State Politics

FLORIDA LEGISLATURE: Lots of politics, a little policy

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida legislators hit the halfway mark in their 60-day session, they are following a simple election-year recipe: sprinkle in a little policy, then pour on plenty of politics.

For Republicans, it’s been a triumphant four weeks: They’ve spared businesses from massive hikes in unemployment taxes and are poised to pass at least $80 million in business tax breaks. On party-line votes, they’ve passed resolutions crusading against health care reform and growing deficits in Washington.

They’ve moved to limit class-size mandates, and, in the Senate — where right wing ideas usually to go to die — they passed three bread-and-butter conservative issues: new limits on lawsuits, more protections for gun owners and a union-busting plan to end teacher tenure.

For Democrats, it’s been four weeks of crushing defeats that ended with many of their “good government” and consumer bills either dead or dying.

“Tallahassee fiddles while Florida burns,” lamented Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.

Bills the Republican leadership have refused to consider include anti-corruption measures that would: make it easier to prosecute public officials for taking bribes, increase criminal penalties for public officials who fail to disclose financial information and ban legislators from voting on bills that result in personal gain.

Democrats also can’t get hearings on measures that attempt to win federal dollars to pay for children’s health insurance and unemployment, make the budget process more accessible to the public and increase public access to government records.

“The biggest problem we have in this state, after the economy, is the collapse of confidence that people have in the political system,” said Fitzgerald, who along with Sen. Dan Gelber has a proposed constitutional amendment to open up the legislative budget process to more scrutiny.

Democratic bills to address those issues cost nothing but still “have never seen the light of day,” he said.

Republican leaders won’t say why. Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, is chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee and said it’s too early to rule out bills that increase penalties for public corruption. They just don’t have much of a chance.

“I haven’t made any decisions,” he said Friday. “I have concerns about criminalizing public service.”

Even “good government” bills by Republican sponsors are having trouble. A high-priority bill for the First Amendment Foundation that would streamline access to public records and make it less expensive for the public to obtain documents is moving in the Senate after Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, modified it to address concerns of local government. But it never got a hearing in the House.

“We just ran out of time,” said Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, chairman of the Government Affairs Policy Committee that controlled the bill.

Rep. Clay Ford, R-Gulf Breeze, the House sponsor, said he was told it was “dead on arrival.” He hopes the Senate bill will get a better reception.

In addition to sending the House a bill to end teacher tenure, the Senate last week passed a controversial measure to revive party leadership funds, fundraising accounts for lawmakers that are largely unregulated, and voted out a constitutional amendment to provide more flexibility on class-size mandates.

The Senate also approved a compromises with trial lawyers and business groups that will shield businesses from lawsuits in slip-and-fall cases and limit the amount the state can spend when it hires outside lawyers to handle cases in civil courts.

What has changed since last year when none of these issues could have passed?

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, the Merritt Island Republican and incoming Senate president calls it a simple “battle of ideas.”

But two moderate Republican senators — Ken Pruitt, of Port St. Lucie, who retired early, and Jim King, of Jacksonville, who died — have been replaced by more conservative members: Joe Negron, of Stuart, and John Thrasher, of St. Augustine. Thrasher also is head of the Republican Party of Florida.

Republican Sens. Jeff Atwater and Paula Dockery, and Democratic Sens. Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber all are running for open seats in the governor’s office and Cabinet. Several members of the House and Senate are running for Congress. Gov. Charlie Crist is a lame duck with limited political capital left, even in the Republican-controlled chamber. And a new Senate leadership that includes Thrasher is trying to reshape the Senate in a more conservative mold.

“The political agenda has really overwhelmed in a way that should concern Floridians,” complained Gelber, a Miami Democrat who is running for attorney general. “Some of these bills are purported to be policy when they are, in fact, politics.”

But Gelber and others are taking the opportunity to turn the ideologically-driven floor debates into his own campaign speeches. Gelber proposed an amendment that would force Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican running for governor, to withdraw from a lawsuit he launched against the federal government’s health care reform plan.

Gelber called the tactics “ideological escapades” and a “political frolic to get headlines”

Thrasher’s reaction? He called Gelber’s performance on the Senate floor “his political frolic.”