TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - The Florida House on Wednesday approved new legislative districts over the objections of Democrats, who anticipate legal challenges about minority representation and how the lines were drawn.
House members voted 77-39 along party lines to approve the plan (SJR 100), which likely will allow Republicans to maintain control of the Legislature into the 2030s. The plan will go back to the Senate for a final vote before being sent to the Florida Supreme Court for review.
But while lawmakers are close to finishing state House and Senate maps as part of the once-a-decade reapportionment process, new congressional maps remain unresolved.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday sought an advisory opinion from the state Supreme Court about his effort to revamp what is now Congressional District 5, which sprawls from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee. The district is held by Congressman Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, and was designed to help with minority representation.
The Senate has approved a proposed congressional map that would follow the same general design of the current District 5. The House has not produced a congressional map, but House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said Wednesday that DeSantis' request was "appropriate."
"I think it's actually very helpful for us to understand that, and the more clarity we can have on that point, prior to addressing the congressional map, means that we are going to have a legally compliant map," Sprowls said.
The new legislative and congressional districts need to be in place before qualifying for this year's elections begins June 13.
House Democrats argued Tuesday and Wednesday they were unable to offer alternative maps to the House legislative proposal. They said they were offered little time or input in the redistricting process, despite having seats on committees that worked on the maps.
"We were told that the maps were drawn by somebody. I stand here today, and I still don't know who was in the room," Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said. "We're told that counsel is shown on the House website. And yes, it is. Three sets of law firms. That's a fact. It's there. Which of them, and who from them, was substantively in the room when the policy decisions were made, I'm not clear on."
House Redistricting Chairman Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, defended the process, saying the House didn't employ "outside or political operatives," which was an issue a decade ago.
Leek also admonished members who said they were unable to participate, as the Redistricting Committee spent hours on training and questions on a redistricting website, which drew 91 proposals from Floridians, including 20 for the new House districts.
"Not a single alternative map was submitted (by House Democrats)," Leek said.
"This is not the same process we had, you know, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or 30 years ago," Leek added, nodding toward 2010 constitutional amendments — known as the Fair Districts Amendments — that were aimed at preventing gerrymandering.
"This is a new process," Leek continued. "We have the benefit of our prior history."
The reapportionment process occurs after U.S. census data is released. But the data was late this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, which shortened the amount of time lawmakers had to put together the maps. Lawmakers discarded the past practice of holding public meetings across the state to seek input.
The House crafted its own lines while signing off on new district layouts for the 40 Senate seats, which were approved Jan. 20 by the Senate. The plan has to go back to the Senate for a final vote because the Senate has not approved the new House districts.
House Republicans currently hold 78 of the 120 seats. The new map would carve 71 districts where voters supported former Republican President Donald Trump in 2020 and 49 that favored Democratic President Joe Biden.
Minority Leader Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood, termed the House Republicans' response to Democratic questions on the maps "a song and dance."
"I have a feeling people in the federal courts will probably have a little bit of a different view, once that tap dancing occurs in their courtroom," Jenne said Tuesday. "But at the same time, their refusal to answer any questions, specific questions, really, I think goes to show that we really don't know what happened and where these maps were crafted, how they were crafted and whom they were crafted by."
An issue for Democrats is that the House map maintains 18 protected Black districts and 12 protected Hispanic districts.
Democrats contend benchmarks used by the House failed to address increases in Black, Hispanic and Creole-speaking residents over the past decade.
"In 2012, after the 2010 census, there were maps drawn that provided an opportunity for 30 minority individuals to be a part of this process," Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, said. "Today, in 2022, after the 2020 census, we still have only 30. The minimum that is required. If you believe that a quota is what we have to do, if you believe that a quota is what's appropriate, a quota is the floor, not the ceiling."
However, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, called the minority population increases "irrelevant" because in terms of overall percentages the Black population remained just over 17 percent while Hispanics grew from 23 percent to 26 percent.
"So why hasn't it changed? Well, it also matters where you move and where you live," he said. "See it's not the same 30 seats today. We've talked about that before. There was a primarily Hispanic seat down there in Dade County. It went away. You want to know why? Because while the state grew by 15 percent, Dade County only grew by 8 percent."
(©2022 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report.)
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