State lawmakers kicked off yet another special session Monday, and they’re ready -- albeit without a full roster in each chamber -- to unleash a new set of congressional maps with weighty implications for Florida’s political landscape.
In July, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that eight of the current congressional districts fail to pass constitutional muster after voters amended the state Constitution in 2010 to limit gerrymandering. The court gave state lawmakers 100 days to put together a new map in time for the 2016 elections.
Both chambers met to review what will happen during the 12-day special session, expected to run from Aug. 10 and end Aug. 21.
On the Legislature’s must-do list? Redraw a set of intricate congressional maps -- but don’t expect lawmakers to sit around a table drawing maps all day. Professional staffers are the ones responsible for the map-making, which means senators and state reps (as well as political consultants) will be kept out of the process.
Still, both the Senate and the House opened up shop for the state’s second special session this year.
A quarter of the members of the state Senate asked "out" of the session's opening day -- some even longer. In letters to Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, these senators asked to be excused: Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami; Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah; Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers; Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla; Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater; Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland; Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate; and Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, who is undergoing hip-replacement surgery.
According to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli's office, 18 House members asked to be excused Monday: Doug Broxton, R-Gulf Breeze; John Wood, R-Winter Haven; Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale; Joe Geller, D-Dania Beach; Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami; Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa; Ross Spano, R-Riverview; Dave Kerner, D-Palm Springs; Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach; Mike Hill, R-Pensacola; Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake; Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando; Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park; Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota; Patrick Rooney, R-West Palm Beach; David Santiago, R-Deltona; Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora; John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach; and Charles Van Zant R-Palatka.
The House’s first day back in Tallahassee was relatively short.
Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said he hadn’t talked with members about being involved in the process or about any amendments and reiterated he has had little involvement with the actual drawing process.
“I had nothing to do with the drawing of the maps,” he explained.
Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who will lead the House Redistricting Committee, said the process during this special session is a sharp departure from previous sessions. Usually, members are encouraged to put forth amendments on bills, but Oliva said Crisafulli has been particularly careful to keep the environment “as sterile as possible.”
“I think we have done everything we possibly can [with these maps],” he said. “There are eight maps that have been submitted. I expect to see a lot of discussion [from members] on that.”
Oliva expressed faith in the mapmakers, saying they have gone “above and beyond” the court’s decision to redraw the congressional districts.
“The map drawers ... will be excellent in explaining how they reached those conclusions,” said Oliva on the maps.
While the House’s discussion on the process remained fairly succinct and lasted only a few minutes to hammer out scheduling details, the Senate stayed to discuss the redistricting process for much longer.
Senators had a particularly keen interest in the way the maps would be redrawn -- the chain of events in this special session is bound to play some role for state senators down the road, because another special session to redraw the state Senate districts is set for October.
Several senators quizzed Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, on the redistricting process. Galvano will be that chamber’s go-to for information on the redrawing. He was tapped by Sen. President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, to lead the Senate Redistricting Committee.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, asked Galvano if the public would have the opportunity to present a map before the redistricting committee.
Gibson explained the public would be very concerned about the maps and likely would want to be involved in the process.
Galvano said members of the public would be able to give input on the maps.
“We are going to try to make time for that [general public testimony] as well,” he said.
Both chambers seemed hopeful they’d come up with a set of maps the Florida Supreme Court would find appropriate, though Galvano conceded there may not be a way to make the court 100 percent happy with the outcome.
“I don’t think the Supreme Court will ever think any map that comes out of here is a perfect map,” he told senators.