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Legislature Divided Over New Map For Congress

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida Senate
The Florida Channel
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon

The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature - which has been split this year over health care and a new state budget - is divided yet again, this time over a new map for congressional districts.

With just days left in their special session, legislators in the House and Senate are now working on different plans to change the state's 27 congressional districts. Lawmakers are holding a rare August special session after the state Supreme Court threw out the current map.

The court, in a stinging ruling, said legislators violated voter-approved standards in eight districts and drew a map designed to benefit Republicans. Voters in 2010 approved the "Fair Districts" measures that say legislators cannot draw districts intended to help incumbents or a member of a political party.

The court gave legislators just 100 days to come up with a new map in time for the 2016 election. The House has responded by moving along a map drawn up by legislative staff along with their lawyers that would overhaul the political landscape of the state. A final House vote on the map is expected Tuesday.

But a Senate panel on Monday voted to move ahead with a slightly different map.

Sen. Tom Lee, complaining that his home county of Hillsborough was getting carved up into four separate districts, convinced fellow senators on the reapportionment committee to support changes that place one of the districts largely in eastern Hillsborough. Lee, a Brandon Republican, said he has no interest in running for the seat, which is now held by Lakeland Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross.

House leaders - who clashed openly with Senate leaders on Medicaid expansion earlier this year - are downplaying the differences between the two maps.

"We're focused on what the House has to do right now," said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

Legislators have complained openly about the court ruling, since it had specific instructions about several districts, including ordering legislators to change the district of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown from one that runs north-south to one that stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. Rep. Jose Oliva, the Miami Republican in charge of redistricting in the House, said the goal right now is to come up with a version that would pass muster with the court.

"Defiance is not the best course of action," Oliva told his fellow House members.

Lee conceded that the "burden" is on the Senate to prove that their version of the map is constitutional. But he noted the changes he proposed kept some additional cities in the Tampa Bay area and Sarasota County intact and do not alter the districts targeted by the court.

"We saw a way to put our fingerprints on this a little bit," Lee said.

The rival maps may have differences, but both versions would make it difficult for U.S. Reps. Gwen Graham and Dan Webster to get re-elected in 2016. Graham is a north Florida Democrat and Webster is a central Florida Republican. The new map would also likely result in former Gov. Charlie Crist in seeking a revamped congressional seat in Pinellas County.