Lawmakers pass congressional redistricting plan amid veto threat by Gov. DeSantis

FILE - The US Capitol seen on Sept. 19, 2021 with fencing and closed areas to the public.

Florida lawmakers are calling Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bluff that new congressional district lines are dead on arrival at his desk.

After the governor declared he would reject the plan, the House and Senate on Friday approved a bill (SB 102) that includes a pair of maps that DeSantis and Democrats oppose for different reasons.

The House crafted the unusual two-map plan to try to mollify DeSantis, who, in part, contends that a sprawling North Florida district is unconstitutional and should be condensed in the Jacksonville area. That district was drawn in the past to help elect a minority and is held by Al Lawson, a Black Democrat.

The House plan includes a "primary" map and a "backup" map, which would be used if courts reject the primary version. House members Friday voted 67-47 to approve the plan, with the Senate then quickly voting 24-15 to pass it. The plan will go to DeSantis, who has veto power.

Senate Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, argued both maps drawn by the House would be deemed constitutional by the Florida Supreme Court. He also said the House plan is similar to a proposal approved earlier by the Senate in the way it addresses minority-held seats in Central Florida.

"They haven't matched our lines up exactly," Rodrigues said. "But based upon what they have done, and a functional analysis has been performed on those (minority access) seats after they have proposed them, it is clear that we are preserving the opportunity for minority voters, which makes it constitutional."

Rodrigues added that gubernatorial vetoes typically include letters that can provide guidance about how proposals should be changed.

"I would prefer to see what's articulated for the reason that this map is vetoed, should he choose to go down that road," Rodrigues said.

Before the votes Friday, DeSantis objected to the plan.

"I will veto the congressional reapportionment plan currently being debated by the House. DOA," DeSantis tweeted.

Later, during an appearance in Jacksonville, DeSantis added that his "legal folks" have concerns about the House proposal and that he doesn’t "bluff."

"What makes you think after seeing me for however many years, what makes you think when I say I'm going to do something that I'm not going to follow through?" DeSantis said.

But Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat running for Congress this year, said during a Senate discussion that DeSantis’ goal is to "remove Black districts" and "as a Senate, we should stand against what the governor is trying to do."

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said the House "just got played."

House Redistricting Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said the House reached a "different conclusion on the same information,"

"Say what you will about the governor’s involvement, at least he engaged," Leek said.

Rep. Tyler Sirois, a Merritt Island Republican who chairs the House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee, said the House plan is far from an "embarrassment" and "correctly balances" the concerns and feedback of people who would be affected.

The highest-profile issue has been North Florida’s Congressional District 5. The Senate passed a congressional map in January that largely kept the current sprawling design of the district. But DeSantis contends the design is unconstitutional and wants to dramatically revamp it by condensing the district in the Jacksonville area.

The House-drawn primary map takes a similar approach to DeSantis in putting the district in Northeast Florida. The backup plan would be more in line with what the Senate proposed, continuing to stretch the district across North Florida.

During a debate Friday, House Democrats argued the maps are unconstitutional because they fail to account for the state’s growing minority populations. Also, Democrats contend offering a backup plan could set a precedent for future legislation intended to test state and federal law.

Rep. Dan Daley, D-Sunrise, said the proposal would establish "ranked" legislation. Lawmakers also believe DeSantis is trying to set up a challenge to 2010 voter-approved "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments, which were designed to prevent gerrymandering, and to the federal Voting Rights Act.

"We don't do this with anything else. We don't pass two pieces of legislation and say, 'Well, one may be unconstitutional. The next one may be OK. So, let's just give it a try,’" said Daley. "We don't say, 'Hey, we want the governor to have,' by the sponsor, his own admission, 'the governor's opportunity to challenge the Voting Rights (Act), that's why we're passing this first primary map.’ We've never done anything like that, nor do we do it in any way, shape, or form."

A map needs to be in place before candidate qualifying begins in mid-June. Lawmakers have already approved state House and Senate maps, which received approval Thursday from the Florida Supreme Court.

Florida is adding a congressional seat this year because of population growth, increasing the delegation from 27 to 28 seats.

DeSantis has pushed for new lines that would drop the number of districts that historically have elected Black candidates from four to two and push the number of Republican-held seats from the current 16 to 20, based on 2020 voting patterns.

The House’s proposed maps both would give the GOP the advantage in 18 seats, while the Senate map would expand the Republican majority to 17.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, argued the House’s primary map would diminish the ability of minorities to elect candidates in north and central Florida.

The Senate’s initial proposal offered four districts likely to elect Black members and three districts likely to elect Hispanic members, while the House maps are at three Black-performing districts and three Hispanic-performing districts.

Among the differences between the House and Senate initial plans were the futures of Central Florida’s Congressional District 7, held by Democrat Stephanie Murphy, and District 10, held by Democrat Val Demings. Murphy is not seeking re-election this year, while Demings is running for U.S. Senate.

Click here for the latest Central Florida news, Florida stories and local headlines.