1. Florida Politics

Florida Senate braces for big changes as session begins

Published Jan. 11, 2016

TALLAHASSEE —For two decades, the Florida Senate has repeatedly battled a more conservative House and three Republican governors on issues ranging from abortion to education to privatizing prisons.

Solidly Republican yet politically moderate and less partisan than the House, the smaller and clubbier Senate wears its independence like a badge of honor, relishing every chance to flex its muscle, as it surely will again in the session that begins Tuesday. But in a Capitol where term limits have already forced dramatic changes in the House, time is catching up with the Senate, and it stands to lose some of its swagger and identity in the year ahead.

As many as 15 of the 40 senators will depart in this fall's elections, the biggest one-year housecleaning since voters embraced eight-year term limits in 1992. Such rampant turnover, coupled with changes to Senate districts, spells turmoil and unpredictable change in a body designed to be more deliberative and less ideological than the much bigger House.

"This will turn the Senate into the House," predicted Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, one of the departing senators.

Detert is a proud member of what she half-jokingly calls the Senate's "crabby caucus." She's a maverick who often votes with Democrats on social issues, and her close friend Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood is one of the Senate's most liberal members.

"Look who's going for all those Senate seats," Detert said. "They're all House members."

And that's just fine with Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, the incoming House speaker, who has been frustrated by the Senate's more liberal and pragmatic ways, such as its embrace of a form of Medicaid expansion that the House defeated and its opposition to changing public employee pension plans.

Corcoran and his like-minded band of conservatives relished giving the Senate some of its own medicine by twice killing a Medicaid expansion plan in each of the past two years.

"With all the House members going over there, it's going to shift the Senate so that it's going to be more conservative," Corcoran said. "I'm excited about it. To have transformational change, you have to have transformation within the body."

Not so fast, says Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. He's in line to be Senate president in 2018 and sees little change coming to the Senate.

Yet never before has such transformation seemed so possible.

Ten senators will be forced out because of term limits, and four others are likely to run for other offices. In addition, the redrawing of Tampa Bay districts puts two senators in the same district, one of whom will be driven from office.

Contrast that with the 2014 cycle when not one Senate seat changed hands. A special election was held in northeast Florida last spring when Sen. John Thrasher resigned to become president of Florida State University, and his replacement followed the trend: He was a much younger and more conservative House member, 31-year-old Travis Hutson.

In a Senate where Republicans hold a 26-14 advantage, bipartisan coalitions are common.

In recent years, those coalitions blocked a plan by Gov. Rick Scott to privatize all state prisons in South Florida, twice defeated "parent trigger" bills that would have empowered parents at failing schools and blocked passage of a bill requiring women seeking abortions to view an ultrasound image of the fetus.

In a high-profile, high-turnout presidential election year of 2016, it remains to be seen whether the newly redrawn Senate districts will alter the partisan composition in a way Democrats are hoping.

What's certain is that the new Senate will be younger with less real-world life experience.

The departing senators include Don Gaetz, 67, of Nice­ville, an education expert and former Senate president who co-founded a nationwide network of hospice centers; Garrett Richter, 65, of Naples, a likable small-town banker and decorated veteran of the Vietnam War; Arthenia Joyner, 72, of Tampa, leader of the 14-member Democratic caucus and a civil rights activist since she was in high school; and Charlie Dean, 76, of Inverness, a feisty former Citrus County sheriff respected for his knowledge of criminal justice issues.

In nearly every case, their successors could be younger and less-experienced House members who are used to a top-down political system where they have little independence.

Since the advent of term limits, the House, big and loud with 120 members, has become a place where power is tightly controlled in the hands of the speaker. Republicans and Democrats are divided into warring camps, and debate is often scripted with partisan talking points.

"They've got more of a chain of command. There is no chain of command in the Senate," Detert said. "In the Senate, it's like 40 different entrepreneurs."

Detert, 71, who's heading home to be a Sarasota County commissioner, said it's a troubling trend if the Senate and House begin to resemble each other.

"The House is supposed to think up crazy ideas. They just throw stuff out there," Detert said.

The two areas that will see the most turnover are Broward County, where all three Democratic senators will reach term limits, and Orlando, where Senate President Andy Gardiner, a Republican, is termed out, and where two Democrats, Darren Soto and Geraldine Thompson, are running for Congress.

"With redistricting and the new maps, you're going to see tremendous change, anyway," said Thompson, 67.

Thompson is one of four Democrats seeking a redrawn Orlando congressional seat that includes her current Senate district.

Charged with keeping the peace, Galvano said he doesn't expect much turmoil in the Senate this year in part because the battle over the Senate presidency has been resolved.

"We have a body of members that have really worked very hard in very difficult circumstances and who I think are more interested in having peace and accomplishing goals than worrying about who is coming or going," he said.

He also dismisses concerns of a transformational change in the Senate, because its smaller size compels senators to recognize one another's influence.

"I don't think the Senate will ever be the House," Galvano said.

Times/Herald staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.