(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)
By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 11, 2011…….Gov. Rick Scott rolled out his first budget proposal this week in Eustis with the tea partiers that brewed up his election. While that was sweet for the governor, when the tea budget got to Tallahassee the reception was iced, and bitter.
Republican legislators said they’d give it a look, but many were openly skeptical and more of them privately perplexed about how this two-year plan would work. It was reminiscent of Gov. Charlie Crist’s last budget, which was roundly dismissed by the Republican Legislature, though Crist was on his way out of the GOP, and Scott just arrived at the party.
But when Scott rolled out his $65.9 billion proposed budget, he turned to the tea party that propelled him into office, not the official party he is a member of, which largely supported his primary opponent.
“This is the budget you asked for,” Scott said to applause in Eustis.
The cheers did not come back with him to Tallahassee, where House education, transportation, and health care panels grilled Scott’s budget office staff – and sometimes chastised them – on the governor’s plans for cutting the budget, moving money around, consolidating agencies, and shifting the burden for some services to local governments.
“Do you realize that at the local level there’s not going to be any funds for some of the services you say need to be funded at the local level?” Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, asked an administration official. “We need to be honest with ourselves and the local community.”
Particularly troublesome to some lawmakers was a $298-per-student cut – and that’s if expected pension savings are put back into education – that Scott budget officials attributed to the loss of federal stimulus dollars. If pension savings aren’t realized, or the local governments haven’t saved wisely some of their own federal money, some counties could see a much bigger reduction. The governor’s office says it isn’t proposing to cut education spending, it’s simply not in favor of replacing federal money the state shouldn’t have relied on in the first place. For parents, the result would be the same. Rarely has cutting education been popular with voters.
The proposed cut is “pretty steep,” said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna and chairwoman of the House Prek-12 Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “So we will consider his proposals and we will make our own proposals as well.”
That was a familiar refrain as Scott’s proposal worked the halls of the Capitol building this week.
“How flexible is the governor on this?” Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who campaigned for Scott last fall as Florida Republican Party chairman, asked Scott’s budget director Jerry McDaniel.
“You’re doing away with 619 jobs to save $2.8 million-a-year. Are we benefiting from that?,” Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, asked of Scott’s plan to cut the Corrections Department by $82.4 million. Doing so would eliminate 1,690 jobs and close two prisons, which Scott says would offset an 8,000-bed surplus throughout Florida’s prison system.
Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, chairman of the House Transportation & Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee, was one of the few lawmakers to not immediately dismiss Scott’s budget as unworkable.
“By investing additional dollars in economic development, by preserving the transportation trust fund, I think (that) shows that he’s got an interest in job creation,” said Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, chairman of the House Transportation & Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
Horner was probably happy that overall transportation spending would drop from just under $10 billion this year to $9.3 billion next year and then just under $8.8 billion the next year, a far less steep cut than Scott suggested for other areas of the state budget. He also preserved most of the transportation trust fund, a fate far unlike 124 other trust funds that will be raided or eliminated under Scott’s proposal to the tune of $8.5 billion.
And it wasn’t just in the Legislature where Scott’s “supporters” weren’t fully supportive.
Among those upset with Scott’s proposal to have existing government employees put more of their paycheck into a retirement account was Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, a Republican who had been on Scott’s law enforcement transition team. He said he had gotten the impression from Scott that a much smaller contribution would be proposed by the governor.
“To make existing employees contribute, what is it 5 percent? I think that’s a little harsh,” Coats told the St. Petersburg Times. “I think it will have a potentially adverse impact on our recruiting activities and retention, and I think it will have an impact on morale.”
SAME PARTY, DIFFERENT PAGE
The budget differences were the first hint that that the establishment’s embrace of Scott after he defeated GOP primary rival – and establishment candidate – Bill McCollum may run into some rough spots. But it wasn’t the only difference this week.
The new governor and the ambitious Senate president were singing a different tune on when Florida should hold its 2012 presidential primaries.
Despite calls from leaders of the Republican Party of Florida and Florida Democratic Party to hold the primary within parameters approved last year by the national political parties, Senate President Mike Haridopolos said this week that he’d like the primary to remain early – before there’s a clear front runner – so that more presidential candidates will court Florida voters during the campaign.
But Scott, who would likely not be governor if he had taken the advice of Haridopolos and the rest of the GOP establishment last summer, countered that it wasn’t worth risking Florida’s delegate strength at the Republican nomination convention.
“I want to have it as early as we can, but I don’t want to lose any of the delegates,” Scott said.
Haridopolos had a different take on the possibility that Florida could lose some delegates, – which is what happened in 2008 when both parties stripped the state of some delegates at the nominating convention because of the early primary.
That could be even more embarrassing to Republicans this time around because they’re hosting the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
“That’s, I guess, a risk we take,” said Haridopolos.
Two Democrats were not particularly interested in taking that risk this week, however, and they filed legislation to avoid it. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, filed bills (SB 860, HB 695) that call for the primary to be held on the first Tuesday in March, which would result in a March 6 primary in Florida.
Teacher-firing former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a hero of the conservative education reform community, brought her talents to Tallahassee this week. And while she was here, she received a reception from lawmakers usually reserved for the likes of Dan Marino or Tim Tebow.
No footballs were thrown in the halls of the Capitol, as has sometimes been the case when athletes are in town, but lawmakers hung on Rhee’s every word as she talked of reforms that have made her simultaneously beloved and hated by education watchers around the nation. One committee even delayed its meeting for an hour so it could wait for Rhee, a Democrat, to finish addressing another one.
Rhee pressed Florida lawmakers to abolish tenure and fire ineffective teachers as she did in D.C. in the state’s quest to overhaul its education system. Little mentioned was the political consequences that appeared to follow those moves, when D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was denied re-election in a campaign that turned in part on Rhee’s decisions. Democratic-leaning D.C. could never be confused with Florida, where Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, so Rhee’s proposals here were mostly met with fawning.
The Senate did pass a merit teacher pay bill through its first committee, though a key element is missing – exactly how teachers would be evaluated.
“We just have the skeleton and not the bones and meat on it,” Senate Prek-12 Education Committee Chairman Steve Wise said of the bill, which is a sequel of sorts to the bill that ran into enormous opposition from teachers last spring and was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist.
For her part, Rhee was not as impressed with the current education system in Florida as lawmakers here were with her.
“No. 5 in this nation? This nation is not where we need to be in the global marketplace,” Rhee said of the state’s recent No. 5 ranking in Education Week.
Elsewhere, Gov. Scott toured several state agencies and sought to assure workers who he has sharply criticized – and whose positions have been squeezed by his budget – that he really liked them. On one, a visit to the Department of Environmental Protection, Scott pledged not to close any state parks.
Additionally, months after promising to give the Florida Legislature hell for not approving a proposed constitutional oil drilling ban last summer, former Gov. Charlie Crist was in Tallahassee to announce how he is going to do it. Crist and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink announced they would co-chair the Save Our Florida Beaches campaign that was launched in October by the Florida Wildlife Federation, Progress Florida and the Sea Turtle Conservancy. The move is aimed at getting a ban on new drilling.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott rolled out his budget before his staunchest tea party supporters in Eustis, with a model of the Boston Tea Party ship Dartmouth on hand. But by week’s end, the budget proposal was clearly taking on water.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “This is basically a visionary budget. You envision these reductions occurring,” Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, making clear she did not see what Scott saw in the numbers.