Takeaways from Tallahassee: Too few private ayes; Polytech pyrotechnics

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Legislative efforts to privatize a third of Florida prisons fell by the wayside this week in the Senate only to receive a reprieve by Gov. Rick Scott in an ongoing battle pitting unions, prison guards, spending skeptics and civil rights groups against Senate leadership, less-government advocates and for-profit prisons.

Meanwhile, Scott signed into law new congressional district maps, which will be contested in court, just as lawmakers sent briefs to the state Supreme Court to argue that the legislative maps they passed earlier this month are constitutional.

And as Senate leaders got down to the serious work of crafting their $70.8 billion budget package, a simmering feud between a powerful Lake Wales Republican lawmaker and University of South Florida officials boiled over, as Senate Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander continued his quest to create a new public university in his own backyard.

All the while, committees scrambled to move bills to the floor in the face of upcoming deadlines. After next week, most action will take place on the chamber floors.

A round-up via The News Service of Florida:

NOT ENOUGH PRIVATE AYES TO PRIVATIZE

In a Legislature so overwhelmingly dominated by one party, in Florida’s case Republicans, dramatic close votes are pretty rare, and you take them where you can get them. The Senate has seen a few coalition votes that have brought some drama into the process, on SunRail, for example, but there aren’t many.

So this week when Senate President Mike Haridopolos brought a bill (SB 2038) to the floor for a showdown vote on whether to privatize most of the prisons in the Southern third of the state, the Capitol was more tense than X-wing just before a riot.

Backers of the bill said it was plain and simple – the state needs every dollar it can find – Sen. Don Gaetz said during debate that Florida is “stacking pennies” to balance the budget. The $16.5 million annual minimum savings required in the contract to run the prisons would “buy a lot of textbooks,” said another supporter, Sen. Mike Bennett.

But a coalition of Republicans joined Democrats in opposing it. The vote came on Tuesday and the 21-19 count against privatizing ended up being a little less dramatic than predicted only because it wasn’t a tie. Opponents had said the day before they’d lined up the 20 votes needed to kill the measure. They got one more than they needed when the lone Democrat they hadn’t counted on, Sen. Gary Siplin, joined the rest of his party in opposing the measure.

The GOP coalition was made up of some members who have lots of corrections officers in their districts – even those who wouldn’t see their prisons privatized hated the idea. That brought Sens. Charlie Dean, Steve Oelrich and Greg Evers into the no camp. Some, including Dean and Oelrich, both former sheriffs, said privatizing core public safety functions just wasn’t a good idea – add Sen. Dennis Jones to that group.

But the opposition was led by Sens. Mike Fasano, Paula Dockery, and Jack Latvala, all of whom said they didn’t really trust that the scheme was a particularly good deal for taxpayers. Fasano and Dockery, in particular, said they just didn’t buy the numbers put forth by the Department of Corrections in terms of how much would likely be saved. Meanwhile, a lot of hard-working corrections officers would likely lose their jobs, or be forced to move, they said.

Fasano, Dockery and Latvala, have from time-to-time been at odds with their own party, but rarely does leadership lose a vote on one of its priorities.

Haridopolos had said for a couple of weeks that it would be extremely close, and even acknowledged his side might not win on the vote. He got kudos from some in the Senate for daring to bring it up for a vote anyway. Haridopolos has often talked – and frequently said this week – that it’s just not his style to control the agenda, that he wasn’t twisting any arms.

But much of the talk around the Capitol was not about how noble Haridopolos was for allowing senators to vote their beliefs publicly, even in voting against him, but why he couldn’t get them to agree with him and pass one of his top priorities.

But if you think the question was sent to the hole for a year – think again.

Gov. Scott jumped into the matter later in the week, saying Thursday that he was disappointed the Senate didn’t pass the bill, and plans to look into what opportunities he has for pushing the issue forward on his own.

The Department of Corrections, which answers to Scott, does have contracting authority, and that was always something backers of the privatization idea noted – that the whole legislative exercise might be moot anyway.

It’s worth remembering that the Legislature tried to privatize prisons in the same 18 counties a year ago and did so, in the budget, but the courts threw out their work. Lawmakers bristled that someone would question their authority to do it. Now, the Legislature says the prisons can’t be privatized and the governor may over-ride them anyway. How’s that for separation of powers irony?

Besides Haridopolos, one of the other senators who took a hit on the failure of the prison bill was the one guy who has something to hold over the rest of the Senate – line items. The biggest backer of the privatization plan was Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who was in a perfect position to know just how much that $16.5 million might buy because he’s chairman of the Budget Committee.


POLYTECHNIC PYROTECHNICS:

But Alexander had another issue grating on him this week. In an ongoing battle with USF, a proposal to withhold $25 million from the Tampa-based university ended Wednesday in a dispute over independence for the school’s Lakeland campus, resolving for now the latest turn in a months-long feud over the creation of Florida Polytechnic University.

Alexander had initially tried to force USF to turn over all its property at its Lakeland campus to the Polytechnic before releasing $25 million to USF. He wasn’t coy, didn’t try to deny he was doing it – he said he didn’t have any faith that USF would go forward with the move, even though the Board of Governors approved it last year.

But following several days of high drama, Alexander backed off, expressing confidence that his point had been made and the $25 million hold was lifted.

REDISTRICTING HEADS TO COURT:

On Friday, briefs were turned into the Supreme Court saying why the Legislature’s new redistricting plans either are or aren’t constitutional.

The brief filing deadline came less than a day after Scott signed the Legislature’s plan to redraw the state’s congressional districts

That measure also is being challenged by the Florida Democratic Party in court, and a coalition of voting-rights groups said they’ll likely follow suit.

The groups intend to challenge the maps under the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments, approved by voters in the 2010 elections. Those standards require lawmakers to draw the maps without regard for how they might impact incumbents or political parties.

Arguments over the once-a-decade redrawing of House and Senate maps will be held on a day that only comes around every fourth year. The Florida Supreme Court announced it would hold arguments Feb. 29.

HOUSE PASSES ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT INCENTIVES BACK TO SCHOOL.

The House was busy this week, passing a series of tax breaks, freeing thousands of businesses from corporate-income taxes and putting extra money in the pockets of back-to-school shoppers.

House members went along with the governor’s proposal to increase the corporate-income tax exemption from $25,000 to $50,000, passing it as part of a broader economic-development bill.

Some Democrats continued to criticize the income-tax proposal, contending that it would primarily help large corporations and do little for small businesses.

The House voted 92-22 to approve the economic-development package, which also includes new or expanded tax breaks related to agricultural packing houses, aircraft repairs and industrial machinery and equipment. A House analysis said the package eventually would eliminate about $121 million a year in tax revenues for state and local governments.

The House voted unanimously to hold a “sales tax holiday” from Aug. 3 through Aug. 5 that would allow shoppers to avoid paying sales taxes on items such as clothing, shoes and bags that cost $75 or less and schools supplies valued at less than $15.

A LEANER DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

A Senate committee this week approved a wide-ranging plan that would scale back the role of the Florida Department of Health, close the state’s tuberculosis hospital and block mandatory septic-tank inspections. The 106-page plan, however, stops short of a House bill that calls for transferring public health responsibilities — and thousands of jobs — from the department to counties. Both bills are part of a three-year effort by lawmakers to more narrowly focus the Department of Health.

IMMUNITY OR EVASION:

The House Judiciary Committee approved a measure Thursday giving lawmakers complete immunity from civil cases dealing with their legislative duties. The approval came over complaints that the bill was an attempt to undermine legal challenges to the Legislature’s redistricting proposals.

Republicans painted the measure (HB 7123) as a response to a series of efforts to subpoena lawmakers in civil cases challenging legislative actions. But Democrats see the bill as an attempt to keep lawmakers from having to testify as redistricting cases begin to wind their way through the court system.

CLAIMS BILLS MOVE

A pair of high profile claims bills began moving in the House late this week as proposals advanced to compensate Eric Brody for injuries he sustained from an accident caused by a Broward County deputy and William Dillon, who spent 27 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Both are high priorities for Haridopolos.


STORY OF THE WEEK: Despite an all-out press by Senate leadership, a plan to privatize a third of Florida’s prisons went down to defeat. Its last hope? Gov. Rick Scott, who said he might do it anyway.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

“USF should not and will not be singled out for cuts in their budget. Good news is that we have a bicameral Legislature.” Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, in a tweet, about the push in the Senate to withhold money from the Tampa university.

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.