Florida became Ground Zero this week as Republican candidates flocked to the state and flooded the airwaves in preparation for what could be a pivotal presidential primary on Tuesday, reports Michael Peltier.
With political polls fluctuating more than the Dow Jones Industrial Average, GOP hopefuls traded barbs over character, upbringing, and a host of other non-policy issues at local whistle stops, major gatherings of Hispanic leaders and in a pair of nationally televised debates.
A surprise victory by Newt Gingrich in South Carolina the week before ensured that campaign money and the eyes of the nation would turn to Florida, which now looks to have the kind of clout in the selection of a Republican standard bearer that backers of moving the primary earlier had hoped.
While Wolf Blitzer tried to pin down Gov. Rick Scott on his presidential preference, state lawmakers slogged through a week of committee meetings. Most proposals, both major and minor, continued the trek through the process, but there were a few casualties as powerful interest groups locked horns over issues of attorneys v. insurance companies.
A round-up via The News Service of Florida.
GOP TAKES CENTER STAGE IN RAMP UP TO PRIMARY:
With two televised debates and numerous other campaign stops, the GOP primary road show moved in this past week as the fates of GOP hopefuls swung in the balance. Televised debates in Tampa on Monday and Jacksonville on Thursday underscored the state’s importance in the presidential race.
The state’s Jan. 31 primary was made much more interesting and pivotal following Gingrich’s surprisingly strong victory in South Carolina over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
But as the week wore on, Gingrich’s colors began to fade. A Quinnipiac poll taken Wednesday showed the former U.S. House Speaker in a virtual dead heat with Romney among Florida primary voters. The same polling firm on Friday announced that Romney had a 38-29 percentage point lead over Gingrich.
Regardless of the outcome, the debates and upcoming primary had state once again in the national electoral spotlight, a celebrity that vindicates state party leaders for holding off pressure from national political parties and moving up the state’s presidential primary.
“Every once in a while it feels good to be right,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. “It was a risk, don’t get me wrong, but it was a good risk. They eyes of the nation and the eyes of the world are on us. “
BUDGETS MOVING IN HOUSE, NOT SENATE
House budget builders on Friday released their $69.2 billion spending blueprint that includes more than $1 billion in additional funding for K-12 education and more than $2.5 billion in reserves.
The Senate spending plan, however, may not be finalized for a couple weeks as budget leaders review spending allocations — particularly in the health and human services sectors — for potential cuts as they attempt to fill a budget gap that could reach $2 billion.
Haridopolos said his chamber won’t release its budget allocations for at least a couple of weeks as leaders try to gather more information on budget and revenue issues, especially in the area of social services.
“We have not put out allocation and it’s for a simple reason,” the Senate president told reporters. “I want some more information from the individual budget chairs before I tell them what they can or can’t spend, especially on health and human services.”
PRIVATE PRISONS MAY GET OUT EARLY, GREYHOUNDS RACE TO SENATE FLOOR
A legislative proposal to privatize about 30 prisons in most of the southern part of the state is headed for the Senate floor after a vote in the Budget Committee that angered prison guards who feel they’re not being heard.
The proposal was put into law as part of last year’s budget, to be later thrown out by a court. Senate backers say the issue has been thoroughly vetted, with several committee meetings last year in addition to three this year, including one where nearly 50 opponents – and no proponents – were heard on the matter.
They also say the state could save $20 million a year in prison costs by outsourcing the facilities to a private vendor or vendors. Critics say the savings may be less pronounced, especially if the more violent offenders are shifted over to state custody.
Another bill racing to the Senate floor would allow dog tracks to continue to operate, without the dogs. The bill (SB 382), which passed the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on a 6-4 vote on Thursday, would let greyhound tracks keep their licenses without having to offer live racing, opening the door for them to become card rooms or other types of gambling venues.
Dog tracks back the bill – they say they lose money by continuing to offer a dying sport just so they can keep their pari-mutuel license, which allows them to offer poker, the real money-maker – and may one day allow them to offer slots.
Opponents say the bill will kill jobs for people, and dogs, which will need to be adopted and may not be.
Not to be outdone in moving quickly as the session approaches the halfway week, the House moved into position to take up its proposals to change political boundaries. The House Redistricting Committee finished its work Friday by approving blueprints for Florida’s political future.
Measures redefining the boundaries for the Legislature (HJR 6001, 6011) and Florida’s 27 congressional seats (HB 6005) passed the panel on a series of party-line votes, bringing the House role in the once-a-decade redistricting process close to a conclusion.
Few think, however, that the process is likely to end with final House and Senate votes on the measures expected by the end of next week.
While Gov. Rick Scott seems likely to sign the congressional plan, the Florida Supreme Court must review the legislative plan — and both could be challenged under either the state’s new anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments or the federal Civil Rights Act.
INSURERS REBUFFED IN BAD FAITH VOTE
In a defeat for business groups and the insurance industry, a House panel Thursday narrowly rejected a bill that would add restrictions in “bad faith” legal fights. The House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 8-7 against HB 427, which was backed by groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the National Federation of Independent Business — but was fought by plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Bad-faith lawsuits occur when insurance companies face allegations that they have not properly settled claims. Fred Cunningham, president of the Florida Justice Association trial lawyers’ group, said the state does not have a “crisis in the bad-faith world” that would justify the bill’s additional restrictions.
But business groups and the insurance industry contend that plaintiffs’ attorneys have found ways to game the legal system, leading to bad-faith cases that can result in large settlements or costly trials.
After the vote, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, offered a procedural move that could allow the bill to be heard again in the subcommittee. The Senate version of the bill (SB 1224) has not been considered in committees.
Another attorney/insurance company feud advanced but showed signs of strain. Plans to make significant changes to Florida’s no-fault insurance law will face stiff headwinds as powerful as opposing interest groups flex their muscles on the issue of no-fault insurance.
Following more than two hours of debate, the House Civil Justice Subcommittee passed a measure, HB 119, along largely party lines. The 10-5 vote showed the rift that exists over how to rein in costs associated with fraud and abuse that state insurance regulators say permeates the personal injury protection market.
Plans include capping attorney fees and requiring doctors to testify under oath, insurance-backed initiatives that have awakened a pair of not-so-sleepy giants: The Florida Justice Association and the Florida Medical Association.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Republicans candidates debate/campaign in Florida in advance of the state’s Jan. 31 presidential primary.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Every once in a while it feels good to be right,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, on the decision to stand firm and hold the Florida presidential primary on Jan. 31.