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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014
Columnists

Dockery: No ‘House of Cards,’ but still good political drama

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I had intended to offer a halftime report on the Florida Legislature’s 60-day legislative session, but the vast majority of the action occurs in the last two weeks — or, more accurately, in the last few days.

Although there are rules that govern the introduction and disposition of bills, in the end the will of the legislative leaders trumps the rules in each of their respective chambers. It’s not that they ignore the rules; it’s that the rules are written in a manner to allow them to use them to their benefit, particularly when the legislators have a vested interest in pleasing their presiding officers.

So as the legislative session enters its most action-packed phase, the best predictor of a bill’s outcome is based on where legislative leadership is on the issue.

Although individual members exercise some free will during the committee process, the last 10 days are pretty carefully scripted within each chamber — the Florida House and the Florida Senate.

To set the stage, the budget conference between the House and Senate has begun to work out the differences in the annual spending plan. To some extent, that too is micromanaged by the Legislature’s leadership when they release the budget allocations, forcing spending to conform to breakdowns by area such as education, health, criminal justice, transportation and the environment.

Much of the negotiation has already occurred at the highest levels before the conference formally begins. Although some smaller decisions and details are traded during conference, most of the work is done out of sight and behind the scenes.

The major decisions are horse-traded between the House speaker and the Senate president. They can negotiate in good faith so each can walk away with a victory, or they can dig in and risk a standoff. They can either have a plan to land smoothly or they can have a complete meltdown. The meltdowns are stunning.

What happens between the two chambers and the governor’s office depends on the relationship between those three major players. It also depends on their leadership ability, their negotiating skills, their trust and respect for each other and the willingness of their respective members to back them up in their deal making.

Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford all had pretty limited agendas. All three wanted to put money aside in reserves for use in times of a budget shortfall. It appears as though that is happening to the tune of $3 billion. Another area of agreement is tax cuts. Again, it seems all three will be able to claim victory with $500 million in tax cuts and fee reductions.

And because state revenues have increased by billions of dollars in the past few years, all three called for increased spending in numerous parts of the budget, including education. Although the budget isn’t finalized, it does appear that education will see a respectable increase — albeit not historic as some might claim.

What else does Scott want? He asked the Legislature to reverse increases in college tuition rates. The Legislature seems willing to grant only a partial reduction, denying him a full win on that issue.

Scott expressed support for one of Weatherford’s top priorities: in-state tuition rates for undocumented Florida students. Gaetz expressed opposition, but the majority of his chamber doesn’t share his view. Despite the support of more than half of the senators, it is unclear whether the bill will get a vote in the full Senate. This might be one of the issues used to negotiate or staged to allow Scott to be the hero.

Weatherford also wants school voucher expansion and employee pension reform, both of which are in a state of uncertainty. Gaetz, however, promised no voucher expansion without accountability measures relating to testing, a position on which he seems to be softening.

It’s more difficult to decipher what Gaetz’s priorities are, but he seems to support Medicaid expansion, ethics reform and legalization of a particular form of medicinal marijuana known as “Charlotte’s web.” The first seems dead, the second stalled and the third moving in the Legislature but threatened by Scott.

These priorities — and contentious issues such as craft beer — will most likely be decided in the last 48 hours of the session, with plenty of plot twists. Things are not always what they seem. Predicting their outcome is great political sport but as futile as guessing the next scene in an episode of “Scandal.” So tune in on May 1 and 2 for some great political drama. It’s no “House of Cards,” but it has a lot of interesting characters.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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