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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Rick Scott Hopes for An Early Spring

January 29, 2015 - 6:00pm

Groundhog Day might not be until Monday, but Gov. Rick Scott probably doesn't need a rodent to tell him that his winter of discontent is going to last awhile longer.

If Scott somehow thought that one of the most difficult periods of his governorship was about to end, the Associated Press's annual legislative planning day this week was proof that it was likely to continue.

On one hand, his three fellow Republicans on the Cabinet continued to suggest that Scott, or at least his administration, had mishandled the forced resignation of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. Meanwhile, the pixels on Scott's budget (posted online) were barely dry when legislative leaders started casting doubt on whether the governor's proposed tax cut on cellphone and television services would be as large as he wants.

But some issues have been lingering even longer than Scott's troubles -- including how the state handles medical marijuana, something that would change under a bill filed this week by a Republican lawmaker.

THE BLAME GAME

What did the governor know, and when did he know it? That was the question perhaps inadvertently added to the saga of Bailey's firing when Attorney General Pam Bondi floated the idea that maybe Scott's staff acted without his knowledge in the way that the FDLE commissioner was pushed out last month.

"Did I know that Jerry Bailey was going to be told he was fired and have his things packed up, his entire life as a career law-enforcement officer in a cardboard box, and be told to be out of the office before the end of the day? Absolutely not. Nor do I believe the governor knew it," Bondi said to reporters and editors gathered at the Capitol for the Associated Press event.

Of course, even Bondi acknowledged that she didn't have any proof to back her opinion, and it seemed to conflict with how Scott's office has explained the events that led to Bailey's ouster. But it was about the nicest thing that a Cabinet member said about the controversy during Wednesday's planning session.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam described the treatment of Bailey as "shabby."

Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater both said they had been advised in December by Scott's staff that the governor was interested in making a change at FDLE, but expected the change to come up at a January Cabinet meeting. Instead, Scott's office announced in December that Bailey had left the agency.

"I wasn't aware that it was accelerated," said Atwater, who declined to say he was "misled."

Scott stuck to his guns. He acknowledged that his office asked Bailey "to step down."

"Gerald Bailey was given the opportunity to step down, he did," Scott said.

WHICH TAXES MAKE THE CUT?

The governor was able to avoid answering too many questions about the Cabinet issues during Wednesday's legislative planning session because he formally unveiled his nearly $77 billion spending plan for the budget year that begins in July. But legislative leaders were already raising questions about a $470.9 million tax cut that lies at the heart of the proposal.

Overall, Scott is proposing $673 million in tax reductions, on everything from cellphone bills to college textbooks. But the lion's share of that money would go to relaxing the communications services tax applied to cellphone, cable and satellite television services.

"The benefit of the CST (communications services tax cut) is that it impacts pretty much everybody in the state. ... It's going to go to everybody," Scott said.

But House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, told the AP gathering that Scott's plan on the communications tax was higher than what the House had in mind. And Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said there are "plenty of ideas" about how to reduce taxes in addition to Scott's request.

"Certainly, that will be on the table," Gardiner said. "But there will also be quite a few others."

There were few surprises in Scott's budget plan, which he's spent several weeks rolling out in piecemeal fashion. The proposal would reduce state spending by about 0.1 percent from the current budget year.

To cover the tax cuts and a record level of per-student education spending while keeping the overall budget relatively flat, Scott's proposal calls for deep reductions in other areas. Spending on transportation would fall by almost $235.5 million, though Scott's office said the Florida Department of Transportation's work plan is smaller this year and fully funded. The proposal would also cut nearly $120 million from the Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration.

The plan would reduce the state's payroll by more than 1,000 full-time positions. Scott's office said that the "vast majority" of those jobs are expected to be unfilled by the time the budget takes effect. Most of the positions would come from the Department of Health; the agency would shed 758 full-time positions.

Some agencies would gain jobs. For example, the Department of Corrections, recently plagued by reports of suspicious inmate deaths, would add 163 full-time positions.

Lawmakers will consider Scott's proposal as they negotiate a budget and tax cuts during the legislative session that starts March 3. In preparation for the session, House and Senate committees will receive presentations about the proposal next week.

Scott also had some apparent suggestions this week for how to spend a hefty chunk of the billions of dollars earmarked for land and water conservation efforts under a constitutional amendment approved by voters last year.

The proposal, outlined on Tuesday, would devote $5 billion to the Everglades, beginning with $300 million in the upcoming year. It would include money for building water-retention reservoirs and maintaining the upland habitat of endangered Florida panthers.

Lawmakers are working to determine how to carry out the constitutional amendment, which designates 33 percent of the revenue from a type of real-estate tax to conservation for the next 20 years.

Scott didn't support or publicly oppose the amendment, and his office didn't mention it in a news release Tuesday. But the Everglades proposal, if funded through the amendment, would require about a third or a quarter of the money.

OF POT AND LONG-SHOTS

The Legislature wasn't in town this week, but that didn't keep a handful of measures from being filed or discussed. And one was certain to draw some attention, even if its chances at passage were still up in the air.

Less than three months after Florida voters narrowly rejected a plan to legalize medical marijuana, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, filed a bill that would allow patients to get pot if they suffer from diseases such as cancer, AIDS, epilepsy or multiple sclerosis.

The proposal (SB 528) includes a detailed regulatory structure that would place requirements on patients, doctors, growers and retail stores. Patients could only get "medical-grade" marijuana if their physicians sign off on the need.

"Many groups have been working on this initiative for quite some time, and my goal is to work openly with all of the interested parties on this issue so that we can pass responsible legislation that provides relief to those Floridians in need,'' Brandes said in a prepared statement.

Medical marijuana has been a heavily debated topic in Florida for more than a year, primarily because of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have legalized the substance. That amendment received support from 57.6 percent of voters during the November election, slightly short of the 60 percent needed to pass ballot initiatives.

Backers of the constitutional amendment made clear they would continue trying to legalize medical pot, either through the Legislature or another ballot proposal in 2016.

"This bill proves that the massive support we received in the last election -- 58 percent of voters -- plus our quick work to bring the petition back for 2016 is getting recognized by reasonable legislators like Senator Brandes,'' the group United For Care, which has led efforts to pass a constitutional amendment, said in an email to supporters Monday.

But another long-debated health-care proposal already seems dead before this year's session starts. Crisafulli on Wednesday said the House has "no plans" to expand Medicaid coverage to an additional 800,000 residents during the session.

"We do not plan to do anything on Medicaid expansion," Crisafulli said during the AP planning session. "I am a never-say-never kind of guy, and certainly anything can come about that provides opportunity, but at this time we do not plan to hear Medicaid expansion."

Democrats, who have pushed the expansion for years only to see House Republicans stymie plans supported by Senate Republicans and at least tacitly supported by Scott, tried to find the silver lining.

"We want a full debate" on Medicaid expansion, said House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "You heard the speaker -- he's not a never-say-never guy."

Whatever issues lawmakers address this spring will also be faced by some new members in the House and the Senate.

In elections Tuesday, Rep. Travis Hutson cruised to an easy win in a special Republican primary for a Senate seat in Northeast Florida, setting him up for a likely general election win in April. Meanwhile, Republicans Paul Renner and Cyndi Stevenson won primaries for two House seats in the region.

Hutson, R-Elkton, topped the three-man field in Senate District 6 with 52.2 percent of the vote. Rep. Ronald "Doc" Renuart came in second, carrying 35.1 percent of the vote, and Dennis McDonald was a distant third with almost 12.7 percent. Hutson will face Democrat David Cox in a general election scheduled for April 7.

Renner breezed to a win in the GOP primary to fill Hutson's seat, carrying almost 70.2 percent of the vote in House District 24, which includes Flagler County as well as portions of St. Johns and Volusia counties. He'll face Democrat Adam Morley in the special general election.

Stevenson, a St. Johns County commissioner, edged out Michael Davis in Renuart's district. Both candidates spent more than $100,000 in the GOP primary in House District 17, which also included candidate Jack Capra. Stevenson garnered 41.6 percent of the vote to 39.2 percent for Davis; Capra had 19.2 percent. Stevenson will face Judy Stevens, a candidate running without a party affiliation, in the general election.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The controversy over the removal of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey continued for a third week, as Cabinet members continued to criticize how Bailey's departure was handled by Gov. Rick Scott.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Hubris appears to be the organizing principle of our executive branch." -- Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, on Gov. Rick Scott's handling of the ouster of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey and a possible move by the governor to bring in a top insurance official from Louisiana.

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