TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators bring the contentious redistricting road show to the western half of the state this week as they work to persuade doubters that they really aren't interested in drawing legislative maps to protect themselves or their parties.
The goal of the final six public hearings, from Tampa to Naples and Clewiston, is to listen to the public, said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
But it's all one big gamble. Two constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010 force lawmakers to do something that was anathema to them during most of Florida's political history — redraw legislative and congressional districts without favoring any incumbent or party.
If their maps leave the appearance of self-protection, they will draw lawsuits and, potentially, a court-ordered plan. If the legal process drags on for weeks, or months, it could affect the candidate filing deadline in June, complicate primary elections and confuse voters.
Republican legislators are counting on the public hearings to provide them the legal ground they need to draw maps that can avoid a court plan. Lawsuits, they conclude, are unavoidable.
"The process does set the Legislature and the courts up because we're not going to make everybody happy,'' Gaetz said.
Instead, Gaetz and Weatherford say they hope to use the wide-ranging testimony from the public hearings to provide the road map for how they draw their maps.
"I have received no legal counsel telling me what needs to be in the hearings,'' Gaetz said. The Senate has hired Mike Carvin, a partner with the Washington law firm of Jones Day, who had advised them to "do the hearings and make sure the broadest range of opinion is represented."
But Democrats counter that the hearings are a waste of time intended to delay the process in order to protect incumbent legislators and members of Congress, the majority of whom are Republicans.
"I'm not sure they're trying to make a record as much as they're trying to stall,'' said Dan Gelber, lawyer for Fair Districts Now, the Democrat-backed group that pushed to pass Amendments 5 and 6 in 2010. Gelber is a former state senator.
Florida's Constitution requires that legislators wait until at least January 2012 to vote on redistricting. Legislators have used that as a reason to accelerate the regular session schedule from March to January and have agreed to start drawing maps this fall when committees begin meeting in mid September.
In 2002, the first committee hearings weren't conducted until October and maps weren't debated until January. That year, however, lawmakers barely beat the deadline for candidate filing — which was in July.
Gelber said legislative leaders know that the new constitutional language could cause a lengthy court review and probable lawsuits, which would likely delay final districts even longer this time. Any delay, he said, will make it difficult for challengers to get into a race, helping incumbents who are likely to be better known.
"It's a huge advantage for incumbents and a huge disadvantage for voters — who will have an election that is just going to be chaotic,'' he said.
At nearly every one of the 20 hearings so far, legislators have heard a steady drumbeat of scolds from distrustful voters. Constituents have complained that lawmakers are conducting hearings before drawing maps, adhering to an antiquated redistricting schedule and wasting taxpayer money by fighting voters in court.
"The Legislature's timetable to get final districts is just days before candidates are required to file for their seats,'' said Burnadette Norris-Weeks, an attorney for the Broward County Supervisors of Elections at a public hearing in Davie this month.
She warned that the late schedule will lead to candidate confusion and embarrassment. "If you create districts where there is again major problems, we'll be the laughingstock of the country."
Gaetz and Weatherford vigorously defend the time line, saying they have accelerated the legislative session two months to vote out a plan.
"If everyone in the process takes all the time they could take, we could be in a crunch,'' Gaetz acknowledged. "My objective is that we not take all the time that we legally can."
The Republican leaders say their job is made easier when the public offers up suggestions. "There needs to be a rationale for why new districts are drawn,'' Gaetz said. He notes that 21 maps have already been proposed and that any legislators may propose a map at any time.
Meanwhile, the cost of redistricting continues to mount — even before the first official map is drawn.
The House and Senate have spent $3 million so far with most of it, $2.5 million, paying lawyers to attempt to defeat the game-changing constitutional amendments approved by voters last year, according to records obtained by the Times/Herald.
The invoices don't detail the reasons for the expense, but the House is paying the law firm of former state Rep. Miguel DeGrandy and the former law firm of House Speaker Dean Cannon to represent them in a case challenging the constitutionality of Amendment 6, which sets standards for congressional redistricting.
The House has spent $1.7 million for that case and for a failed attempt to get an alternative amendment on the ballot in 2010. The Senate has spent $650,000, most of it last year, to defend the Legislature's attempt to weaken Amendments 5 and 6. The Senate has not joined with the House in the legal challenge.
The hearings have cost the House $48,025 through July, according to the invoices. The Senate has spent $10,090 for the same time period.
Costs include staff travel, including $80 in per diem expenses, legal advertising, court reporters and interpreters.
Those expenses often don't go over well with the public.
"Why are we doing this?'' asked Elizabeth Pines of the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade County, whose group has been one of the most vocal critics at the hearings. "It's time to get to work."
Legislators listen, and bite their tongues. They have been counseled by leadership to say nothing or it may be interpreted as incumbency protection.
At the end of each public hearing, Gaetz makes a statement and responds politely to the stream of criticism. His speech is getting longer each time.
He notes that other states that have completed their redistricting maps abide by different rules. Louisiana, for example, finished its redistricting this year because its elections are this year. Illinois also completed the job, he said, but only after the Legislature offered up a "take it or leave it proposition."
"We will move the process as quickly as we can,'' he told the crowd at the Davie hearing, "given the fact we have 160 opinions in the House and the Senate.''
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com.