Takeaways from Tallahassee: Session coming into focus

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Even as the main events for the 2011 legislative session got started in earnest this week, sideshows seemed intent to steal center stage, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott’s annual budget speech — at the Capitol this year — was crashed by a correspondent for a satirical news show. The official Christmas tree made its appearance. Even one of the state’s political figures got an entertainment deal of sorts, when Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio signed a contract to write a memoir scheduled to be released next fall.

But the central events of the week continued to focus on the three issues that will dominate the legislative session: A state budget with an almost $2 billion shortfall and a governor pushing for a $1 billion in new state education funding; a slate of redistricting maps that would recast the state’s political boundaries; and a bill to introduce several large casinos in Florida.


The headline-grabber from Scott’s budget proposal was a move to slash Medicaid payment rates and use the money to help bankroll $1 billion in new education spending, though that would be offset by several factors. About $444 million would replace one-time state funding for the loss of local tax income, and another $190 million would pay for enrollment growth. The per-student increase would be about $142, or 2.3 percent. Scott also didn’t replace hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education funding meant to fill some shortfalls.

“I will not sign a budget from the Legislature that does not significantly increase state funding for education,” Scott vowed.

But the “fulcrum” of that plan already seemed to be headed into trouble by the end of the week, with a bipartisan group of lawmakers saying they were at least mildly concerned with Scott’s efforts to come up with some of the money by flattening the Medicaid payment structure for similar types of hospitals. Scott’s administration says a system that pays similar hospitals far different rates isn’t logical or fair.

“Personally, I think that it is going to destroy the health-care continuum in our state,” said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston.

And while some Republicans were cautious about the proposal, others supported the idea.

“I applaud the governor for what he has done in this budget,” said Senate Education PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman David Simmons, R-Maitland.

Scott’s plan would also eliminate 4,500 positions in state government, close some prisons and cut business taxes.


Meanwhile, lawmakers were playing an autobiographical form of “Where’s Waldo” this week, as the Senate Reapportionment Committee voted to submit its redistricting proposals as a committee and House panels got their first look at a dozen possibilities for House and congressional maps.

Both chambers have to carve up the state to create legislative districts and make room for two new members of Congress. The House and Senate have largely agreed to trade each other’s maps for their respective chambers, meaning only the congressional map to be negotiated. That didn’t prevent fireworks from going off in the Senate meetings, where Rich suggested that partisan politics were still ruling the day, despite the approval last year of the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” amendments.

“I think that the voters tell us they wanted a clean slate, not a map-making adjustment to gerrymandered maps that were adopted ten years ago,” she said.

Republicans bristled at the suggestion.

“There’s been no evidence that our process has been tainted in any way by political consideration,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

The House meetings were relatively calmer, though that might have had as much to do with the deluge of maps than anything else. Subcommittees are considering five House maps and seven congressional plans, a dizzying total of 789 districts to consider before the panels select their top three choices for each map next month.


Meanwhile, the groups already engaged in the high-stakes lobbying showdown on major resort casinos upped the ante on their battle during the week, with three Cabinet officials taking sides while business lobbies faced each other and one influential lawmaker.

Associated Industries of Florida joined with construction groups to push for the “destination resort” legislation that would lead to casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“We want to take control of our future and advance policies that we know will result in job creation,” Brewster Bevis, an AIF vice president, said during a news conference at the Capitol.

But political opposition was already building. Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, took some of AIF’s comments at a committee meeting on the measure as criticism of the Legislature and lit into a representative for the group.

“For you all to suggest the Florida Legislature hasn’t done its job, and we ought to be embarrassed, I’m embarrassed by that comment,” he said.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam held a press conference to blast the idea of destination resorts.

“The very character of our state is at stake in this debate,” Putnam said.

The third member of the Cabinet, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, said later through a spokeswoman that he also didn’t like the idea.

Supporters were already trying to calculate their odds. Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said she would talk with other senators and offer a revised proposal, likely as a “strike-all amendment,” before such a vote.

“Obviously, why do the strike-all if I don’t have the votes?” she said after the committee meeting.”It’s a Rubik’s Cube.”

But that and other questions about the proposal left state economists without much to go on as they try to figure out the state’s share of the jackpot. They eventually rolled the dice, guessing that it could rake in $455.7 million over the next four years. But the economists said the tax impact of the controversial casino plan is “indeterminate” because of the need to make key assumptions.

“I think there’s just too many assumptions that may be good assumptions, but there’s just too many of them,” Senate economist Jose Diez-Arguelles said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott unveils a budget proposal with $1 billion in new state funding for education and cuts in Medicaid reimbursement rates for hospitals.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Governor, you’ve benefited from hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars over the year, so would you be willing to pee into this cup to prove to Florida’s taxpayers that you’re not on drugs, you’re not using any illegal drugs?”–The Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, to Gov. Rick Scott during a press conference to unveil Scott’s budget proposal

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.