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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Trying to Change the Subject

January 23, 2015 - 6:00pm

Any week when a Republican governor can propose more than half a billion dollars in tax relief and announce that the unemployment rate has ticked down by 0.2 percentage points is supposed to be a good week.

And Gov. Rick Scott got to open and close his week on those two positive notes, the perfect bookends to any week. Or, at least, any other week.

Because the middle of the week was once again consumed by questions about the ouster of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, a story that has become one of the most serious challenges to Scott's 4-year-old administration. Everyone expected Scott would run into trouble in his second term -- but few thought it would come this quickly.

That said, the news was not all FDLE, all the time. There were the positive notes from Scott, as well as the usual noise generated by a week of legislative committee meetings. Legislation that would allow firearms to be carried on college campuses started moving in the House. And the heads of two besieged departments trekked to the Capitol to answer lawmakers' questions.

The question hovering over it all, though, was whether the fallout from Bailey's dismissal would drag into a third week.

QUESTIONS, FREQUENT AND OTHERWISE, ABOUT FDLE:

There's nothing new anymore about noting that the week was a bad one for Scott. Things weren't much better, though, for Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Drew Breakspear and Department of Revenue executive director Marshall Stranburg.

All three were mentioned by Scott as possible targets for removal by the Florida Cabinet -- though it seems questionable that Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi would be willing to make changes right now.

Largely because Scott and the Cabinet members spent much of the week subtly and not-so-subtly arguing with each other about who was told what about Bailey's removal, and when they were told.

By Thursday, Putnam and Atwater were beginning to entertain the idea of an investigation into the personnel changes at FDLE. And Putnam talked about holding the Feb. 5 Cabinet meeting in the Capitol instead of making the traditional sojourn to the Florida State Fair in Tampa.

"We need to have a more normal location and platform to have these conversations than the agenda that typically occurs when we're holding a Cabinet (meeting) on the road," Putnam said.

Earlier in the week, he proposed clarifying the requirements for agency heads, requiring candidate interviews, establishing an appointment-selection committee and setting a process to review each agency through quarterly performance standards.

Putnam and Atwater also said this week there should be a follow-up to reports from the joint Tallahassee bureau for the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, including allegations that Bailey was forced out of office by Scott in part for rejecting a request to participate in the governor's re-election efforts. Another report had Bailey alleging that Scott and members of his staff sought to have the state police in 2013 indicate that acting Orange County clerk of court Colleen Reilly was the target of an investigation.

"Just as they've been said, they're very serious and they should be looked into," Atwater told reporters Thursday. "Everybody should be able to see all of this. It should be all very transparent, very exposed, all the questions answered."

That same day, Scott's office issued its most-detailed response to the allegations in the form of a "Frequently Asked Questions" document -- the kind you might get to help troubleshoot your new microwave. The forum allowed Scott's office to control both the questions and the answers.

"Is it true that Gerald Bailey was forced to resign?" one question asked.

"Prior to December 16, 2015, the Governors staff notified cabinet staff (including the offices of the Attorney General, the Chief Financial Officer, and the Commissioner of Agriculture) that the Governor wanted new leadership at FDLE. Cabinet staff raised no objection," the answer began. Presumably, it was intended to be Dec. 16, 2014.

The document also promised Scott's full budget proposal will be announced next week. It wasn't news, since the governor is essentially obligated by law to release his spending plan by the following Sunday, but it pointed to one more opportunity to distract from the brewing scandal.

LOOK OVER HERE!

Not that Scott wasn't already trying to change the subject at every available opportunity. He was helped out by the calendar; January is generally a time when governors start to roll out some of their legislative initiatives for the upcoming session, and this week was no exception.

The biggest item was a $470 million reduction in taxes on cellphone and television services the governor pitched Monday. The governor's office said it would save about $43 a year for a family that spends $100 a month on cellphone and cable services, though spending on such services varies widely by household.

"With our cellphone and TV tax cut, every Florida family is saving real money -- around $40 a year for spending as little as $100 a month between cellphone, cable and satellite bills," Scott said in a prepared statement.

Scott's proposal would reduce what are known as "communications services tax" rates, which are now 9.17 percent on nonresidential land lines, cellphone, and cable services and 13.17 percent on satellite services. The tax has generated about $1.4 billion in annual collections in recent years, according to the Florida Tax Handbook.

The governor also floated proposals to eliminate the sales tax on college textbooks -- price tag: $41.4 million -- and extend Bright Futures scholarships to cover summer courses, at a cost of $23.5 million.

But will the Legislature go along? Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, when asked about the communications tax cut: "Whether or not we can do that and still address the needs of the Senate and House kind of remains to be seen. As I said, everybody has to walk out of here with their priorities addressed to some extent."

Scott also had one more mostly good piece of news to close the week: The state's unemployment rate dropped from 5.8 percent in November to 5.6 percent in December. "Mostly" good because the drop in the unemployment rate came as the state's workforce of 9.6 million declined by 17,000 from November to December, with people considered to have jobs falling by 4,000, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

In a prepared statement, Scott highlighted the growth of 11,500 private-sector jobs in December and reiterated that as he enters his second term he "will stay laser-focused on our goal of making Florida the global destination for business and job creation."

MEANWHILE, IN THE LEGISLATURE ...

It's a rare January committee week that's overshadowed by news about the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but the Legislature seemed to spend much of its time playing second fiddle to the Bailey imbroglio.

Not that there wasn't plenty going on. The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted 8-4 along party lines to pass a measure (HB 4005) allowing anyone with a concealed-carry permit to have a weapon -- usually a firearm -- on campus. Currently, people are banned from carrying such weapons at Florida colleges and universities, with the exception of stun guns or similar devices.

Supporters said current law actually makes students on campus less safe.

"This bill eliminates a possible pool of victims," said Brant Hargrove, a member of the public who spoke in support of the legislation. "Predators know where victims are. They're in places where people cannot defend themselves."

But opponents, including several students and faculty members who showed up to argue against the legislation, said drugs, alcohol and stress prevalent on college campuses make the atmosphere particularly bad for allowing guns.

"I can only imagine walking through midterms week or finals week and being afraid, because these people, at times, college students break down, especially when they're in engineering and in the sciences and mathematics," said John Quiroz, a 22-year-old political-science student at the University of South Florida.

Elsewhere, Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll spoke to lawmakers in the wake of a horrific child death earlier this month, discussing about how the tragedy might affect efforts to reform the state's troubled child-welfare system.

Carroll told House and Senate panels that he's waiting for a report from the agency's Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, which he dispatched to Tampa on Jan. 8. That day, John Jonchuck allegedly dropped his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, 60 feet into the waters of Tampa Bay.

Ironically, Carroll had testified before the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee on the morning of Phoebe Jonchuck's death and provided mostly good news about the progress of a new child-welfare law, which went into effect July 1.

"We have done a lot of work on that, and I think we've made a lot of progress with it," he told the same Senate committee Thursday. "The sad irony is that as we were speaking of the progress we'd made, at the same time there was a tragedy that unfolded in Tampa on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge."

Meanwhile, new Corrections Secretary Julie Jones made her first appearance before the Legislature, painting a picture of an understaffed agency embattled by a crumbling infrastructure, skyrocketing numbers of mentally ill prisoners and private health-care vendors who aren't living up to their contract requirements.

"Staffing is key to lowering the temperature in these facilities," Jones said. "It's going to take all hands on deck and it's going to take a true change in how we look at the role of the corrections officers and also the expectations of what those corrections officers, what services, they deliver to those inmates. Quite frankly, it's a service. They're there to keep them happy and they're there to keep them healthy and do it in such a way that they enter the facility in the same way that they exit the facility. And we're not doing that."

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott continued to be dogged by questions about the dismissal of FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, which contributed to a growing rift between Scott and his fellow Republicans in the Cabinet.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "What I'm trying to do is prevent further loss of life by giving God-fearing and law-abiding citizens who have gone through background checks and all the things they have to do to get a (permit) to be able to defend themselves and their family." -- Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, on his bill to allow firearms on college campuses.

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