TAMPA — Almost four years ago, Florida voters passed the Fair Districts constitutional amendments intended to cut the practice of gerrymandering — stacking legislative and congressional districts to help incumbents or one political party.
Yet Florida is still the third most gerrymandered state in the nation, according to a study by an expert who has figured out a way to measure it.
And the state may be about to hold its second congressional election in a row under a district plan a judge ruled last month is illegal, a plan passed by the state Legislature in a process the judge said “made a mockery” of a fair and open legislative procedure.
Critics blame Republicans who control both the Florida Legislature and the drawing of legislative districts, saying they have sought at every turn in the five years since the amendments were proposed to prevent, delay or obstruct their implementation — spending taxpayer money in the effort.
The Republicans hope to hang onto the large legislative and congressional majorities that give them control of the state and help the party control the U.S. House. Those legislative majorities create a fundraising advantage that affects candidate recruiting and campaigning at all levels of government.
“The large checks that come from corporate interests and special interests go to the party that’s in the majority because it can control policy,” said state Democratic Party vice president Alan Clendenin.
Republican legislative leaders deny they’ve been obstructing. They say the situation simply shows that the amendments are difficult to implement, in part because they could conflict with federal laws meant to enhance the voting power of minorities.
But there’s no question that under their leadership, the state has spent millions on legal challenges to the amendments — most of it after the voters approved them.
That included three court challenges, all unsuccessful; appeals of decisions on those challenges, all rejected; and even an attempt put their own, competing amendment on the ballot. It was rejected also.
“They’re spending taxpayer money to litigate against the taxpayers,” said former state Sen. Dan Gelber.
How much money isn’t clear, but it’s significant. Since 2009, the Legislature has spent $6.2 million paying outside lawyers for costs related to redistricting, although that figure includes some costs not related to litigating the Fair Districts amendments or the new plans.
The amount is growing as litigation continues over what to do about the plan ruled unconstitutional by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. The Legislature will begin a special session today to redraw the plan.
Lewis said he hopes to put it into effect for this year’s election, but state Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford say they’ll appeal any such order because it would be too disruptive at this late date to try to use a revised plan.
Gaetz denied there’s been obstruction during his tenure as chairman of the Senate redistricting committee starting in 2010, and then Senate president.
He called the critics’ charge “baloney, thickly sliced.”
Despite a history of Republican litigation against amendments that won at the ballot box, Gaetz accused the Fair Districts backers of “try to gain in the courts what they can’t gain on election day.”
Efforts by Republicans to slow or stop the amendments began soon after they were proposed.
The state Republican Party contributed $2.6 million to the Protect Your Vote committee set up to campaign against passage of the amendments; more five- and six-figure donations came from reliable Republican corporate donors including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the sugar industry.
Courtroom opposition quickly started, also:
♦ In December 2009, lawyers for both legislative houses argued against putting the amendments on the ballot, based on the wording. The state Supreme Court ruled against them.
♦ In May 2010, two Congress members with districts likely to be affected by anti-gerrymandering rules — Corinne Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami — filed a state lawsuit against the amendments. Both legislative houses joined the suit, eventually rejected by the state Supreme Court.
♦ In its spring, 2010 session, the Legislature passed its own amendment to go on the ballot alongside the Fair Districts amendments. Opponents said it was intended to undercut the anti-gerrymandering rules. In September 2010, the Supreme Court took it off the ballot, saying its wording was misleading and confusing.
♦ On Nov. 3, 2010, the day after the amendments passed, Brown and Diaz-Balart filed a federal lawsuit arguing that voters didn’t have the right to set rules for drawing legislative districts. The state House joined the suit, which was thrown out in September 2011; the House appealed, losing in January, 2012.
Critics claim delay has also been part of the strategy, to avoid giving challengers time to form campaigns against legislative incumbents.
In 2011, the Legislature received the U.S. Census data needed to produce districting plans in April, but didn’t reveal proposed maps until six months later, in December, after spending the summer and fall on a statewide public hearing tour and in committee meetings.
Gaetz defended the schedule.
“I think it was the right thing to do ... to spend the summer listening to the people of Florida,” he said.
The Legislature passed district plans for the state Senate, state House and congressional delegation under the new rules on Feb. 9, 2012.
The House plan received approval on its initial review by the state Supreme Court, but the Senate plan was rejected. It was quickly revised in a special legislative session, but is still the subject of a legal challenge.
The congressional plan didn’t require that initial Supreme Court review, but Fair Districts advocates challenged it in court immediately. The case, originally scheduled for trial last year, was delayed repeatedly.
Gaetz blamed the Fair Districts backers, plaintiffs in the case, for seeking continuances in the trial, but the plaintiffs’ lawyers say the continuances were necessary because of the failure of the Legislature to produce subpoenaed evidence.
Lewis said in his order that voters shouldn’t have to go through another election with an illegal district plan, and left open the possibility of ordering a special election this year.
The Legislature, which took nine months to complete its plans in 2012, now plans to redo the congressional plan in seven working days, according to a schedule sent to members by Gaetz and Weatherford.
But Gaetz and Weatherford have said it’s too late to put a new plan into effect for this year’s elections, and the new map must wait until the 2016 vote. If Lewis orders a special election, they say, they’ll appeal.
The plaintiff’s lawyers respond that the Legislature, which caused the problem by passing an illegal plan, shouldn’t get to perpetuate its misdeed.
“The Legislature’s goal is to keep it the way it was until 2016,” argued attorney John Delaney.
“There’s already been one unconstitutional election ... ,” added attorney David King. “Their response is, ‘Let’s have a second one.”