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Senate redistricting committee agrees: Panhandle will be divided North and South

The Senate Redistricting Committee got into the nitty gritty Wednesday and came to a rare consensus.

Based on bi-partisan testimony, and an assumption about the intentions of the new constitutional guidelines, the Northwest Florida House and Senate districts should do the following: keep the northern rural areas of the Panhandle counties together and urban and coastal areas of the south together.

The committee spent a great deal of time trying to decide whether by dividing in half counties such as Escambia, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa -- by drawing horizontal districts to keep rural and urban communities together -- violates the principles of the new Fair Districts amendments?

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican and a lawyer, persuaded the committee that it doesn't. "If you draw horizontal lines that creates a uniform shape, I could argue that's compact,'' he said. "Compactness is just one of the criterion."

The amendments require that districts first may not only favor incumbents or political parties, may not "deny racial or language minorities" the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice and must be contiguous. As a secondary concern, it says that "districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries."

Sen. Nan Rich, the Senate Democratic leader from Weston, noted however that the definition of "compactness" in the Panhandle may take on different characteristics in other parts of the state.

The committee directed the staff to divide the House and Senate districts horizontally and Congressional districts to follow the guides of maps provided by Okaloosa County resident Henry Kelley and other members of the public.

"We need to make sure whatever we do is legally defensible,'' said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the chairman of the committee. "We really don't know what the courts think, until there is a court test."