(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)
By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 4, 2011…..It was no tempest in a teapot this week when a Pensacola judge stirred the national debate about the federal health care law by ruling that it was not only unconstitutional to require people to buy insurance, but that the entire health care law violates the nation’s founding document.
U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson became the second federal judge to rule against the major portion of President Barack Obama’s health care plan, a mandate that everyone be insured. But he also took it a step further and said that problem made the whole thing invalid.
Charges of “judicial activism” that typically come from conservatives rang out from liberals across the U.S., but Vinson said that the mandate was essential to the health care law, and thus, the whole thing had to go.
“It should be emphasized that while the individual mandate was clearly “necessary and essential” to the Act as drafted, it is not “necessary and essential” to health care reform in general,” Vinson wrote. “It is undisputed that there are various other (Constitutional) ways to accomplish what Congress wanted to do.”
Reaction to the lawsuit in Florida, where it originated, was swift – and highly partisan.
Despite basing his whole campaign on the theme of getting to work, Gov. Rick Scott said this week he the state will be in no hurry to implement any aspect of the law with Vinson’s ruling.
“We are not going to spend a lot of time and money with regard to trying to get ready to implement that until we know exactly what is going to happen,” Scott said. “I hope and I believe that either it will be declared unconstitutional or it will be repealed.”
Meanwhile, Florida Democrats said Scott – and Vinson – were out of touch.
“For the governor, walking way from health insurance reform is just another ideological battle,” said Rep. Mia Jones, the ranking Democrat on the House Health & Human Services Committee. “But for many Floridians, health insurance coverage is a real life struggle.”
“For all of my colleagues on the conservative side who criticized activist judges for their lack of deference to the legislative and executive branches of government, I hope they’ll be equally as critical of this decision,” Center for American Progress Chief Operating Officer Needra Tanden, who worked on crafting the legislation, added.
Predictably, U.S. Department of Justice officials were more focused on appealing Vinson’s decision then how it was viewed politically, saying immediately this week they would appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which has jurisdiction over cases originating in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
But regardless of what happens there, the opening salvos in the legal battle over health care that were fired in Florida will ultimately likely be decided at the nation’s highest court.
SCOTT GETS TO WORK ON THE BUDGET
When he wasn’t cheering the health care ruling this week, Scott began revealing drips and drabs of his budget proposal, which is due next week. By week’s end, it was expected that Scott will be proposing a budget on a two-year cycle, though state law currently requires a budget to be drafted annually.
Scott revealed that he would reveal his budget with the people that powered his rise – tea party activists. They’re even bringing their boat, a model of the Boston Tea Party ship Dartmouth.
Scott said he would propose making the 655,000 government workers enrolled in the Florida Retirement System contribute 5 percent of their paychecks to the plan, which he said would pull an additional $1.3 billion into the state’s cash-strapped budget.
Democrats, especially those representing state worker filled districts in Tallahassee, said Scott’s plan amounted to a 5 percent “tax” on state workers – tax, of course, being a dirty word to Scott and his most ardent supporters.
But Republicans said he needs to make big proposals to cut the deficit and follow through on a tax cut promise. “He ran on cutting spending and increasing jobs,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “Pay and benefits are a big area of state spending.”
SB 6, PART DEUX
With the man who vetoed last year’s teacher merit pay bill safely back in St. Petersburg, lawmakers got right back to trying to base teacher salaries partially on student performance this week.
Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, the chairman of the Senate’s PreK-12 Education Committee, filed a proposal linking teacher pay to student test scores, while also offering more money to those who teach in high risk or high need areas and allowing school boards to put new hires on one-year contracts.
The measure is the Legislature’s first attempt in 2011 to make good on its promise to make teachers more accountable for the quality of schools. It is also may partially to revive a fight that mobilized state teachers and got former Gov. Charlie Crist to wield his veto pen like a red-pen waving grade school teacher. Still, the initial reaction was less angry this year, with the education establishment saying they’ve been asked to be more involved this time around, and they appreciate it.
Wise’s bill (SB 736) would grandfather in current teacher pay plans, but set up new, merit-based ones for teachers hired after July 1, 2014. The bill would require districts to set up evaluation systems that rate teachers as “highly effective,” “effective,” “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory.” Half of those evaluations would be based on test scores.
Under the bill, teachers would only see raises if they are deemed highly effective or effective.
Seeking to make a better grade on the merit bill from Scott, Wise also announced this week he was inviting former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to testify before his committee next week. Rhee, who gained fame, admirers and plenty of enemies in her attempt to overhaul the D.C. public schools under former Mayor Adrian Fenty, has been informally tutoring Scott on education policy.
GOODBYE TO HUNDREDS OF CRIST APPOINTEEES, BUT HELLO AGAIN TO A FEW
Gov. Scott this week gave 168 Senate-confirmable Crist appointees a signal that there is a new boss in town by withdrawing their nominations to various boards and commission. Among that number was four sitting members of the Florida Public Service Commission.
But by week’s end, he had given some a reprieve, including the four PSC Commissioners he had yanked back.
Commissioners Ronald Brisé, Eduardo Balbis, Julie Brown and Chairman Art Graham, who were all appointed to the utility regulation panel last year, were among the Crist appointees withdrawn by Scott in a letter to Senate President Mike Haridopolos. But he reappointed them all Friday.
He also made several other re-appointments, including placing Katie Patronis, wife of state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, back on the Gulf Coast Community College District Board of Trustees. Also nominated again were Jacksonville resident Leonard Curry to the Florida State Boxing Commission and Bradenton resident George Thomas to the Board of Medicine.
Scott also re-appointed Fort Lauderdale resident Torey Alston to the Board of Trustees of Florida A&M University, the state’s largest black college.
Elsewhere this week, Scott made Florida Lottery Research and Promotions Director Cynthia O’Connell secretary of the agency, and tapped former state representative and Tallahassee bureaucrat Carl Littlefield to serve as his Director of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.
STORY OF THE WEEK: U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson followed his own tea leaves and declared the federal health care challenged in his court by Florida and 25 other states unconstitutional, with a nod to the politically-influential tea party movement to boot.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place,” U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson in his ruling that Florida and 25 other states were correct in arguing that the federal health care law passed last year was unconstitutional.