Takeaways from Tallahassee (8/1-8/7)

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The ever-shifting sands of political popularity swirled around the capital city this week as Florida’s unpopular governor became less so, the nation’s unpopular president became more so and undecided Republican voters remained so as the GOP looks for a challenger to unseat a popular U.S. senator, writes Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.

Florida health officials, meanwhile, submitted their long awaited blueprint to their federal counterparts in the ongoing effort to shift most of the state’s nearly 3 million Medicaid recipients into managed health care plans. The proposal, which backers say will cut costs in the $21.1 billion a year program, has its detractors, including the Florida Medical Association, which came out last weekend to officially criticize the plan.

Doctors weren’t the only group asking Washington for help. Florida Democrats have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to oppose sweeping changes made by the Republican-packed Legislature to Florida’s elections law, while state environmental officials tweaked proposed water standards in hopes of replacing federal guidelines critics say are too rigid.

The state’s economic malaise continued as statewide property values maintained their drift through the doldrums, despite modest improvements in the nation’s employment picture that showed fewer government jobs but stronger hiring demand from private sector employers.

The property value slump prompted state economists this week to warn that there will be less money than expected this coming year to pay for schools.


Nothing better in the dog days of summer than a good poll and Quinnipiac University didn’t disappoint this week as it released data on how Floridians feel about their president, their governor and the recent debt ceiling drama.

Gov. Rick Scott’s root cellar approval rating has ticked up slightly, moving from 29 percent in May to 35 percent in the university’s most recent poll released Friday. Scott’s popularity push came even before the governor donned an apron to make doughnuts in Tampa this week as he returned to his deep-fried roots on his first “work day.”

The gimmick, which takes a page from former Gov. Bob Graham’s playbook, appears part of a larger effort to make Scott more likeable, a push that includes less formal attire and more frequent visits with the capitol press corps and editorial boards around the state.
“Gov. Scott still has a long hike to parity in voter approval, but he has begun the trek,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the university’s polling institute. “Whether it is the beginning of a serious move or just a blip, time will tell.”

Despite the improved numbers, voters still find the governor’s policies unlikable, with 54 percent saying they don’t approve compared to 34 percent who say they do.

The governor could easily say he’s misunderstood. A full 57 percent say they don’t know whether the state budget signed by the governor raises taxes, while 19 percent incorrectly believe it does.

While Scott’s numbers are moving up, Obama’s looked more like the New York Stock Exchange this week. The president’s approval rating among Florida voters has fallen since May, especially among independents who tip the balance in the key swing state.

Overall, Obama’s approval rating fell from 51 percent in May to 44 percent earlier this week. The president’s biggest drop off was among independent voters, whose 61 percent May approval rating dropped to 47 percent.
Despite his drop in the polls, Obama’s handling of the recent debt ceiling talks was viewed more favorably by voters, who gave the president higher marks than congressional leaders involved in negotiations that ended with a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling in exchange for at least $2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. Obama also got some help Friday as the national unemployment rate in July dipped 0.1 percentage points to 9.1 percent.

While voters have a pretty good bead on Scott and Obama, more than half of Republicans polled are undecided about the state’s U.S. Senate primary. Retired Army Col. Mike McCalister is the frontrunner, favored by 15 percent of those polled. It’s possible the other 85 percent don’t even know who he is – being a political newcomer in a race hardly anyone is paying close attention to yet.

McCalister is followed by former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, expected by many to lead the pack after Senate President Mike Haridopolos dropped out of the race. LeMieux is only polling 12 percent. Former state legislator Adam Hasner has the steepest climb. He is holding up the Republican rear at 6 percent, lower than Orlando businessman Craig Miller who polled 8 percent.

At least Hasner can take heart in that he is not Nancy Argenziano. The firebrand former Republican announced this week that she would run as a Democrat to challenge freshman Republican Congressman Steve Southerland, a tea party-backed candidate who rode last year’s Republican wave to victory over incumbent Rep. Allen Boyd.

Argenziano, who represented many of the counties in Southerland’s district during her time in the Legislature, would have given Democrats a credible candidate for the seat in a year that could be less favorable to the GOP. But a new state law appears to require Argenziano to have registered as a Democrat — or at least not be a registered member of another party — at least a year before the opening of qualifying for the seat, now scheduled for June 4. And she is a member of another party – she registered recently as a member of the Independent Party.


Florida’s Medicaid overhaul would not start shifting people into managed-care plans until 2013 and use a controversial pilot program as a springboard, according to hundreds of pages of documents released this week by the Agency for Health Care Administration. The plan would eventually require almost all beneficiaries to enroll in managed-care plans.

Supporters hope the federal government will sign off on the proposal, which they say would help control costs and improve care for beneficiaries.But opponents worry about requiring Medicaid beneficiaries statewide to enroll in HMOs or other types of managed-care plans. Some, including Democratic legislative leaders, want the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to reject the proposal.The number of official detractors increased this week as Florida Medical Association officials voted in a closed door session over the weekend to oppose the state’s proposal. A number of doctors have been opposed to the shift of most Medicaid patients into managed care, but few would say so publicly. Likewise, the association has been silent on the issue until now.

FMA leaders passed a resolution to discourage CMS from approving the waiver that would allow the switch. The FMA’s new president, Dr. Miguel Machado, said the group would send a letter to CMS making its opposition known.


Department of Environmental Protection staffers slogged through the details of what they hope will be a slate of water standards for Florida lakes, rivers, springs and other freshwater bodies acceptable to federal officials who have established a set of criteria of their own that many business groups in the state say would be too pricey.The discussion came as a federal appellate court in Atlanta threw out an appeal filed by water management officials and backed by industry groups that challenged a 2009 consent decree entered into by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that set out numerical limits for nutrients going into the state’s waterways.If state lawmakers fail to act, the EPA could return in March to its set of rules for state waters, but federal officials have indicated they would be willing to extend that deadline if progress is being made on the state’s efforts. The 11th Circuit of Court of Appeals ruling Wednesday, however, keeps those regulations on the table as an option. While the state battles the feds over water, state Democrats have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to oppose sweeping changes to Florida’s elections law, saying in a memo the measure passed during the spring legislative session “will result in fewer registered minority voters, fewer ballots cast by minority voters, and fewer ballots counted for minority voters.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s memo comes days after Secretary of State Kurt Browning asked a federal court to “preclear” the law, an unusual attempt to sidestep the DOJ after the state had originally asked Justice to give the law the green light. Browning said he was worried that outside pressure might shape the agency’s opinion, which would still be considered in the court case.


Florida’s top insurance regulator said Tuesday the state-backed property insurance pool could lessen the blow of skyrocketing sinkhole premium increases by phasing in the unprecedented rate hikes over time. Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty said the proposed increase might be actuarially sound, but could still be a hardship for individual policy holders. Citizens last week sent shockwaves through homeowners as its board agreed to ask regulators for rate increases for sinkhole coverage in response to legislative changes made under SB 408. Pasco County residents, who live at the epicenter of recent sinkhole claims, would see average sinkhole premiums jump from $441 to $4,017, an increase of 810 percent for the optional coverage, which is required by some mortgage lenders.The proposed rate increases have drawn fire from lawmakers, particularly those in sinkhole-prone areas. Their cries were echoed Tuesday by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who said Citizens should develop a “glide path” for boosting sinkhole premiums.


Not all housing news was bad this week. In a sign that Florida’s housing market may be on the road to recovery, the state’s top economist expects an increase in school property tax rolls next year of 1.3 percent. Though that is actually a slight decrease from the original forecast of 2 percent, it is one of the most promising signs yet that Florida’s ailing and hard-hit housing market is on the mend after four years of plunging values.Florida’s housing market was one of the hardest hit in the nation, the victim of an overwrought housing bubble, loose mortgage standards and a tourism-based economy.

“We turned the corner,” said state economist Amy Baker, who cautioned the economic recovery is still fragile.

“The correction from the housing boom was severe and very dramatic on the (tax) rolls,” Baker said. “Now most of that correction is behind us, but we are still not back to the growth we typically see.” She said that property tax rolls are going to stabilize after four years of decreases, with drops over 10 percent in tax rolls in 2009 and 2010.

STORY OF THE WEEK: A Quinnipiac University poll shows Gov. Rick Scott rebounding from dismal approval ratings while Obama sees his stock fall.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “If they are presented something and the Legislature hasn’t acted, the EPA still has a hammer to hold over the state,” said Colleen Castille, former DEP Secretary who now represents a number of business clients with water interests.”It all depends how close we are.”

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.