Florida Legislature ends special session with no agreement on new congressional districts

Legislators leave Tallahassee without a deal to redraw Florida's districts.
Published August 21 2015
Updated August 22 2015

TALLAHASSEE — A special legislative session to fix Florida's flawed congressional district lines ended in chaos Friday as senators staged a walkout and the House rejected Senate requests to extend the session into a third week.

Lawmakers ended the session on time but with no agreement on a new map. As a result, legislators have turned over the job of redrawing the 27 districts to a trial judge, who can choose a House or Senate map, solicit other options or create his own to comply with a Florida Supreme Court decision ordering lawmakers to fix eight districts that it said were illegally gerrymandered.

"That should make everybody nervous," said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

It's the third session this year that has ended amid open feuding between Republicans, and it creates political uncertainty heading into the 2016 elections. The latest hostility, prompted by Senate demands to reshape congressional lines in Tampa's suburbs, threatens to disrupt an October special session to redraw Senate district lines across the state.

Gov. Rick Scott has the power to force the Legislature back to work to agree on a map before a court hearing Tuesday. But after lawmakers failed for a third time to draw a legally defensible map, Scott said he would not order lawmakers back to work.

By midafternoon Friday, most legislators had left town after being evicted from hotel rooms because tens of thousands of Florida State University and Florida A&M University students and their parents are descending on Tallahassee for the start of the fall semester next week.

As lawmakers headed home, they tweeted their frustrations.

"Pretty sure the Democrats on the Supreme Court will be delighted to draw the map," wrote Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City.

Amid deepening divisions Friday morning, senators called for a joint Senate-House conference committee to resolve differences.

"We need to flesh those out," said Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

When the House refused, senators bolted for the door on live television.

"You don't get up and leave," said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, the House redistricting chairman. "What you're seeing here should concern anybody in the public about the function of their government."

Friday's tensions were the latest sign of a Capitol in complete disarray.

Republicans have battled each other for months over health care expansion, a state budget and the recent mandate by the Supreme Court to redraw congressional district lines to adhere to constitutional demands that they not intentionally favor a party or incumbent.

"There's a whole lot of uncertainty when there didn't need to be," said U.S. Rep Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, whose district would have been altered the most in House and Senate maps. Rooney said he was stunned that the Legislature would forfeit its decisionmaking power to judges.

"It's disappointing," said U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota. "We're hopeful the courts will make the right decision."

The latest meltdown was complicated by restrictions on communication between lawmakers as the state Supreme Court directed, and the fact that a new map is subject to court approval.

"We've had two weeks to work this out," said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. "Compromise is about not always getting what you want, and at this point, they (senators) are not moving away from that."

The next step is up to Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis at a hearing Tuesday. Lewis can consider the competing House and Senate maps or ask the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, who successfully sued the Legislature, to submit their own proposal, or draw one himself.

Lewis has tentatively scheduled hearings for Sept. 24-28 and is scheduled to make a recommendation to the Supreme Court by Oct. 17.

The session that collapsed Friday was one of the most unusual in the modern annals of Tallahassee, as lawmakers sought a solution acceptable to the Supreme Court. But in the end, politics got in the way.

"It's the arrogance of power, and 17 years of domination by the Republican Party," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, the House Democratic leader. "They failed miserably."

Before the session began Aug. 10, three legislative staff members hunched over computers in a private cubicle in the Capitol and drew a so-called base map that followed the court's instructions, such as drawing a new east-west district from Jacksonville to Tallahassee in the region that U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, has represented since 1992.

Later, at the urging of Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the Senate altered the base map and put east Hillsborough into one congressional district, currently represented by U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, and put all of Sarasota County in one district.

Lee said his goal was to put as much of his home county into two districts as possible. His map placed Ross' home one street outside his district.

Oliva said the House was troubled that the Senate's changes to Hillsborough created geographic splits in Lake and Orange counties that could trigger new court objections. By law, districts must follow existing geographic and political boundaries as much as possible, such as rivers, roads and city and county boundaries.

"The House's position is that this current configuration would not hold up," Oliva said.

Galvano called for a full public discussion of the House's fears, but House members refused.

"If there's something we need to get on the record with regard to intent, now's the time," Galvano said.

House members privately questioned Lee's motives, and the House instead passed its own map nearly identical to the base map, which puts all of Sunrise, a city of about 90,000 people in west Broward, into one district rather than being divided three ways, as it is now.

The mild-mannered Galvano orchestrated the walkout in a committee meeting Friday after his request for a conference committee received no response. He was joined by Sens. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island; Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville; and Nancy Detert, R-Venice.

Bradley later urged Gov. Scott to intervene and force the Legislature back to work to get the job done.

"I, for one, would welcome his leadership," Bradley said, "to bring this in for a landing and to preserve our delicate balance of separation of powers."

Times/Herald staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

 
Advertisement