The December special session

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With some state lawmakers dressed in sweaters and scarves to stave off the seasonal cold and a slew of holiday displays set in the Capitol Rotunda, Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli gaveled into business a rare December special session of the Florida Legislature.

Almost immediately after Charlie Crist unseated Republican Rick Scott last month in the most expensive gubernatorial race in state history, GOP leaders began plotting how they could limit the power of the first Democratic governor since Buddy McKay served out the final days of Lawton Chiles’ second term.

Gov. Scott, still smarting from being on the receiving end of tens of millions of dollars in negative ads paid for by Democratic-leaning Super PACs, has had his Office of Appointments burning the midnight oil, filling dozens of open positions on state boards and commissions. The Florida Senate is expected to confirm a handful of high-profile Scott appointees so that Crist cannot recall them come January.

Pushing through a last batch of gubernatorial appointments is certainly not unprecedented. Calling a special session with essentially an open-ended agenda is, capital observers say. 

Democrats have howled in protest. Editorial boards have weighed in against the idea. Even some Republicans dislike the idea of circumventing the will of the voters. 

Over the Thanksgiving holiday break, Scott met with Gardiner and Crisafulli — who officially took the helm of their respective chambers at the close of Election Day once former legislative leaders Don Gaetz and Will Weatherford’s successors were elected — to plot out a strategy for a five-day meeting of the Legislature during the first week in December. The price tag? $250,000. That cost is offset partially, the Republican leaders say, by the fact that a week of committee meetings had already been planned for this week.

At the top of the Legislature’s to-do list this week is the writing of statutes governing the now-legal medical marijuana industry. A referendum allowing for the drug to be dispensed by doctors was approved in November by nearly 70 percent of Florida voters. However, the implementation of that initiative is now up to lawmakers, many of whom would like to write the regulations before Crist, an ally of John Morgan, the chief proponent of the referendum, has any say-so.

“The last thing this Legislature wants to do,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, “is hand over the regulation of a multi-billion dollar industry to a trial attorney.”

Morgan isn’t the only trial attorney in the crosshairs this week. In fact, the entire profession will be on the defensive this week as Republican lawmakers promise to take up almost any and all bills described as tort reform. Such legislation has little chance of being signed into law once Crist is in the Governor’s Mansion, so Gardiner, Crisafulli and Co. have put tort reform bills, including one capping punitive damages, on the fast track. However, after over two decades of Republican hegemony in Tallahassee, there are few measures left for lawmakers to enact. 

A spokesperson for the Florida Justice Association is hoping the trial bar can just ride out whatever damage is done this week and hope that it can be undone in the spring. 

The trial lawyers aren’t the only one bracing for an adventurous week.

Lobbyists on both sides of the gambling industry expect to be busy this week hammering out final approval of a new Compact with the Seminole Tribe negotiated with Gov. Scott. That deal was reached before the election but not approved by the Legislature, which must give its final blessing. Republicans fear that Crist will reopen the negotiations and possibly offer more favorable terms to the tribe, an historical ally of Crist when he was last in office. Others would like to see the Compact ratified immediately so that other gaming proposals can also be debated while the Legislature is in special session. The idea of requiring a voter referendum on any future gambling expansion — an idea first floated by former Speaker Weatherford — could be taken up.

In addition to these big-ticket items, the Legislature could take on a host of other tangential issues it would like to see addressed before the incoming administration is sworn in. Education reforms launched by former Gov. Jeb Bush that are only rules under the Department of Education may be codified into statute. Protections for energy companies such as Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light — expected to feel the wrath of a second Crist governorship — are being worked on.

Scott, Gardiner and Crisafulli, offered a broad rationale in their official call for a special session.

Of course, special sessions without a clear purpose often collapse under their own weight. 

“People are acting like Attila the Hun is outside the gates of Rome,” said lobbyist John M. “Mac” Stipanovich. “What people forget is Attila never conquered Rome.” 

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.