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Tense debate over Florida Senate map yields no agreement

TALLAHASSEE — The day began with the Senate redistricting chairman offering bagels and cream cheese to his colleagues, but the magnanimous gesture was short-lived as Republicans intensely feuded over how to draw maps for the next decade.

After nine hours of grueling debate on Tuesday, the Republican-dominated Senate Reapportionment Committee could not agree on anything. Committee chairman Don Gaetz decided to reconvene the committee again today for six more hours.

"This happens once every 10 years,'' said Gaetz icily at the end of the meeting, his pleasant demeanor tested by the long debate. "I don't consider it angst. I consider it a thoughtful, deliberative process."

The map proposed on Saturday by Gaetz, R-Niceville, remained the only proposal in play, despite attempts by a handful of senators to reconfigure it to shift Hispanic districts in Miami or Republican districts in Central Florida.

Gaetz's plan would create 23 solid Republican districts, hand over three more districts to Democrats, bringing their total to 15, and create at least two competitive seats.

Alternative maps proposed by Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater were withdrawn, only to have their sponsors suggest they would bring them up again on Thursday when Gaetz's map comes up for a floor vote.

Unlike the last round, this is the Senate's last shot to design a map that complies with the new anti-gerrymandering standards approved by voters and fixes objections outlined by the Florida Supreme Court.

The court rejected the Senate map, but approved the House map. If the Senate plan doesn't get court approval this time, the court itself will draw the Senate map.

Under the House map, at least 38 incumbent legislators must move or be pitted against other lawmakers.

Under Gaetz's plan, only four senators would face that fate. Sens. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, are drawn into a coastal district that stretches from Boynton Beach to Fort Lauderdale. Sens. David Simmons, R-Maitland, and Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, are pitted against each other in an Orlando-based district.

Diaz de la Portilla's proposed map would create a strong fourth Hispanic-dominated seat and break up the district now held by Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami. Margolis demanded the proposal be evaluated based on the effect it has on all Miami-Dade voters, not just Hispanics and blacks because, she argued, "Anglos have become a minority in Dade County."

But questions arose about the non-compact shape of other districts in the plan. Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said one oddly-shaped district that stretched from Weston in Broward County, through Palm Beach and up to the Martin County border as "Jay Leno in a baseball cap" ran the risk "of having the Supreme Court object to it."

The all-day meeting was sparsely attended by the public, but, in a rare show of attentiveness, most senators remained seated and rapt.

The reason was clear: the once-a-decade drawing of political boundaries affects each of them more personally than most anything else they vote on. Legislators who are drawn out of their districts are mulling the possibility of buying or renting a new home to meet the residency requirements of their new districts.

More than once senators asked for clarification about the residency requirements to get elected. The answer came back the same: you have to live in the district when you take office.

In the audience were two House Democrats who each are eying a Senate seat, Reps. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Mack Bernard of West Palm Beach. Also in attendance was Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, whose organization is financing election campaigns to ensure that Republicans retain a strong majority in the Senate.

Gaetz's plan redesigned the eight districts the court singled out as invalid and attempted to fix the numbering system that the court rejected as biased in favor of incumbents.

But Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, suggested that the court also required the Senate to review election history and voting patterns of its minority districts to determine if they could actually elect minorities. The House had conducted a so-called "functional analysis" but the Senate staff failed to include the results in its presentation to senators.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, warned the committee that it was heading "down a slippery slope of mass confusion" with that debate. But Sen. Nancy Detert demanded that the committee be given the results. The staff scrambled to comply.

Gaetz also struggled to win support for his proposal for numbering districts. In a memo to senators, he suggested a lottery of sorts that would arrange to have a neutral, independent party decide which of the Senate's 40 districts get two-year terms and which get four-year terms. The constitution requires the Senate have staggered terms.

A tense debate followed as some senators accused the court of judicial activism while others rejected Gaetz's plan for a lottery.

But Gaetz urged them to agree to the change or risk tainting the plan again with allegations of incumbency protection. "There's going to be an aroma that will implicate the rest of the proposal," he warned.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter@MaryEllenKlas

See the Senate maps at tampabay.com/redistricting

Tense debate over Florida Senate map yields no agreement 03/20/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 11:52pm]
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