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Senate Narrowly Approves Redistricting Plan

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The Republican-controlled state Senate narrowly approved a new map of the chamber's 40 districts Wednesday, moving forward with a plan that opponents said was certain to be struck down by the courts.

The 22-18 vote to approve the map (SJR 2-C) moves the issue to the House, where it faces an uncertain future. Even Senate supporters of the map say they aren't sure whether House leaders will accept the proposal before a redistricting special session ends next week.

Four Republicans joined all 14 Democrats in opposing the plan, which comes after a settlement that included the Legislature admitting courts would likely throw out the current Senate districts under the voter-approved "Fair Districts" standards banning political gerrymandering.

Wednesday's debate seemed pointed more at influencing the courts than at the unfolding legislative process focused on producing a plan. Democrats and Republicans opposed to the proposal hammered away at its perceived flaws and said it would bring another legal defeat for the Legislature.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, scolded lawmakers for a process that he said has already cost taxpayers $11 million. Latvala and Republicans Charlie Dean of Inverness, Nancy Detert of Venice and Greg Evers of Baker joined Democrats in opposition.

"I predict that if we pass this map today, we're probably in it for another million, at least," Latvala said.

Latvala also threw a sharp elbow at lawyers who have advised the Senate on the redistricting process. Since 2012, multiple congressional plans and two Senate blueprints have been rejected by the courts or set aside in the legal settlement.

"How many battles have they won for us in court? ... For the most part, we've gotten our butt kicked. We've gotten our clock cleaned," he said.

Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, blamed the controversy that has roiled the redistricting process over the last two years on supporters of the Fair District standards "that frankly are the catalyst for all of this ambiguity which has cost dollars."

Supporters of the Senate plan say it is built on a "base map" drawn by legislative aides --- aside from four South Florida districts that were reconfigured by an amendment approved Tuesday. The process was designed to shield the map from any efforts by lawmakers to rig it for political reasons.

But opponents cast doubt on the map's objectivity, highlighting the South Florida amendment, which was purportedly adopted to increase the chances that three districts would elect candidates favored by Hispanics, and the fact that Galvano ultimately selected which of the staff-drawn maps would be used.

"Maybe the process started out sterile, but it certainly hasn't ended up that way," said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.

There were also parochial concerns. Detert, who is running for a seat on the Sarasota County Commission, blasted the proposal because it would divide Sarasota County between two Senate seats.

"The only people that won't be happy with this map are the people who live in my district," she said.

The voting-rights organizations that sued to overturn the original districts have also slammed the new proposal. Attorney David King wrote in a letter to lawmakers late Tuesday that the plan raises incumbent-protection concerns that "cannot be ignored, particularly when senators have already criticized the base map selection process as one designed to avoid pairing incumbents."

While saying he wouldn't ignore the groups' concerns, Galvano also seemed to brush them aside. And he declined to address whether the organizations might use Tuesday's amendment --- which moved Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, out of a district with two other incumbents --- as ammunition in the next court fight.

"All I can do is talk about the process that we've engaged in. ... I think the House is going to take a serious look at it, and we'll see where it goes from there," he said.