1. Florida Politics

Florida Republicans use session for image makeover (w/video)

House speaker-designate Steve Crisafulli, left, and Speaker Will Weatherford watch members before the start of a debate Friday.
House speaker-designate Steve Crisafulli, left, and Speaker Will Weatherford watch members before the start of a debate Friday.
Published May 4, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — The Republican-led Legislature in a blue presidential state comes out of a 60-day session with an image makeover that leaders describe as compassionately conservative.

Policy shifts on immigration, marijuana and safety net spending reflected a party philosophy that moved closer to the middle on social issues — all of which poll well, even in conservative districts.

Republican lawmakers also delivered legislation to their base and big-money special interests. They passed bills expanding private school vouchers, imposing new abortion restrictions and protecting gun rights. Biggest of all is what they chose not to do: expand Medicaid.

Yet Republicans are touting bipartisan support for the budget and a more moderate stance on some social issues as proof that they are listening to voters.

"The world out there is changing,'' said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who was House speaker more than a decade ago and now is Senate Rules Committee chairman. "I have three adult children. They talk about things that I would have never thought of when I first got elected to the Legislature."

He believes the votes on immigration and medical marijuana occurred because younger Republicans arrived with new points of view. "Republicans have been in control of the Legislature almost 20 years now,'' he said. "I think people are listening better to the public now than ever before."

But for many Democrats, who supported the budget and helped to pass the tuition bill for undocumented immigrants, the GOP's tack to the middle dwarfs the impact of the decision to withhold billions in federal money and keep 750,000 Floridians from getting health insurance.

"My vote against the budget is symbolic for what's unfinished," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, one of only 15 Democratic lawmakers who voted against the budget. "It's the optics that the Republicans are looking for — a nice clean budget where everyone gets something. But that's not the case. People are dying. The water isn't clear. I can't support that."

For Gov. Rick Scott, whose re-election has become the top priority of his Republican brethren, the image overhaul was an election-year success.

"Let's think about what we accomplished: $500 million back in Florida families' pockets. Lower tuition for every Florida family," the governor declared after legislators adjourned late Friday night. "It doesn't matter what country you were born in, what family or what ZIP code. You will have your shot to live the American dream."

An architect of the shift, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he made it his mission to use his two-year term to focus on helping people "stuck in generational poverty."

To that end, Weatherford pushed bills that he says are aimed at making life easier for those struggling. They gave ID cards to people released from prisons and made it easier for people to prevent their driver's licenses from getting suspended for nondriving infractions.

In addition to allowing the children of undocumented immigrations to pay in-state tuition, legislators did other things that had never before been top of their agenda. They eliminated the waiting list for disabled Floridians in critical need of care, raised the state contributions to historically black colleges, and even boosted child welfare programs by $73 million.

"If you're born really poor, and your parents are uneducated, the odds are you're going to be poor and uneducated in this society are really high,'' Weatherford explained as he drove home on Saturday. "My party should be doing a better job fighting for people like that.''

Weatherford doesn't see a contradiction in fighting against generational poverty while he led the House's opposition to Medicaid expansion, a decision that will cost Florida about $51 billion in federal funds. He believes the Affordable Care Act will cause long-term problems.

"I don't regret that decision at all," he said Saturday.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, credits Weatherford with proving "there is such a thing as not only a compassionate conservative but an effectively compassionate conservative."

"But none of this was done just in the Republican cloakroom and the majority office,'' Gaetz said at the session's end. "Every initiative that we passed through the legislative process was bipartisan in nature."

Indeed, the $77.1 billion budget was a quandary for Democrats. More money meant more for projects in their districts but clashing with Republicans on policy differences would alienate those lawmakers, like Weatherford, who decide which projects get funded.

Despite the $1.2 billion in surplus revenue, the budget barely increases spending on springs and land preservation projects. Per-student spending for public school students still trails 2007-08 levels and the only raises for state workers were doled out to law enforcement and state attorneys and public defenders.

And while legislators touted funding for some of the people on waiting lists for need, it still left thousands on the list. Among them:

• More than 19,000 disabled people remain on the list for services while the budget includes $20 million to remove 1,260 clients considered "intensive need."

• More 9,000 seniors wait for services from the community care for the elderly program to keep them in their homes and out of nursing homes.

• More than 10,000 seniors are waiting for long-term care services while the budget covers 1,250 more.

To Republicans, local projects "are economic engines,'' that will help generate more money to pay for waiting lists next year, Thrasher said. "If we didn't fund the waiting lists this year, it doesn't mean we won't get closer next year."

But the local projects also serve a practical political purpose: they helped GOP leaders earn bipartisan support for the budget in both chambers.

According to Rep. Joe Gibbons, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, the party's support of the budget is a form of Realpolitik, a pragmatic decision to play ball with Republicans in an effort to get something in return.

Republicans want Democrats to vote for the budget, Gibbons said, because it makes them look more reasonable in an election year. And Democrats have constituents back home that need money for projects. "Anything that, as a Democrat, we can get in the budget and it can stay in there is, I think, a major accomplishment," he said.

Legislative leaders also kept conflicts muted by dosing any potential flare-ups. A bill sought by the nursing home industry, which had contributed heavily to legislative political committees, shields their investors from lawsuits. Although it was initially opposed by trial lawyers, a compromise was reached early in session and, in return, legislators dropped attempts at passing tort reforms opposed by the trial bar.

Other big-money contributors racked up their successes. Gambling interests bought time for another year to push for expanded gambling and greyhound track lobbyists killed a late push by the Senate to require them to report dog racing injuries, even when they named the bill after the Senate president's wife.

The private charter school industry didn't get its wish to impose standard contracts on school districts but it got $75 million in taxpayer money for school maintenance.

Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, said the budget is the most important document lawmakers can produce. This year, it represents a conservative ideology he can't support. But the money can make it easy to forget that, he said.

"When you become too engrossed in pet projects, the system finds a way to utilize that to get you to do other things," said Thurston, who voted against it. "When you don't care about a pet project, it's easier to stand on your principles."