12 Florida political stories to watch in 2012

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Instead of rounding up the week’s news, which again was in short supply this week – Michael Peltier and David Royse look forward to next year with a roundup of the stories we think may be the biggest next year in state government and politics. Happy New Year.

12. A NEW LEGISLATURE, OR MORE OF THE SAME?: When voters approved constitutional amendments numbers 5 and 6 last year, some undoubtedly thought that they were laying the groundwork for a sea change in how the Legislature is chosen. For decades, many have bemoaned that voters don’t choose lawmakers, lawmakers choose voters. In drawing the legislative and congressional boundaries, gerrymandering has always featured prominently, and some say the result has been too many non-competitive elections that prevent true change in the makeup of political representation. Republicans, while roughly even in registration, have a lock on the Legislature for a variety of reasons, and many observers say most seats won’t turn over unexpectedly even with the new amendments in place. The new rules say lawmakers can’t draw boundaries to favor themselves, each other or their parties, but some think that’s pretty difficult. Come November, we’ll find out – and whether we have mostly the same faces in the Legislature, or a crop of unexpectedly competitive races that makes some seats turn over will be one of the most closely watched stories of 2012 for Legislature-watchers.

11. U.S. SENATE RACE MATTERS: Whether U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson can win a third term is part of the national political calculus in the coming election year with control of the U.S. Senate possibly in the balance. Decisions not to run for re-election by a number of U.S. Senate Democrats mean a battle for the control of the Senate that makes every race matter. Nelson, a Democrat first elected to the Senate in 2000, doesn’t yet know who he’ll face, but recent polls make it look likely that the GOP candidate could be U.S. Rep. Connie Mack. Republicans will put massive amounts of money and effort into the race if they think they can win.

10. HIGHER EDUCATION: This is down the list because, frankly, it may be that not much happens. But if something does happen, it could be a pretty big deal. Gov. Rick Scott is starting to talk to anyone who will listen about the need for Florida taxpayers to get more for their money from the state university system – and about the prospects for turning the university system from a, well, university system for students, into an economic development tool for the state. Building a better workforce through technology (actually through science, technology, engineering and math), is a new, big part of Scott’s idea for creating jobs, something he’s staked his governorship on. The universities are well aware of where Scott wants to go, and are starting to try to figure out ways they can help drive the train rather than being just hitched to it and pulled down the tracks. So something is moving, but how long it will take isn’t clear. It’s a pretty big, fundamental change that is being talked about – putting the state’s needs ahead of the student’s needs as a recent report by the Higher Education Coordinating Council put it – and it may be a multi-year project. Some lawmakers and even Scott have acknowledged it will be tough to do a lot on this issue quickly. But it will be looming in the background all year.

9. PIP: BEYOND FRAUD DOME: Fraud is bad. That is about the only consensus that could be reached as players in the game of personal injury protection car insurance met in 2011 to map out reforms to curb the dramatic rise in the cost of the coverage created in the 1970s to establish a way for injured motorists to get medical attention without going to court. Gov. Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater have called for reforms. Tougher penalties for fraud will be a likely outcome, but other suggestions to limit coverage, cap attorneys fees and place more scrutiny on physicians and clinics may be too heavy a left during an election year session.

8. HEALTH CARE REFORM: Perhaps the biggest policy question mark is expected to be answered this year by the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation’s highest tribunal has been asked to determine if the Obama Administration’s sweeping health care reform package is constitutional. The high profile case – which is pushed by Florida – will determine the shape of health care for the foreseeable future and beyond as it settles the question of whether a mandatory, national health insurance requirement is legal. Florida and 25 other states have brought their objections to the high court, which has scheduled oral arguments for March. What happens to almost everything else in health care reform hinges, at least in part, on this case. Meanwhile, Florida will press forward in trying to get the federal government to OK its own Medicaid overhaul to push patients into private, managed care, consider changing the reimbursement system for Medicaid to payment schedules based on what problems people face, rather than on what services they get, and consider whether to make changes to the laws governing public hospitals and their taxing districts.

7. BUDGET BATTLEGROUND: In a related matter … the current year budget is still bigger than the amount of money lawmakers generally expect to be able to bring in from taxes, so cuts are in order. This is related to the health care item for a simple reason: the biggest budget battle of the 2012 budget fight may Medicaid funding. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a $1.8 billion cut to the program by reducing reimbursement rates to some hospitals. Scott wants to use the savings to bolster initiatives in higher education and K-12. Hospitals and their affiliates are expected to fight hard against the cuts, which they say will be taken from inadequate reimbursement to begin with.

6. REDISTRICTING: For the inside-the-Capital Circle crowd, the once-a-decade reshuffling of political boundaries will take center stage shortly after lawmakers return following the start of the New Year. This one is closely related to several others in the list, but the actual drawing of the districts and whether it is political or not – the so-called sausage making rather than the outcome of it discussed in No. 12 above – will be one of the most closely-watched activities of the first half of the year in Tallahassee. It also may drive much of what happens in the courts over the late spring and early summer, too. With session slated to begin Jan. 10, the Republican-led Legislature must decide how it wants to add two congressional seats and redraw congressional and state districts to reflect population change over the past 10 years while complying with the aforementioned amendments aimed at making the process less politically driven. Both chambers have pledged to get the work done early so the courts have time to do their jobs.

5. GAMBLING: WILL BACKERS HIT JACKPOT OR CRAP OUT?: Some have already called it the Lobbyist Relief Act of 2012 but combatants in the battle over opening up South Florida – and maybe other places – to multi-billion resort gambling developments should get a fair amount of attention early on. The question is whether backers of “destination resorts” have the political clout to overcome objections by existing pari-mutuel facilities, traditional anti-gambling groups and Indian gaming interests. In Miami, there’s talk of the world’s biggest gambling resort – which some are kind of excited about and others are frankly scared to death of. The issue may come down to jobs and whether backers can convince a skeptical governor that the development of resorts in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties is worth the potential loss of revenue from the Seminole tribe. In addition, loopholes in state law that have led to a proliferation of barrel racing at Gretna and other potential venues — and could open the door for slot machines — could also jeopardize the deal with the Seminole tribe.

4. RECOVER FOR REAL? Recent economic indicators have given some hope that the U.S. economy is on the mend. With home sales and housing starts improving while the national jobless rates begins to fall, the answer as to whether this recovery is the real deal will be largely decided by the end of 2012. Persistently high unemployment has led some to believe that the jobless numbers are decreasing because discouraged workers have given up. Only a sustained reduction on that front would quell those concerns. Europe will play a key role in the recovery as major trading partners grapple with runaway debt. In Florida, eyes will continue to be on the unemployment rate, right now 10 percent. Whether that goes down a lot or doesn’t will be the primary gauge on the success or failure of Gov. Rick Scott.

3. WHO WILL IT BE FOR THE GOP/REPUBLICAN CONVENTION: For politics junkies, the primary election will still be a big story even if the question of who will carry the Republican standard is decided rather early in the year. Florida has moved its primary up to Jan. 31, and some think that not long after that it will be apparent who the nominee is long before the Republican Convention in Tampa. Then, in late summer, the nation’s political attention will fix on Tampa, where the GOP will convene its convention. All discussion aside on whether the convention really matters much anymore in an environment where the nominee is decided in primaries, for political theater, it’s hard to beat it in this country.

2. WILL GRASS ROOTS GROW, OR WITHER?: The last year has been notable to politics watchers for the rise of two different groups – the more mature Tea Party movement on the conservative side could have been the political story of the year, and the Occupy movement that arose more recently on the liberal side is also influencing the national political discourse. The question for 2012 is whether the Tea Party will continue to have the impact on elections that it has – arguably those with tea party leanings elected Rick Scott, and forced a number of Republican candidates on the state and national levels to a more populist position on a number of issues. Another question is whether the Occupy movement will grow into anything beyond a curiosity and annoyance to park-goers and begin to have an impact on policy – could it reinvigorate liberals, for example, who have come down hard from their 2008 high? Throughout the nation’s political history, there have been a number of strong populist movements that have aimed to take back the mantle of power from the corporate interests, the “fat cats” and the entrenched interests. Most have faded after a couple years.

1. FLORIDA, FLORIDA, FLORDA: Go ahead and call us out for taking the easy way out. But since the deadlocked presidential election of 2000, the conventional wisdom in presidential elections is that Florida is the key that unlocks the door to the White House. After the virtual tie, the state has gone back and forth, voting with George W. Bush in 2004 and then with Barack Obama in 2008, both winners. The state is unique among the big 5 in its swing state nature. Illinois, one of two home states of the incumbent president, votes for Democrats in presidential elections, as do New York and California. Texas is reliably Republican. Only Florida is a toss-up among the states with the biggest electoral college votes. So the political story of the year in Florida will be whether a currently not so popular sitting president can withstand a challenge by an as-yet-to-be-determined GOP candidate, and whether the winning of Florida will continue to mean winning the election.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.