TALLAHASSEE — Using a historic court ruling as its road map, the Florida Senate voted 31-6 Thursday for a second and final redistricting plan that leaders said would create an unprecedented number of minority senators and a more politically competitive chamber.
It is now up to the Florida House, which will meet for three days next week, to sign off on the plan. If this second attempt fails to follow the state's new anti-gerrymandering standards, the Florida Supreme Court will step in to draw the lines that will determine the Senate boundaries for the next decade.
"This plan is sensible to our constituents, understandable to all the members of the Senate and faithful to the Constitution,'' said Redistricting Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, before the Senate vote.
Democrats warned that despite three grueling days of debate this week, the map designed by Gaetz continues to violate the new constitutional requirements. They predict the courts will reject the proposal again.
"We may have had an excuse last time but, for this go around, there is none,'' said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston, "Incumbent protection is written all over the map."
A Times/Herald analysis of the new plan shows Republicans will retain a majority in the Senate, though it gives Democrats one more seat than their original plan.
Based on voting data from the 2008 and 2010 general elections, the map would allow for the election of 23 solid Republican Senate seats, two competitive seats and 15 solid Democratic seats — compared with the current composition of 28 Republicans to 12 Democrats. It also creates five districts designed to favor black candidates and seven districts that favor Hispanics. One Orlando-based Hispanic seat would be dominated by Democrats.
The court rejected the first Senate map on March 9, invalidating eight districts saying it "was rife with objective indicators of improper intent" that violated the new Fair Districts standards approved by voters. The governor called lawmakers into extraordinary session to redo the Senate map.
In Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, Senate districts will have a new more compact shape in keeping with the requirements of the Fair Districts amendments. Sen. Arthenia Joyner's black-access district, which is protected by the federal Voting Rights Act, has the most oddly configured shape as it stretches from Temple Terrace in Hillsborough linking African-American neighborhoods to Manatee County to the south.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, engineered the only change to Gaetz's map approved by the Senate. After a brief debate, the Senate voted 20-15 to include a last-minute amendment that keeps Plant City in a Hillsborough-based district.
The change was needed, Latvala said, after the Senate followed the court's directive and divided Polk County into two, instead of four, districts.
The change also allowed Latvala, who is lining up allies for a 2016 Senate presidency bid, to make sure two Republican Senate candidates he supports were no longer drawn into the same district. The new lines moved District 21 west to include all of Sebring, the hometown of Rep. Denise Grimsley, and taking Sebring out of District 28, the open seat being sought by former Bradenton Rep. Bill Galvano.
Unlike the House map, which drew about 38 of the 120 incumbents into the same districts, the Senate draws only four of the 40 senators together. In addition to Sachs and Bogdanoff, Republican Sens. Andy Gardiner of Orlando and David Simmons of Maitland are drawn into the new District 13.
Simmons, however, has said he will move to run for an adjacent Senate seat, District 10, based in Seminole County.
The design of the Gardiner seat drew a sharp rebuke from Joyner, who warned that "it includes the same appendage that our court held unconstitutional" and "grabs an incumbent's residence for no apparent reason other than to draw that incumbent into a safe Republican seat."
She also chided Republicans for "naked partisan gerrymandering'' in splitting Daytona Beach and criticized District 22 in Hillsborough and Pinellas County for crossing Tampa Bay "with the impermissible intent of dismembering an otherwise naturally occurring Democratic leaning district."
Republicans argue that the map not only abides by the court directives, it exceeds them. The original numbering system, for example, was rejected by the court because it was unfairly biased in favor of incumbents but senators attempted to avoid that this time by choosing new district numbers through a lottery.
The House Redistricting Committee will meet Monday to review the Senate map. If the House adopts the plan, the attorney general will have 15 days to ask the Supreme Court to conduct a second review. The court would have 30 days to complete that review.