TALLAHASSEE — Florida House and Senate redistricting committees gave swift approval Friday to a proposed fix to the state's flawed congressional redistricting map with a plan hatched in private by legislative leaders and staff.
The House Redistricting Committee voted 8-5 along party lines, while Senate Democrats joined with Republicans to vote 7-0 for the proposal that makes modest changes to seven of the state's 27 congressional districts.
Despite promises of transparency, the new map was created by House and Senate redistricting staff in private meetings with redistricting committee chairmen, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, and their outside legal counsel. It was released less than 24 hours before the vote.
Corcoran told the House committee Friday that the only information used to compile the map was the voter data already available in the House's MyDistrictBuilder software and the ruling by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis.
"This plan is superior to the one that was thrown out,'' he said.
But partisan feuding continued as House Democrats tried and failed to get legislators to put the drawers of the map under oath and persuade the committee to adopt an alternative map.
The alternative map, drawn by Orlando Democratic Sen. Darren Soto and his aide, would have reduced the partisan advantage in Districts 9 and 10, seats held by Republican U.S. Reps. John Mica of Orlando and Dan Webster of Winter Garden, respectively, while reducing the number of black Democrats in District 5, now held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.
Soto said the configuration would change only three districts — CD 5, 9 and 10 — and affect only Orange, Seminole and Lake counties. He said it would adhere to the intent of the state's Fair Districts law by removing partisan advantage and putting the same number of Republicans as Democrats into District 5.
Soto's plan would have kept the district strongly Democratic, but would have reduced voter support for Obama from 70.9 percent in 2012 to 63.5 percent.
But George Meros, a legal counsel for the House, said Soto's proposal was "clearly illegal" because it made the district more competitive to benefit Democrats.
The final map, expected to be approved by the full Legislature on Monday, cleans up the meandering District 5 and slightly modifies District 10.
It also makes changes to five other surrounding districts in what Republicans say is an attempt to make them more visually appealing and compact. The changes make three of the seven affected districts slightly more competitive for Democrats; four become slightly more competitive for Republicans.
The Legislature's fix drew criticism from the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida, which successfully sued to get the congressional map overturned. They warned that the repairs don't go far enough to satisfy the court's concerns and urged them to consider their proposed alternative.
"Map 9057 continues to use a minority-marginalizing relic of an era in which political gerrymandering was acceptable — now it is not,'' the groups wrote in a letter to House and Senate leaders.
District 5 "packs an excessive number of African-Americans into a district marked by hooks, tentacles and appendages as it snakes through and splits every county from Jacksonville down to Orlando. By packing minorities into such a north-south district, CD 5 in Map 9057 destroys the ability to create an additional district with significant minority voting strength in Central Florida."
They offered an alternative map that creates a minority district along the east-west corridor of the top of the state and which, they said, will create the opportunity for two blacks to be elected to Congress from North and Central Florida instead of one.
The debate continued to strain traditional Democratic alliances. NAACP leaders, who rejected the league's alternative map, told the Senate Reapportionment Committee that they want to see District 5 preserved.
Whitfield Jenkins, the former president of the Marion County NAACP, said District 5 secures the ability for African-Americans to get elected.
Beverlye Colson Neal, former executive director of the NAACP Florida Conference, said reducing the number of black voters would disenfranchise the same voters. "These voters will be placed in districts where they are outnumbered by whites," she told the committee. "African-Americans are a fragile community and the least bit of disenfranchisement will keep them away from the polls."
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, a former legislative aide to congresswoman Brown, commended the GOP proposal, which reduced the number of black voters in District 5 from 50 percent to 48 percent.
"When I look back at the numbers, it doesn't appear to be egregious," Gibson said. "I just want to make sure it continues to be a district that those constituents can have a representative of their choosing, collectively."
"It seems like you've done your homework and done it well," Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, told Galvano.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, gave a full-throated defense of the original map and the new proposed map. "It's an excellent proposal that we should all be supporting," he said of the new map.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas