TALLAHASSEE — The Republican-controlled Legislature's answer to a pair of citizen initiatives aimed at curtailing gerrymandering cleared the Florida House by a partisan vote Monday.
The proposed state constitutional amendment (HJR 7231), which House Democrats said would undermine the initiatives, passed 74-40 — two more than the minimum needed to get on the ballot.
It goes to the Senate next and is expected to pass with help from at least a couple of Democrats. They've joined Republicans in arguing the measure is needed to "clarify" the citizen initiatives and keep intact changes in redistricting procedures over the last 20 years that have increased minority representation in legislative and congressional districts.
"These gains were not achieved through an accident or through a mistake," said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami. "They were achieved through a process that was rightfully corrected."
In arguing against the amendment, Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, noted that it's opposed by the Florida Chapter of the NAACP.
"Once again we have certain members saying they know better, they know what's right and they have a better idea of what people need than people that are most affected," Saunders said. "If the NAACP says this is a bad amendment, I think I would take their word."
If the proposal does get Senate approval, it would go on the Nov. 2 ballot. There, it would join the two initiatives, Amendments 5 and 6, placed there by way of a petition campaign led by a group called Fair Districts Florida.
A key provision of the legislative proposal would allow lawmakers to continue basing districts on "communities of common interest."
Republicans argued it's needed so districts can be drawn with sufficient numbers of minorities to give them a fair shot at winning legislative or congressional seats.
Democrats said it's nothing more than a loophole to let lawmakers sidestep requirements in the initiatives, one for legislative and the other for congressional redistricting, designed to prevent them from drawing maps to favor incumbents or particular political parties.
The initiatives also say districts must be contiguous and cannot be drawn to deny racial or language minorities from having an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
Finally, district lines "where feasible" would have to follow political and geographical boundaries.
Republicans characterized Fair Districts as a partisan organization because it has gotten support from labor unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and other organizations perceived as being left of center, including ACORN.
The group's leadership, though, is bipartisan. The co-chairs are three Democrats — former Gov. and ex-U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, former state Sen. Daryl Jones and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno — and three Republicans — former Florida Comptroller Bob Milligan, former Assistant Interior Secretary Nathaniel Reed and lawyer Thom Rumberger.
Democrats stressed that more than 1 million voters signed the Fair Districts petitions, but Republicans derided the campaign because the organization used paid signature collectors.
"This is the most arrogant, preposterous disingenuous attempt to thwart what the people of this state have already said by their signatures that they want," said Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole.
Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, responded that it was arrogant for Long and other opponents to assume voters have already spoken because the initiatives have yet to pass.