Saturday, March 17, 2012

New proposed Florida Senate map released

The chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee unveiled a new proposal for his chamber's legislative districts Saturday in an effort to answer criticisms from the Florida Supreme Court, which rejected the original plan last week.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the new maps would meet the rules laid out in the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts Amendments approved by voters in a 2010 referendum.

"The districts were redrawn, along with any affected districts, in accordance with constitutional standards as defined by the Supreme Court," Gaetz wrote in a memo accompanying the release.

The Supreme Court threw out the plan because of problems in eight districts, though Gaetz's plan would also shift other lines to offset population changes in districts struck down by the ruling. All Senate districts are supposed to have relatively equal populations under both the Fair Districts standards and the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In Southwest Florida, the new map would create a more compact district for Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples. It would remove part of Cape Coral from his constituency, and add snippets of southwest Immokalee and all of south Lee County, including Bonita Springs. It also would relabel his current District 37 as District 30.

“My district no longer looks like an upside-down alligator,” Richter joked Saturday of the new map, which he had read about but not yet seen.

The 2002 lines, while concentrated in western Collier County, have appendages that extend into Fort Myers Beach, Cape Coral, Golden Gate Estates, and Marco Island, creating a jagged district.

“I’ve stayed out of the discussions, and it was intentional,” Richter said of the redistricting debate. “I believe it’s my duty to represent Southwest Florida. I don’t pay tremendous attention to where a line is drawn.”

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples
“My district no longer looks like an upside-down alligator,” Sen. Garrett Richter joked Saturday of the new map, which he had read about but not yet seen.

The plan announced Saturday wouldn’t change his demographics, he said.

Richter gave the example of Immokalee, which he said he still feels like he represents, although it hasn’t been in his district since he was elected.

The new map would dismantle much of District 27, which runs from Bonita Springs across the state to Palm Beach County. The portion of Lee County currently in that district would either go to Richter — like the southern part — or be integrated into a greatly altered District 23, which now covers the area around North Port.

District 21, now part of Lee County, would no longer exist in Southwest Florida and instead become the new label of a Tampa-area district.

The map would shift the partisan balance of the initial plan slightly, appears to throw at least two incumbents together and unites the city of Lakeland -- something the court had asked but not ordered lawmakers to do. It also compacts two minority-friendly districts thrown out by the Supreme Court, watering down their percentages of black voters, and substantially shifts the lines in Southeast Florida.

Under the plan unveiled by Gaetz on Saturday, 25 of the Senate districts would have been won by Gov. Rick Scott in the 2010 election; Alex Sink, his Democratic opponent, would have carried 15. The original map had a 26-14 edge for Republicans, who currently hold a 28-12 advantage in the upper chamber.

Discarded by the new plan is "an odd-shaped appendage," in the words of the Supreme Court, in one Central Florida district that opponents said was meant to prevent Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican slated to become Senate president in 2014, from facing Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland. The new map appears to draw the two incumbents together, meaning that one of them would have to move in order to avoid a faceoff.

The Panhandle districts of Gaetz and Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, were struck down for being drawn horizontally instead of vertically. The new map would align the two districts more vertically, but would keep Gaetz, the Senate president-designate, and Evers from a faceoff by splitting Okaloosa County in half horizontally.

A minority-influence district in Northeast Florida, criticized by the Supreme Court for sprawling across several counties, would instead be contained within Duval County. That district, currently represented by Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, would see its black voting-age population drop from 47.7 percent to 42.9 percent. District 34, a majority-black seat in Southeast Florida, would see it's black voting-age population fall from 55.8 percent to a bare majority of slightly less than 50.1 percent.

And Lakeland would be combined into one district, forcing the Senate to reconfigure a large inland district south of the city and pushing a district that had surrounded Bradenton and then run northeast to Lakeland to instead run more toward the southeast.

Gaetz also said that the numbering system for Florida districts -- thrown out because it would have given many of the chamber's members up to 10 years in office instead of the constitutionally-mandated eight -- would be determined by a pair of public, random drawings.

The Florida Democratic Party, which argued against the maps at the Supreme Court, blasted the new plan.

"The map Sen. Don Gaetz has proposed brings us no closer to complying with the court's ruling and is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by the GOP Senate leadership to stall the implementation of Fair Districts and cling to their gerrymandered power," said Chairman Rod Smith in a statement issued by the party. "Not only have they thwarted the will of 63-percent of Florida voters, they are now thumbing their nose at Florida's Supreme Court."

Gaetz said lawmakers should offer any amendments to the plan by noon Monday; the Senate Reapportionment Committee is set to meet Tuesday.

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