Takeaways from Tallahassee: The week that was in Florida politics

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The late Senate President Jim King used to talk about trying to get everyone together to sing “Kumbaya.”

The Capitol this week didn’t exactly teem with lawmakers holding hands and belting out a tune.

The House passed a $69.2 billion budget Thursday along straight party lines, with Republicans saying it was a responsible plan in tight times and Democrats saying it was, well, “half-witted.”

A short time later, the Senate gave final approval to redistricting maps — only to be greeted immediately by a Democratic Party-backed legal challenge.

Meanwhile, chatter continued in the Capitol about divisions within the Senate, as President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, tried to round up enough votes to pass a controversial prison-privatization plan.

A round-up from Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

MONEY — AND FUR — FLIES: The House budget plan will increase public-school funding by about $1 billion and avoid tax hikes. But Democrats criticized proposals that ranged from raising university tuition to limiting how many times Medicaid patients can get treatment in emergency rooms.

“I cannot support a budget that is balanced on the backs of Florida’s middle class and hard-working Floridians,” said House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West.

Republicans, however, said they made the best of a budget that, by some estimates, has a shortfall of as much as $2 billion.

“The budget before you meets our responsibility to provide health-care services to Florida’s most vulnerable while also living within our means and keeping our taxes low,” said Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa.

Amid the back-and-forth, House Republicans and Democrats joined together on one high-profile issue: They unanimously approved setting aside $10 million to keep open a Jefferson County prison.

Senate subcommittees also offered budget proposals this week that included a $1.2 billion increase for public schools. Other parts of the budget braced for cuts, including hospitals and substance-abuse and mental-health treatment programs.

Some Republicans bristled at the budget proposal that emerged in the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee. Among other things, they questioned the inclusion of local projects that Gov. Rick Scott vetoed last year.

“If the governor vetoed these dollars, why are we putting them back in the budget?” Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, asked.

FROM THE CAPITOL TO THE COURTROOM: Barely halfway through the session, lawmakers finalized new maps for legislative and congressional districts.

But the once-a-decade reapportionment process is far from finished. The GOP-dominated Legislature and opponents now will argue in court about whether the maps comply with constitutional requirements.

Within moments of a final Senate vote Thursday, the state Democratic Party announced a lawsuit contending that the maps violate a 2010 anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment.

“Now the courts have to step in to implement the will of the people — a job the GOP in Tallahassee failed to accomplish,” Democratic Chairman Rod Smith said.

Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, fired back at opponents, though he knew challenges would be coming.

“The sad part is, now the taxpayers of Florida have to be dragged into court by special-interest groups who always intended to be dissatisfied,” Gaetz said.

While the legal issues still need to be resolved, the maps have already led to jockeying among politicians. As an example, longtime Republican Congressman John Mica announced Friday he will run in a reconfigured Central Florida district that also includes Republican Congresswoman Sandy Adams.

As another example, state Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, said Thursday he won’t run this year in the new House District 5, but announced his candidacy for the seat in 2014. That clears the way for Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, who also lives in the Panhandle district, to run without another incumbent in the primary. Coley will be term-limited in two years.

COUNTING VOTES: Haridopolos this week continued to delay a vote on a plan to privatize prisons across the southern half of the state.

The president and Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, have made the issue a priority, saying it would save money for the state. But Haridopolos has acknowledged that he likely didn’t have enough votes to pass the measure when it first went to the Senate floor last month.

He wouldn’t say Thursday whether he has convinced enough Republican members to go along with the proposal. But he said he expects to bring it up for a vote Tuesday.

“It’s a very close vote,” Haridopolos said.

Republican splits also appeared this week about a proposal that would add new restrictions on medical-malpractice lawsuits and expand drug-prescribing powers for optometrists.

The Florida Medical Association and the optometric industry, which have battled for years about drug prescribing, negotiated a deal that helped lead to a 65-page “strike all” amendment in the Senate Health Regulation Committee.

Gaetz and Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, pushed the amendment through the committee, despite efforts by four Republicans to eliminate parts of the medical-malpractice restrictions.

Gaetz described the proposal as a “peace treaty” because it would resolve the fight among doctors and optometrists about prescribing oral medications. In exchange for going along the optometrists’ expanded prescribing powers, the FMA would receive medical-malpractice restrictions that it has made a top priority.

But the process appeared to trouble committee Chairman Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican who fought unsuccessfully to remove one of the malpractice changes that he indicated wouldn’t do enough to protect patients.

When asked after the meeting about the deal, Garcia replied simply, “I wasn’t part of the deal.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: A Senate vote Thursday finalized legislative and congressional maps, carrying out the constitutional requirement that lawmakers draw new district lines every 10 years. The issue now will move into the courts, where Democrats have already started a legal challenge.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “This budget looks at only one side of the equation, folks. It’s a half-budget. It’s halfway, half-witted and half-hearted. And one more half-word that I can’t say on the floor of the House.” -Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

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.