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Hearing Continues as Deal Reached on Senate Redistricting Session

As congressional mapmakers defended their versions of districts in a hearing before a Tallahassee judge, the House and Senate announced Friday that they had reached agreement on how to move forward with a process to draw new lines for the state Senate in a special session starting next month.

There were few revelations during Friday's hearing on the congressional districts, expected to wrap up Monday. Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis is expected to either choose one of seven maps --- offered by lawmakers, voting-rights organizations, and a group of voters backed by the Florida Democratic Party --- or combine the maps in a new proposal.

Ultimately, Lewis' recommendation will go to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled in July that a map approved by the Legislature in 2012 and tweaked two years later violated a voter-approved constitutional ban on political gerrymandering.

During his testimony Friday morning, Sen. Tom Lee said he wasn't attempting to draw a congressional district for himself when he offered a map consolidating eastern Hillsborough County during a special redistricting session last month. The map proposed by Lee contributed to the implosion of the special session without an agreement on districts, which left the task to Lewis.

House lawmakers did not want to make sweeping changes to a "base map" drawn by aides that was aimed at fixing the problems found by the Florida Supreme Court.

There were suggestions during last month's special session that Lee was trying to push Republican Congressman Dennis Ross out of a district, leaving one for Lee. After denying those intentions in court Friday, Lee told reporters that he was glad to address any implications.

"I realize everyone's seeing ghosts because of what we've been through over the last few years in this reapportionment process," Lee, R-Brandon, said. "But I think it's very important that we establish the individual legislators' right to impact these maps."

Meanwhile, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano told reporters that the House and Senate had agreed to consider multiple base maps when they meet next month to consider redistricting proposals for the Senate.

"That will even further the opportunity for discussion and input from the members to make improvements to what's proposed," Galvano, R-Bradenton, said after his court appearance Friday.

Galvano also said that House and Senate aides will be recorded as they draw the Senate base maps. While discussions between senators and their staff members were recorded during the special session on congressional districts, the House did not record those meetings and there are no transcripts of the secluded process during which aides drew the base map.

Following Galvano's remarks, the Senate released letters between Galvano and House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, showing a previously undisclosed agreement finalized Monday about how to move forward with the Senate redistricting session.

In a letter to Oliva, Galvano said that he believed multiple maps could avoid the kind of confrontation that led to the failure of the congressional session. And he explained his thoughts on recording the meetings.

"I have the utmost trust that our professional staff will draw a set of constitutional maps, however I cannot dismiss the fact that a great deal of discretion and decision-making is vested in them when they do so," Galvano wrote. "While it is the intent of the Legislature and our decision to accept a map that ultimately matters, I also recognize the safest course is to record such meetings to protect against the circumstance where the Court might see it differently."

Back inside the courtroom, attorneys for the House and Senate and those who challenged the 2012 maps grilled experts on a variety of issues, from the share of different districts that were comprised of Hispanic voters to questions about a map that would ensure that Democratic U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel lived in different districts.

An expert who drew the map separating the two members of Congress said he believed the Legislature's decision to put Deutch and Frankel in the same district might violate the constitutional ban on "disfavoring" incumbents.

But George Meros, a lawyer for the House, suggested that the map unpairing the two --- which was offered by a group of voters supported by the Florida Democratic Party --- might itself be unconstitutional gerrymandering.

"What you did is draw a map that was just as illegal, from the Supreme Court's decision, as our (2012) map was," Meros said.

The attorney for the voters quickly objected to Meros' question.