(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)
By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 15, 2010……….It was a week of resounding “Nos” in Tallahassee as utility regulators pulled the plug on big rate increases for the state’s largest power companies and lawmakers raised the stakes in a showdown with Gov. Charlie Crist over gambling by rejecting his proposal.
After months of flying sparks as Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Florida requested separate $1.25 billion and $499 million rate increases, the Public Service Commission dimmed the lights, lowering both companies’ profit margins for 2010.
Later in the week a panel of lawmakers unanimously called Crist’s bluff on a compact negotiated by the governor and the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would allow the tribe to offer certain card games and give the state a cut of the proceeds.
The power companies had argued that denying rate increases would reduce their ability to effectively provide service in Florida, as well as lower the wattage on their credit ratings on Wall Street.
And Crist has been betting on the gaming compact since he first negotiated a deal with the tribe in 2007. But neither argument was enough to sway the deciders in the capital this week, as the PSC burnished a new-found populist streak and lawmakers met briefly, barely debating Crist’s top priority before they folded on the proposal.
The PSC’s decisions on the electric cases touched off a power struggle as Crist quickly claimed credit for new more pro-consumer appointments to the PSC, and FPL countered that it would suspend capital projects and threatened layoffs. Months after effectively firing two veteran members of the PSC amid allegations the panel was too close to utilities, Crist said it was “fairly obvious” his picks for the panel changed the regulatory climate in Florida.
Even as the PSC was still voting, FPL president Armando Olivera told reporters the company would suspend projects such as a new nuclear generator, saying the company would have provided 20,000 jobs to the unemployment-racked state if the rate increase had been approved. Olivera, who said “politics trumped economics” in the decision, even said the company might lay off current employees.
But despite unemployment reaching levels unseen since the 1970s as he enters his final year in office, Crist didn’t flinch.
“Obviously it’s a win for the consumer,” Crist told reporters. “We certainly don’t hope for (layoffs) and I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I think that what happened is the Public Service Commission is an independent body that has a duty to perform and I think they did exactly that.”
Wall Street got in the act too, with a pair of credit ratings companies issuing warnings that FPL stock might be downgraded in the wake of the vote. Consumer groups took a vastly different view, with AARP Florida, which bused members into Tallahassee for the PSC’s proceedings this week, saying the panel had to look out for more than the power companies’ bottom lines.
There was similar disagreement about the meaning of the Legislature’s rebuff of Crist’s gaming compact, the second time a separate branch of government has checked and balanced the governor’s plan. The Supreme Court invalidated that original compact and said the Legislature must approve any financial deal with the Seminoles. And then, despite spending months working on a replacement that would be suitable to lawmakers, the governor-who-would-like-to-be-senator was shot down again.
Crist said he was disappointed, but remained characteristically sunny, saying there was more time for a deal to be in the cards. But Rep. Bill Galvano, the chairman of the Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review, said after the panel’s 17-0 vote against the plan that “I think it’s a very strong message, very strong message.”
The major difference between the Crist deal and the legislative parameters is that the governor’s compact would expand the availability of banked card games like blackjack to all seven Seminole casinos in the state, while the Legislature originally only wanted to extend that offer to casinos in Broward and Hillsborough counties.
But the panel did not say no to all gaming this week. In a separate action, the committee approved a deal for pari-mutuel facilities, the main competitors of the Seminole casinos. The bill contains sweeteners for the pari-mutuels like tracks and jai alai frontons, which say they have been hurt by the tribal gaming facilities. As of July 1, 2010, the pari-mutuels would be allowed to offer no limit poker in card rooms and extend card room operations from 12 hours per day to 18 hours per day Monday through Friday, and run for 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday.
Also, the annual slot machine license fee would be gradually reduced from $3 million to $2 million, providing a lonely yes in this week’s sea of nos.
HAITI HELP ON THE WAY
The earthquake that ravaged Haiti this week hit close to home for Florida, and the state wasted little time responding. Gov. Crist stopped at Miami-Dade County’s Emergency Operations Center and House Democrats with Haitian ties called for Floridians to unite behind relief efforts large and small.
With airports in Haiti considered too badly damaged to receive much traffic, no moves were made to immediately deploy the Florida National Guard. But with a large Haitian population in South Florida, the stories of devastation unfolding on television this week struck a cord with official Tallahassee.
“We are calling on everyone to consider Haiti at this moment,” said Rep. Ronald Brise, D-North Miami, a native of Port-au-Prince who said he spent much of Tuesday evening after the quake on the phone with relatives in Haiti.
Brise said three relatives living near Petionville – in the mountains where the massive quake was epicentered – were unaccounted for in the hours after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Brise is among three House Democrats born in Haiti. Another, Rep. Yolly Roberson, D-Miami, accompanied Crist on his flight to Miami.
The third, Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach, said the state’s two search-and-rescue teams were standing by to head toward Haiti when conditions there become more stabilized, while an EOC warehouse in Orlando was positioning water, meals and other supplies for the island nation.
Officials in Florida were also closely watching the situation because of the potential for Haitian refugees to flood into South Florida, the most likely American entry point for anyone fleeing the devastation.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush was back in the Capital this week, talking up an education report calling for sweeping reforms that include doubling the funding for the higher education system and raising the standards for the popular Bright Futures scholarship program. The report, released by the Florida Council of 100 and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, contained several wide ranging recommendations to improve the state’s educational system from voluntary pre-kindergarten to the university system.
At the PreK-12 level, the groups pushed for heightened graduation standards, the virtual elimination of teacher tenure and a constitutional amendment legalizing vouchers, all policy initiatives which formed the core of Bush’s two terms as governor and remain promoted through his Foundation for Excellence in Education.
The event provided a look at the difference in style between the former governor, who even critics acknowledged mastered topics before him during his eight years in office, and his Sunshine successor, who even admirers admit is more a man of the people than a man of policy details. Bush was his usual wonky self, while Crist balked when pressed on whether he endorsed the entire report and all its suggestions.
Instead, Crist said he endorsed the general themes the Council of 100 and Florida Chamber advanced.
“I’m supporting the consensus of what this report embodies, moving Florida forward, continuing to improve education, making sure that we continue to stress accountability,” Crist said.
Elsewhere, the Department of Education raced amid continued union operation this week to ready its application for the federal Race to the Top program, a $4.35 billion federal grant for which states must compete. Crist finalized the department’s application on Friday.
Also this week, Democrats finally landed a candidate in the race to replace Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is the party’s favored nominee to replace Gov. Crist. Former Tallahassee Rep. Loranne Ausley left her race for a Tallahassee state senate seat and jumped into the Cabinet race, drawing support from the party’s political establishment for a bid to beat likely Republican contender Jeff Atwater, the Senate president, or dark horse GOP candidate Pat Patterson.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The word of the week was no as state utility regulators essentially rejected a pair of record rate increases from the state’s largest power companies and a panel of lawmakers just said no to Gov. Charlie Crist’s proposed Seminole Gaming Compact. Also, the state raced to help a nearby island nation recover from an earthquake that hit close to home, especially for South Florida’s large Haitian-American population.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Haiti is our 68th county. We must not forget them in their greatest hour of need,” Rep. Maria Sachs, a Democrat whose Delray Beach-area district includes Palm Beach County’s largest Haitian immigrant population.