The week that was in Florida politics: Legislature gears up, Citizens under fire

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Like holiday diners beginning to awaken from tryptophan-induced naps, lawmakers came out of the Thanksgiving weekend and began laying the groundwork for the 2013 legislative session.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, began naming leaders and committee members early in the week so that lawmakers at least knew which rooms to go to for next week’s kickoff meetings. Senators began filing their bills. And Gov. Rick Scott continued to roll out the beginnings of what looks like an agenda for the session.

Meanwhile, a scandal including allegations of sexual impropriety continued to rock one of the least sexy agencies in state government.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

LEGISLATIVE RUMBLINGS

With the organizational session out of the way and lawmakers free to carry out their duties, committee assignments and bills came out of the proverbial starting gate. It was a journey that could extend until the first days of May 2013. At least that’s the plan.

Weatherford had his committee assignments done by Monday, with the Senate moving at a more casual pace — no surprise to anyone who drops by the respective chambers on a given day. Some of the highest-profile picks included Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, being tapped to head the Judiciary Committee and Rep. Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, taking over the Education Committee. Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, will chair the Health and Human Services Committee.

Gaetz, who announced some chairmanships Monday, had all of his appointments wrapped up on Wednesday. One of the more closely watched committees — the panel dealing with gambling — will be headed by Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican who will also be president pro tempore. Richter said he expected the Senate Gaming Committee to move deliberately to deal with a sensitive issue.

“It would be very appropriate to try to take a comprehensive look at gaming for the state of Florida,” he said.

Bills also started whizzing around the Capitol, or at least around the circuitry that handles legislation.

Democrats started out by trying to reignite one of the hottest issues of the fall: When and where Floridians should be allowed to cast ballots. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, filed a pair of bills (SB 80, SB 82) that would expand early voting times and the places where it can occur.

The measures would also eliminate a requirement that people who have moved into a community from outside the county vote a provisional ballot on Election Day if they hadn’t earlier changed their legal address.

Democrats have complained that Republicans, who overwhelmingly control the Legislature, have tried to make it harder for people to vote, particularly those who are more transient, younger, and minorities, all of whom critics say are more likely to vote Democratic. Republicans have countered that measures aimed at making it more difficult to cast a ballot are intended to stop voter fraud.

Both bills filed this week would require early voting to begin 15 days before Election Day, up from 10 days before under current law. Early voting wouldn’t end until the Sunday night before the election under the new measures. Current law ended early voting on the Saturday before Election Day.

Even with the Election Day difficulties, which GOP leaders are eager to explore, it’s not clear that Republicans will be ready to do that abrupt an about-face on the voting changes.

Other bills also got started. Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, filed a measure that would require most children under 7 to use a booster seat or other safety seat while riding in cars. Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, filed a measure barring Floridians from using cell phones in cars unless they use hands-free technology. And Joyner filed a bill aimed at preventing employers from turning away job applicants because they were unemployed and a measure calling for a study of pay disparities between men and women.

DIFFERENT KIND OF $10,000 BET

Gov. Rick Scott kicked off the week by challenging Florida state colleges to offer four-year degrees for $10,000 or less. Scott, who has made the affordability of college one of his hallmark issues, came out with his challenge even as state universities have been pushing for higher tuition rates.

“You should be able to work and go to school and not end up with debt,” Scott told WFLA TV on Monday. “If these degrees cost so much money, tuition is so high, that’s not going to happen. I have put out this challenge to our state colleges — we have 28 great state colleges — and say, ‘Can you come up with degrees where individuals can get jobs that the total degree costs $10,000?'”

By the end of the week, the governor’s office said half of Florida’s colleges were at least considering the idea, and a number had already announced they would take on the challenge.

But not everyone was pleased. Roberto Martinez, vice chairman of the state Board of Education, blasted the change in a letter.

“The cost of a Bachelor’s Degree at many of our colleges cost the students on average approximately $12,000,” Martinez wrote. “Reducing this further, to create a cheap four-year degree, will undermine the quality and value of the education, hurting our students’ chances to compete successfully in our 21st Century economy.”

The other six members of the board, which oversees state colleges, issued a statement on Monday supporting the move.

Scott also called for the Legislature to double, to $12 million, the funding for “Quick Response Training Grants,” handed out by the Department of Economic Opportunity for training for new or expanding businesses.

And the governor told the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s insurance summit that reforms were needed for the state-managed Citizens Property Insurance Corp., though he didn’t unveil a new policy proposal.

“To make the dream of home ownership available we must reduce the size of Citizens,” Scott said.

SPEAKING OF CITIZENS …

The board of Citizens, meanwhile, arguably had more interesting matters on its mind. Public pressure continued to grow on the company over a series of embarrassing revelations that were being investigated by internal watchdogs before their office was shuttered by the company.

But Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway hit back during a meeting of the company’s governing board Tuesday, acknowledging that a handful of Citizens supervisors behaved inappropriately in some instances but that others faced allegations that were either disproved or remain unsubstantiated.

A pair of Citizens employees reported took off their bras and danced at the Coyote Ugly bar in Tampa during a company retreat there in 2009, though they were disciplined. Another was accused of practicing law without a license, though Gilway says that hasn’t been substantiated.

In all, hundreds of pages of documents released last week alleged misappropriations of funds, sexual harassment, lucrative severance packages and other inappropriate behavior by a handful of Citizens supervisors between 2004 and 2010. Gilway took over the company in June.

But while Gilway said he was “disgusted” at some actions, he pushed back against the idea of Insurance Executives Gone Wild.

“It is also critically important that the actions of a very, very few people over the course of four years not tarnish the reputation of 1,300 employees who come in every single day and bust their tails, even though they are getting trashed in the press on a daily basis, ” Gilway said.

Making matters look worse, the company’s Office of Corporate Integrity was disbanded as it looked into the issues. Scott last week asked his inspector general to inspect that action.

It wasn’t all scandal for Citizens, though; Gilway told the insurance summit that he will brief the company’s board in December about an effort requiring Citizens to try to place policies with private carriers before issuing policies itself.

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.