The collapse of the Legislature’s redistricting session last week is the most pathetic example yet of legislative malpractice in Tallahassee. Given a final chance to draw a Congressional district map that meets constitutional standards, lawmakers couldn’t agree on a fix.
Monday, legislative leaders were still at odds. The House hoped to get a Leon County judge to determine which chamber had the most viable map. Senate President Andy Gardiner, however, responded that he was not ready to cede control to the court, which has set a scheduling hearing for Tuesday. He wants to reopen the special session to find a compromise.
If that’s the case, then perhaps — perhaps — Sen. Gardiner is finally turning out to be the adult here in trying to produce a map that lives up to the voter-approved Fair Districts Amendment. So far, though, the childish tantrums that ended both this session and the regular session of the Legislature — featuring an abrupt walkout by the House after the failure to agree on Medicaid — show they can’t be trusted to get the job done.
They spent two weeks in a costly special session engaged in political bickering and ended up in a confrontation over whether to accept the Senate or House version of a new map. When neither side gave ground, everybody just picked up their marbles and went home.
Their abject display of incompetence might leave it up to the judiciary, which is ironic given that some lawmakers squawked bitterly because the state Supreme Court would not accept the earlier map. The court discredited that version because it violated the constitutional ban against drawing lines to favor specific politicians or parties.
It could hardly be more embarrassing for the Legislature, which already had to call an earlier special session to produce a budget — the bottom-line responsibility it failed to fulfill in the regular session. And it has a third special session coming up to deal with a re-do of senatorial districts. Let’s see if they botch that one.
Republicans own this failure. Unlike a similar breakdown in the Virginia General Assembly last week, which fell along partisan lines, this one featured Republicans fighting among themselves, with outnumbered Democrats reduced to irrelevant muttering on the sidelines.
The specific issue that led to the bust was an insistence by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, to alter a “base map” prepared by legislative staffers that followed the court’s instructions — and which the House had largely accepted. Sen. Lee sought changes in the suburbs west of Tampa that Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, the House redistricting chief, thought the courts would overrule.
Regardless of who’s right, this is the kind of dispute that responsible legislators can usually manage through compromise. But that was a bridge too far for both sides, and it speaks volumes about the dysfunction of the Legislature and the arrogance and incompetence of legislative leaders in Tallahassee.
The collapse of the special session is the third time that lawmakers have failed to devise a legally defensible map. It’s time to let someone else do it on a regular basis. A court might have to do it this time around, but judges don’t want the job on a regular basis and they shouldn’t take on this added responsibility.
Instead, the task of congressional and legislative redistricting should be entrusted to an independent commission that can follow the law. There are already two proposed bills before the Legislature to create such a panel. It would prepare a map adhering to the Fair Districts guidelines and allow the Legislature to ratify a final version.
That preserves the Legislature’s prerogative and keeps the politics to a minimum. Moving ahead on it will require leadership in Tallahassee, something that, sadly, has been sorely missing these days in the state capital.