House set to approve redistricting maps on Friday

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Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida reports that the House opened a two-day debate on a GOP-drawn redistricting proposal Thursday as the Legislature drew closer to the end of the first act of the once-a-decade drama.

Operating under the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts standards for the first time, lawmakers said they had followed the voter-approved constitutional amendment by excluding politics from their considerations. House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said the proposals split fewer cities and counties — a key goal of Fair Districts supporters – and would set a new precedent for operating under the amendments.

“At the end of the day, this decision is bigger than us, this map is bigger than us, the Constitution is bigger than any one of us,” Weatherford said.

Republicans pushed through their version of the redistricting proposals — adding a House map to the legislative plan (SJR 1176) and overhauling a map for the state’s congressional delegation (SB 1174) — on party-line, 80-39 votes. A final vote on the amended bills, likely to also fall along party lines, is expected Friday.

Democrats tried to highlight problems with the maps, peppering Weatherford with questions and suggesting that the maps — which would include 73 districts won by Gov. Rick Scott in 2010 and 47 won by his Democratic opponent — don’t accurately reflect a state nearly even split in voter registration.

“A fair plan, by my definition … in this state, should allow for 60 Republicans and 60 Democrats,” said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville.

But Weatherford said that would have run counter to the amendments as well.

“If you’re saying we should engineer a political result to come from these maps, that is blatantly against the law,” he said.

Democrats tried to make their clearest point with an amendment to the map for the state Senate that was defeated on a unanimous, 118-0 vote. The proposal — offered by Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach — was aimed at inoculating House Democrats from the charge leveled at their Senate counterparts: that the minority party was more interested in carping than offering alternatives.

The Jenne proposal would have made changes to the Senate maps reflecting earlier grumbling by Weatherford about the lines in Pasco County and criticism from Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, about the way Polk County was divided by the Senate proposal. But the map would have blown apart a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the House and Senate to essentially trade each others’ maps for their respective chambers.

“Rather than wasting a lot of time on a bunch of map amendments that were destined to go down, we wanted to make the point that even one that benefited only Republicans would go down because the deal was already set,” said House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West.

Republicans argued that the map would have watered down minority-friendly amendments protected by the federal Voting Rights Act and would have split additional cities.

Democrats also voted against the proposal to make the case that the Senate plan was too deeply flawed to be corrected even with Jenne’s amendment.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.