TALLAHASSEE — Who represents Hillsborough County in Congress is at the center of what might become the latest political divide in the Florida Legislature, where acrimony is a consistent theme.
The county became a flash point Monday after state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, successfully rewrote the Senate's congressional redistricting plan to assure that more than 520,000 people in eastern Hillsborough will be represented by just one member of Congress, rather than be split into two or three pieces, as is the case now. Under his plan, most people living east of Interstate 75 would be in one congressional district for the first time in decades.
Lee said he's simply tired of Hillsborough being a "donor county" where parts are included in far-flung congressional districts to balance out population numbers elsewhere. Sun City Center and other areas of southern Hillsborough are represented by U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican from Okeechobee, while Lakeland Rep. Dennis Ross covers Valrico and Plant City. Brandon is part of Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor's district.
But Lee's amendment also makes certain that the House and Senate have very different plans that complicate the Legislature's aim at ending the special session on redistricting by Friday. Within minutes of Lee's idea passing the Senate redistricting committee, the House rejected all amendments to a base redistricting plan that was previously identical in both chambers.
The result is that the House and the Senate are in a familiar place: divided.
"Well, we have a different map from the House, and I'm very confident that what we are putting out of committee today is a good product," said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and chairman of the Senate's redistricting committee.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said the House isn't focused yet on reaching agreement with the Senate, but rather on passing a map that a majority of its members support.
"At this time we're focused on moving a product off this floor and sending it to the Senate," said Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.
If the Senate map is different from what the House passes today, he said it'll consider the next steps. Regardless, House attorneys' opinions of the Senate's proposal constitutionality will be important.
The House and Senate have had notorious breakdowns this year. In April, House members walked out before the end of the regular legislative session after the Senate aggressively pushed Medicaid expansion. A month later, lawmakers returned for a special session, under pressure to pass a state budget before the July 1 deadline.
Galvano downplayed the potential of another showdown. If differences remain, he's confident that redistricting committee leaders will work out a resolution.
Lee's plan could pit two incumbent congressmen against each other. In Lee's plan, Ross would be living in the 17th district by just a few hundred feet. That's a district Rooney holds. Members of Congress don't have to live in the district they represent, but usually do.
Anthony Foti, Ross' chief of staff, said the Senate should put politics aside and adopt the House map, which abides by the Supreme Court's directives.
Lee insisted that he drew his map without political intentions. He said he's a supporter of Ross and denied he was trying to create a congressional district he could run in.
"I have no desire to do anything but continue to serve the people of my community in the Florida Senate," Lee said.
Lee's plan is winning fans in Apollo Beach, Ruskin and the potent retirement community of Sun City Center, which would all be in the same district held by Ross. He represented those areas until the 2012 redistricting.
"I like that," said Dee Williams, longtime president of the Sun City Center Republican Club. "He (Ross) represented us once before and he was a good congressman. If there's any catastrophe going on, or severe storms, he was always checking in. I'm thrilled to death.
"I like Tom Rooney, but Tom has got so much space to cover. I don't know how he can do it."