TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – One day before a high-stakes committee meeting, there were few signs Thursday that state senators were any closer to agreement on how the chamber's 40 districts should be drawn or numbered to comply with a voter-approved constitutional amendment banning political gerrymandering.
The Senate Reapportionment Committee is expected to approve a version of the lines as early as Friday, even as multiple versions of a potential map continued to be filed into Thursday evening. And even if committee members go along with a plan offered by Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, they will still face the thorny issue of how to number those districts.
The latest map to emerge was filed by Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. Simmons said Thursday evening that he was trying to come up with some way to more fully satisfy the complaints of voting-rights organizations and voters who filed suit against the current Senate districts, drawn in 2012.
The redistricting special session now underway is being held following a settlement in which the Senate conceded the existing districts were likely to be found to violate the "Fair Districts" standards that voters added to the Constitution in 2010.
Simmons said he might offer another plan later to try to continue altering districts in the Tampa Bay area. The region has emerged as one of the key flashpoints, with Republicans pushing ahead with plans that would jump across the bay in order to draw a district that would allow minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice. Democrats say that's unnecessary and is aimed at making a neighboring Pinellas County district more favorable to Republicans.
"I'm having to redraw that area so I can address the concerns of the plaintiffs," Simmons said.
Simmons' map builds on one of six "base maps" that legislative aides drew in the run-up to the session, while Galvano's is based on another of those maps.
Meanwhile, senators clashed over efforts to come up with a random way of numbering districts without intending to favor incumbents. Because odd-numbered districts vote in presidential years, where larger turnout favors Democrats, and even-numbered districts vote in midterms with smaller and more conservative electorates, the number of a district can affect how safe a seat is for a particular party.
The Senate used a process Thursday overseen by the state auditor general to randomly select which seats would receive even numbers and which ones would get odd numbers. But Democrats complained during the unusual gathering --- which was not formally a committee meeting --- that it was too early to number the districts because it could provide lawmakers with an idea of when they would have to run.
The numbers would also decide which senators would be able to hold office for four years and who would have to run again in two years if every member of the chamber has to run for re-election in 2016 --- though that hasn't been decided.
"I think it taints the process and makes it more likely that we're going to take unconstitutional action over the next two weeks," Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, told reporters after the numbering.
But during the meeting, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, defended moving ahead. He pointed out that the random numbering was meant to offer an alternative at Friday's meeting to Galvano's current number system, which assigns numbers based on which existing district most closely resembles each new district.
Several senators have expressed concerns about that approach as well.
"Barring this process today, there will be no substitute amendment tomorrow to have some type of random number," Brandes said. "The reason that we're doing it today is so that there is that ability."
The News Service of Florida's Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.
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