Weekly Roundup: The Two Sides of the Governor's Office
Around the State
The dual roles of the governor's office during an election year were on full display this week.
On the one hand, Gov. Rick Scott was signing and at least preparing to veto some of the bills approved in this spring's legislative session -- including accidentally "signing" one bill before it had been sent to him.
New restrictions on education standards, the last half of a sizable tax cut and a bill paving the way for undocumented immigrants to practice law in Florida all met with Scott's approval. Whatever Scott's motive for signing them, several of the bills served political ends. At the same time, the governor said a bill that would increase how fast motorists could drive on state highways wasn't his speed.
Meanwhile, blind trusts like the one Scott has used to handle his assets during his time in office came under fire from advocacy groups who object that, while the mechanism might shield knowledge about investments from elected officials, it also keeps their financial interests secret from the public.
And the fundraising machine continued to churn for Scott, his rivals and dozens of other candidates and causes across the board, as the November elections loomed.
SIGNING BILLS -- WHEREVER THEY ARE:
The closest intersection between the governor's campaign and his official duties was the signing Monday of the final portion of his $500 million reduction in taxes and fees, something already transitioning from the cornerstone of Scott's legislative agenda to the centerpiece of his campaign for re-election.
"The bill we signed today is $121 million right back into Florida citizens' hands," Scott said during a Monday news conference.
Scott last month had already signed a larger part of the tax and fee cuts, rolling back vehicle registration fees, that was expected to save motorists on average savings of $20 to $25 per vehicle.
Lawmakers approved the most recent tax-cut package (HB 5601) -- called "the patchwork of awesomeness" by House Finance and Tax Chairman Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne -- on the final day of the legislative session, saying it would save Floridians about $105 million. But Scott put the number Monday at $121 million, and his office also repeated that figure in a news release.
The savings include sales-tax holidays on hurricane gear, school supplies and energy-efficient appliances. It reduces or gets rid of taxes on college meal plans, therapeutic pet food, car seats and bicycle helmets for kids.
Scott also autographed a set of bills aimed at calming down activists worried about the state's version of the Common Core education standards. The governor was so eager to get the proposals into law, his office announced that he had authorized a bill that he was technically unable to sign.
The brief mix-up began when the governor's office announced that Scott had signed bills meant to "push back on federal intrusion." The bills included measures that would give parents more opportunities to challenge their school boards' choice of textbooks; remove the words "Common Core" from state law while leaving unchanged the state's modified version of the benchmarks; and ban the collection of students' biometric and other personal information by school districts.
There was just one hitch -- the Legislature had not yet sent Scott the education privacy bill, meaning that he could not sign it. After the announcement, Scott's office asked the Legislature to send the bill to him. Lawmakers complied, and Scott inked it along with another measure giving school districts one year to transition to a new state test.
Scott approved several other proposals this week, including a bill that would allow admission to The Florida Bar for a Mexican-born law school graduate who was brought to the country at age 9 by his parents and became an undocumented immigrant.
But the governor announced he would slam the brakes on an effort to increase speeds on state highways by vetoing a bill that would have allowed the Florida Department of Transportation to consider hiking maximum speed limits by 5 mph.
"I'm going to stand with law enforcement and I want everybody to stay safe," Scott said less than a week after a Florida Highway Patrol trooper made an impassioned plea for him to veto the bill at a fellow trooper's funeral.
DO TRUSTS BLIND THE PUBLIC?
Open-government advocates didn't attack any of the bills that Scott signed into law this week, but they did take aim at a 2013 law that allows elected officials to put financial assets in blind trusts that do not offer detailed public disclosure of the holdings.
Jim Apthorp, former chief of staff to the late Gov. Reubin Askew, filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the law.
The suit has the backing of the First Amendment Foundation, the League of Women Voters and half a dozen media organizations that will file friend-of-the-court briefs, including the Associated Press, The Miami Herald and The Florida Times-Union.
Apthorp and the attorney in the case, Talbot "Sandy" D’Alemberte, said the use of blind trusts circumvents the full disclosure of public officials' holdings required by the Sunshine Amendment, which Askew spearheaded and Florida voters overwhelmingly passed in 1976.
Apthorp's petition asks the high court to prohibit Secretary of State Ken Detzner from accepting the qualifying papers of any candidate who has placed finances in a blind trust.
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford released a joint statement Wednesday defending the law, which was known as Senate Bill 2 and followed a 2010 grand jury recommendation about the use of blind trusts and a 2012 recommendation from the Commission on Ethics and suggested that the lawsuit was politically motivated.
"For the plaintiff to suddenly come forward with his objections four years after the grand jury report, two years after the ethics commission’s recommendations and one year after Senate Bill 2 was enacted raises the suspicion that this is not a serious or sincere constitutional challenge but a cynically timed political ploy designed and timed to affect the outcome of this year’s elections,'' the statement said.
Although Apthorp and D’Alemberte are Democrats, as was Askew, they said the lawsuit doesn’t target Scott, a Republican.
"Gov. Scott did everything that the ethics commission and the Legislature asked him to do," Apthorp said. "So I don’t think he’s done anything wrong here. The problem is that the statute under which he received advice is not constitutional."
Scott's campaign manager Melissa Sellers on Thursday sent a letter to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, making clear the governor would comply with disclosing his individual investments if blind trusts are barred.
"If the courts believe the trust should be dissolved, all assets will be disclosed in accordance with the law for qualifying," Sellers wrote.
In a development that no one could dispute has everything to do with the 2014 elections -- and where blind trusts are unquestionably forbidden -- campaign-finance reports started rolling in for candidates across the state,
Former Gov. Charlie Crist, a onetime Republican now running against Scott as a Democrat, and a closely aligned political committee raised about $2.2 million in cash in April and neared a total of $10 million to fuel this year's campaign.
Crist's haul for the month topped the combined $1.3 million in cash raised in April by Scott and a Scott-aligned political committee known as "Let's Get to Work." The Scott re-election effort still has a major financial edge over Crist, primarily because Let's Get to Work had raised an overall total of $28 million through April 30, and Scott has already put some of that money to use.
The reports showed Let's Get to Work spent $5.1 million on advertising in April. It still had roughly $18.4 million available to spend, while the candidate's campaign account had about $3.1 million as of April 30.
At the same time, the contributions to Scott and Crist only provide a partial picture of how the campaign's finances are taking shape. The Republican Party of Florida, for example, sent out a news release Monday indicating it had raised $1.72 million in April and that at least part of that money would go toward helping Scott.
Running far behind both men was former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, Crist's primary foe, who raised $20,748 in cash for her campaign account in April, while also receiving $34,583 in in-kind contributions, newly filed reports show.
Rich had raised an overall total of $348,804 in cash through April 30, while spending $244,554, the reports show. She also had received a total of $216,883 in in-kind contributions.
Rich also heads a political committee called Citizens for a Progressive Florida. It had raised an overall total of $92,815 but did not report receiving any contributions in April.
Overall, the reports filed Tuesday showed a continuation of huge fundraising leads for GOP Cabinet incumbents Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. Bondi had raised a total of nearly $1.16 million for her campaign account through April, while Putnam and Atwater had each topped $1.7 million.
Former Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon, a Democrat running for attorney general, had raised a total of $212,386 through April. But none of the other Democratic candidates for the three Cabinet seats had collected more than $102,392, the total raised by attorney general candidate Perry Thurston.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Open-government advocates filed suit against a law allowing elected officials to put their assets in blind trusts, saying the mechanisms kept the public from knowing about the officials' financial holdings.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "There won't be fields of marijuana growing in Florida. It will be grown under roof, in controlled environments, inside, for obvious security reasons." -- Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, speaking about the potential impact of the impending legalization of low-THC marijuana, in a videotaped interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel editorial board.