State Politics

Florida House Democrats call for independent redistricting commission

Traffic blurs by Florida's historic Old Capitol building in Tallahassee. Florida lawmakers will reconvene their special session Monday to continue considering new boundaries of congressional districts for the third time.
Traffic blurs by Florida's historic Old Capitol building in Tallahassee. Florida lawmakers will reconvene their special session Monday to continue considering new boundaries of congressional districts for the third time. Tampa Bay Times

A day after legislators from both parties expressed disdain for the redistricting process, Florida Democrats redoubled their call to shift the map-drawing from the Legislature to an independent commission.

House Democratic leaders said Wednesday that the current system being used to divvy up population among congressional and state legislative representatives is “rotten to the core” and “needs to be blown up.”

They say the solution is an independent redistricting commission, similar to ones used in 22 other states, and they have proposed two bills to create a panel that draws the maps, but with legislators signing off on the final effort.

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

The recommendations came a day after the House voted 76-35 to approve a replacement to the congressional redistricting map that had been thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court, and just before the Senate voted 28-8 to approve a different map.

One bill (HB 21), by Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, calls for a nine-member commission comprised of people who are not in elected office and have no political ties. The Senate president, House speaker, Senate minority leader and House minority leader each would have one appointment, and the governor would have five. The governor’s appointees would have to include a Republican, a Democrat and three third-party or no-party-affiliated voters.

The commission would be based in Orange County, conduct public hearings across the state and impose penalties on political operatives and others who attempt to circumvent the commission’s independence by infiltrating it with partisan or political activities.

A second bill, being drafted by Dudley, would go further to separate redistricting from the Legislature by creating a system modeled after the independent redistricting commission adopted in 2010 in California. Reformers there say that the change has led to more competitive and less gerrymandered districts in the state.

Dudley’s proposal would have the state auditor suggest as many as 60 potential appointees to the commission and give the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate veto power over the names. The auditor would then choose four Republicans, four Democrats and three unaffiliated or third-party individuals to serve as commissioners.

“It’s become painfully obvious to everyone in this building that the folks one floor above us cannot do this,” Jenne said, referring to House and Senate leadership.

House Democrats urged their Republican colleagues, especially the nine who opposed the map approved by the House on Tuesday, to become co-sponsors of the bills. They hope that the measure will get a hearing before the next redistricting session set for October, to redraw the state Senate map.

But, while several Republicans criticized the Fair District Amendments as unworkable, no one has stepped forward to embrace the idea of an independent commission.

Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, the House redistricting chairman, said on the House floor Monday that while he wants to see reforms, he doesn’t support a redistricting commission because he believes the Legislature is in the best position to serve the people.

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

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, one of the most vocal critics of the current process, said he may be open to the proposal because the current Fair Districts amendments, which prohibit lawmakers from drawing a map that intentionally favors incumbents or political parties, is unworkable.

“I remain open-minded,’’ he said Wednesday. “I want to see this process work better.”

Under the current process, he said the court has interpreted the Fair District amendments in a way that endangers the Legislature’s protection against civil or criminal liability for actions or statements made in the course of their legislative duties because, as long as someone alleges that lawmakers intentionally protected an incumbent or political party, their protections are waived, he said.

If the court interprets a “breach of intent” broadly and future Legislatures lose their protections “that’s just not reasonable,” he said. But, he said, if the Fair District rules are not too broadly interpreted and lawmakers follow the rules, it is “workable.”

“If we get comfortable with the fact that as long as we stay in our lane, and go about this in an objective manner — as we have in this process — there are many ways to draw these maps,” Lee said.

Democrats acknowledge their call for reform is a long shot and have begun considering other avenues, including pushing for a constitutional amendment that would create an independent commission.

“No commission is perfect,’’ said Dudley. “All we want to do is get it right for the people.”

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