TALLAHASSEE — As state lawmakers grapple with how to close a $3.2 billion budget gap and shrink unemployment ranks, Florida's leading candidates for governor are playing it safe.
Neither Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum nor Democratic Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink has advanced a bold agenda to influence any of the major policies that either could inherit on inauguration day in January.
McCollum says he won't be "getting into the weeds" on the budget. Sink says she'll be keeping "a very watchful eye" on lawmakers.
"Both of them are cautious," said Karen Woodall, a longtime lobbyist identified with farmworkers, tax reform and liberal causes.
Meanwhile, Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, the underdog candidate in the Republican race, is the only one to have a vote on the legislative issues.
But because Republican leaders in the Senate have endorsed McCollum, she says she's operating with "a little bit of a target on my back, and I don't expect to get much of my legislation passed this session."
McCollum, 65, is in his fourth statewide campaign in a decade. After serving 20 years in Congress, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and 2004 and was elected to succeed Charlie Crist as attorney general in 2006.
The highlights of McCollum's legislative agenda include capping legal fees to outside law firms that represent the state on a contingency-fee basis; creating broader oversight of the state pension fund; expanding the attorney general's authority to pursue debt collectors; and cracking down on "pill mills" by making it more difficult for pharmacies to prescribe and dispense medications.
But McCollum is not giving any guidance to lawmakers on how to deal with the budget shortfall.
"By and large, I'm leaving it to the Legislature," McCollum said. "I obviously have views — people ask me, for example, about public safety, and I certainly believe as attorney general the first priority of a state is public safety. … I do kind of nudge in that direction, but I'm not getting into the weeds of every budget detail."
To improve the economy, McCollum wants Florida to play to its strengths to get sales tax revenue flowing by promoting tourism, travel and agriculture industries. He supports measures to lure industries but opposes targeted tax credits that he considers minimally effective.
Sink, 61, is running her second statewide race. She served for 26 years as a banking official at NationsBank of Florida and Bank of America and was elected state CFO after Tom Gallagher resigned to run for governor.
Sink's legislative agenda includes increasing pension fund oversight, cracking down on no-bid state contracts, increasing penalties for unscrupulous insurance agents who target seniors, and making it easier for her agency to fight financial fraud.
She said she believes the Legislature's top priority should be creating jobs. She supports some targeted tax incentives, but is wary that the Republican-led Legislature will fall prey to special interests that, in the name of job creation, will attempt to eliminate regulatory hurdles intended to protect the public.
"Special interests out there are looking at this critical situation, and they're salivating at the opportunity to come in here and convince this Legislature that now's the time to relax regulation," she said. "I wish I felt better about the ability of this Legislature to stand up and do what's good for the citizens of our state."
Dockery, 48, is in her second term in the state Senate and her 12th year as a legislator. Her legislative package includes prohibiting legislators from voting or participating in legislation that could benefit them personally; making it more difficult for lawmakers to raid special-purpose accounts known as trust funds; and creating a uniform process for the confidentiality of information dealing with recruiting businesses to Florida to avoid what she considers corporate welfare.
Because Dockery is running against McCollum as an anti-establishment candidate, she said she expects her candidacy to have a negative effect on the willingness of her legislative colleagues to help her this session.
"I've heard from people in Tallahassee that they've been urged not to help me or their issues will suffer," she said. "I've said to people: 'Fine. When session is through, I'll be happy to accept their help at that time.' "
Unlike Sink and McCollum, however, who can continue to raise campaign contributions, Dockery is banned from fundraising during the session.
On some of the issues that will consume the session, the candidates for governor agree: All support easing class-size limits and using federal stimulus money to balance the state budget. And all three are skeptical of the need for oil drilling off the coast.
McCollum opposes a Seminole Indian gaming compact, which he sees as a threat to the pro-family tourism image cultivated by Disney World and many related attractions. Sink supports a compact but only if it creates a level playing field for the state's existing gambling companies.
"It's rather disproportionate to say we're going to let the Hard Rock Cafe in Tampa grow into this very big casino, offering card games and everything, and not really be regulated by the state to any degree," McCollum said. "It doesn't somehow seem right."
Sink criticizes the governor for signing a compact that "would have resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in our Florida-based parimutuels."
"Since we have gambling in this state, there ought to be a contract and agreement that is more fair to the other parts of our parimutuel industry," she said.
Sink chastises legislators for being critical of the federal stimulus program and then accepting $5 billion of it to pass last year's $66 billion budget. "What would they have done without the $5 billion? Talk about jobs, tens of thousands of jobs would have been lost," she said. "It's our taxpayer dollar. It's meant to stimulate our economy or to save jobs."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.