Florida legislators already at odds over new Senate maps

Author: the associated press
Published: Updated:
Florida governor’s mansion and state capitol building. Credit MGN

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Florida’s Republican-led Legislature, which has split this year over everything from health care spending to new congressional districts, could be engulfed in a new political firestorm.

Legislators opened up a 19-day special session on Monday with the goal of redrawing state senate districts. Legislative leaders called the special session after the Senate acknowledged in court filings that it violated the state constitution by creating previous maps that benefit Republicans and incumbents.

But it didn’t take long for the latest round of map drawing to come under fire.

That’s because Senate Republicans are now saying that several senators can keep their current seats, even if the boundaries are changed during the nearly three week special session.

This push by GOP Senate leaders is a significant change from the past – including in 2012 – when all 40 state senate seats were on the ballot after the districts were changed. The Florida Supreme Court in 1982 ruled that state senators must run for new terms if their districts are altered.

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican in charge of the Senate redistricting committee, argued that that the normal rules don’t apply because the Senate is not following the once-a-decade process laid out in the state constitution.

“There is a legal argument to be made that the members who have been elected to four-year terms have a right to those seats,” said Galvano, who is an attorney. “We are balancing between the rights of the members and the rights of the people who elected those members.”

Senate Democrats, however, immediately raised questions about the proposal and suggested it could violate the state’s “Fair Districts” standards approved by voters. The 2010 amendments mandate that legislators cannot draw up new districts intended to favor incumbents or a political party.

A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, filed a lawsuit that contended the existing state senate districts violated the standards. But the Legislature agreed to settle the case shortly before it was scheduled to go to trial.

Several GOP senators – including the two Republicans locked in a power struggle to become the next Senate president – would have to run for a new term if all 40 senators were required to be on the 2016 ballot. Republicans currently have a 26-14 majority in the state Senate and the proposed overhauls could change that balance.

“The law in this case is crystal clear,” said Max Steele, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. “The Senate Republican leadership’s transparent effort to protect their incumbents and bypass the Fair District amendments will fail just like every other legal roadblock the GOP has attempted to use in the redistricting process.”

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli also sounded skeptical about the Senate’s argument.

“We’ve always understood it to be that you know everybody has to go back and run again,” said Crisafulli. He added that the House plans to wait to see what redistricting plan is ultimately adopted by the Senate.

The two chambers feuded earlier this year over Medicaid expansion and were forced to hold a rare June special session to pass a new state budget. Then in August the House and Senate deadlocked on changing boundaries to congressional districts, leaving the final decision up to the courts. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to take up the case in November.

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