TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Three groups that backed Florida's new anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendments say redistricting maps that cleared a House committee on Friday will perpetuate Republican legislative and congressional dominance in a state that's almost evenly divided between the two major parties.
House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, denied the maps were drawn to favor the GOP and threw the allegation back at the Fair District coalition groups.
He said he was disappointed they would criticize the Legislature's maps yet refuse to appear before his committee to defend their own proposals, which the panel unanimously rejected before taking final action.
“It's a frankly unfortunate political, and more likely probably a legal, stunt,'' Weatherford said.
The committee approved its maps on party line votes, Republicans for and Democrats against.
“There's two things that make Tallahassee go around,'' said Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne of Dania Beach. “One is money and the other is partisanship, and this is 100 percent partisanship.''
Floor debate will begin next Thursday with final action the following day, Weatherford said.
The Senate already has approved maps for its 40 districts and the state's 27 congressional seats. The panel accepted the Senate-passed map for its chamber. The Senate likewise intends to accept the House-drawn map for that chamber's 120 districts.
The committee also agreed to a proposed compromise on the congressional map. Weatherford said he's confident the Senate will accept it.
While the Florida League of Women Voters, National Council of La Raza and Common Cause of Florida declined to testify, the Fair District advocates submitted an 11-page letter. It outlines their proposals and why they believe the Legislature's maps violate the two state constitutional amendment voters adopted in 2010.
Both Fair Districts amendments, one each covering the legislature and Congress, prohibit intentionally drawing districts to favor or disfavor incumbents or a political party. They also protect the rights of minorities to elect representatives of their choosing and require districts to be compact and use existing political and geographical boundaries where feasible.
The letter says the Legislature's maps “promise to perpetuate a system of one-party control in Florida in clear violation of the Florida Constitution.'' The Fair District groups also contend the maps miss the mark by protecting incumbents.
Republicans denied those allegations.
“I've never looked at political data on what the map does,'' Weatherford said. “I still couldn't tell you what the political implications are.''
He also cited media reports indicating the committee's House map would place nearly a third of current members out of their existing districts or pair them against another incumbent.
The congressional compromise as well would displace a few incumbents from existing districts but unlike legislators, they are not required to live in their districts. The Senate map, though, does not double up or displace incumbents except for a couple who cannot seek re-election due to term limits.
The letter contends the House and Senate congressional maps each have 14 safe Republican seats and only seven safe Democratic seats. The rest are competitive but most also lean Republican, the groups say.
Republicans currently hold 19 congressional seats and Democrats only six. The new maps add two more seats to bring Florida's total to 27 because of population gains.
The groups predict the maps will enable Republicans to win two to three times as many congressional seats as Democrats and twice as many seats in the state House and Senate.
They allege the maps continue to put large percentages of Democrats including minorities into a relatively small number of districts to give Republicans a better chance of winning the others although by narrower margins.
The groups' own proposals included a plan to “nest'' three state House districts in each Senate district. Their maps also would have reduced the percentages of minorities in certain districts, notably one now held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a black Democrat from Jacksonville. Blacks currently make up slightly less than 50 percent of the voting age population in Brown's district that snakes from Jacksonville to Orlando. The House map would increase that to 50.05 percent while the Fair Districts backers' plan would cut it to 35 percent.
The letter argues the lower percentage would be sufficient for a black to win a Democratic primary and then the general election in a Democratic-heavy district.
House lawyer George Meros told the panel that much of a reduction in black voting strength would violate both the Florida Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.
Once lawmakers pass the plans, the legislative maps go to the Florida Supreme Court and the congressional plan to Gov. Rick Scott.
Then all the maps must obtain preclearance from the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court to determine if they comply with the Voting Rights Act.