TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Mike Haridopolos quips that a proposed constitutional amendment to change how voter districts are drawn should be called "the full employment act for lawyers," because it will spark so many challenges in court if approved by voters.
But four politically connected law firms have already seen financial gains in the redistricting battle that will play out through 2012, if not longer. In just nine months, the firms have received nearly $273,000 in taxpayer funds.
If past redistricting cycles are any indication, the final tab will grow by millions.
Since the Senate in April retained two firms to handle redistricting matters, the firms — whose lawyers include a former Republican Senate president and a former Republican House member — have billed nearly $155,000.
The House has paid $117,589 to two firms retained in August, for a total of nearly $273,000 between the two chambers.
"I don't think anyone objects to outside counsel so that you have the right expertise," said Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg. "But I think just as we have asked municipalities to exercise good spending judgment, we should do the same. And I don't see the need to have them on board this early."
But other lawmakers say redistricting is too complicated of an issue to go without outside counsel. And they argue that the proposed "Fair Districts" constitutional amendment adds another layer of complications, because it would add six standards, which critics say conflict with each other, to how districts are drawn. Voters are slated to have their say on the amendment this fall.
"This is one of the most complex things to land even under the current standards, and now we could be adding criteria that will only make it more complex," said Haridopolos, the Merritt Island Republican who is slated to be Senate president during redistricting.
"This is a legal mess waiting to happen, so I want to do it right," he said.
Legislators are required by law every decade to pass redrawn voter districts based on population changes reflected in the latest census. It's an inherently political process as lawmakers can effectively choose their voter pool — in ways that help guarantee re-election.
In past redistricting cycles, the House and Senate hired separate legal teams to defend their proposed changes in court.
The four firms hired this time around all have experience in Florida redistricting law and court challenges dating back 20 years. But they also have political ties, and some of their attorneys are registered to lobby the same legislative bodies they're being paid to advise.
The House so far has paid more than $92,000 to the Orlando-based GrayRobinson firm, which previously employed House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, who will be in charge of his chamber when districts are redrawn. Also working for the House is attorney Miguel De Grandy, who has received more than $22,000. The former Miami state representative worked on an alliance with black Democrats to redraw districts in 1992 — changes that also resulted in Republicans gaining seats during the 1996 election.
Cannon stressed that he played no part in selecting the firms, but he is happy they're on board. And under contracts that are at hourly rates less than what the firms usually charge their clients.
The Senate paid almost $102,000 through January to the Tallahassee firm of Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell and Dunbar, P.A.
The firm has several attorneys and shareholders, including Sam Bell, a former state representative who served as House counsel on redistricting in 1992; and Peter Dunbar, a former state representative who served as general counsel under Gov. Bob Martinez. Pennington attorneys lobby for property insurers, municipalities, corporations including McDonald's, and even the Florida Voters Coalition.
The Senate has also paid more than $53,000 to Tripp Scott, P.A., the firm of former Senate President Jim Scott, who served as counsel to the Legislature during the 2002 redistricting. He was Senate president in 1995 when the Senate and the U.S. Department of Justice settled a federal lawsuit filed by Tampa Bay residents who argued that a minority district that meandered through several area counties was unconstitutional.
"So I have a strong history of protecting minority seats," Scott said.
Scott is registered to lobby for several clients, including Broward County and the cities of Weston and Oakland Park, and Florida Jai-Alai Inc. and the South Broward Hospital District. His partner Ed Pozzuoli, a former Broward GOP chairman and friend to U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, also lobbies for Weston and Oakland Park and a number of other clients.
"The decision was to go with the expertise," Scott said. "Even if we do occasional lobbying."
In the 1992 redistricting battle, the Legislature's legal tab dragged on for years, and the final bill topped $10 million. Among the lawyers hired: Bell.
The 2002 redistricting, however, was the most expensive, with several well-connected law firms sharing in more than $7 million just in the first several months. To compare: In 2002, the state spent less — $4.7 million — in tax dollars for domestic security.
The law firms of De Grandy and Scott were among those that benefited.
"Listen, this is not a cheap process," Haridopolos said this month. "And it will be that expensive again."
Cannon said it's a small price to pay for ensuring Florida doesn't go back to a time when there were no districts with minority lawmakers representing them.
"We owe it to our constituents to protect the legacy of minority representation that they fought for," he said.
Sen. Justice, a supporter of Fair Districts, said he worries the chambers' leaders are using the outside counsel to "find a legal avenue" to keep the proposed amendment off the 2010 ballot.
"And that is an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars," Justice said.
Staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.