A Dismal and Embarrassing Failure

Aug 29, 2015 by

They came, they wrangled, and they adjourned — without congressional maps.

The Florida Supreme Court gave the state Legislature the opportunity to try for the third time to draw congressional districts in a manner consistent with the Fair District Amendments placed in the state Constitution. The court also gave them fairly specific direction on the eight districts they needed to redraw and a timeframe to get it done.

This should have been an easy task. Republicans control both chambers — the House and Senate — with large majorities. The Legislature had ample time — a 12-day, special session — to make the adjustments. With only one task to accomplish, a single party controlling the process and plenty of staff and expert legal counsel, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that it would be done quickly and without fireworks. At least, that’s what most reasonable folks would expect.

But soon after the latest special session began, it became clear that lingering bad blood and hurt feelings from the Medicaid expansion battle and an ensuing budget special session were preventing a quick resolution.

The governor, also a Republican, could have weighed in and shown leadership but he was missing in action — and not on particularly good terms with the Legislature, having taken sides in the Medicaid battle and vetoing legislative priorities.

Here’s a brief recap of the legislative dysfunction we have seen since May:

The House, upset with the Senate for pushing Medicaid expansion for Florida’s 800,000 working poor by using federal funds, adjourned its regular session three days early without passing a budget.

The Legislature returned for a 19-day special session in June — at a cost of $651,435 to taxpayers — to pass the $78.7 billion budget minus the federal Medicaid expansion funds. Several important funding projects fell victim to the rocky relationship between House and Senate.

During a second 12-day special session — on congressional redistricting — the House and Senate started with a base map drafted entirely by legislative staffers.
The House backed the base map with a few modifications while the Senate made changes in Central Florida.

The House argued the Senate’s map wouldn’t pass judicial review. House members also believed the Senate plan created an attractive seat for the Hillsborough senator pushing the change. The House refused to budge and senators stormed out of the conference committee. The House then refused the Senate’s request to extend the session to work out differences and adjourned.

The session ended in failure. There’s plenty of blame to go around. We don’t yet know the cost to taxpayers of this special session debacle.

Now it appears it will fall to the Florida Supreme Court to draw the maps. Ironic since legislators — in both the House and Senate — spent the first few days of the session lambasting the court for what they perceived as “judicial overreach.”

One House member embarrassingly called for deposing the Supreme Court justices.

Now the two legislative chambers, employing their own lawyers, can’t even agree on what the courts should do — at further cost to taxpayers. The House wants the Florida Supreme Court to give the trial court the authority to review and choose the congressional map. The Senate wants the court to give senators more time to come to an agreement with the House. It’s hard to see how another special session and fourth attempt could be fruitful.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis quickly called a hearing and said he needed guidance from the Florida Supreme Court.

It’s time for the high court to decide.

The Florida Supreme Court should appoint a three member expert panel to review maps and allow the House, Senate, League of Women Voters and other groups that express an interest to submit maps to the panel by September 25. The panel should make recommendations to the court, whose justices should choose a map of the 27 congressional districts by October 17.

While the Fair District Amendments have had an impact on the districts and on the process for drawing them, it has taken a plaintiff — the League of Women Voters — to force the courts to enforce them. It has taken time — four years and counting. It has been expensive, with voting rights groups raising funds to challenge the poorly drawn maps and taxpayers footing the bills for the Florida Legislature, which poorly drew them.

We still have another special session scheduled for October 19. Then the Legislature will redraw the state Senate districts, a process that should prove even tougher than the congressional maps. House and Senate members have an interest in how they are drawn for their present and future political races. Couple that with the fact that the Supreme Court has not provided direction to remedy the Senate districts. Recent events do not bode well for a successful outcome.

It’s abundantly clear the Florida Legislature can’t or won’t comply, having failed Florida voters too many times.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.



All columns are (c) Paula Dockery | No reprint rights to whole columns are ever granted without express permission. | To syndicate Paula Dockery's columns please write to PBDockery@gmail.com