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Rubio lashes out as stressful term winds down

TALLAHASSEE — As Marco Rubio's time as House speaker dwindles, he finds himself double-teamed by the Senate and Gov. Charlie Crist.

Last weekend, he decided to vent.

After the House devolved into partisan chaos over a decision by Rubio's team to block Democratic debate on an education bill, Rubio dashed off a series of e-mails from his private e-mail account to reporters. He offered opinions on the Senate, Crist and issues such as a proposed gas tax cut.

But the speaker insisted the information, sent from a personal email account, was off the record, meaning the contents could not be quoted.

Such pointed commentary by a legislative leader is highly unusual in the closing days of a session when leaders act cagey in public and privately horse-trade priorities. The next few days will seal the fate of Rubio's ambitious goals of property tax cuts, government spending caps and improving the lives of black men.

Rubio, 36, the first speaker in Florida history who has led in the bright light of the blogosphere and its immediate impact on policy and politics, agreed to discuss the content of the e-mails in an on-the-record session.

He questioned whether Crist knew the fiscal implications of his idea to lift gasoline taxes for a week this summer. After learning that Crist was lobbying freshman House members to advocate a gas tax holiday, Rubio said he demanded that Crist's staff list what road projects they would cut to make up for a loss in gas tax money.

"I don't know if they know there's a $35-million-a-week implication to doing this," Rubio said.

Told of Rubio's comments, Crist said: "It depends on how much they cut." Crist confirmed that he has lobbied lawmakers to pass the gas tax cut over Rubio's objections. Asked how he and Rubio were getting along, Crist said: "Couldn't be better."

Rubio's and Crist's teams have battled over the best way to offer low-cost, bare-bones health policies for the uninsured. Last Friday, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, a former House member, worked the House floor, lobbying his ex-colleagues to favor the governor's ideas over those favored by Rubio.

"There really isn't a senator that we're negotiating with on the health care plan. We're negotiating with the governor's office," Rubio said.

Rubio must cope with a shift in political dynamics: When his mentor, Jeb Bush, was governor, he usually was aligned with the House. The Senate was the third wheel. Now a centrist governor and Senate are lined up against the more conservative House.

Rubio has dealt with a lot of tumult in his two-year tenure, including scandals involving two former Republican lawmakers: Ralph Arza, a Rubio ally who resigned after making racial slurs to another lawmaker, and Bob Allen, who was convicted on a sex solicitation charge. Two other Republican members, Mike Davis and Don Davis, died.

Rubio also saw his signature issue of property tax cuts battered in special sessions last year, exposing a chasm with the Senate and Crist. He has also fought the widespread sentiment that major property tax changes should be left for a powerful citizen panel, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

"All the editorial boards wrote about how it should be deferred to them. Now we have deferred to them, and (the same critics are saying) they are all crazy, they have no credibility," he said of backlash at the panel's own struggle with the issue.

Against that backdrop, Rubio seems to be struggling to protect his legacy. He came in brimming with ideals, summed up in a book of 100 "innovative ideas" wrapped around his polished rhetoric and youthful charisma. Above all, he said, he pursued major issues such as property taxes and property insurance that are relevant to Floridians.

"The fights have been about, the arguments have been about and the defining issues have been dinner table, water cooler issues," Rubio said.

Rubio has earned accolades for his big ideas, but his public image has not always measured up to the ambition. The fight over property taxes in particular has left him seeming rash and unyielding at times. While the Senate has rejected any property tax legislation this year because of the billions in cuts already in place, Rubio's House has continued to push, including passing several proposals Wednesday. Democrats said it was purely to produce campaign literature for November elections.

Tensions between the House and governor's office are magnified by a feeling among Crist's aides that Crist won a decisive victory in 2006 in an otherwise bad year for Republicans. Because of that, they say, Crist's agenda should be given great weight, lest GOP lawmakers face attacks in the fall for cutting programs too deeply, not cutting gas taxes or doing too little to help the uninsured.

But Rubio said Crist has "the luxury" of laying out a broad goal — say, helping children with autism — but lawmakers have the burden of actually finding the money to pay for the programs.

In the interview, Rubio also acknowledged that the House would inevitably agree, "sooner rather than later," with Crist and the Senate to tap the $2.4-billion Lawton Chiles Endowment health care fund to reduce cuts to people with extraordinary medical needs.

Crist told Broward County leaders Wednesday that he, Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt are close to an agreement to spend Chiles money on health programs, as Crist first proposed in January.

"Originally there was some resistance to that," Crist said. "Their resistance was well-intended, but it seems to be waning a bit. I'm encouraged by that because it's your money."

Rubio defended his team against criticism by Democrats that last week's meltdown was the result of heavy-handed partisanship by Majority Leader Adam Hasner and Whip Ellyn Bogdanoff.

"Adam Hasner is the most partisan Republican in the Florida House. That's his job," he said. "Ellyn Bogdanoff's job is to drive the agenda, not to make friends, but to make things happen … They are two of the best appointments I've made."

Steve Bousquet and Alex Leary can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or bousquet@sptimes.com and aleary@sptimes.com.

Rubio lashes out as stressful term winds down 04/23/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 25, 2008 12:47pm]
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