The week that was in Florida politics: Scott goes back to school, but Dems eye 2014

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A key piece of Governor Rick Scott’s agenda fell into place this week, as lawmakers returned to the Capitol for a shortened week of committee work. With Monday marking the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Legislature didn’t start its final working week of January until Tuesday.

But they had plenty to talk about, from what will become one of the more attention-grabbing parts of Scott’s 2013 legislative agenda to what to do about landmark insurance legislation. And ethics reform and a new set of changes to pensions for state employees were also on deck. Meanwhile, there was also an ongoing series of questions from a newspaper about a dog that used to live at the Governor’s Mansion, but now doesn’t.

A round-up via The News Service of Florida.

BIGGER CHECKS FOR TEACHERS?

Throwing a bone to some of his most vocal critics, and hoping to fetch some good headlines at the same time, Scott spent most of the week promoting a plan to give every full-time public school teacher a $2,500 raise. Scott didn’t mark exactly how the state would pay for the $480 million item.

“I believe in merit pay, I believe in measurement I believe in accountability,” Scott told reporters Wednesday. “We’re going to continue to work on that, but right now the right thing to do is across the board pay raises for all of our full time teachers.”

The Florida Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, didn’t sniff at the proposal, but also didn’t exactly wag their tails. FEA said it was “encouraged” while snarling about recent moves to require teachers and state employees to contribute 3 percent to their own retirement.

“But this is a step in the right direction because investing in public schools and the people who work in them is the way to create the workforce of the future,” FEA President Andy Ford said in a statement issued following the announcement. “This begins to repair the damage that has been done to our students and those who work in our schools.”

Republican lawmakers sent signals that they might not simply roll over for the proposal, with some voicing concern about the cost and that an across-the-board increase could undermine the progress toward paying teachers based on student performance.

“Everybody believes we need to find a way to continue to fund our teachers and give them more resources,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “I do believe that the Florida House has a pretty strong opinion with regard to how to fund it and certainly we believe merit pay is an area that we should be looking at very closely.”

Democrats said Scott was just looking to score political points.

“It’s almost an affront to their intelligence,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “Waving dollars after a clear anti-public education agenda and expecting to them to jump on the Scott bandwagon. Public educators know where he stands.”

DOG BITES MAN

All this discussion of serious policy came against a backdrop of one of the stranger stories of recent months. The Tampa Bay Times a week ago had casually asked someone in the governor’s office what happened to a dog the governor adopted a while back. The dog, Reagan, is no longer living in the Governor’s Mansion, the newspaper was finally told after some initial dodging on the crucial matter. Critics of the governor howled that it was a fine thing to adopt the dog to get some good press and then get rid of it.

But this week the Times reported that Reagan was a great communicator of his displeasure at being adopted by the governor. He barked at people – and finally, the governor’s office acknowledged, he bit someone. Not a grrreat addition to the mansion. So the Scott’s returned the dog and it’s now living on a ranch somewhere. And it’s now called Pluto.

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

There was another odd item this week. A guy said Satanists would be rallying for Gov. Scott at the Capitol because they like that he supported a bill allowing anyone – including Satanists – to lead prayers at schools. It turns out the man is trying to make a mocumentary – but he and a couple other people showed up at the Capitol Friday wearing funny clothes and had their pictures taken.

EXCHANGES AND ETHICS

While they continued to chew on Scott’s teacher-pay proposal, lawmakers were also busy dealing with weightier issues, from how to deal with the federal health-care law of 2010 — now certain to survive after President Barack Obama’s re-election — to how to keep legislators themselves on their best behavior.

Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, and Jonathan Gruber, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who consulted with the Obama Administration on the federal law, squared off in front of a Senate committee studying whether Florida should set up a health-insurance exchange.

Under the federal health law, each state will have such an exchange to act as a sort of online market where people will be able to shop for insurance coverage. Depending on income levels, many people will be eligible for subsidies to buy insurance through the exchange.

Gruber said the best approach would be for Florida to let the federal government establish the exchange but enter a partnership in which the state could help determine the insurance choices available to residents. He said the state’s role doesn’t have to be “all or nothing.”

“Let the federal government do the heavy lifting, let them do the programming, let them do the incredibly hard work, but don’t abdicate your responsibility to your citizens to make sure they’re getting the best choices and to evaluate the choices that are made, to study that and learn over time,” Gruber said.

Cannon said he thinks the state should refuse to create an exchange. But he said even if lawmakers are interested in running an exchange, they should hold off on making a decision about the issue.

“There’s nothing in here for you but headache,” Cannon said. “But look, if you disagree, then I think the safest thing is to just take a wait-and-see approach. Maybe wait a year, maybe wait two years. Let the federal government operate the exchange.”

Elsewhere, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee unanimously approved a measure that supporters called the most expansive overhaul in decades of the rules that elected officials have to follow.

The bill (SPB 7006) would limit the jobs elected officials could take with state agencies, give the Ethics Commission more power to collect fines and strengthen conflict-of-interest laws. It would also strengthen rules against the “revolving door” by barring elected officials from taking jobs with any firm that primarily lobbies or from representing anyone before executive agencies.

“You have a guy who’s a presiding officer one year, doing agency budgets and controlling life or death of agencies and what they do and their programs, and the next year he’s lobbying them? You know, one day after he leaves as speaker or president and he’s going to lobby them?” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, in a clear swipe at former House Speaker Dean Cannon — who has announced he will do so.

A ‘BLANK CHECK’ OR A MISSING PROBLEM?

The week also brought more fallout from the Florida Supreme Court’s decision upholding the state law requiring employees to pay into their own pensions. Standard & Poors and Moody’s both gave the state a metaphorical pat on the head for the change.

“The budget relief for local governments will be significant at a time when weakened property valuations continue to negatively affect fiscal operations,” a statement from Moody’s said. The majority of local governments report personnel expenses as their largest expense.”

In a move that might have happened even without the decision, the House began a push to place all future state employees into a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

The draft legislation would require all state employees hired after Jan. 1, 2014 to enter a defined-contribution plan instead of the defined-benefit plan that most state workers currently join. Supporters say the plan will make the retirement plan more predictable and takes the state off the hook.

“There will no longer be a blank check written by the taxpayers,” said House Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford.

Critics of the measure say it could cost state taxpayers additional money, beginning with $150 million next year and escalating to $450 million within three years. The state would continue to pay until 2018, they said.

“We are looking at potentially billions of dollars in taxpayer revenue simply to fix a system which we’re still not sure what the problem with that system is,” said Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO.

SUGAR LEASES NOT SO SWEET FOR ENVIRONMENTALISTS

Also this week, Scott and the Cabinet granted 30-year leases to a pair of sugar growers over the objections of environmental groups that urged the panel to approve much shorter terms for the tracts that drain into the Everglades.

By unanimous vote, the panel approved the renewal of leases for Florida Crystals and A. Duda and Sons on separate tracts totaling more than 13,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area. In exchange the companies have agreed to sell parcels that water management district officials say they need now.

Melissa Meeker, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, told Cabinet members the lease deals were critical to ongoing negotiations between the district and the companies for tracts needed for “shovel ready” projects on parcels adjacent to land the state already owns that impact the Everglades and the Caloosahatchee River.

“You are considering what I consider the critical pieces of two distinct public interest projects,” Meeker said.

But environmentalists say the length of the leases is of particular concern.

“You are the landlord and it is your right and your duty to insist that the tenant maximize their efforts to reduce the impact of the land,” said Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper. “The lease extensions preclude your ability to insist upon that accountability.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott proposes a $2,500 pay raise for full-time public school teachers, drawing qualified praise from teachers unions and complaints from some Democrats that the move was targeted at Scott’s 2014 re-election campaign.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I’m sure there are those who would consider this to be a political move. I can’t judge the governor on that but what I can say is that it is good for public education to recognize teachers in this manner.”–Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and former teacher, principal and school superintendent, on Scott’s proposal.

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.