Takeaways from Tallahassee: The week that was in Florida politics

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The Senate this week passed a budget for the coming year – but some of its members were focused on another year in the future as those who want to be Senate president down the road intensified their maneuvering in the face of an increasingly apparent challenge to the chamber’s conservative ruling class.

The Senate has long been a place where the in-charge Republican Party has been fractured, with splits between social moderates and conservatives, fiscally conservative members and those less antagonistic to government services, and populists versus the big business wing.

That schism has been in the open as much as ever – if not more in the now almost two years that Senate President Mike Haridopolos has led the Senate. It’s a murky split – with those opposed to the faction led by Haridopolos a shifting and motley group. Some are more populist, some are more moderate, and some are simply independent-minded and seem to be most interested in preserving a Senate that doesn’t blindly follow a leader.

Put all those together in a coalition, and throw in a few surprises in the November election, and the possibility has emerged that a real challenge could be mounted to the status quo when it comes to the generally presumed line of succession to the Senate throne. The Senate presidency over the next several years has generally been thought to be preordained by the leaders of the chamber. When Haridopolos leaves office in November, the gavel will be handed to Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. That much is nearly certain.

After that, the general expectation has been that Haridopolos-Gaetz ally Sen. Andy Gardiner, currently a member of the leadership team as majority leader, will take over. Then would come other members of the leadership team, maybe Sen. John Thrasher and Sen. Joe Negron, both conservative, business-backed Republicans loyal to the current leadership.

But something has been bubbling up in the last couple years that may threaten that. A soft coalition of Republican senators who have disagreements with the Haridopolos group has increasingly been thwarting the leadership’s agenda. During the last day of session last year, there was a near mutiny over what was in several budget bills.

This year, there was the prison privatization fiasco, in which leadership lost in a floor vote on one of its top priorities, privatizing a large number of prisons. Then there was the University of South Florida fight – in which some Republican senators fought with Budget Chairman and Haridopolos ally JD Alexander over the USF budget and the future of a USF branch campus that is going to break off. There have been other little fights – an ethics bill pushed by Thrasher went down, for example. A leadership move to consolidate expressway authorities was softened.

Deeply involved in many of the challenges to the authority of Haridopolos et al has been the veteran newcomer Sen. Jack Latvala. The moderate Republican from St. Petersburg was in the Senate for a long time, and then left before returning again. Latvala was a leader of the fight against prison privatization, and this week emerged as a serious challenger to Gardiner for the presidency of the Senate in 2014.

Yes, it’s very inside baseball – but also very central to the direction the Legislature will take in the future. It could be led by Gardiner and the leadership team that includes dogmatic conservatives like Thrasher and Negron. Or it could be a more unpredictable, and possibly more moderate body led by Latvala and those who support him.

This week, there were lots of rumors floating around the Senate that the Haridopolos-Thrasher conservative wing of the party was looking to replace Gardiner in the line of succession because of the fear that Gardiner wouldn’t be able to hold off a challenge from Latvala.

But nearly as soon as those rumors made it out of the 10th floor cafeteria at the Capitol, the Gardiner presidency campaign seemed to kick into high gear, as if to say, ‘thanks guys, but I can handle this.’

And by Thursday night Gardiner was claiming victory in the race for the 2014 presidency, though Thrasher was now openly questioning whether that would be so.

“I have secured enough signatures of the sitting members and the returning members for the Senate presidency in ’14,” Gardiner said after two days of Capitol intrigue over whether he was being pushed aside by his own party.

But Thrasher, who like Latvala has been around the Capitol seemingly forever as a member who left the Legislature and later returned, sure sounded like a Gardiner opponent.

“I don’t think anybody has pledges until the day they get designated,” Thrasher said. “To me, that’s what it’s about. And in a year like this, when we have a big summer of a lot of elections, a lot of things can change, seems to me.”All 40 Senate seats will be up for re-election in 2012 because of redistricting.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

MEANWHILE, THERE’S A BUDGET TO WRITE

For some in the Senate, the wrangling over its future leadership was a sideshow to a more pressing issue: the session only has a couple weeks left and there’s a budget to write for the more immediate future. The session is early this year because of redistricting, so there’s plenty of time before the start of the fiscal year. But it is an election year, and lawmakers who have to run in new districts would like to get to it, not be here in May putting the finishing touches on a budget.

So the Senate passed its budget this week, which was probably the other big news. A couple of issues dominated the debate – the aforementioned fight over the University of South Florida’s budget got by far the most attention.

With Alexander putting a hold on some money for the university earlier, and then backing off, it was an interesting drama that overshadowed an otherwise pretty good story: the Senate managed to cobble together a balanced budget when there’s a tax-revenue shortfall, didn’t raise taxes, increased education spending by more than $1 billion and didn’t have massive protests at the Capitol over the cuts that have been suggested.

Still, even with the budget passing this week in the Senate, it doesn’t match up with the House yet, and the hard work is just beginning.

PIPPY LONGSHOT?

Also this week, one of the things that legislative leaders and Gov. Scott say is a big priority – legislation aimed at cracking down on personal injury protection or PIP insurance fraud – got moving again, passing in the House Economic Affairs Committee on Friday – but House Speaker Dean Cannon didn’t sound too confident that it was going to pass, priority or not.

“I don’t know whether they’ll be able to bring the House and Senate positions together before the end of session,” Cannon said of the PIP bill. If they don’t, it will have to wait until next year. “I’m not contemplating any special session on that issue at this time.,” Cannon said.

The bill (HB 119) would put restrictions on some reimbursements, and cap attorney fees, a provision not included in a Senate proposal. As lawmakers try to work out the differences in the budget, this issue will be secondary. Whether Scott, who has made it one of his main talking points, will push them to work out a bill – or even keep them in town until they do – is yet to be seen.

SORRY YOU MISSED THE 80’S, 90’S AND 2000’S WITH THE REST OF US

William Dillon spent 27 years in prison for a murder that authorities later said he couldn’t have committed. Since being released in 2008 he’s been trying to get someone to say they were sorry.

The House apologized on Friday with a $1.35 million claims award to Dillon. Several House members said it couldn’t pay him back for the years he spent in prison, but it was the least the state could do.

Dillon was in the gallery to watch as the House voted 107-5 for the bill (SB 2), which now returns to the Senate.

Passage of the bill was also a win of sorts for Haridopolos, who made the Dillon restitution a top priority last year, only to see the bill die in the waning hours of the session, caught up in back-and-forth politics between the House and Senate, the leadership and the mavericks. Dillon missed out on all the history that led up to the political wrangling that led to his claims bill failing last year – he missed out on a lot of things over the last three decades.

Opponents say the claim system is broken, and that the Legislature shouldn’t be in the business of making individual decisions about such cases. But the measure is almost certain to pass now that it has cleared the House where it failed last year.

STEINBERG QUITS

Rep. Richard Steinberg stepped down on Friday after admitting he’d sent repeated text messages anonymously to a married Miami prosecutor who didn’t want them. The prosecutor Marlene Fernandez-Karavetsos, asked whoever kept sending her the inappropriate messages to identify himself and to stop sending them – Steinberg didn’t. While she couldn’t figure out who they were coming from, the U.S. Secret Service had no problem and by midweek Steinberg was facing a looming story in the Miami Herald about the investigation. He confessed to the paper that he’d sent the messages and said he was sorry.

On Friday, Steinberg, who wasn’t in Tallahassee for the second half of the week, apologized again and then resigned. The Democrat from Miami Beach likely will be replaced in a special election.

URINE TROUBLE NOW

State agencies may be able to soon drug test workers after all. The governor ordered drug testing of state employees last year in an executive order, but it was blocked by the courts for most workers. But Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, has taken up the cause, pushing a bill (HB 1205) that would allow agencies, though not require them, to set up random drug testing plans for employees. The bill looks like it is on its way to passage, headed to the House floor after a vote this week in the State Affairs Committee. Civil liberties groups say it, too, will be found unconstitutional, and that there’s no evidence state workers are more likely to use drugs than anyone else. Backers say it’s just like in the private sector: if they know they might be tested they won’t use drugs.

BONDI JOINS CONTRACEPTIVE LAWSUIT

Just as the row over the federal rule requiring coverage of contraceptives seemed to subside a bit late this week, Florida got into the issue. Attorney General Pam Bondi on Thursday announced she was joining six other state attorneys general in a lawsuit against the federal decision to require religious employers to offer health insurance that covers contraceptives and other services that violate the tenets of the employer’s affiliated religion.

“Government has no business forcing religious institutions and individuals to violate their sincerely held beliefs,” Bondi said in a statement. “This lawsuit is about protecting religious liberty and the rights of conscience, our most basic freedoms as Americans.” Bondi joined attorneys general from Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas in the lawsuit. Other plaintiffs include a Catholic high school, social services agencies and a nun, among others.

STORY OF THE WEEK: We’ve seen the future and it is here: the 2012-2013 budget was passed by the Senate setting up a conference with the House, while the 2014 Senate presidency contest got murky.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I’m not going anywhere,” Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, about his plans to be the Senate president in 2014. Or possibly referring to the prospects for his campaign?

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.