Takeaways from Tallahassee: The week that was in Florida politics

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Going into the once-a-decade redistricting session, while starting it with a budget deficit, the conventional wisdom was that not much else would get done this year, writes David Royse of the News Service of Florida.

With the need to cut spending and the difficulty of redrawing political boundaries – always a tough balancing act fraught with more challenge this year because of two new constitutional amendments that said it had to be done without taking party politics into account – the opening of the year came with the promise of acrimony, in-fighting, and some painful lessons about who everyone’s friends were.

All that turned out to be true – but not quite in the way most observers expected.

In the end, as predicted, lawmakers didn’t do a whole lot this session that will resonate through the ages.

There will be a new polytechnic university, and sooner than originally thought, which is a pretty big change. And there was a continuation of a move away from harsher penalties for drug crimes and toward more treatment, but that has been subtle, and part of a running continuum of shifting thought.

Similarly, Republican lawmakers once again managed to find a way to cut taxes, but again, part of a long-running effort that changes only incrementally the business climate and tax picture in the state – after all the GOP has been in charge here and cutting taxes fairly steadily for more than a decade.

To be sure, hundreds of bills passed and many of them will do very important things. Some were a huge deal to particular constituencies.

Those who have bemoaned quiet prayer in public schools as inadequate, saying that more official prayer should be allowed, got a big victory from an inspirational message bill now awaiting the governor’s signature.

And insurance companies, which have wanted to reduce payouts in the personal injury protection no-fault auto insurance system, were successful in finally seeing a revamp of that fraud-riddled system pass.

For Gov. Rick Scott it was a good session too – though he had a modest agenda. He saw lawmakers put back some of the money they cut from the education budget, which he had demanded they do. And he got the PIP reform he wanted, having made saving money on car insurance his major talking point. He also saw lawmakers OK the tax cut package he wanted passed for small businesses.

But mostly, it was a session of declining to do big things.

The biggest talk of the session early on was about the prospect for new casino gambling, something that could have brought enormous and long-lasting change in the very character of the state. But in the end, what happens in Las Vegas, stayed in Las Vegas, (and a lot of other places these days) with lawmakers failing to pass any kind of major change in the gaming laws to let people take more chances on the turn of a wheel.

The big proposal to allow resort casinos wasn’t the only gambling issue that went bust. Legislators also rejected proposals aimed at eliminating requirements that greyhound tracks run live races, which the tracks wanted to boost their bottom line in a shift from tracks to card rooms. There was another gambling related change that failed – though in preserving the status quo it was a vote in favor of gambling, not against. Lawmakers failed to crack down on Internet cafes, after the House and Senate couldn’t agree on whether to ban or regulate the storefront parlors.

Lawmakers also rejected a Senate leadership effort to privatize a large number of prisons, with the Senate narrowly voting against the idea after a cobbled-together coalition of Republicans with different objections joined Democrats in saying it was a bad idea.

But while the conventional wisdom that few big-picture ideas would advance was correct, the way in which a number of big items came to fail was new.

Normally, if ideas don’t become law, one of three things happens: they’re passed but vetoed by the governor; they become law but are thrown out by the courts; or they simply quietly fade away as their backers realize there just isn’t the momentum to get them done, at least not yet.

In all three of these ways, they usually live on, quietly below the surface. Then come attempts through the years to get them done, often incrementally over time. Or they return when elections have changed the landscape a bit.

They rarely flame out in high profile floor or committee votes in which leadership is made to look like it isn’t, well leading.

But that’s what happened this year in the Senate.

On several occasions this session, many times on particularly closely-watched issues, the leaders in the Senate couldn’t get their agenda passed.

That wasn’t how they saw it. Senate President Mike Haridopolos said on a number of occasions, that he was all about “free will,” and that whatever the Senate did was the way it was going to be and that was fine with him.

“There’s one thing that is abundantly clear,” Haridopolos said last week about one vote in particular, but really summing up the whole session in the Senate. “I didn’t twist arms.”

Typically, when someone strives to lead a group of politicians, they want to push them in a particular direction. They have an agenda that would do that.

The weird thing about the current leaders – both in the Senate and House – is they’ve professed not to have much of an agenda – to be interested mostly in doing what the members of their respective bodies want to do. Some might argue that makes them not leaders, but followers. Others would argue it’s not true, they’re just being stealthy in pushing for what they want.

Of course, there’s really no winning. In the past, leaders have unabashedly pushed hard – sometimes in ways that didn’t seem fair – for changes that made the state the way it is today for better and worse. They got criticized for being iron-fisted. The current legislative leaders who say they just want to let members decide the direction the state will go, get criticized for not winning every vote.

In addition to losing on prison privatization, Senate leaders also couldn’t pass a bill to make it easier for parents to change failing public schools into charter schools. There were others losses for leadership, as well – including on amendments, such as failing to prevent the Senate and House from watering down a bill dealing with shrinking Citizens Property Insurance.

The senator who will be the next president, Don Gaetz, argued it actually was a kind of leadership – putting big ideas forward, even at the risk of failure.

“It’s not leadership to only take stands on motherhood resolutions,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “Leadership is the willingness to take risks and never be afraid to lose.”

It certainly wasn’t all losses for Haridopolos and other Senate leaders.

Haridopolos wanted to see passage of two high profile claims bills to compensate victims of government negligence or malfeasance – which are always an uphill battle in a Legislature that doesn’t like the tort system to begin with. Those were among the few things he actually openly acknowledged were a top priority.

They both passed, one paying back a man who spent nearly three decades in prison until being cleared of murder, the other compensating a man with lifelong injuries from being slammed into by a speeding deputy sheriff. Those two compensation bills complicated the end of Haridopolos’ first session, but he got them passed this year. Two lives may be changed for the better by the cash, a long-lasting effect of Haridopolos’ persistence.

Haridopolos also argued that the public may have misread what was really important to Senate leaders. After the session ended, he said the three things he wanted to pass, aside from the two claims bills, were the governor’s three big priorities: the increased K-12 education spending, the PIP auto insurance reform and the tax cut and economic development package. Adding those three to the claims bills, he was five-for-five.

“A couple other issues materialized, and we took a run at them,” Haridopolos said. “We happened not to prevail in a couple, but … I’ll take going 24-for-26, or whatever we were on the major issues.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker Dean Cannon, was quietly efficient this year. Unlike in his first year, when Cannon took on the judiciary in a big way – and failed to overhaul the Supreme Court – this session he wasn’t openly pushing for any major pieces of legislation.

In a backward scenario, the House this year was strangely dull, while the Senate insisted on finding new ways to muck up the calendar and fight with itself. The House passed measures coming from the Senate, what few measures it received, with little of the infighting on display in the “upper” chamber.

The House was where the gambling measure died in committee, with conservatives in that chamber uninterested in expanding gaming in the state. But unlike in the Senate, where issues supported by leadership got killed a number of times this year, in the House, the death of the gaming bill was a win of sorts for Cannon.

Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he wasn’t going to work against that measure, but he was open about not supporting it. Whether he had a hand in killing it by referring it to a committee it couldn’t pass is open to question, but either way, in the end, Cannon’s side prevailed.

The House also managed to draw a redistricting plan that the Supreme Court said was OK, unlike the Senate, which drew a Senate map that the court found rife with problems. Lawmakers will return next week to try their hand again at redrawing the Senate map.

The budget, while controversial, as always when cuts are made, was also far more so at the Senate end of the Capitol.

Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, made it so – when he pushed a plan for cutting university spending that happened to hit hard in particular at the University of South Florida. While he argued there was no connection, it coincided with Alexander’s open fight with USF over the splitting off of the university’s Lakeland campus into the new Florida Polytechnic.

That drama over the higher ed budget dominated discussion of the overall spending plan to the point where hardly anyone noticed the debate over state spending in the House.

Critics of the budget on both sides of the Capitol this year complained about local projects, which returned to the spending plan in large numbers after years of austerity. But that debate got little attention, overshadowed as it was by the higher ed fight, even though the abundance of local pork-barrel spending also cost Republican votes for the budget in the Senate.

Leaving the budget to be debated on the final night of the legislative session is fairly common – but deprives the public a chance to really soak up debate on the spending plan. While something like the gambling proposal takes shape over a period of weeks and is discussed ad nauseam by talking heads and in newspaper columns, the budget emerges from a conference committee a few days before passage. During that time, other issues are also coming to a head. There’s little of the chance for understanding what’s in the $70 billion proposal, much less discussing it. But that’s nothing unique to this session.

Budget writers on both sides of the Capitol will claim victory this year, because they managed to keep true to the central guiding philosophy of the Republican Party – above everything else, don’t raise taxes.

And they didn’t. That’s an accomplishment that hasn’t always been easy when the state is required to have a balanced budget. Some previous Republican leaders, including some who were and continue to be known as pretty conservative, were unable to deliver budgets that didn’t arguably raise taxes (such as a tax hike on cigarettes and several large fee increases in recent years). Previous GOP-led Legislatures also weren’t able to do it without help from the federal government which most of them profess to dislike so much, without federal stimulus help that nearly all of them despise. So on that count, Haridopolos and Cannon, and their respective budget chairmen were successful.

Whether they’ll finally succeed on the other thing they have to do, redrawing the political boundaries, won’t be decided right away. Even if the Legislature can draw districts the courts approve, no one will ever be able to truly say whether they were successful or not, with the way the districts are drawn ultimately open to interpretation as to their fairness.

But for many, the session will be remembered as one where a number of issues that were put forward were publicly shot down, something that doesn’t happen all that often in the open when Republicans command such an overwhelming majority.

“So you have a couple defeats,” Haridopolos said Saturday after ending the session. “I’m (a person who is) going to push the envelope and I’m going to really try to win the debate, and I think even in the couple of setbacks we had, I felt we won the debate…. But you don’t want to leave anything on the field, and I didn’t leave anything on the field. And I’m proud of what we accomplished the last two years.”

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.