(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)
By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 18, 2011……….Gov. Rick Scott found out this week that there is this pesky little thing called the Florida Legislature as lawmakers pushed back on a couple of his decisions for the first time.
Whatever leftover warm-and-fuzziness there was with lawmakers from Scott’s inauguration came to a screeching halt at least as sudden as the one he put on a proposed Tampa-to-Orlando high speed rail by rejecting 2.4 billion federal dollars to build it.
If that wasn’t enough transport angst, the Senate chief budget writer brought some turbulence to Scott’s much-ballyhooed sale of the state aircraft fleet by saying that the get to work governor may have violated state law and even the constitution by selling off the planes.
If they ever had been honeymooners, several lawmakers skipped the muttering of “one of these days… one of these days,” this week. A veto-proof number of them got right to work themselves trying to detour around Scott to take the train money anyway.
Led by rail supporter Sen. Paula Dockery, a bipartisan group of 26 Florida senators sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggesting the Passenger Rail Commission and Rail Enterprise could accept the cash.
Also picking up steam by the end of the week was the possibility that cities and counties or transportation planning organizations in central Florida could bypass the state and directly accept the cash.
Dockery so vocally supported Scott’s campaign that she was rumored to be under consideration to be his lieutenant governor or transportation secretary. But by week’s end, she was the conductor of the anti-Scott train.
“I’m hearing from central Florida that the mayors are getting together talking about what they can do, I’m hearing that the (metropolitan planning organizations) are talking about what they can, I’m hearing that Chambers of Commerce in Miami and other places are talking about what they can do…so there’s a lot of efforts going on,” she told reporters as she collected signatures for her letter to LaHood.
Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich indicated this week that her 11-member caucus would be willing to participate in any legislative effort to create an end-run around Scott on rail, and indeed all of them signed onto to Dockery’s letter.
The public backlash is not to suggest that there was not also quiet muttering about Scott’s decision this week. Most of it wasn’t fit to print.
“At least today I’m not using four letter words,” said Rich Templin, vice-president of one of the state’s largest labor unions, the AFL-CIO, said the day after Scott’s decision. “This is a tragedy, a disaster of unmitigated proportions.”
One of the capital’s newspaper bureaus quoted an unnamed source in the Legislature asking if Scott was “****ing crazy.”
There were some cheers for Scott’s decision coming from the fourth floor of the Capitol, though it took three days before even a peep was heard from Senate President Mike Haridopolos. When the aspiring U.S. Senate candidate finally decided to speak, he was definitely not saying “all aboard.”
“The federal government has earmarked $2.4 billion to finance part of the cost of construction of the proposed Florida high-speed rail project,” Haridopolos said in a statement. “But to do so, Washington would borrow 100 percent of that money, which would be financed in large part by foreign, non-democratic governments.”
Haridopolos quickly steered the conversation toward President Barack Obama however, making clear that high speed rail may be the new stimulus – a dirty word to conservatives – in Florida politics.
There were no physical hugs involved this time around, but Scott did quickly embrace the support he got from Haridopolos.
“President Haridopolos recognizes that cost overruns from the project could put Florida taxpayers on the hook, ridership and revenue projections are historically overly-optimistic, and if the project becomes too costly for taxpayers and is shut down, the state would have to return the $2.4 billion in federal funds to D.C,” Scott said.
WOULD MILLION AIR RETURN TO ITS GATE?
The skies weren’t friendly either for Gov. Scott this week as the chief budget writer in the state Senate said the governor should have checked with lawmakers before he took off with his plan to sell two state airplanes.
Scott’s sale of the state’s planes may have violated Florida law, Sen. JD Alexander wrote in a letter to the governor. It would have been a striking accusation anyway, but the fact that it was coming from a senator who has himself clamored for the planes to be sold for years made it all the more surprising.
But there can only be one pilot of state finances, Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said, and the Legislature should be in the cockpit.
“I support your goal, but not the method,” Alexander wrote. “It is important that the proper procedures for accomplishing a goal we both support be followed.”
“It is my position that you should have sought the approval of the Legislature before undertaking the sale of the state planes and using the proceeds of the sale of Plane One to satisfy the lease obligation of Plane Two,” he continued. “My concern, of course, is that these actions may have violated the law and as such fail to recognize the Legislature by not respecting the Legislature’s constitutional duty to appropriate funds and your duty to spend appropriated funds in accordance with the law.”
As he did with the train, Scott saw nothing wrong with his unilateral decision to ground the state planes, telling reporters “We did it absolutely in compliance with the law. We reviewed it with our general counsel.”
Unfortunately for the get to work governor, that’s not who Alexander would have liked him to have reviewed it with.
I SAW T-PAW
With it being 52 degrees warmer in Tallahassee than St. Paul Friday, Tim Pawlenty probably was not the only Minnesotan in Florida this week. But the former North Star State governor was probably the only snowbird in Tallahassee seriously considered a bet to make a run for the White House.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos delivered on his promise to bring potential Republican U.S. presidential candidates to Florida, introducing Pawlenty to a crowd of mostly GOP lawmakers in the historic state Capitol.
Pawlenty, who was governor of Minnesota from 2003 to 2011, introduced himself and took questions as he tests the waters for a 2012 presidential run.
“In Minnesota, the land of McCarthy, Humphrey, Mondale, Wellstone…and now U.S. Sen. Al Franken, we took spending and cut it in real terms for the first time in 150 year history of my state,” he said.
And politically, Minnesota’s no Florida, Pawlenty made sure to note.
“There was one state that did not vote for Ronald Reagan in the entire nation,” he said. “Guess which one it was? Minnesota. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.”
Pawlenty didn’t talk much about Florida-specific issues, with the exception being teacher merit pay. He brought up the bill vetoed last year by then-Gov. Charlie Crist that would have tied teacher pay to student performance.
“I would salivate, I would dream about a bill like that having come to my desk when I was governor. I wish I could have gotten a bill like that,” Pawlenty said.
The mostly Republican audience was not exactly salivating about Pawlenty’s presidential prospects, though they clearly wanted to know more about him. To do so, they took turns peppering him with questions about health care, immigration, national defense and U.S. fiscal policy.
Senate President Haridopolos asked Pawlenty what he thought about President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, which was recently ruled unconstitutional by a Florida U.S. District Judge.
“I’m one of the authors of the amicus brief that was filed with Florida as a venue, so thank you for that,” Pawlenty said, adding that the health care law was “one of the worst pieces of legislation in modern history.”
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, followed up with a question about whether Pawlenty would support a constitutional requirement that Congress balance the federal budget similar to the Florida requirement.
“Budgets get balanced in states because they have to,” Pawlenty responded. “They don’t get balanced in Washington, D.C. because they don’t have to be. We need to make that a requirement.”
Despite his bromance with Haridopolos however, Pawlenty did not endorse the Senate president for U.S. Senate, saying only that he was “a man of great talent.” Haridopolos returned the favor by not making any endorsement of Pawlenty either.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott derailed a proposed high speed train in Florida this week, and possibly his working relationship with the Florida Legislature along with it
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “There is this pesky thing called a constitution that limits authority. I still believe the genius of America isn’t just democracy but its divided government and limitations on each individual’s ability to act unilaterally,” Sen. JD Alexander, expressing what was a common refrain around the state Capitol after Scott put the brakes on the bullet train.