TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A last-ditch effort to keep the courts from drawing state Senate districts collapsed Thursday, as senators voted down a plan proposed by the House and a special session called to draw the lines crashed to an end.
On a 23-16 vote, the Senate killed the House version of the map (SJR 2-C) and any hope that the Legislature would decide the lines. Nine Republicans bucked their party's leadership and joined all 14 Democrats in opposing the plan.
The redistricting issue will go to Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds, who likely will consider maps from the Legislature and voting-rights organizations that sued to overturn the current districts, with Reynolds ultimately recommending a plan to the Florida Supreme Court.
The implosion of the session marked another embarrassment for legislative Republicans, who have seen three sessions fail in 2015. The regular session ended in an acrimonious budget battle between the House and Senate that had to be resolved in a special session, and another meeting called to draw new lines for congressional districts also ended without an agreement.
This time, instead of blaming each other, GOP leaders blamed a pair of voter-approved constitutional amendments that ban political gerrymandering in legislative and congressional redistricting. Lawmakers argued that the "Fair Districts" amendments had become an almost unworkable maze of sometimes contradictory standards that ignored the need to draw together communities with common interests.
"Having been living intimately in this world, I have concluded that the amendments to our Constitution pulled the soul out of map drawing, pulled the soul out of districts," said Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
In brief remarks to his colleagues at the close of the session, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli also suggested that the authors of the amendments had used a noble goal to create gridlock.
"This has certainly been a difficult time, and I truly believe there are those who have set out to do everything they can to produce chaos and confusion and truly make this impossible to succeed and make us have a hard time succeeding in this effort," Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said.
The defeat came just hours after Galvano and House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, agreed to ask lawmakers to approve the House version of the map instead of a compromise plan.
The Senate districts are being redrawn following a legal settlement between the Legislature and a collection of voting-rights groups and voters who argued the current map, approved by lawmakers in 2012, violates the Fair Districts amendments. The Legislature reached the settlement with opponents of the map after the Florida Supreme Court struck down the boundaries for the state's congressional delegation in July.
In a statement, an attorney for the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida blasted lawmakers who blamed the amendments for the messy end of the session.
"The Legislature has fought the Fair Districts Amendments from the moment they were introduced," said the lawyer, David King. "By blaming the amendments, rather than themselves, they are simply perpetuating their opposition to the will of the people and engaging in the very conduct that Florida voters clearly wanted to eliminate from our state."
On the Senate floor, opponents hammered away at what they called shortcomings of the proposed plan, from the fact that it used a power line for the boundary of one district to the alleged mistreatment of a strawberry patch.
"I can't even go home and explain to my community how this happened and why this happened and who drew the maps," said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice.
South Florida Republicans railed against proposed changes to three districts in Miami-Dade County that are intended to give Hispanic voters an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. Those districts had emerged as the main obstacle to a final deal.
Lawmakers of Cuban descent argued that the House map, offered by Oliva, weakened one of the districts to the point that Hispanics might not be able to dictate the outcome. Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, brushed aside the arguments of Oliva and others who said the map didn't hurt Hispanic voting strength in the district.
"Let me tell you, the truth is: They don't know Dade County," Garcia said.
Allies of Senate leaders, though, pleaded with members to pass a map that even they admitted was flawed. Supporters of the plan said a united front would give the Legislature a chance at winning court approval for the map. After the outcome of the last redistricting session, the courts appear poised to use a plan drawn by the voting-rights organizations.
"This isn't perfect. I don't know that it's very good," said former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who oversaw the drawing of the 2012 map. "But I do know this, that if we vote no, we put this whole process into the hands of those who will not do it better."
As the plan collapsed in the Senate, House members were left with little more to do than wait and then, once the vote was cast, pack it in and prepare to go home. Speaking to reporters after the session, Oliva tried to point out at least one success for the House.
"I think we were able to convince the person that most knows about redistricting on the Senate side that this was a good map, and that was Chair Galvano," he said.
Moments later, House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, called Thursday a "jump the shark moment" for the state's Republican Party.
"What we saw today is an example of years of arrogance, selfishness --- was an example of a party that got punched in the face by its own system," Pafford said. "And I think the people of Florida will be granted an opportunity to get the type of representation that is fair and is representative of the state of Florida, at least in the Senate."
The process for settling on a final map will likely resemble the process for picking a congressional plan. In that case, a Leon County judge was presented with a total of seven maps from lawmakers and those who had challenged the map in court. The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday on a recommendation from that judge.
Asked after Thursday's session whether the Senate might support the House-drawn map that failed on the floor, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said it was too early to know.
"We'll have to wait and see," he said. "I'm more interested in figuring out if I'm going to make it home before (my) kids go to bed."