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Senate redistricting chair vows to redeem process as he plans to limit public’s input

·5 min read

In an effort to “take steps against the shadow process” that marred legislative redistricting 10 years ago, Senate Reapportionment Committee Chair Ray Rodrigues on Monday announced new rules that put limits on the input the Senate gets from average citizens, political consultants and lobbyists.

The Senate will now require more disclosure from anyone who attempts to address legislators in a public meeting by requiring them to submit a disclosure form that indicates if they are a lobbyist or getting expenses paid. New rules will prohibit legislators from considering maps submitted by the public, unless a lawmaker explicitly requested the map in writing. The Senate will also require legislators to retain all records of communications they get about maps.

And, in what may be the most radical change of all, Rodrigues said the Senate is considering abandoning public meetings to collect citizen input from communities across the state to hear how they would like the maps drawn.

“If you go back and look at the litigation from the last cycle, the [Florida Supreme] Court was very clear that we’re no longer allowed to use communities of interest because that was not articulated in the Fair Districts amendments,’’ said Rodrigues, R-Estero, during the inaugural meeting of the Senate Reapportionment Committee. The Fair Districts amendments to the state Constitution prohibit legislators from drawing maps intended to protect incumbents or political parties.

Rodrigues said the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder in 2013 removed the requirement that legislators do a “traveling road show” to determine which communities of interest want to be kept together in legislative and congressional districts. Now he questions whether public hearings “makes sense in Florida.”

“So, given that the key piece of information that we received from this roads how is no longer applicable to the drawing of the districts, my personal position is I’m not sure we should spend the time to do that,” he said.

The House Redistricting Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, will hold its first meeting Wednesday. The two committees are expected to launch a website in the next week that will provide map-drawing software for the public to use to draw maps.

Goal to reduce outside influence

Rodrigues said the goal of the new Senate rules is to prevent legislators from using political consultants to illegally influence redistricting as they did 10 years ago, when the courts invalidated the legislatively-drawn Senate and congressional maps. Florida’s courts ruled that legislators violated the Fair Districts amendments.

“I intend for this committee to conduct the process in a manner that is consistent with case law developed during the last decade, is beyond reproach and free from any kind of unconstitutional intent,’’ he said.

Rodrigues said he wants the Legislature to restore public trust so that the courts give it “legislative deference” again, and when the maps are reviewed the court will start with the assumption that the maps are legal.

After the court ordered legislators back to the drawing board in 2015, “the Florida Senate was in a position where they had to record each of their meetings,’’ Rodrigues recalled. “They had lost the legislative deference, and they’d lost the presumption that any map they brought forth was constitutional.”

He vowed to change that this time.

“This committee will pass maps that are compliant with the Constitution, that are compliant with all of our Florida Statutes, and that meet all federal requirements,’’ Rodrigues said. “We’re going to be constitutional, and we’re going to preserve our legislative deference that exists. We’re not going to give the courts any reason to assume that anything we do is unconstitutional.”

South Florida’s loss could be Central Florida’s gain as redistricting process begins

Outside maps must have Senate sponsor

In addition to requiring additional disclosure, the Senate will require any map submitted by the public for inclusion into the Senate proposal to be sponsored by a senator. Publicly submitted maps that do not have a Senate sponsor will be available on the joint website, www.floridaredistricting.gov, for members to review. A similar process was followed last time but many publicly-drawn maps were rejected by Senate leadership in favor of parts of maps drawn by political consultants.

The new appearance form will apply to all committees, not just the Reapportionment Committee. Speakers will be asked to check one of the following: “I am appearing without compensation or sponsorship,” “I am a registered lobbyist” or “I am not a lobbyist, but received something of value for my appearance (travel, meals, lodging, etc.).“

It is not clear what kind of enforcement the Senate will employ or what penalties there will be for violations.

The Senate committee is comprised of eight Republicans, four Democrats and three senators who are serving in the Senate for the first time. Despite that, two of freshmen, Republican Sens. Danny Burgess, R-Inverness, and Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, were chosen by Senate President Wilton Simpson to chair the legislative and congressional redistricting subcommittees.

Sen. Lauren Book, the Senate Democratic leader from Plantation, could not be reached for comment on what she thinks of the new rules or whether she had any input on which Democrats were chosen to be members of the committee.

Meanwhile, as redistricting software becomes more accessible for the general public, several groups will be monitoring and analyzing what Florida’s legislators draw.

Political students at the University of Florida will download every map proposed by House and Senate leaders to provide the public with an independent analysis of which communities, and incumbents and political parties the maps help and hurt, said UF political science professor Michael McDonald.

He said he has been working with a team of researchers for the last four years to collecting precinct boundaries and data. They have merged the Census data with precinct boundaries and they will be building maps using online map-drawing apps.

UF’s political science department will also conduct a map-drawing contest for students, offering up $100 gift cards for those who produce winning maps by Oct. 30, McDonald said.

Another non-partisan group, RepresentUS, has teamed up with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to create the Redistricting Report Card, an algorithm that identifies gerrymandering as it happens and gives states grades on proposed voting maps.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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