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Redistricting Proposal Is Back in Fla.

Florida Congressional aides, labor groups and state officials will meet behind closed doors in Fort Lauderdale on Friday to discuss the possibility of pushing a ballot initiative that would put politically appointed commissioners in charge of redrawing the state’s federal and state legislative districts.

Last year, the Florida Supreme Court overwhelmingly shot down a similar plan that called for establishing a 15-member commission, whose primary responsibility would be to revise state House and Congressional district boundaries, which are currently drawn by state lawmakers.

Although the will to put the proposal on the ballot in 2010 is far from certain, sources familiar with current versions of the proposal say its revised language will have no problem passing constitutional muster with the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled 6-1 in March 2006 to keep the initiative off the ballot this past fall.

“We’ve had to go back to the drawing board and we’ve had lawyers reviewing the court decision and the petition language,” said Ben Wilcox, the executive director of Common Cause Florida. “We’re at the point now where we have drafted versions of the petition that we feel very comfortable with … [the proposal] will meet court scrutiny.”

According to Ellen Freidin, an attorney who will attend Friday’s meeting, Friday’s decision hinges on political will, not legal nuancing.

“When the [Florida] Supreme Court ruled the last time, it wrote a very extensive opinion about why the amendments didn’t comply and what needs to be done to make them comply,” Freidin said. “We’ve had a team of excellent Florida lawyers looking at this, so to make sure that if we go forward, what we put forward would be acceptable to the court.”

Freidin said lawyers have taken special care to draft around a portion of state law involving multimember legislative districts, which is what the Supreme Court objected to last year. She also said the current plan does not call for a once-off, mid-decade redistricting plan, a provision the previous version would have required this year. Commission advocates have called the proposed board “nonpartisan” — which media reports indicate drew the ire of Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R).

All three lawmakers declined to comment on prospects for the measure to go to the ballot. Both versions of the proposed initiative, Freidin said, contain provisions permitting Congress and state courts to redraw legislative boundaries at will.

Wilcox said the plan also would establish a set of redistricting standards for the commission. Wilcox, a veteran of the project, said the current proposal can be traced back nearly a decade to the Seminole State’s Constitution Revision Commission, which nearly put the redistricting commission directly on the ballot in 1998.

Proponents then failed to gather enough signatures to get the proposal on the ballot in 2002, he said, but a grass-roots push by Common Cause and other groups four years later resulted in more than 500,000 signatures and a spot on the ballot.

Even if the proposal reaches the ballot again in 2010, Wilcox said, the proposal could run into a wall of GOP opposition. Republicans in Florida control the governor’s mansion and the state House and Senate.

Although he said he has made inroads with some prominent Republicans, he conceded the difficult task of convincing ruling parties that majorities don’t last forever.

“Republicans are in charge of the Legislature and in the governor’s office … that’s where we face the biggest opposition,” Wilcox said. “They don’t want to give up the power they have to draw the district lines.”

“Republicans also have been hurt by the Legislature drawing the district lines in the past, when the Legislature was in control by the Democrats,” he added.

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