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House Democrats call for independent redistricting commission

The day after House members from both parties expressed disdain over redistricting before passing new congressional maps, Democrats redoubled their call to take the process out of the Legislature's hands entirely.

Speaking Wednesday morning, leaders in the minority party said the current system used to divvy up population among congressional and state legislative representatives is "rotten to the core" and "needs to be blown up."

"Today, it's crooked as a bucket of snakes," Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said. "There are way too many blind spots in the process."

The solution? Democrats say it's an independent redistricting commission. Experts say these have worked well in other states, as the Times/Herald has previously reported.

They anticipate two bills in the upcoming legislative session to create an independent commission. One, by Dania Beach Rep. Evan Jenne, hasn't been heard in the special redistricting session that ends this Friday in Tallahassee.

Jenne's proposal (HB 21) calls for one person each appointed by the Senate president, House speaker, Senate minority leader, House minority leader and five from the governor, including a Republican, a Democrat and three third-party or NPA voters. The commissioners would have to be outside the normal realm of politics in that no elected official could be part of the redistricting process. Still, the Legislature would have final approval of any district maps.

"It's become painfully obvious to everyone in this building that the folks one floor above us cannot do this," he said Wednesday, referring to House and Senate leadership.

Dudley plans to file an alternative option, currently being drafted by House staff, which would go even farther to separate redistricting from the Legislature.

It's very similar to California's independent redistricting commission, which observers in that state say has led to more competitive and less gerrymandered districts since it was implemented before the 2010 redistricting.

Sixty possible members would be chosen by the state auditor, and majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate would have veto power over names. Then, the auditor would choose four Republicans, four Democrats and three unaffiliated or third-party commissioners.

Among Republican House leadership, there isn't much support for an independent commission. Redistricting Chairman and likely future Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said on the House floor Monday that while he wants to see reforms happen, he doesn't support a redistricting commission. The Legislature is in the best position to serve the people, he said.

"What stands above all of this is this institution and its ability to do the work of the people," Oliva said.

That makes the Democrats' chances of passing a redistricting commission in the legislature near-zero. So they've started thinking about other avenues, including pushing for a constitutional amendment on the ballot in an upcoming election.

They say voters would likely support them, as they did in passing the Fair District Amendments in 2010, which force lawmakers to keep their own partisan or political goals out of the process and led to the Supreme Court throwing out the congressional maps and mandating the current special session.

"There really seemed to be a lot of concern over the redistricting process," House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach said. "It's a clear indication that what we're trying to do as a legislative body isn't what the people wanted."

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