Editorial: Cracks in the facade of normalcy in Tallahassee

Published January 9
Updated January 9

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature on Tuesday tried to create a facade of normalcy. The governor’s last State of the State speech was perhaps his best in delivery and focus, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran delivered his usual uncompromising diatribe. Yet there is nothing normal in the state capital, which remains mired in scandal that affects public policy touching every Floridian.

Copying the eye-catching protest against sexual harassment at the Golden Globes, some women in the Capitol wore black. Among the missing were former Sens. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, who resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment of a Senate staffer and former lobbyist, and Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, who resigned after acknowledging an affair with a lobbyist. Shortly before Tuesday’s speeches, two incumbent senators appeared to acknowledge an affair after an anonymous website accused them of having a relationship and featured grainy surveillance videos from a Tallahassee condominium hallway. It’s no wonder workers’ compensation costs or juvenile justice reform have a tough time competing for attention.

To his credit, Scott delivered a strong denunciation of sexual harassment. He recounted his positive steps toward establishing policies to more effectively address it, from preventive training to clearer rules for reporting abuse. While this governor’s public policies have often been harmful to Florida, there is no questioning his personal behavior.

His renewed push for a constitutional amendment to make it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes is another matter. Scott argued that even during disasters or economic recessions, lawmakers should be required to approve tax increases by a two-thirds vote. The Legislature already ignores its responsibility to raise adequate revenue to meet the needs of the nation’s third-largest state, from education to environmental preservation to social services. Further starving Florida of resources would be irresponsible, and it would be foolish to make it harder to raise money in a crisis.

Scott still appears focused on running for U.S. Senate, and he sounded like a candidate Tuesday. The governor claimed he has demonstrated that a business executive with no political experience can capably run government, although there is a strong argument to the contrary. He took credit for the state’s economic recovery and low unemployment rate, although more than half of the 67 counties have fewer jobs than they did in 2007. He pitched for millions to raise pay for law enforcement and to fight the opioid crisis. He talked of helping Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, and he veered into foreign policy with Venezuela. He did not mention President Donald Trump, although he had lunch with the president days ago.

Yet it’s impossible to pretend it’s business as usual in Tallahassee. After the anonymous website popped up with time lines and surveillance videos, Sens. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, appeared to confirm an affair by expressing regret and seeking forgiveness. Relationships between consenting adults are generally not public issues, but this is a different situation.

How did this relationship between one of the top Senate Republicans and the Senate Democratic leader affect public policy? How did it figure into Senate Democrats failing to take a caucus position last spring against a terrible constitutional amendment to increase the homestead exemption — enabling Republicans to buy off a handful of Democrats and get the votes to put the amendment on the November ballot? How did it figure into Latvala’s failed bid for the Senate presidency, and the lack of interest among Democrats in creating a coalition with moderate Republicans to back Latvala over the more conservative Sen. Joe Negron? Who paid for the surveillance of Flores and Braynon, and of Latvala on other occasions, and what was their motive?

There should be no tolerance of sexual harassment. But sex has been weaponized in the state capital and it’s unclear who is pulling the trigger.

What is clear is the biggest benefactor is Corcoran, the Land O’Lakes Republican who stands ready to run roughshod again over the dysfunctional Senate. He will continue his crusade against public education, local government and anyone who dares to disagree. He recklessly declared Tuesday that "the Florida House will never support raising taxes on any person or any business — ever.’’ He talked of the rule of law and the "House of reformers,’’ and insisted it only takes one legislator to pass a law. Left unsaid: That one would be him.

With Scott headed out the door and the Senate in shreds, Corcoran remains the most powerful politician in Tallahassee. And the most dangerous.

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