Lawmakers in Legislature scramble as session nears an end
By Aaron Deslatte Tallahassee Bureau
April 26, 2010
TALLAHASSEE – Florida lawmakers are set to close a 60-day session dominated by election-year rancor, symbolic appeals to anti- Barack Obama voters, and a civil war that has pitted Republicans against their own governor.
With five more days until the curtain falls on the 2010 legislative session, ruling Republicans are scrambling to the finish line amid growing indications that, while they’re likely to leave on time Friday, they’re not going to have many public-policy accomplishments to cite.
A bare-bones $68 billion budget will, at best, maintain the state’s status quo for another year — pumped full of stimulus cash, tax credits for companies and the hope for $880 million more from Congress to help fatten reserves for next year.
One of the key issues, efforts to come to grips with exploding costs in the state’s $19 billion Medicaid program by moving more of its 2.7 million patients into managed-care, are mired in closed-door budget talks — but will likely wind up happening, either this year or next.
“It’s an issue that is dramatically affecting our state, and one we are struggling to be able to afford,” said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
But no influence has been bigger this session than the political fissure that has erupted between Gov. Charlie Crist and his fellow Republican legislators.
The intrigue over the governor has derailed some of the Legislature’s top priorities. Crist already has vetoed two bills pushed by House and Senate leaders — one that would have abolished teacher tenure and another to re-create “leadership funds” for lawmakers to accept enormous amounts of cash from companies and interest-groups.
“His aspirations for the U.S. Senate are controlling the agenda,” said Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican. “The only thing that changed in two weeks was Charlie Crist and the political winds.”
That relationship is so poisoned that lawmakers want to deny him any more populist fodder that could be appealing to voters on the campaign trail.
To that end, lawmakers elected to drop a controversial property-insurance bill being pushed in both chambers that would have allowed insurers to raise rates, a deregulatory effort similar to one the governor vetoed last year. Other issues Crist might want to nix — such as Medicaid reform — are likely to get embedded into the state budget this week, making it harder for the governor to get at them.
“We’ve never had strained relationships between the governor and Legislature to this degree,” said Ken Plante, a lobbyist and former Orlando state senator.
Crist has tried to cast his tougher tone with the Legislature in a populist light.
“When there’s a time to exercise the authority and the trust people put in you, you need to do it. And I’m going to keep doing it,” Crist said.
So far this session, lawmakers have passed a class-size rewrite headed to voters this fall, along with tougher graduation requirements for future high-schoolers and an expansion of taxpayer-subsidized school vouchers.
A host of bills remains in the hopper for the frantic last days — cracking down on street-racers, banning texting while driving and imposing uniform rules for red-light cameras, among many others.
And by pushing everything from a constitutional amendment asking voters if they seek a balanced federal budget to measures opposing health-care reform and asserting “states’ rights,” GOP lawmakers have tried to tap into the Tea Party-inspired voter angst directed at President Obama’s health-care reforms and federal stimulus bailout.
“The last week is going to be the devil,” said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach.
House GOP leaders spent hours last week on the floor pushing sternly worded but legally meaningless “memorials,” condemning the Obama administration for prosecuting terrorists in civilian courts, blasting the EPA for its water-quality standards and denouncing the president’s cap-and-trade push.
Perennial hot-button social conservative topics, from when a minor must notify her parents before getting an abortion to when students can pray in schools, are likely to draw more debate.
So are gestures aimed at the GOP’s small-government roots, either by cutting state-employee pay and benefits or reorganizing state agencies.
“This is a movement that has shown it’s going to turn people out to vote,” said Rick Wilson, a political consultant for candidates including Senate President Jeff Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican running for chief financial officer.
“The true faith of fiscal conservatism is making a comeback, and it is having an influence on the Legislature this year.”
But Democrats call the maneuvering demagoguery designed to pander to voters by lambasting a president whose popularity has plummeted.
“It’s a session where we have ignored the voice of the people,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat who represents some of the poorest neighborhoods in Orange County.
Aaron Deslatte can be reached at 850-222-5564, or at email@example.com.