Politics

Weekly Roundup: State Your Case

By: Brandon Larrabee News Service of Florida | Posted: June 6, 2014 3:55 AM
Leon County Circuit Court

It is the season of making your case in Tallahassee.

Lawmakers from across the state found out Monday if they had made convincing enough cases for Gov. Rick Scott to spare their pet projects, when he wielded an unusually light veto pen while trimming a bit from the state budget. Lobbying for other bills being weighed by Scott was undoubtedly still going on.

Meanwhile, lawyers were already starting to put the finishing touches on their arguments about the state's 2012 redistricting process, with attorneys for voting-rights groups arguing that the Legislature had improperly crafted politically motivated districts and those representing the state arguing that the give-and-take was all above-board.

And Sen. John Thrasher, a "country lawyer" and rabid Florida State University alumnus, was making his case to take on a new post: president of his alma mater. But by midweek, the candidacy of a Supreme Court justice and the protests of some students and faculty had complicated matters a bit.

After all, for everyone making a case, there's almost always someone else arguing the other side.


SCOTT THE SPENDTHRIFT?

There was no real surprise in Scott's decision to sign the $77 billion election-year budget approved last month by lawmakers. The surprise, to the extent there was one, was how much of the document the once-skinflint governor allowed to become law.

Since he came to office in 2011, Scott had never vetoed less than the $142.7 million he struck from the budget the Legislature passed in 2012. His first year in office, the governor slashed $615 million in potential spending, though accounting gimmicks inflated the number. And in 2013, Scott slashed almost $368 million.

This year: $68.9 million.

For the second year in a row, Scott also didn't make a big deal out of the budget signing. He announced it via email, then talked to reporters later, after a campaign event in Panama City.

"It's nice to have a budget surplus to work with, to make strategic investments, to keep our state working, more jobs, improve education, improve transportation, and that's what we did," Scott said.

Still, some of the grassroots, small-government voters who helped propel Scott to office four years ago seemed pleased. Chris Hudson, director of the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, one of a constellation of groups that have helped fuel the tea-party movement, applauded the budget signing.

"This budget sends the message that Florida is focused on the long-term growth of economic opportunity and prosperity for all its families and businesses," Hudson said in a statement.

Other political players were less thrilled. Democrats slammed the spending plan as a "pork-filled" measure that didn't fund the state's needs.

"Per-pupil education funding remains below 2007 levels. Bright Futures scholarships have been slashed to the bone," Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said in a prepared statement. "Nearly 1 million Floridians still lack access to affordable health care. In a re-election campaign where Rick Scott is trying desperately to run away from his failed record, one thing has not changed: Rick Scott takes care of the wealthy special interests while ignoring the needs of middle class Floridians."

Scott isn't done deciding the fates of a slew of legislation approved by lawmakers. The Legislature sent him 105 bills this week, including high-profile bills allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Florida colleges and universities (HB 851); adding further restrictions to Florida's abortion laws (HB 1047); and legalizing a form of medical marijuana that purportedly does not get users high while alleviating life-threatening seizures.


THRASHER: BRING IT ON

When the week began, it looked like Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, might be a shoo-in for the presidency of Florida State University. The school's presidential search committee had decided to interview Thrasher, a longtime fixture in state politics and chairman of the influential Senate Rules Committee, before deciding whether to look at other candidates.

On Tuesday, that changed.

Ed Burr, chairman of the FSU Presidential Search Advisory Committee, said an outpouring of interest in the position led to the decision to delay the conversation with Thrasher, which was scheduled for June 11.

Burr essentially said his committee's initial concern -- that Thrasher's desire for the position had kept other potential candidates from applying -- was disproved by Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston and state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, putting their names forward for the post. Educational consultant Harold McGinnis has also filed papers asking to be considered.

"Since the meeting, we have received applications from several additional candidates," Burr wrote in a message to the committee. "This has persuaded me that allowing this phase of the search to evolve before conducting any interviews would be most effective."

Burr said the committee will still meet next week to consider an application deadline for the position.

But Thrasher was getting more backing for the presidency -- in terms of letters of support -- than any other applicant.

Thrasher, widely considered the front-runner for the position, has received 10 letters of support, and two in opposition, since the search for a new president has been under way.

None of the other 15 applicants -- including Polston and Rehwinkel Vasilinda -- has had more than two outside recommendations submitted to the search committee.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, compared Thrasher to the Founding Fathers in saying that his legislative colleague would be an "unconventional president."

"He has devoted his professional life to public service and the law," Gaetz said of Thrasher. "But if that were a disqualifier, then America's greatest public university, the University of Virginia, could not have been founded and managed by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe."

However, Thrasher also has detractors, including faculty members and students.

Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor, a Democrat, sent a letter to the committee, saying Thrasher's "conservative politics will ignite a combustible, explosive and polarizing impact for students at Florida State and for other stakeholders across Leon County."

Thrasher said Friday in an interview with The News Service of Florida that he didn't mind the committee's decision to broaden its search.

"If there are people that want to apply, let them apply," he said. "I'm interested in the job, and I have the right to apply like everyone else."


ENDING WITH A WHIMPER:

Meanwhile, after two weeks of lawmakers and political operatives being grilled about the 2012 redistricting process and a whodunit mystery that emerged around a map supposedly submitted to the Legislature by former Florida State University student Alex Posada, the redistricting trial underway in Leon County Circuit Court finished with three days of testimony that was -- well, kind of dull.

There were some constituents of Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown who defended her sprawling district and said they wanted to make sure African-Americans could still elect a candidate of their choice to that seat. John Guthrie, the man who led the Senate staffers who drew maps, was back on the stand.

And statistical experts called by the state parried the suggestions of experts called by voting-rights organizations that the maps were the result of the kind of political gerrymandering barred by the Fair Districts amendments, which voters approved in 2010.

But the most spirited remarks came not from any of the witnesses, but from Brown, who showed up this week for portions of the trial after hearing that her district was being invoked in the case against the maps.

Brown, one of the first African-Americans elected to Congress in Florida since Reconstruction, rejected the arguments of plaintiffs that a different district with a lower concentration of black voters would still elect a candidate favored by African-Americans. She also referred to efforts to mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

"And it's just like, it didn't happen," she said. "And it's just very important that African-Americans need to know that they are constantly going to have to fight in order to keep representation, because there are people that would take you back."

After the case wrapped up, both sides said they believed they had convinced Judge Terry Lewis.

"We're confident that we've met whatever standard the court is going to hold us to in this case with our evidence," said David King, a lawyer for the groups challenging the congressional map.

But Raoul Cantero, a former state Supreme Court justice representing the Senate in the case, said lawmakers and staff members testified repeatedly they did not illegally craft districts that would help or hurt political parties or candidates.

"And we think that all the plaintiffs have done was put up innuendo and whatever other third parties were doing that were not involved," Cantero said. "They have not shown that anything [improper] has affected the drawing of the maps."


STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott signed a $77 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, while cutting $68.9 million with his line-item veto pen.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I'm a young 70. I'm up to the job. You couldn't do the job in the Florida Senate, the way we do it, for 60 days without being in fairly good physical condition." -- Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, on his bid for the FSU presidency at age 70.

 


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