Weekly Roundup: Frenemies
Around the State
One-hundred and 60 of Gov. Charlie Crist’s not-so-closest friends gathered this week to give him a parting gift on his way out of Florida’s Governor’s Mansion.
Buoyed by the election of supermajorities in the House and Senate and of Gov.-elect Rick Scott on a pledge to make state government even more conservative than it has been in years of Republican rule, the Florida Legislature stuck around its traditional organizational session just long enough to stick it to Crist one last time before he leaves office.
Crist was never best friends with doctrinaire conservatives in the Legislature. Then he lost many of the friends he had by bolting the GOP in his race for U.S. Senate. Lawmakers vowed to never forget it, and this week they showed they haven’t, vetoing seven bills and a budget item Crist had taken his pen to in the spring.
It happened quickly, with little debate and little opposition as lawmakers put "return to sender" on Crist’s vetoes. It was just the third time in 24 years a governor has seen vetoes overridden.
Among the overrides was a $9.7 million budget item vetoed by Crist for Shands Teaching Hospital in Gainesville that makes the state eligible for another $12 million in federal Medicaid matching money. Supporters of turning back Crist’s veto said the spending would help provide health coverage for an additional 18,000 uninsured Floridians, even if it bruised the outgoing governor’s feelings. Not that there was much concern about that at the Capitol this week.
Lawmakers also revived legislation that would give them the authority to block state agency rules that could cost businesses $1 million over five years and another that spends $31.3 million in federal stimulus money to cover rebates owed thousands of Floridians who installed qualified air-conditioning systems or made solar improvements.
Additionally, they delayed by six months the implementation of a septic tank inspection that riled several Panhandle lawmakers, though that bill was signed by Crist, so they had to pass new legislation because there was no veto to override. The decision sets up an increasingly likely full repeal come regular session this spring, which would be another rebuke to a governor who was once known as one of the most environmentally friendly Republicans in the nation.
To the extent that there was debate this week, it was about a nonbinding memorial to Congress underscoring the Legislature's intent to revamp the state's Medicaid program, which drew heat because it touted plans to expand the state's five-county managed-care pilot program statewide.
That issue drew rare opposition from both sides of the political aisle, despite most examples of bipartisanship this week coming from Democrats going along with Republicans they knew they couldn’t stop anyway.
"If you think you get a lot of calls now, put people in HMOs and the phones will ring off the hook in your district," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "This is more than an intent. We are setting policy here. "Medicaid is broken," Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, agreed. "But the memorial is not a blank piece of paper. It lays out portions of a bill … that was very distressing to many of us in this chamber."
Like everything else, though, the memorial ultimately passed on voice votes in the House and Senate.
It was likely little solace to the self-proclaimed “people’s governor,” who is about to be replaced by the newest governor elected by the people, but the last two governors to suffer the indignity were also lame ducks. Democratic Govs. Bob Graham in 1986 and Lawton Chiles in 1998 both had vetoed legislation overridden by lawmakers.
Chiles in 1998 was dealing with a Legislature controlled by the opposite party. Crist was rebuked by a party he very recently was the titular leader of. You wouldn’t have known it though by the rough treatment his vetoes got from his “friends” in the House and Senate.
GAUGING THE OTHER GOVERNOR
Vetoes notwithstanding, this week Tallahassee continued rapidly shifting from being Crist-centered to scouting out Scott. A host of interest groups got to work surveying what the lay of the land might be under the new get-to-work governor, who has promised to be more conservative than Crist was even when he was beloved by the GOP.
Environmentalists, rail supporters and Public Service Commission observers all wondered aloud this week what Scott might do when he becomes the 45th governor of Florida in a month-and-a-half. It’s always tough to predict what a governor might do before taking office, but when that governor is assuming his first public office, unpredictability may be the safest bet.
Rail supporters were bracing for Scott to put the brakes on many proposed trains they would like to see built. As a candidate, Scott said he was not against all rail projects; he was just opposed to those the state would have to pay for. But many of his most ardent supporters are adamantly opposed to new rail of any kind.
To prove it, activists from the tea party, which fueled Scott's rise in the Republican gubernatorial primary and his narrow win over Democrat Alex Sink, came to the Capitol this week and some called on the Legislature to halt all trains, despite the influx of federal cash the projects have received.
Despite the incoming governor’s anti-regulation stance, environmentalists hoped this week they may have better luck. Scott is unlikely to get behind a mandate for power companies to use more renewable fuel, but supporters of that idea say Scott may be willing to listen, as long as it helps him create the 700,000 jobs he promised during the campaign – and doesn’t involve too much government.
"The goals of Gov-elect Scott's administration with regard to energy will be to provide a stable regulatory environment, develop long-term, high-paying jobs in clean energy technologies, increase energy independence for Florida's economic benefit, security and environmental responsibilities, protect ratepayers and maintain affordable rates for residents and businesses throughout Florida, and ensure that a free market drives the diversification on our energy portfolio," said Scott transition spokesman Trey Stapleton.
Whatever energy plans that emerge from the forthcoming Scott administration will have to go through the Florida PSC, where uncertainty also reigned this week. The final two Public Service commissioners appointed by Crist have not yet made a regulatory ruling, but with Scott taking office in January, they could be out of office before they ever get to be in it. PSC commissioner-designates Julie Brown and Eduardo Balbis legally could be recalled by Gov.-elect Rick Scott once he takes office. When Gov. Charlie Crist came to power in 2007, he withdrew nearly 300 appointments to state boards and commissions made by former Gov. Jeb Bush, including two PSC commissioners. Observers wondered if Scott might return the favor to Crist to begin putting his own stamp on the panel.
The relationship between lawmakers and the governor wasn’t the only one that was strained this week. Proclaiming his respect for an equal branch of government, newly elected House Speaker Dean Cannon blasted the Florida Supreme Court in his first remarks after assuming the gavel.
Cannon accused the court of overstepping its constitutional duty as an impartial arbiter of the law with three rulings this summer, in which it threw out proposed constitutional amendments that originated in the Legislature.
"Over the past year, three times we saw the work of a three-fifths supermajority of this legislative branch, the elected representatives of over 18 million Floridians, demolished by five unelected justices on the Supreme Court," Cannon said in opening remarks at the Legislature's organizational session, during which he was unanimously chosen to be speaker. "This was done notwithstanding the fact that there is no express authority in the Florida Constitution for doing so."
Raising the level of awkwardness, the remarks came minutes after Chief Justice Charles Canady swore Cannon in as the new speaker, though Canady did not take the bait, declining to respond to reporters after the speech.
Also this week, environmentalists who plodded over water pollution standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, won a major victory from the agency -- but just as quickly, they prepared to go right back to court over the issues.
U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced Monday that the rules had been finalized over the objection of Florida environmental officials, businesses, farmers and a host of recently elected state government leaders at the end of a 30-day delay period intended to mollify critics.
But EarthJustice attorney David Guest said environmentalists who have clamored for the new standards would likely not be able to celebrate the new numeric limits on the amount of pollution in state bodies of water for long.
"I assume … we will see a plethora of lawsuits filed by a rogue's gallery of polluters all over this state," said Guest, who filed the lawsuit that led to the nutrient standards. "I expect that they will all be consolidated to one place, but in litigation land we will have World War III."
STORY OF THE WEEK: After lawmakers refused this summer to enact a constitutional ban on offshore oil drilling, Gov. Charlie Crist called them “a do-nothing Legislature.” He probably wouldn’t call them that now, especially after they made him only the third governor in 24 years to have vetoes overridden.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "We're still friends, we don't think politically the same as we used to” -- Senate President Mike Haridopolos, explaining that the rare veto overrides weren’t personal. Really!