Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Feigning outrage, Florida legislators slink away from their responsibilities

Florida legislators have unfairly maligned schoolchildren.

They shirked their constitutional duties. They wasted time and gobs of taxpayer money (more than $150,000 just for food and lodging) in a two-week special session that came to naught. House and Senate members escalated their petty disagreements over congressional redistricting into a blood feud. Then, just before noon on Friday, they absconded with all the grace of WWE wrestlers, each side carping about the other legislative body’s obstinate refusal to compromise.

They slouched out of Tallahassee in a kind of a collective huff. A turgid tantrum. Political observers described a meltdown, chaos, a catastrophe. It was inevitable, I suppose, that a weary cliché was dredged up to describe their sorry deportment: “like quarreling schoolkids.”

What a slanderous analogy, using this mess to smear young Floridians who are just now heading into nine long months of dutiful scholarship. No comparison. Juveniles, being juveniles, may indulge in occasional bouts of juvenile behavior, but they sure as hell won’t be walking away from their obligations, en masse, because of their wounded sensibilities.

Our lawmakers only had a single assignment during this special session — reconfigure the state’s 27 congressional districts without regard to partisan interests. A few Middle school students could have pulled this off lickity-split. They would have simply plugged the constitutional criteria listed by the Florida Supreme Court into a computer loaded with that nifty, new political mapping software. The kids would have been done before morning recess.

Our adult slackers, however, weren’t up to the task. Mainly, because the respective leaders of the House and Senate couldn’t agree on which of their favorite U.S. congressional representatives they wanted safely snuggled into non-competitive districts.

They had muffed the same process back in 2012, when they assigned the map-drawing to political consultants — formerly known as cronies — in a secret backroom operation that a circuit court judge characterized as a “mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting.”

The Florida Supreme Court, in a 5-2 vote, agreed, declaring the 2012 effort “tainted by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents.”

We got an inkling of the cynicism around that operation last week, when my colleague Mary Ellen Klas dug out court records in a similar lawsuit challenging the 2012 state Senate redistricting. Court documents showed that Republican political operatives, among other transgressions, were submitting fake public comments to lend the shabby process an illusion of openness.

Political operatives were even employed to show up at public meetings and feign naiveté. One consultant was given a script that made him sound befuddled about the intent of the Fair Districts amendments. “Why do I got to be the confused guy?” he protested in an email to a fellow sleazeball.

Despite these unseemly revelations, legislators indulged in a bit of play-acting themselves during their abortive special session, pretending to be surprised and indignant that the courts had called them out for flouting the Fair Districts constitutional amendments (approved by voters in 2010) that prohibited lawmakers from designing district maps “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.”

So we’ve had to endure a lot of grumbling about “judicial overreach.” Rep. Mike Hill, a Panhandle Republican and complainer in chief, railed that the very Constitution was “under attack” from these meddling judges.

Except the Legislature’s own lawyers have stipulated in the lawsuit over state Senate districts that the Senate leadership had indeed violated the strictures of the Fair Districts amendments, adding to the already overwhelming evidence that their clients had ignored their sworn duty to uphold Florida’s constitution. The courts were legally obligated to order these yokels to come back to Tallahassee and redraw the districts.

But they couldn’t get it done. The irony, of course, is that these petulant lawmakers, so loudly protective of the sacred separation of powers, have now willingly ceded redistricting responsibilities to the very judges who they’ve been accusing of judicial overreach. The respective maps the House and Senate approved before their mutual hissy fits were remarkably similar, but rather than compromising between the few differences, legislators decided Friday they’d rather go home for the weekend and leave it to the court to do the job.

So they put on a sham act of pique and indignation that lacked the authenticity of a playground quarrel. Schoolchildren could have put on a more convincing show.

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