Government

Weekly Roundup: Guess Who's (Not) Coming to Dinner?

Recap, analysis of week in state government
By: Keith Laing The News Service of Florida | Posted: January 29, 2011 3:55 AM

As the swordfish in the governor's kitchen broiled this week, the press corps stewed, and then was left out and got cold.

Tallahassee insiders this week were atwitter about the increasingly icy relationship between the governor’s office and the traditional media – a sideshow that distracted a bit from meatier issues that were being discussed in Florida government this week, from immigration to the role of the courts versus the Legislature, to redistricting, property insurance and a deepening hole in the state budget.

Several of the state’s largest business groups that normally support Republican initiatives asked lawmakers to turn the temperature down a bit on the immigration debate because the state's economy and culture are indelibly linked to foreign labor, and to the state’s positive image around the world.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida – two of the largest business lobbies in the state – told a Senate panel that foreign-born workers, both legal and illegal, bring more to the table economically than they take away in state expenses for education, criminal justice, health and social service programs.

They also were not ready to bless the federal E-Verify system, an Internet-based program to track immigrant status at the job site. It is flawed and not ready to be relied upon by businesses to accurately determine who to hire, they said, giving lawmakers something to chew on.

Over in the House, the lower chamber’s point man on immigration was trying to take the issue off the high heat as well. Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, who has been fine-tuning an immigration proposal he made several months ago, said this week that he would be willing to look at changes to make the plan less like the Arizona law that has been criticized as unecessary in a nonborder state like Florida.


The House Judiciary Committee talked for two hours about the subject in its first meeting since new lawmakers were sworn into office in November. Lawmakers remain far from voting on any final product, though.

Also simmering this week was an economic situation in the state no one would want to have a celebratory dinner about. The Senate’s budget chief said that deeper budget cuts may be needed to keep the state’s bond rating pristine, because the recipe for firm financial footing with Wall Street may involve higher reserves.

Senate Ways and Means chair, J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said legislators should consider setting aside $2.5 billion in reserves -- roughly 10 percent of state tax collections -- to avoid the risk of financial analysts downgrading the state’s bond rating.

State government debt climbed to $28.2 billion last year -- up almost $2 billion from a year earlier, according to the state's Division of Bond Finance. That meant while lawmakers were trying to trim close to $3.6 billion from the state budget, the tide of red ink last year forced $2.1 billion to be taken from Florida's $70 billion spending plan just to cover debt service.

That’s pretty serious stuff, but still, many in the Capitol this week were distracted by talk of a dinner at the Governor’s Mansion. Gov. Rick Scott dined with Reps. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, Chris Dorworth, R-Heathrow, two future speakers of the House, as well as Carlos Lopez Cantera, R-Miami. However, he didn’t let the press in, leaving several reporters outside. A columnist from one organization, Sunshine State News, did get an invite and attended, but it didn’t do much to improve relations with a press corps used to more access.

REDRAWING THE DISTRICTING DEBATE

Gov. Scott may not have had the press over for dinner this week, but he did move to slow down the process for getting federal approval for congressional districts in Florida, a move opponents said was designed to put new constitutional redistricting standards in jeopardy.

It became apparent this week that earlier this month, Scott sent a letter to DOJ withdrawing the request for preclearance of the Florida plan. And the Florida House joined a lawsuit filed against the plan by African-American Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a Democrat, and Hispanic Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican.

Neither development made supporters of the amendments – mainly outmanned Democrats – happy.

"The governor needs to remember that only 48 percent of Floridians voted for his candidacy," Democrat Senate Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, said. "The Fair Districts Amendments 5 and 6 passed with 63 percent of the votes cast."

A spokesman for Scott, however, denied that there was any intent to try to stall the new standards from being used, and noted that there's plenty of time. "Consistent with Governor Scott's effort to assess the rules, regulations and contracts of the previous administration, he has withdrawn the letter requesting a DOJ review of Amendments 5 and 6," Scott spokesman Brian Hughes said Tuesday. "Census data has not been transmitted to the state yet and the Legislature will not undertake redistricting for months, so this withdrawal in no way impedes the process of redrawing Florida's legislative and congressional districts."

The House made no bones about its intentions, however.

"The U.S. Constitution delegates authority to the state legislatures to draw congressional districts," House spokeswoman Katie Betta said. "The House believes its constitutional authority has been impeded by Amendment 6."

SALT THAT DREAM AWAY

Attorney General Pam Bondi said this week that she had a nightmare that a previously legal substance had killed someone and she had not done anything to stop it.

So pretty much as soon as she woke up she did something to stop it.

Bondi moved to outlaw Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) after Panhandle sheriffs warned it was being used as a drug. The substance is commonly sold as bath salts. But Bondi said its effects are very uncommon.

"One of the side effects of this drug is it makes you think you see monsters," Bondi told reporters. "It makes you think you can fly."

And because "there are a lot of balconies out there," Bondi said she had to act fast, establishing a 90-day emergency ban to protect spring breakers.

SENATE BRIEF: Elsewhere this week, U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio went on a date – to the State of the Union. Florida’s split Senate ticket joined several other bipartisan pairings of lawmakers who decided to forgo tradition for the annual presidential address and sit with someone of the other party. No word on if they dined together – there wasn’t any press coverage, if they did, anyway.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Senate Ways and Means chair J.D. Alexander said Florida should set aside $2.5 billion in reserves to keep a strong debt rating – which would put budget writers in the position of needing to find more than $6 billion to make it balance. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott’s rift with the Capitol press corps escalated into a bit of a food fight.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Where else in the U.S. does the press corps insist on man-to-man coverage at the governor's dinner table?” -- a tweet from Scott Communications Director Brian Burgess.


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