mack-bernard_web.jpgTALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ A Democratic lawmaker suggested the creation of a couple of black-Hispanic “coalition'' Senate districts and other changes affecting minority representation as the House Redistricting Committee took another step toward finalizing Florida's legislative and congressional maps Friday.

The panel narrowed its proposals to one map each for its own chamber and congressional districts. House and Senate redistricting leaders have agreed to work off the map each chamber draws for itself. The Senate passed its maps Tuesday.

Republicans currently hold overwhelming majorities in the Legislature and congressional delegation. The new maps are expected to keep the GOP in charge although Democrats could pick up some seats.

Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach, suggested the “coalition'' districts. He said he may offer amendments to the Senate and congressional maps that could improve the Democrats' chances. His idea is to shift some black Democrats out of majority-minority districts to make those surrounding them more competitive.

The committee will meet again next Friday to consider changes and finalize the maps before they go to the full House the following week.

Committee Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, encouraged Bernard to put his ideas in writing but said he's confident the current proposals conform to a pair of new constitutional amendments that require lawmakers to protect minority voting representation.

“Florida is a diverse state,'' Weatherford said. “Our maps should reflect that diversity and we think that our maps this year absolutely do that.''

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston offered proposals similar Bernard's in committee last week but withdrew them amid criticism she had waited too late in the process.

Rich and other critics say the Senate's maps would continue to “pack'' Democratic-voting minorities into a handful of districts, which gives the GOP a better chance of winning neighboring seats. She also argued the Senate proposals violated the Fair Districts amendments that also include a ban on intentionally favoring incumbents or political parties.

Senate Republicans disputed those allegations and the maps passed with bi-partisan majorities.

Rich conceded her proposals weren't exactly what she had hoped for and that the courts will ultimately determine if the Legislature's maps are constitutional.

Bernard said he hasn't discussed his ideas with Rich.

“This is just me thinking of the best way to keep the districts as compact as possible,'' he said.

Staff director Alex Kelly said committee staffers attempted what Bernard is proposing for the congressional map and found it would cut voting age blacks from 55.73 percent of the 24th District to just under 50 percent.

The plan also renumbers the districts so the 24th would replace the current 17th district seat held by U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens.

The reduced percentage of blacks still would be enough for them to elect the candidate of their choice, Bernard said.

He also wants to make a pair of black-majority Senate districts in South Florida more compact and in the process create two neighboring coalition districts. Blacks and Hispanics would outnumber non-Hispanic whites but neither would have a majority by itself.

Getting the two groups to agree on a candidate may be problematic for a coalition district Bernard envisions for Miami-Dade, though, because it would pair Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans with black Democrats and other Hispanics. A Palm Beach County coalition district likely would favor a Democrat because it would match predominantly non-Cuban Hispanics with blacks, Bernard said.