As Florida lawmakers open their annual legislative session Tuesday and the governor gives his fourth state-of-the-state address, overshadowing everything for the Republican-controlled Legislature is one overriding goal: the reelection of Gov. Rick Scott.
Woefully behind in the polls but ahead in campaign cash, the governor faces the greatest uphill climb of any incumbent governor since Republican Bob Martinez ran for a second term in 1990 and lost when Democrat Lawton Chiles emerged from retirement.
To help Scott’s chances, lawmakers are expected to grant the governor his modest list of priorities, including a $500 million tax cut, another freeze on university tuition, and a reduction on taxes on business leases. With that, they hope to end the session in harmony, and draw a contrast to how government will operate if Scott is replaced by the presumptive Democratic contender, Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor who has returned to run as a Democrat.
“The governor needs to succeed on all of his stated priorities — all of which he will because they are popular and limited,” said John M. “Mac” Stipanovich, who served as chief of staff and campaign manager to Martinez.
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Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, slated to become Senate president next year, said the Legislature is unified: “We want this governor to be successful. It’s important for Florida and important for the state.”
But legislators are also hedging their bets. Faced with the prospect that a Democrat could be sitting in the governor’s office next year, they are moving ahead on a host of issues designed to appeal to their political base and special-interest groups, including several issues that any other year would normally get weak support. Among them:
• A pension-reform proposal championed by House Speaker Will Weatherford with the support of the conservative Americans For Prosperity, which failed in the Senate last year, is resisted by the governor’s staff as too controversial, but has been watered down to exclude law enforcement and firefighters.
• A plan to expand the state’s “opportunity scholarship” voucher program to give businesses a sales-tax credit in return for sponsoring a student in private school.
• Bills to shield businesses, doctors and nursing homes from punitive damages in legal cases.
• Bills removing local control over water protection and growth management laws for large developments.
• And a bill to tighten the state’s abortion laws, which will get its first hearing in the Senate on Wednesday.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the governor’s election is going to play into about every major decision we make here this year — but it will be that strange dichotomy where you’re talking about wanting to protect the leader of the Republican Party of Florida and knowing that his time is limited,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.
Clemens said he expects the governor doesn’t want to have to deal with two bills — pension reform and vouchers — but Republicans are pushing them “because they know Rick Scott will not be here next year and I imagine that’s a consistent source of annoyance for him.”
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he expected the governor “to get re-elected” but concedes the Republican-led Legislature is moving a host of Republican initiatives while it can.
“I think the governor will get re-elected. I like trend lines the way they are,” he said. “But it’s natural. If Democrats were in a majority, they would want to move bills before they lost their majority. Read: Obamacare.”
In the House, where Weatherford has aspirations for statewide office, there is also a move to push the governor on a host of moderate issues he has been reluctant to address in the past, from immigration to medical marijuana.
Scott vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed children of illegal immigrants to get temporary Florida driver’s licenses, saying he disagreed with the federal policy on which it was based.
The measure, informally known to supporters as the “Dream Act Driver License” law, passed the Legislature by a nearly unanimous vote. It would have followed the federal policy enacted by President Barack Obama in 2012 suspending any action against children illegally brought into the U.S. for two years.
This year, Weatherford has made it a top priority to push a bill that would allow children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, even though he and other members of the House refrained from backing similar legislation in previous years.
In a op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times, Weatherford said Florida leaders have a moral obligation to make education available for all children because “we don’t punish children for mistakes made by their parents.”
Recent polls have shown that immigration is one of several hot-button issues in which Republicans are on the wrong side of a majority of Florida voters. Other issues that have majority support from voters are gay marriage, decriminalization of medical marijuana and even the expansion of Medicaid to cover more uninsured Floridians.
But most observers don’t expect those issues to go far this session.
“It’s unwise for the governor who is going to savage Charlie Crist as a flip-flopper to be changing many positions,” said Stipanovich, the GOP political consultant.
Democrats also expect that if the GOP lawmakers are divided on issues, they’ll find a way to resolve them behind the scenes.
“Republicans are looking for a smooth session,” said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville. “I believe they want to be able to walk out and say that we had kumbaya going downstream through this entire process.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas