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Politics

Ho-Hum Session Not Just About Governor's Race

April 15, 2014 - 6:00pm

Tax breaks are in. Gambling? No dice. Lower tuition is OK, but alimony is a no-no.

Blame the GOP-dominated Legislature's attempt to give Gov. Rick Scott a helping hand for what people are calling one of the most boring sessions in recent history.

But, while they are doing all they can to keep the governor in office, Republicans also have their eyes on a bigger prize -- the presidential race two years from now.

"Absolutely it's important. We want the governor re-elected but it's clearly important for 2016. No question," said Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican and former head of the Republican Party of Florida who is also chairman of Scott's re-election effort.

Lawmakers recently put the kibosh on gambling legislation that was sure to split the Republican faithful. And, after Scott vetoed a similar effort last year, they opted to not even consider a prickly overhaul of the alimony system, putting the issue on hold for at least another year.

But they are angling to land on the incumbent Republican's desk a cornucopia of items that appeal to Hispanics, gun owners, drivers, families footing the bill for university educations and anyone disgusted by revelations that sexual offenders let loose by the state preyed again on children.

The Legislature quickly passed a package of measures aimed at cracking down on child molesters, even after critics complained that the legislation fails to fully address the problem.

And lawmakers swiftly handed Scott one of his top priorities, a nearly $400 million rollback of vehicle registration fees increased during economic tough times in 2009, when Charlie Crist -- Scott's leading Democratic opponent -- was governor.

With the May 2 end of the session fast approaching, the House and Senate are now wrangling over how to parcel out the remaining $100 million of the $500 million in election-year tax and fee cuts Scott made a top priority.

No election year on GOP turf would be complete without some National Rifle Association-backed legislation to pump up base voters. So Florida lawmakers are approving a suite of bills aimed at firing up gun owners. One measure would let gun owners who don't have concealed-carry training pack heat during states of emergency. A "warning shot" proposal awaiting Scott's signature would let people show guns and fire warning shots in self-defense.

Another gift to Scott -- lower tuition for university students -- is wrapped in a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition, a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford. The House has already passed the bill, and Senate sponsor Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, says he has the votes for Senate approval once it makes it to the floor. The measure is viewed as an olive branch to Hispanic voters whom Scott alienated in his first bid for governor when he campaigned on bringing an Arizona-style immigration law to Florida. Scott further angered Hispanics when he vetoed a nearly universally-supported measure that would have let children of undocumented immigrants get temporary driver's licenses.

"I think we've got a nice smooth session going on and that always helps. Everyone's working together, the House, the Senate, the governor. I think it's as much harmony here as I've seen during any session and that obviously should help him," Latvala said.

Keeping the governor's mansion, as well as the Florida House and Senate, in GOP hands is part of a longer-term strategy.

Florida, a critical swing state, helped President Obama get into the White House and stay there in the past two elections.

A Republican governor would help turn that around, Thrasher said.

"It makes a difference," he said. "We've lost the last two elections in Florida. We need to win the next one in order to elect a Republican president."

Thrasher said the 2016 election doesn't put more pressure on Republicans to re-elect Scott, who remains unpopular, but "it clearly gives us some incentives to do that."

Getting Scott re-elected could also help the GOP maintain a stronghold on legislative and congressional seats in 2016, especially in the state House, where about a dozen seats could now be up for grabs after new maps were drawn in 2012.

"It's not just about the presidential. It's about legislative. It's about congressional. Anytime you have the governor in the mansion, that changes the dynamic for that party," said lobbyist Nick Iarossi. "Where the Republicans have drastically outraised Democrats for the past decade, that could turn on a dime if Charlie Crist wins the governor's mansion. That's why everyone's being cautious."

But House Minority Leader Perry Thurston said Republicans are ignoring issues such as an expansion of Medicaid to lay the groundwork for the presidential race.

"For sure it's positioning for 2016. They want it to appear that there are no problems here in Tallahassee, that everything's moving along smoothly and they've got this $1.3 billion in surplus to try to camouflage to that effect. But there are a number of issues we're not addressing. We need to address the issue of health care, which we believe is a crisis in this state. We need to fully vet the issue with DCF. They're talking about new investigators but they're not addressing the issue of the services. If you have more investigators, clearly there are going to be more cases and they're going to need to place more children. They're not addressing those placements and the services," Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said. "The governor's race clearly is being done to set up how Florida will be a Republican governor-led state at the time of the (2016) election."

But Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant who led Obama's 2008 campaign effort in Florida and is advising Crist, said that it's wrong-headed of Republicans to pin their presidential hopes on the governor's race.

"I think it's a very myopic view of the Tallahassee-centric world which doesnt exist in the five blocks outside of Adams Street," Schale said.

Obama won the Sunshine State twice with a Republican governor at the helm, Schale pointed out. And, Schale said, presidential elections are now so expensive and require such a large organization that, although a governor can help his or her party's fundraising efforts, state parties are relied on less and less to aid candidates.

"In a previous era you would have had to depend on party apparatus because nobody could raise a billion dollars. But in this new world we live in, you don't need a political apparatus in a presidential election. You don't need it at all," he said.

Obama won Florida by 3 percentage points in 2008, "arguably at the point at which our party was most inept," Schale said.

"It may be materially important for some political leaders and some political consultants but it's not in terms of the outcome of the election," he said.

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