Before the Florida Legislature spent a quarter-million in taxpayer dollars on the 2012 redistricting effort, it should have known the rules of the game. Instead, the Republican leadership retained a posse of politically connected lawyers in a selfish power play apparently aimed at thwarting reforms on the November ballot and currying favor with prominent campaign contributors.
The St. Petersburg Times' Shannon Colavecchio recently reported that the Florida House and Senate already have paid a handful of prominent law firms more than $273,000 over the last nine months in connection with the once-a-decade requirement to draw legislative and congressional boundaries.
That's earlier than in previous cycles, and it's long before the 2010 U.S. Census is complete, which provides the data for building the maps. It's also months before voters weigh in on Amendments 5 and 6, two citizen petitions that just earned spots on the November ballot. The ballot measures — if approved by 60 percent of voters — would overhaul the state's redistricting process by redefining what lawmakers can consider when drawing political districts for legislative and congressional seats.
The amendments would alter the status quo, where the state's most powerful legislators gerrymander districts to favor their friends or political parties. The amendments would require compact and contiguous districts, preferably ones that follow the same boundaries as cities and counties. They would prohibit districts that favor or harm specific political parties and bar maps that diminish opportunities for racial or language minorities to participate or elect representatives of their choice.
Dubbed "Fair Districts," the measures are being pushed by a bipartisan group — including former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and former Florida Comptroller Bob Milligan, a Republican — that points out the lack of truly competitive districts in the state has undermined the democratic process and contributed to polarization. The evidence: Florida is 35.8 percent Republican, 42 percent Democrat and 19 percent independent. Yet more than 60 percent of seats in both the state House and Senate are held by Republicans.
Republicans argue they just field better candidates. But political gerrymandering to create safe havens for particular political parties, combined with eight-year term limits for state offices, means only a handful of the state's 120 House and 40 Senate districts are competitive in any given election.
Legislative leaders of both parties, like foxes guarding the henhouse, have resisted reform for decades — including when Democrats were in power. They contend the power should rest solely with elected officials. But they have forgotten the first line of the Florida Constitution: "All political power is inherent in the people." Until voters decide the fate of the redistricting amendments in November, the Legislature should close its redistricting checkbook.