groundwork for the other side,” Saunders said.

The Fair Districts coalition includes the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause, AARP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The NAACP has proposed plans designed to protect minority access and black-majority districts, including three congressional seats held by black Democrats. Fair Districts itself and other coalition members have not suggested any maps.

Deirdre Macnab, state president of the League of Women Voters, declined comment on whether plans introduced by Gaetz’ committee and an array of proposals the House is considering comply with the amendments.

“This is going to be a very long and circuitous process,” Macnab said. “What’s a zebra today is going to be a giraffe tomorrow and a hippopotamus next week. When we see the real and final maps -- what we believe to be the real and final maps -- the League of Women Voters will certainly weigh in at that time after thorough review.”

Thousands of citizens, though, weighed in before any maps were drawn at 26 hearings the Legislature around the state. Some even submitted their own proposals. The Senate obtained additional public comment from about 500 citizens after releasing its maps.

“The Florida Legislature has been committed to making this the most open, transparent and interactive redistricting process in Florida history,” said Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry.