Takeaways from Tallahassee (8/21-8/27)

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Floridians bid goodnight to Irene and goodbye to Ed this week as they dodged a major hurricane but watched as lightning struck the state’s prisons chief who fell out of favor with his boss, writes Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.

Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss resigned his post midweek following a series of disagreements with the governor’s office over prison privatization, health care and reality TV. The Indiana transplant, who went from Wunderkind to red-headed stepchild in his roughly seven months in office, was replaced by a 34-year veteran from FDLE with deep Tallahassee roots.

While Buss was getting a pink slip, the state’s water management districts announced they had trimmed their budgets by more than $700 million in response to legislative directives and tough budget times. Public radio stations could sympathize as they were informed that they would receive no state help.

On the political front, the Republican race for U.S. Senate remains dominated by undecided voters as a large field of candidates vie for public attention in what appears to be an uphill battle to defeat a popular Democratic incumbent.

Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidates eyed the swing state for their respective bids to unseat a not-so-popular Democratic incumbent, with Mitt Romney leading the pack and newcomer (and Scott bff) Texas Gov. Rick Perry gaining his most prominent endorsement.

A round-up from the News Service of Florida.

THE WHEELS ON THE BUSS COME OFF

Hailed as a national leader in prison reform, Buss in December became one of the earliest and highest profile appointments for the incoming governor.

But following legislative moves to privatize a third of Florida’s prison beds, Buss said the experiment should not extend further until cost savings were achieved, a cautious stance that may have contrasted with Scott and the Legislature’s hard-charging approach. The plan also cost $25 million more than expected, a revelation that fuelled the fires of privatization critics.

Also, the agency this week terminated an $180,000 contract with a woman brought to the agency by Buss to oversee the planned privatization of prisoner health care. Scott’s office reportedly pushed for the woman, Elizabeth Gondles, to be fired over concerns about a conflict of interest. Her husband is the director of the only organization in the nation that accredits state prison medical services.

The final straw may have been more to do with process than substance in a flap over a decision to allow the MSNBC series “Lock-up” to film at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton. Scott said he hadn’t vetted the contract and canceled it – though some at DOC told a newspaper that his office had been clued in. Then, in a strange twist, after Buss quit on Thursday, Scott reapproved the contract anyway.

In a statement, Scott’s office said of Buss’ resignation that “differences in philosophy and management styles arose which made the separation in the best interests of the state.”  Despite a resignation letter, Buss purchased a $310,000 home in Tallahassee in May, so the split probably wasn’t his idea.

BUDGET CONTINUES TO DRIVE POLICY
Budget considerations both past and present continue to drive policy as agencies deal with tight purse strings and legislative leanings.

Water management districts submitted a budget proposal that is $700 million leaner than the present fiscal year, with most of the cuts coming from the South Florida Water Management District. The budget shelves, at least temporarily, a $190 million land purchase from U.S. Sugar and delays the sale of $100 million in bonds to pay for further land acquisition.

A frequent critic, the Everglades Foundation said it was “pleasantly surprised” by the proposal, saying that it maintains critical Everglades efforts and re-focuses the agencies that during better times had gotten a little fat. Other environmental groups, including Audubon of Florida, were not as enamored, saying the budget puts water supply, water quality and long-term Everglades funding in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education approved a legislative wish list that excluded $4.8 million for public broadcasting, throwing the future of public funding for the programming
into question. The decision marked the first time in more than 35 years the state did not provide money for public broadcasting.

“What do they do for education?” asked Board Chair Kathleen Shanahan.

Meanwhile, there was news this week that Florida’s charter school movement is alive and well. Florida school districts are flooded with applications for new charter schools, motivated by several new laws that make it easier to start traditional and virtual charters.

Nearly 100 more new charter school applications have been filed for the 2012-13 school year than were filed at the same time last year, a 38 percent increase, according to statistics from the Department of Education. Statewide, school districts have received 348 charter school applications. Last year, districts received 252 applications.

POLLS:
A Sachs-Mason-Dixon poll finds the president in trouble and Mitt Romney ahead in of the GOP field in the state. The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 8 points, showed Romney ahead of his closest Republican rival, Perry, 21 percent to 13 percent. Jon Huntsman, whose headquarters is in Florida, got less than 1 percent. Perry had an active week, signing up for a handful of debates and appearances and getting an endorsement by House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

Meanwhile, the race for the U.S. Senate remained wide open on the Republican side, with the poll showing U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan leading a long list of primary contenders with 14 percent. He’s followed by U.S. Rep. Allen West at 11 percent. The problem is neither Congressman is running, though it may now be clear why Buchanan hasn’t ruled it out. West has.

Former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner leads among candidates who have declared their interest in challenging Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. Hasner, preferred by 8 percent of respondents, is followed by former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux (7 percent), Craig Miller (5 percent) and Mike McCalister (2 percent). More than half of respondents, however, remain undecided.

Voting groups are also looking toward 2012. Voting-rights groups and elected officials have asked a federal court to allow them to intervene in the legal fight over the most controversial elements of Florida’s new elections law, which among other things makes it more difficult to register on Election Day .

The American Civil Liberties Union and Project Vote joined citizens, two lawmakers and a pair of supervisors of elections in asking to be allowed to fight the law in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The state decided to try to get partial “preclearance” — required for the law to go into effect in five counties with a history of racial discrimination or language minorities — from the court instead of the U.S. Department of Justice, which usually pre-clears laws under the Voting Rights Act.

POWER COMPANY RATE HIKE APPROVED.
State regulators allowed Gulf Power Co. to at least temporarily raise rates by $38.5 million. The so-called “interim” increase will start hitting customer bills in mid-September and will lead to a $4.49 a month jump for residential customers who use 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity.

The Florida Public Service Commission will re-visit the interim increase as it considers Gulf’s proposal for a permanent base-rate increase of $93.5 million.

TRI-RAIL TALKS:

Prison officials aren’t the only ones talking about privatization. State transportation officials confirmed this week that they are in talks with Florida East Coast Railway to provide passenger rail service from West Palm Beach to Miami on the company’s tracks, and that FEC might also be interested in running the existing Tri-Rail commuter train system in South Florida. The discussions, reported first by the Palm Beach Post, were alluded to recently by Secretary of Transportation Ananth Prasad.

STORY OF THE WEEK; Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss abruptly resigns this week over apparent discord between his office and Gov. Rick Scott over the agency’s mission.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “What do they do for education?” Board of Education Chair Kathleen Shanahan concerning the decision not to fund public broadcasting as part of the state’s education budget.

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.