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Plans For Special Session Take Shape

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Legislative leaders Monday laid out the fullest blueprint yet for a special session aimed at crafting new congressional districts, even as they continued a push for a Leon County judge to limit the impact of his ruling on this year's elections.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, announced that the Legislature would return to Tallahassee and begin the session at noon Thursday, little more than a week before an Aug. 15 deadline to submit a redrawn map to Circuit Judge Terry Lewis.

Specially formed House and Senate committees will meet later Thursday and on Friday to try to come up with a plan that would answer Lewis' initial ruling, issued last month, that struck down two districts Lewis said were drawn to help the ruling Republican Party.

Lewis said the districts violated the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments that voters approved in 2010.

At issue are Congressional District 5, which is represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown and winds from Jacksonville to Orlando, and Congressional District 10, which is represented by Republican Congressman Dan Webster and is in the Orlando area.

District 5 consolidates pockets of black voters, which critics say makes it easier to elect Republicans in neighboring districts. In District 10, Lewis said an "appendage" of white voters added to the seat was meant to help Webster.

In a statement following the announcement of the initial schedule for the session, Gaetz made it clear that lawmakers intended to do as little as possible to answer Lewis' complaints.

"Because the court held intact 25 of the state's 27 congressional districts as the Legislature drew them, I believe we can and should meet the court's requirements with minimal impact on the rest of the state," he said.

One of the groups that brought a lawsuit challenging the congressional districts said that, at least for the moment, it was waiting to see what lawmakers come up with.

Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said lawmakers had taken a first step by convening the special session.

"It remains to be seen whether they will decide to produce a map that meets the constitutional requirements," she said.

However, in a filing with Lewis last month, critics of the Legislature's original map seemed to indicate that small changes wouldn't satisfy them.

"And (lawmakers) have signaled their intent only to make minor adjustments to the affected districts in the 2012 Congressional Plan under an unduly narrow, self-serving interpretation of this court's ruling, leaving plaintiffs to bring yet another challenge," the filing says.

GOP legislators are continuing to push for Lewis to hold off on implementing a new map. The judge has said he's not sure about whether to allow primaries to go forward this month, with the general election following in November, or hold special elections later in the affected districts.

Legislative leaders say it wouldn't be fair to overseas voters, and even some in-state voters, who have already returned absentee ballots.

"My primary concern is that we count every vote that has already been counted," Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said at an event in South Florida with Gov. Rick Scott. " ... Around the state, the overseas votes, thousands of overseas votes have been cast, so that's one of my main goals is to try to accomplish what needs to be done without interfering with any existing elections that are ongoing."

Asked if there was concern that the need to redraw maps could hinder ballots already cast and mailed out, Scott said he expects the lawmakers will create a constitutionally compliant map as required by the court.

"I think between the Legislature and the courts, they're going to make sure the right thing happens," Scott said.

This report is by Brandon Larrabee with The News Service of Florida.


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