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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Senate releases new redistricting fix

17

March

The Florida Senate on Saturday released its first attempt at fixing its rejected Senate redistricting map with a proposal that appears to reconfigure districts in a such a way that top Senate leaders remain protected in their homes districts. (Stay tuned here for a complete Herald/Times analysis of the performance and incumbent placement of the proposed districts. We will be making live updates throughout the afternoon.)

The map, released by Senate Redistricting Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is a response to a March 9 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that threw out the Senate map and validated the House map based on the new redistricting standards approved by voters in 2010.  The proposal also seeks to ask the court to invalidate individual districts if it sees future problems, but allow the rest of the map go forward.

Gaetz's plan addresses the court's criticism of his district, by keeping Escambia County whole but it also includes an odd-shaped leg into Crestview to pick up voters for his district. The proposal, however, leaves the numbering system in place that the court said showed bias towards incumbents.

The new rules prohibit lawmakers from drawing districts with the intent to protect incumbents or political parties; they require them to draw compact districts and follow geographic and political boundaries where possible and to make those changes without reducing minority voting strength.

In the 5-2 ruling, the court concluded that the Senate map “was rife with indicators of improper intent” and included a district numbering scheme that “plainly favors certain incumbents.”

The governor by law called lawmakers back to Tallahassee for a 15-day extraordinary session to repair the maps. The session began on March 14 and, while House members went home, Senate staff got to work redrawing its maps. Several senators are expected to offer alternatives to Gaetz’ proposal on Monday and the Senate committee will meet again on Tuesday to vote them out.

Unlike the first round, in which seven Senate Democrats joined with Republicans to approve the map that pitted no incumbents against each other, this round is rife with internal feuding. Behind much of it is the Senate leadership wars that pit Orlando Republican Andy Gardiner against St. Augustine Republican John Thrasher and Stuart Republican Joe Negron for the 2014 Senate presidency term.

Both sides have been recruiting candidates for the 11 open seats in 2012, creating rifts within the Senate's Republican caucus. The new map also sets up a potential feud between Gaetz and Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, both of whom live in Okaloosa County.

The court rejected the districts drawn by the Senate that allowed each of them to retain much of the districts they now represent, even though they traverse much of the Panhandle by splitting five rural counties giving Gaetz the coastal region and Evers the rural half. Gaetz has said he is willing to run against Evers in a head-to-head matchup, although he owns property in four of the counties he represents and could move. Evers also could move from his Okaloosa home and campaign from Santa Rosa County where he grew up and still owns a home.

What did the Senate learn from the court’s thorough 234-page ruling?

One main take-away, said John Guthrie, the Senate’s redistricting staff director at a briefing ofthe Senate Reapportionment Committee on Wednesday, is that “they believe you can look at the map and determine [what] the intent of the map drawer was.”

In other words, if a district does not look compact and was not drawn to protect minority voting strength, it can be presumed that there was an intent to protect an incumbent or party.

The court also found

• Eight of 40 districts in the new plan were not compact and favored incumbent lawmakers.

• Democratic-leaning districts were consistently overpopulated compared to Republican leaning-districts.

• The Senate, unlike the House, did not perform a so-called “functional analysis” with voter registration numbers and data from previous elections to justify the creation of majority minority districts within the state.

 The Senate’s system of renumbering its districts favored many incumbents because it allowed some lawmakers to exceed the eight-year term limits and serve up to ten years.

The court, however, did not agree with Democrats and the coalition of Fair Districts voter groups that the Senate maps packed minorities into districts, thereby reducing minority voting strength. The court, however, did not conduct an evidenced-based hearing that opponents of the map said would prove retrogression but instead left that up to a trial court to decide.

The House leadership has decided to honor its “gentlemen’s agreement” to allow the Senate to redraw its own lines. House members will return on the week of March 24 to vote out the Senate plan.

[Last modified: Saturday, March 17, 2012 1:45pm]

    

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