TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Thursday for a rare August special session, hoping to quickly redraw congressional districts before returning to the campaign trail in an election year.
As a sign of how quickly the process was moving, the chairmen of the House and Senate committees working to revise the map released a joint proposal Thursday, hoping to hold committee votes on Friday and gain approval from the full Legislature early next week.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who ruled last month that two congressional districts were drawn in 2012 to help the Republican Party in violation of anti-gerrymandering rules passed by voters in 2010, has set an Aug. 15 deadline for lawmakers to give him a new plan.
The Republicans who run both legislative chambers said they would focus on correcting the two districts targeted by Lewis: Congressional District 5, represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, which sprawls across eight counties from Jacksonville to Orlando; and the central Florida Congressional District 10, represented by Republican Congressman Dan Webster.
"The goal is to fix (district) 5, fix 10 and only those that are directly as a result of the fix to 5 and 10," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Land O' Lakes Republican who chairs the House committee charged with redrawing the lines.
Because all congressional districts must have roughly equal population, any change to one or two districts will ripple through other parts of the map.
Democrats said more should be done, arguing that the trial revealed efforts by political consultants to manipulate the 2012 redistricting process, which also could have tainted legislative maps passed at the same time. But House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, seemed to hedge when asked how far his party would go.
"We certainly want to see a broader rewrite, but we're going to abide by whatever the judge ordered," he said.
Under the plan revealed by Corcoran and Senate Redistricting Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, Brown's district would no longer include the city of Sanford -- it would instead pick up more of Putnam and Marion counties.
All of Seminole County, which includes Sanford, would be included in Congressional District 7, now held by Republican Congressman John Mica, while the changes would force Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis' District 6 to pick up more of Volusia County.
Republican Rep. Ted Yoho's 3rd congressional district runs alongside one District 5 through Clay and Putnam Counties, so his district will definitely change.
"it just depends where they wind up with the final boundaries. District 5, which is Corrine Brown's district, and Daniel Webster's District 10 -- any district that comes up against them, they're going to have a ripple effect that goes through them," Yoho said Thursday. "we'll have to see what the final maps are."
As for Webster's district, it would lose an appendage of white voters in Orange County that Lewis found was included to help the incumbent. Webster would pick up parts of Polk and Osceola counties to offset the population loss. District 9, currently held by Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, would shed parts of Osceola County, particularly the southern end, and Polk County while picking up the population Webster would give up.
Republican Congressman Tom Rooney's District 17 would pick up the southern end of Osceola to make up for population that was shifted into Webster's district.
The plan differs significantly from a proposal by two voting-rights groups that were among those challenging the current map in court. Those groups wanted Brown's district to instead run from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west.
Florida's Fifth Congressional District stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando, including parts of nine counties.
But George Meros, an attorney for the House, ripped the east-west configuration in a presentation to the House and Senate redistricting committees Thursday afternoon, saying it would decrease the chance for African-American voters to elect a candidate of their choice and was even more bizarrely shaped than Brown's current district.
"This to me looks like a surfboard that was attacked by Jaws in any number of different places," he quipped.
It's still not clear whether the revisions will disrupt the elections scheduled for November. Lewis has not decided whether to delay elections in the districts affected by the new lines. Elections supervisors have argued that holding a separate special vote in those districts after the general election could confuse voters and cause logistical problems.
"I don't believe that a 2014 election, without changing current Florida law, changing current federal law, is doable," Michael Ertel, the elections supervisor in Seminole County, told the joint committee meeting.
Special session of Florida Legislature
Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, said he would propose an alternate map that affects only Congressional Districts 5, 7 and 10 and would allow the current maps to be used in the primary and the new maps to be used in the general election. But that plan is not expected to go far in the GOP-controlled Senate.
The biggest question is whether the maps will delay the November election for some congressional seats. Leadership is strongly opposing any 2014 election delays.
"We would certainly stand our ground in our position that it should not effect the 2014 election cycle," House Speaker Bill Weatherford said.
One state senator is proposing a compromise, suggesting the August 26 primary be run on existing maps while basing the November election on the newly drawn districts.
Jacksonville state Sen. Audrey Gibson thought the existing map was fair.
"I thought we followed the constitution the first time," Gibson said. "Obviously, the judge sees it a little differently."
House and Senate leaders have insisted this time around that legislators retain all emails and documents. The decision by the Legislature to destroy emails from the 2012 session drew the suspicion of Lewis in his ruling. Legislative leaders have also told lawmakers that if they come up with any proposals they must publicly announce who helped draw it up.
But there were already signs of partisan sniping at the onset. Democratic legislators want to spend time during the special session dissecting the role that GOP operatives played in drawing up the map that Lewis threw out.
Democrats asked why the same people are being allowed to draw maps, and the voters coalition that won the law suit says it will submit its own map to both lawmakers and the judge.
The groups that sued the Legislature also raised similar questions at the start of the session. In a lengthy letter, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause also called on legislators to make more substantial changes to the current districts, including looking at switching Brown's district to one that stretches across north Florida instead of central Florida.
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