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Jury Still Out on Redistricting, Fl. Supreme Court

In the ongoing case of the Florida Legislature v. the Florida Supreme Court, the final verdict might have to wait.

Since returning to Tallahassee on Monday to start redrawing congressional districts thrown out by the Supreme Court, lawmakers have hammered away at a 5-2 court majority that found the current map violated the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" requirements adopted by voters in 2010.

For the most part, lawmakers don't reject the court's authority to rule the maps unconstitutional, regardless of whether they agree with the decision.

"The concern is how far beyond that they (justices) went and how that imposes itself on future legislatures," said House Redistricting Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

Legislators have railed against the court's extremely specific instructions on some districts and a recommendation that most meetings either be held in public or taped. The Senate has gone so far as to require meetings between members and redistricting staff to be recorded.

The source of the sharp commentary could be the Tallahassee heat, and it could be that legislators are sick of being at the Capitol again after this year's regular session and a budget special session. But it's also part of a long-running feud between the two branches. There's frequently friction between lawmakers and judges, and it's only intensified as the Supreme Court has become the last liberal redoubt in a conservative state government.

In recent years, the fight has often centered on redistricting. In 2010, the GOP-led Legislature tried to put its own redistricting constitutional amendment on the ballot along with the Fair Districts standards, which were put before voters following a petition drive. Then-Rep. Dean Cannon personally argued the case for including the amendment --- but the Supreme Court shot him down.

The following session, Cannon became House speaker and pushed a constitutional amendment that would have split the Supreme Court in two --- and pointedly moved the three remaining Democratic appointees to the panel that would not hear challenges to the Legislature's authority. The idea was eventually watered down and then defeated in a November 2012 referendum.

Oliva hinted during a meeting of his redistricting committee that there might be some move during next year's regular session to address the court's actions, but deferred later when a reporter asked him what shape that might take.

"Honestly, right now, what I'm trying to do is take the charge that I've been given and navigate us through these waters," Oliva said. "I think those debates are for another time. But I think if you look at the kind of comments that were made on this committee today, I think that that is something that will occupy this Legislature."

One thing that does seem off the table is using the power of the purse to clamp down on the courts. Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has been one of the fiercest critics of the Supreme Court this week, said targeting judicial-system funding would be taking things too far.

"The judicial branch is a co-equal branch of government, and it needs to function," Bradley said. "Our businesses depend on a functioning judiciary. And these are important discussions to have. We have the ability to critique the decisions that they make, and make our feelings known. But this idea of punishing back and forth, I don't think, is appropriate."

A RIVER OF GOOD NEWS?

Backers of a House water-policy proposal that failed to pass this year are crowing over an annual Everglades pollution-reduction report as they prepare to reintroduce the water measure for 2016.

Conservationists aren't as impressed, saying a 25-percent phosphorus reduction target that sugar farmers and others in the Everglades Agricultural Area must annually reach isn't a difficult hurdle.

The South Florida Water Management District released a report Thursday that credits the implementation of farming techniques --- known as best management practices --- for reducing pollutants in the Everglades Agricultural Area below the legally required benchmark for a 20th consecutive year.

"Farmers and ranchers throughout our state are looking toward science and data in order to protect Florida's waterways and manage farms more efficiently, and today's announcement shows that best management practices are working," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a prepared statement. "I thank the farmers and ranchers in the EAA (Everglades Agricultural Area) for their continued commitment to being good stewards of the land."

Expanding best-management practices --- such as advanced stormwater management, erosion controls and specific fertilizing procedures --- beyond the 470,000-acre farming region south of Lake Okeechobee was an integral part of a 2015 House proposal (HB 7003) that would have changed oversight around Lake Okeechobee and the state's natural springs.

The proposal, which had backing from the state's agriculture industry and influential business groups, failed to get approval from the Senate, where members had their own ideas about changing the state's water policies to meet the demands of a newly approved constitutional amendment about land and water conservation.

House State Affairs Chairman Rep. Matt Caldwell, a North Fort Myers Republican who authored most of the House's water-related legislation this year, pointed to the new report in noting that the House "will continue to make water policy reform a priority."

"This historic level of reductions in phosphorus is proof positive that best management practices are working," Caldwell said in a prepared statement. "It also highlights the need for BMPs to be part of any comprehensive water policy reform passed by the Florida Legislature."

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a lobbyist on environmental issues, doesn't believe best-management practices are the surest way to reduce pollutants from going in to state waters. But he said if lawmakers want to hold the Everglades Agricultural Area successes as a benchmark, they should at least require the rules within the area statewide.

"Rep. Caldwell's bill takes all of the teeth that the Everglades cleanup program has out and renders the Lake Okeechobee program virtually voluntary," Draper said. "The EAA BMPs is a legal requirement to meet or exceed that 25 percent reduction. No such requirement exists for Lake Okeechobee. Moreover the EAA farmers are required to get permits to discharge into the waters of the state. Caldwell's attempting to eliminate that requirement for Lake Okeechobee."