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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Taking Care of Business

March 8, 2013 - 6:00pm

As Gov. Rick Scott helped launch the legislative session Tuesday, his message boiled down to this: "It's working."

That likely will be a common refrain through the 2014 gubernatorial election, as Scott touts the addition of jobs, jobs, jobs and casts himself as leading the state out of the economic desert of the Charlie Crist era.

"Two years ago, Florida was losing jobs and many Florida families were losing their dreams. ... The short-sighted policies of borrowing on our future had led to disaster," said Scott, who, not coincidentally, could find himself running for re-election against the Republican-turned-Democrat Crist.

But Scott's State of the State address Tuesday spurred the Florida Democratic Party to describe the governor as being in a "state of denial."

"Today, with a carefully crafted and poll-tested message, Gov. Rick Scott delivered his State of the State and tried to remake himself,'' Democratic Chairwoman Allison Tant wrote in a fundraising email. "But Scott is in a State of Denial if he thinks he can run from his record."

By now, everyone knows that Scott -- who got elected in 2010 on a "Let's Get to Work" theme -- will use public appearances to focus on job creation. And Tuesday's address was no different, with Scott, for example, singling out Northrop Grumman, which had announced it would add 1,000 jobs in the state.

Similarly, Scott used the address to pitch his plan to eliminate the sales tax on manufacturing equipment, a move he says would help the state compete for jobs.

Scott, however, also set aside a good chunk of the address to call for giving $2,500 raises to teachers. That idea has faced skepticism from some Republican legislative leaders, who question the wisdom of giving across-the-board raises.

But Scott said he sees paying teachers more as an investment in the state's future.

"We don't want a war on teachers,'' Scott said. "We want a war on failure."

MEDICAID MORASS:

While not a major part of the address, Scott reiterated his controversial stance that the state should expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. That stance involves going ahead with the expansion for three years -- a period in which Washington is supposed to pay all of the tab -- and then revisiting the issue.

"I concluded that for the three years the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the cost of new people in Medicaid, I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care," Scott said.

That stance drew heavy applause from Democrats gathered in the House chamber. But it also came shortly after House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, made clear he wants nothing to do with the expansion, describing the federal approach as destined for failure.

"I believe it forces Florida to expand a broken (Medicaid) system that we have been battling Washington to fix, and I believe it will ultimately drive up the cost of health care," Weatherford said. "This inflexible plan, thrust upon us by the federal government, is not aimed at strengthening the safety net. It pushes a social ideology at the expense of our future."

With Weatherford and other House Republicans digging in against the expansion, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it appeared the House had "shut the lights off" on the issue. But House and Senate Republican leaders also said they were looking for ways to provide a health-care safety net, which could mean that the Medicaid issue will lurk throughout the session.

While House and Senate Democrats are ready to move forward with adding hundreds of thousands of people to Medicaid, Senate Republicans have not publicly tipped their hands about the issue.

Meanwhile, the hospital industry and advocates for Medicaid beneficiaries are continuing to push for the expansion. Hospitals contend, in part, that extending Medicaid coverage to more people would reduce the amounts of uncompensated care they have to provide.

"Governor Scott and the Legislature face very difficult public-policy choices on how to proceed with implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act,'' Tony Carvalho, president of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, said in a prepared statement Tuesday. "We believe that Governor Scott reached a logical conclusion that extends vital health coverage to nearly a million Floridians and assures our citizens get a return on some of the federal tax dollars that they are sending to Washington."

A Senate select committee is scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the Medicaid expansion, which might give a sign about how the Senate will move forward with the issue. The committee likely will hear about new estimates that the Affordable Care Act would cost Florida about $5.2 billion over the next decade, with about $3.5 billion stemming from Florida having to pick up part of the Medicaid expansion costs after the first three years.

PRIORITIES, PRIORITIES:

The Medicaid issue might be a huge question mark, but House and Senate leaders made clear on the first day of the session that they want to pass changes to improve ethics and fix problems in the elections system.

The Senate unanimously voted for an ethics package that includes steps such as trying to slow the revolving door between the Legislature and the lobbying industry and trying to prevent lawmakers from using fundraising vehicles known as "committees of continuous existence" to pay personal expenses.

"A lot of this wouldnt be necessary if we all conducted ourselves, if everyone that was elected to office in the state of Florida conducted their lives and themselves in office, by just using a little common sense," said Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

A little later Tuesday, the House voted 118-1 to pass a bill that would address some of the controversial voting issues from the 2012 elections. For example, the bill would allow elections supervisors to hold up to 14 days of early voting -- an increase from the current eight -- and would add to the number of sites that could serve as early-voting locations.

"I think the Legislature has some responsibility for some of the challenges we had in 2012," Weatherford said. "I readily admit that, and that's why we passed it on the first day."

The House and Senate still need to reach agreement on the final details of the ethics and elections bills.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott gave his State of the State address Tuesday to start the 2013 legislative session, pushing for raises for teachers and elimination of the sales tax on manufacturing equipment.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "This is now the third time I have had the opportunity to address you to report on the state of the great state of Florida. And after two years of hard work, this update can be summed up in two words: It's working." -- Scott during Tuesday's address.

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