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Infighting is turning Florida GOP into a house divided

Tampa Bay Times

Republicans in the Florida Legislature have met the enemy, and it is them.

They can’t agree on using federal money for people with no health care and as a result, budget negotiations are in disarray in a year with a $1 billion surplus. Unable to resolve their differences after months of refusing to compromise, Republican lawmakers will end the regular session next Friday without completing the one task they are required to do: passing a state budget.

The government of the nation’s third-largest state is controlled by one party, yet the standoff is Republican against Republican, in some cases involving members of the same family. House Republicans have been distracted by a leadership coup while Gov. Rick Scott is personally threatening to veto Republican senators’ bills and spending items unless they approve his tax cuts of $673 million.

“This damages our party,’’ said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon when tensions were at their peak this week. “This makes us look like we cannot govern, that we cannot work out our differences, and the talk about a big tent is cheap.”

Lee compared the bickering among Republicans to the internal dissension that hastened the demise of the once-dominant Democratic Party in Florida two decades ago.

“We’re becoming just like the people we sought to unseat in the mid ’90s,’’ said Lee, a former Senate president. He expressed his disgust as fellow Republicans push for “a seemingly endless stream of budget requests that are only loosely related to the role state government should play.”

Dealing with uninsured

The latest philosophical fight centers on the Senate’s insistence on a new program that relies on the hope of more federal Medicaid money to expand health care to more than 800,000 uninsured low-income Floridians and ease the financial strain on hospitals. The House and Gov. Scott oppose the idea.

At the root of the dispute are two sharply contrasting views of the federal government. Scott and the Florida House say the Obama administration can’t be trusted to keep the federal money flowing, and the feds are not likely to approve waivers needed to make the Senate program a reality.

Republican senators counter that Scott reversed himself on his past support for Medicaid expansion; they blame him and the House for refusing to negotiate on an alternative plan.

Both sides have dug in — exchanging offers this week that made minor concessions to each other but resulted in little progress. The Senate adjourned for the day Friday, offering to extend the session until June 30 as they await word from the federal government.

“Until we get clarity and visibility to the health care funding picture in Florida, there can be no other priorities,” Lee told reporters Friday.

Nowhere is the philosophical divide more glaring than in the Gaetz household in the Florida Panhandle, where Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, opposes Medicaid expansion.

The 32-year-old House firebrand believes that the Senate, including his own father, former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, sold out to hospitals by favoring a draw-down of federal Medicaid money.

“I think that many of my friends in the Florida Senate — members of my party — have become lapdogs of the hospital industrial complex, and we don’t share that view in the House,” said Rep. Gaetz, who hopes to succeed his father in the Senate next year.

“We’re more free-market thinking and we want people to get coverage that is meaningful coverage,” Gaetz added, “not this feel-good entitlement that ultimately drives our country further into debt, borrows deeper into the lives of our citizens and won’t make people healthier.”

“Bull,” a smiling Sen. Gaetz said of his son. “I’ve never been a champion of the hospital industry. I’ve never been in the bag for the Florida Hospital Association at all.”

The senator said he likes the Senate proposal because it requires participants to work and to contribute $3 to $25 a month to their care.

“I think that’s a private-sector answer,” the elder Gaetz said, adding in jest that “trust agreements can be changed,” a reference to his son’s status as a beneficiary of the fortune he made in the health care industry.

Years in the making

The stark divisions among Tallahassee politicians that have thrown the 2015 session into chaos have been escalating for years.

Next year will mark two decades of Republican control of the Legislature. With such overwhelming one-party dominance, perhaps it’s not surprising that Republicans would turn on each other, as Democrats did when they ran state government.

Twenty years of control have “undermined the discipline” of Republicans and caused them to lose focus, said J. M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a lobbyist and former adviser to two Republican governors.

“It took the Democrats 100 years. It only took us 20,” he said. “Make a list of the things that if you polled every Republican member of the Legislature you would get 80 percent agreement on. Would it be gay rights? Gaming?… There are not that many centrifugal effects that hold us together.”

“History does repeat itself,” said Sandy Safley, a former Republican House member from Clearwater in the 1990s who remembers Democrats bickering with each other over raising taxes, restricting abortions and regulating growth.

The current one-party breakdown is linked to a number of factors, including the influence of special interests, increasing polarization of the parties, term limits, and the fact that senators represent larger districts than House members and only face the voters every four years, observers said.

“The House members have to face primaries in much smaller districts, where [special interests] have much greater impact,” Stipanovich said. “The Senate districts are three times as big and that stuff is diluted.”

Also contributing to the divide this session has been the hands-off approach of the Republican governor. For nearly a year, Scott refused to submit a new plan for low-income hospital care and stayed out of the political fray for nearly two months.

Then, in less than a week’s time, he sent a series of mixed signals. He threatened to sue the Obama administration’s health care agency, then transmitted to that same agency the Senate plan for continued reimbursements to hospitals for charity care. He suggested he might call lawmakers back for a special session to adopt a hold-the-line budget, and senators said he strong-armed them with veto threats and complaints that their hometown hospitals are reaping windfall profits.

“A class warfare issue I’m not sure is that productive,” sniffed Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, a hospital executive.

Endless infighting

House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said Republican infighting has intensified as Rep. Richard Corcoran, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and leader of the House’s hard line position on health care, has risen in the ranks. Corcoran is designated to become House Speaker in 2016.

“I’ve had Republican members come to me and tell me they’re not happy and they are being told what to do,” he said. “I’ve spoken to enough Republicans who said if there were to be an open and free vote on the House floor, [Medicaid expansion] could pass.”

Pafford said that, in the past, Republicans have been threatened with primaries for not voting in line with leadership on health care and “there’s no reason to believe that that’s changed.”

Corcoran said that approach is counter to his philosophy of governing. “I tell everyone, learn the issues and vote your conscience.” He added: “We won’t get involved in primaries — unless it’s an incumbent, which is a longstanding policy of the Republican Party.”

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, insists House Republicans reflect the will of voters. He noted that Republicans won a net gain of six House seats in the 2014 election cycle, in part by running against Obamacare.

The deepening distrust is also apparent at the Republican Party of Florida, where the party chairman is accused of orchestrating a House leadership coup.

The party chairman, Blaise Ingoglia, is in the highly unusual position of also being a freshman lawmaker in the House, representing Spring Hill. The powerful party chairmanship comes with the power to recruit and punish candidates and spend party money to help or hurt them.

House members face voters every two years, and term limits requires the Republican caucus to choose future leaders years in advance, long before they have been tested.

Five of 18 House freshmen who had pledged to support Rep. Eric Eisnaugle of Orlando in 2020 withdrew their pledges last week, and Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, accused Ingoglia, who is close to Corcoran, of orchestrating the mini-coup.

“There’s a conflict of interest there,” Plakon said. “You are trying to unify the party on one side and then soliciting members to break their word on the other.”

Ingoglia declined to talk about the situation.

“This is an internal caucus matter and a internal discussion among freshman House members,” he said.

As the Legislature lurches toward the last week of the regular session, the low-key leaders of the two chambers, Gardiner and Crisafulli, have largely avoided the personal attacks and mean-spirited rhetoric that have fueled past session meltdowns.

The two budget chairmen at the center of the health care fight also get along despite in-party acrimony. Lee said he and Corcoran still socialize weekly the way legislators did in the old days.

“I would describe it as strictly platonic,” Lee said with a laugh, “despite the fact that we have date night every Wednesday night, and we share a bottle of wine and a cigar.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or @stevebousquet. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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