The week that was in Florida politics: Speechless on gun violence, but talk of electoral changes

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Policymakers react, and often over-react, to the most recent incomprehensible tragedy all the time.

In fact, it seems that much of what legislators do is respond to the parade of terrible things that scroll across our TV screens, from terrorist attacks to children abused to death to anecdotes about the latest dangerous drug.

Often, people wish they’d study a little longer, look a little more thoughtfully, rather than react sharply to what may be an isolated incident. But sometimes there’s an incident so unspeakably terrible, or so frightening because of its randomness – the idea that there, but for the grace of God, go we all, that it seems ludicrous to study whether reacting is needed.

The school shooting last week in Connecticut was one of those, where doing nothing – even if people can’t agree on what to do – just seems so inadequate.

But when policy makers start asking what should be done ,they’re back at square one, with the realization that even in their shared grief and disbelief, people don’t all agree on where to even start to address the most recent horror.

Many times when there’s a tragedy, there’s an immediate retrenchment to often-heard, now clichéd positions.

This time was a bit different. Among those elected to think about public policy there was mostly stunned silence this week, a weariness delaying the usual bitterness that comes when emotionally charged issues must be debated.

While 20 kids and 6 adults in Newtown, Conn., were on the minds of everyone this week, hardly anyone seemed able to start talking much about how to keep it from happening again.

Too soon, many said. Just don’t know the answer, others said.

Few who fear or loathe restrictions on guns were willing to talk much at all. After initially saying the problem is that there aren’t enough guns in schools, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said, when sought out for follow-up interviews, that he didn’t really want to talk about the too-emotional issue anymore.

Gov. Rick Scott also declined to get pulled into debating the answer to what must be done – saying that can come later after a proper period of mourning. Even when national TV host Soledad O’Brien expressed frustration – saying she hopes the next school shooting doesn’t happen before the governor and others are willing to do something – Scott said he wasn’t ready to pronounce what the answer is.

“There will be plenty of time,” Scott said. “I support the Second Amendment, I believe in the Second Amendment,” Scott said. “What I want to focus on right now is the families, and to make sure our schools are safe.”

In Florida, guns are pretty common – we learned that there are a million concealed carry permit holders in the state as of this past week. And policy makers already talk quite a bit about the role of guns in our lives, in part because it’s a state with a lot of gun violence. We’ve just come off several months of examining the “stand your ground law,” after the death of just one kid who was unlucky, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But this week there wasn’t much. No one filed gun control legislation. No one filed legislation to strengthen gun owners’ rights.

There was also little talk about mental health.

There was a mention of school security by Gov. Scott, who asked school districts to review their safety and security plans. And late this week, Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, suggested there should be a police officer in every school.

But mostly, the nation’s biggest ongoing topic of discussion this week seemed so unbelievable that it apparently was hard to know how to react.

A  round-up via the News Service of Florida.

ELECTION CORRECTION

And so this week, the biggest story in Florida was about something that happened back in November.

While Scott this week was unwilling to begin the conversation deeply on school safety, or gun safety, he did make news mid-week when he seemed to implicitly acknowledge that Republicans may have made an error when they reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to 8.

Scott, who signed legislation in 2011 which did exactly that, said on CNN this week that he’s determined that the number of early voting days must be closely looked at “to see if we need to add” more early voting days. He didn’t commit to that, but clearly was acknowledging what critics have said, that it may be that if more people had voted early, fewer of them would have been there to get stuck in long lines on Election Day.

In raising the possibility that the state could return to more early voting, Scott could be seen as laying the groundwork to help his Democratic opponent – more in a bit on that – because Democrats have claimed that their voters are most hurt by reduced early voting. It could also be moot – since Republican lawmakers reduced early voting and Democrats won the presidential race in Florida anyway.

Scott also raised another very intriguing idea – that while obvious in some ways is also surprising when looked at through a political lens. Scott said what common sense has long said: that long, difficult to understand ballot questions are a bad idea. That’s likely a big part of what slowed things down on Election Day, Scott said this week, and maybe the ballot length should be looked at.

The political irony, of course, is that it’s his fellow Republicans in the Legislature who put those long constitutional amendment proposals onto the ballot. And they aren’t hamstrung by some of the limits that citizen movements are in putting proposals on the ballot.

Scott also mentioned a third idea, giving local supervisors of election more flexibility on setting up polling places.

Meanwhile, a Miami-Dade grand jury this week also recommended more early voting as part of its look at elections.

CHARLIE CRIST, SUPERSTAR

The other news this week in state political circles also jumped out of the past. Charlie Crist is back in a big way, according to a poll released this week by Quinnipiac University. Crist, a former Republican governor, recently switched from independent to Democrat – further stoking the speculation that he’s planning to run against Scott in 2014. This week’s poll might encourage him.

The poll found that a lot of Florida voters still think that Scott isn’t doing a very good job – despite months and months of job growth and the lowest unemployment rate people have seen since, well, the Crist administration. Turns out, a lot of people think the national economic improvement is carrying Florida along.

“Obviously, the governor has almost two years to go until the election and anything is possible, but he faces a herculean task in changing public opinion to his favor,” said Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown.

And the news was even better for Crist, who was governor as a Republican from 2007 to 2011, because it found he has a 47 percent favorable rating and just a 33 percent unfavorable mark among all voters. His favorability among Democrats is 65 percent and among independents is 48 percent, but only 28 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Crist, compared to 56 percent who have an unfavorable view. The other most likely Democratic candidate, Alex Sink, who narrowly lost to Scott in 2010, overall is viewed favorably by just 27 percent of voters and unfavorably by 14 percent, but 57 percent of respondents didn’t have an opinion.

A PASSING OF NOTE: Doyle Conner, who was the state’s agriculture commissioner for an incredible 30 years, from 1961 to 1991, died last weekend. Conner, who was 83, also served a term as speaker of the Florida House at the age of 28, and remains the youngest to hold that post in the state’s history.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott raises the possibility of reversing course on election law changes made just a couple years ago, suggesting that early voting may need to be expanded again after he signed a law reducing it, and raising the idea of shortening the ballot.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “People are frustrated in our state. We’ve got to restore confidence in our elections.” Gov. Rick Scott on why he thinks a new look at early voting and other elections procedures are needed.

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.