State Politics

Election-year worries cooled Florida legislators’ feuding

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, left, confers with Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, during session, Friday, March 11, 2016, in Tallahassee.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, left, confers with Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, during session, Friday, March 11, 2016, in Tallahassee. AP

In the last 60 days, immigrants from Miami, Orlando and Tampa traveled overnight by bus with their children and elders and made passionate and personal appeals to lawmakers to reject a bill that would punish police for failing to arrest their family members. College professors broke their silence and decried a bill to allow guns on campus. And environmentalists joined with city officials across the state and demanded lawmakers not strip them of the ability to keep oil and gas fracking out of their communities.

When legislators adjourned their annual session Friday with back-slapping, hand-shaking unity, it provided a sharp contrast to the bitter animosity and personal feuding that dissolved last year’s session and, while they gave the most controversial and conservative bills a hearing, most of them died.

The Republican-controlled House and Senate did pass a record $82.3 billion budget and loaded it with local projects, a populist property tax break, and funding for soft subjects — like social service waiting lists, insurance coverage for people with Down Syndrome, water projects and expanded children’s healthcare.

They also delivered a sharp rebuke to Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his top priorities — $1 billion in tax cuts and $250 million in economic development incentive grants.

So what changed? It’s a presidential election year, all legislators are on the ballot and the governor is not. The most powerful influence on the Florida Legislature this year might have been people who rarely step foot in the Capitol, track a vote, or contribute to a political committee: Florida’s 12 million voters.

The unique nature of this 2016 election — everything from the potential top-of-the-ticket candidates, to the fact that everybody is going to be on the ballot — has led to a very graceful and serene session.

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami

“Elections have consequences, and elections may guide some decision-making,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who like a small number of other senators will be forced to move to a new district if she wants to seek re-election.

Flores is one of seven Republicans snagged by the redrawn Senate map and was drawn into a Democrat-dominated district also held by incumbent Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay. She is expected to move to neighboring District 39, which includes the environmentally-conscious Florida Keys.

This year, Flores’ agenda included a focus on a $5 million water infrastructure project under the “Keys Stewardship Act” and opposition to the fracking legislation. She faces Democrat Andrew Korge.

“My voting pattern hasn’t changed, just the focus on it and that’s fine,” she said.

Because the Florida Supreme Court overturned the Senate map and approved a replacement drawn by challengers, every member of the Legislature is on the ballot in 2016 — including all 40 members of the state Senate which, in other years, would face staggered four-year terms. Seven of the 26 Senate seats now held by Republicans have become districts that President Barack Obama won in 2012 and are expected to perform more competitively for Democrats.

Competing for 13 open Senate seats are at least 11 sitting House members, and more are expected to file by the June 24 filing deadline. With the 21 retirements from term limits in the House, it could lead to as many as 40 open House seats.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, incoming Senate Democratic Leader from Miami Gardens, said he expects Democrats to compete in at least nine of the open Senate districts, including the seven seven now held by Republicans, because the map, on paper, gives Democrats a 21-19 seat advantage.

Democrats in Florida traditionally perform better in presidential election years, and uncertainty about voter anger has overshadowed everything. Braynon said that if voters respond with a backlash against Donald Trump, or Republicans don’t come out to vote, that could “significantly change” the composition of the Senate “like the Tea Party wave of 2010.”

The openings for Democrats have created a desire for harmony among Republicans, said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami.

“The unique nature of this 2016 election — everything from the potential top-of-the-ticket candidates, to the fact that everybody is going to be on the ballot — has led to a very graceful and serene session,” he said. “The Senate redistricting has totally changed the dynamics with the House. We’re having so many House members go to the Senate, you might have as much as a third of the body that will be completely new.”

Against that backdrop, legislative leaders worked hard to avoid the appearance of conflict but also strategically advanced — or killed — bills with an eye on elections.

GOP candidates worried about facing primary challenges pushed conservative bills advocating for the open carry of guns, restrictions on immigrants, tighter regulation of abortions and even bills that ask Congress to declare war on Islamic terrorism, and repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act. Others focused on advancing bills important to corporate donors, such as a bill to allow fracking. In the end, the only bill sent to the governor was one that imposed tighter restrictions on abortion clinics, but opponents say they are counting on it being declared unconstitutional.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, was among the legislators who moved the Senate to the middle this session. As gun-rights advocates successfully advanced bills to allow guns on college campuses, and give concealed weapons permit holders the right to openly carry their firearms, he announced he wouldn’t schedule the bills before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chaired, effectively killing their changes. “It’s just common sense,” he said.

Meanwhile, perennial, consumer-friendly bills that for years have been blocked by special interests or ideological opposition, also were sent to the governor. Among them: expanding the state and federal child insurance program known as Kidcare to the children of legal immigrants, expanding medical marijuana to the terminally ill, and putting a solar power initiative on the ballot.

For years, Diaz and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, have been pushing a bill to put a constitutional amendment before voters to allow businesses that want to install solar technology to make their investments exempt from property and intangibles taxes. But in the face of opposition from the state’s powerful utility industry, they always failed.

This year, legislators voted unanimously to put it on the August ballot. Brandes said he believes overwhelming public support for the issue helped to push back against the industry.

“I was shocked we could do it,” he said.

Sen. René Garcia, R-Hialeah, whose district voted for Obama in 2012, said the shift has less to do with politics and more to do with how the House and Senate have been managed this session.

The Senate is traditionally more moderate than the House, he said, and under President Andy Gardiner, committee chairs “have been able to set their agendas and decide what they want to hear like never before. It’s the people’s government, and that’s how it should be.”

Last year’s session ended with the House leaving three days early without finishing the budget. This year, House and Senate leaders were determined to show they had repaired their rift.

They began the session focused on the non-controversial priorities of the presiding officers but opportunity for disagreement arrived early, when economists predicted the state would face a $400 million drop in revenues. Despite the numbers, the governor said it was still possible for them to cut $1 billion in taxes permanently and find $250 million for Enterprise Florida to hand to businesses in economic development grants.

The House and Senate disagreed. The Senate objected to using recurring revenues for tax cuts but supported his request to for economic incentives. The House proposed less than $1 billion in tax cuts but stretched them over two years and made only one third of them permanent. But Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, berated the incentive money as “corporate welfare” and refused to accept one penny of it.

The 2016 Legislative Session may well go down in the history books as the year Florida lawmakers formally declared their independence from Gov. Scott.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa

For House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, it was a sign that “what the Republicans are trying to do is recalibrate the Republican Party because polling would indicate they are on the wrong side of a lot of issues,” he said.

Corcoran disagrees, noting that economic incentive grants allow government to pick winners and losers, against the free-market principles of the party. “It’s not a change in philosophy,” he said. “It’s an adherence to a philosophy we always believed in.”

But for others, the opportunity for some Republicans to distance themselves from the governor was liberating.

Because the budget rejected the governor’s tax and economic incentive proposals, for the first time in years, every Democrat in the Legislature voted for the budget and it passed both chambers with only one no vote.

“The 2016 Legislative Session may well go down in the history books as the year Florida lawmakers formally declared their independence from Gov. Scott” and the Legislature “reclaimed its place in the checks and balances responsibilities of our democracy,” said Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa before voting for the budget.

Flores acknowledged, “The fact that some of the governor’s proposals didn’t get traction played a role in essentially unifying the chambers.”

If the governor was harboring any resentment, he didn’t show it Friday. Minutes after lawmakers ended the session, Scott arrived in the Capitol rotunda, added last year’s $433 million cut in cable and phone taxes, and this year’s $550 million in property and manufacturing tax cuts and declared they had achieved a $1 billion tax cut over two years. He declared it “a very good session.”

It was an about-face for a governor who had been running television ads touting his $1 billion tax cut pledge and telling lawmakers who met with him that his first offer was his final offer.

“Everybody comes up here with their ideas. What’s important is we’re giving money back,” Scott told reporters Friday.

Earlier in the week, legislators speculated that Scott might seek revenge by vetoing millions of dollars in budget projects and priorities, potentially provoking legislators to return for the first budget override session in decades.

“It’s my experience, the measure of a leader is the ability to show restraint not retribution,” said Sen. Tom Lee, Senate Appropriations Committee chairman said Thursday. “We did our level best to try and help him out.”

But rather than scold lawmakers, Scott announced something very election-year focused. On Monday, he will conduct a five-city “1 million, $1 billion” jobs and tax cuts victory tour.

And the governor, who has privately boasted about being a potential candidate for U.S. Senate one day, invited legislators to come along.

Mary Ellen Klas: and @MaryEllenKlas

Session’s hot topics

Some controversial bills failed to pass while others are on their way to be signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

▪ Abortion: Gov. Rick Scott says he plans to sign tougher rules for abortion clinics, including requiring them to have transfer agreements or admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. A similar Texas law is being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The legislation also would block Medicaid from paying for preventive care, cancer screenings and STD care.

▪ Amendment 1: Lawmakers accounted for more than $800 million set aside by voters to pay for land buys and conservation. The state budget sets aside $57 million for buying land, $205 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million to restore springs and $27 million toward managing state park land.

▪ Fracking: Lawmakers did not pass legislation that would have established permitting to allow for the natural gas drilling process known as “fracking.” The bill would have established a temporary ban, but opponents said it was a way to eventually allow the controversial process.

▪ Guns: The state Senate rejected controversial proposals to allow guns on college campuses and to let people carry guns openly. Although the House passed both bills, the Senate’s judiciary chairman, Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, did not give either a hearing.

▪ Open enrollment: Students will be allowed to enroll in any school in the state, as long as there’s capacity. It’s an expansion of school choice laws passed in the final hours of the legislative session.

▪ Tax cuts: The back-to-school sales tax holiday will be just three days this year. Other sales-tax holidays, including Small Business Saturday won’t happen this year.

Michael Auslen

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