Takeaways from Tallahassee

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With Labor Day beckoning, things were quiet around the capital this week with the exception of college students returning, swelling the capital city’s population and lengthening the time it takes to get a pizza delivered, writes Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.

Despite the unofficial end of summer, an abbreviated list of things to do occupied state and party officials as August summer vacations gave way to September tailgate parties.

The Republican Party of Florida will be led by another as its chairman, David Bitner, announced his coming retirement this week for health reasons amid kudos for his services to the party. Meanwhile, one of his predecessors, the ousted Jim Greer, talked publicly for the first time in a while this week, pointing fingers at members of the party who forced him out.

Consumers remain edgy over their economic security, according to a University of Florida poll that says Floridians remain skeptical and cautious as the state’s economy sputters back to life.

Much of the week was spent laying the groundwork for future endeavors. A handful of would-be presidential contenders toured the state, in the hopes of convincing fellow Republicans they have what it takes to unseat a sitting (and currently unpopular) Democratic president.

Meanwhile, a slew of interim reports were released on Thursday and legislative leaders concluded a statewide tour to get input on redrawing political boundaries, but hinted that future meetings may be in order after voters actually have something to look at.

ECONOMIC NEWS

Economic news remained foremost in the minds of consumers and political candidates this week as the nation’s sputtering recovery prompted responses from the campaign trail to the kitchen table. Mounting fear over the nation’s economic health – both in the short run and the long term – dragged down consumer confidence in Florida, which in August fell to the near record low posted at the bottom of the housing bust, a University of Florida report indicated Tuesday.

Consumer confidence among Floridians fell to 62 on the UF index in August, a confidence level only three points higher than the record-low 59 set in June 2008, according to data compiled monthly by the school’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

The monthly survey posted downticks among all five of the survey’s indices, with respondents feeling less confident about the national economy and their own personal finances over the near term and beyond.

Respondents over 60 years old were most dramatically more gloomy. Their faith in the U.S. economy over the next five years fell by 16 points. But the survey also found younger respondents more pessimistic about the country’s long-term economic health and more likely in August to hold off on major purchases.

Such caution appears to have been shared by others. U.S. unemployment in August held steady at 9.1 percent, but an anticipated increase in the workforce did not materialize, the U.S. Department of Labor reported Friday.

State economists, however, say they are not ready to cede the notion that the nation is heading into the second of a double dip recession. Despite some negative figures, economists say the chances of growth remain higher than another recessionary slip. One indication is that state revenue collections have been higher than expected, leading state economists to cautiously predict that the state will have enough money over the next few years to pay for critical and high priority programs.

THE RIVER OF GAS?

Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann started it off by arguing that oil drilling and Everglades water could mix, an assertion that drew immediate fire from a number of people in Florida, including fellow tea party favorite, Republican U.S. Rep. Allen West.

Meanwhile, Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, resurrected a proposed ban on oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico by filing a proposed constitutional amendment to end such exploration and production.

Bachmann made the comments during a campaign swing through the state, leading a list of Republican hopefuls including Herman Cain and Mitt Romney who also visited the critical swing state during the week.

TEACHER PAY PROMPTS EXODUS:

A News Service of Florida analysis of salaries published this week found that on average, school districts have raised the minimum pay for a teacher by 1 percent over the last four years, according to newly released data by the Florida Department of Education. And fewer than half of all school districts haven’t given raises at all, with most districts keeping salaries flat over the last four years.

In the last four years, the average pay of a Florida teacher has decreased $1,199, from $46,922 in the 2007-2008 school years to $45,723 in the 2010-2011 school year, a decline of about 2.5 percent.

“We are professionals, but we are held to high standards that our pay does not match,” said Lisa Dos Santos, a world history teacher at Forest Glen Middle School in Broward County. “Many of us have lost a house or gone bankrupt, and I speak from personal experience.”

Lawmakers say their goal for next year is to keep funding for education stable, rather than having to cut as deeply as this year, when lawmakers approved a budget that slashed school funding by 8 percent on a per-student basis.

BITNER STEPS DOWN:

Republican Party of Florida Chairman David Bitner said Wednesday he would resign because of his declining health, a move that sends the party looking for its fourth leader in less than two years. Bitner announced earlier this year that he has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“At the time I first discussed my health with you, I also made a promise that I would serve as the Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida only as long as I could do so with all the energy and attention this position deserves,” Bitner wrote in a letter to Republican activists. “I have kept that promise, and it has been the honor of a lifetime to serve you and my beloved Florida.”

Bitner, a former lawmaker, will step aside Sept. 23, following the party’s Presidency 5 event. Vice Chairman Lenny Curry, who also heads the Duval County GOP, is Bitner’s heir apparent after receiving his former boss’s blessing, and having several other top leaders saying they’ll support him.

POLITICAL BOUNDARY TOUR MAY INCLUDE ENCORE:

While party leaders regroup, legislative efforts to get public buy-in on new political boundaries may not be finished despite the conclusion this week of a statewide tour of committee meetings.

Republican leaders appear to be acknowledging the criticism that voters are being asked to comment on new congressional and state legislative boundaries before any proposed maps have even been drawn up. Questions such as “Where are the maps?” have dogged the hearings since they began in Tallahassee in June.

Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and his House counterpart, Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Chapel Hill, signaled to reporters that they may extend the public discourse by way of videoconferences to make it easier for voters who can’t make the trek to Tallahassee. Gaetz, whose committees met in Tampa, Largo and other Southwest venues, noted that lawmakers have pledged that they will not vote on a map without public input. And he also raised the possibility this week that the complainers are correct and maybe the next time the state redistricts the process should start earlier, though that would require changing the constitution.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Michele Bachmann makes waves by suggesting that oil drilling could be done in the Florida Everglades.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The United States needs to be less dependent on foreign sources of energy and more dependent upon American resourcefulness. Whether that is in the Everglades, or whether that is in the eastern Gulf region, or whether that’s in North Dakota, we need to go where the energy is. Of course it needs to be done responsibly. If we can’t responsibly access energy in the Everglades then we shouldn’t do it.” Michele Bachmann, during her Florida campaign swing that concluded this week.

And: “When I see her next week, I’ll straighten her out about that,” U.S. Rep. Allen West on Bachmann’s Everglades energy idea.

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.