As the Florida Legislature convenes this week, forget the sideshow. The battle between Gov. Rick Scott and House Republicans over job incentives and tourism promotion will burn itself out. There are other fires to fight, and left unchecked they could torch the institutions, constitutional protections and community life we take for granted. Here are five smoldering areas that could burn out of control:
• Handcuffing thE judiciary
Republicans hate the courts acting as a check on executive and legislative branches, from blocking abortion restrictions to overturning death penalty rules. Gov. Rick Scott routinely rejects Florida Bar lists of names for judicial nominating commissions. Now House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would apply 12-year term limits to Florida Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges. That would make the courts even more vulnerable to political manipulation, and the best and the brightest legal minds would be less likely to seek judicial appointments.
• Eroding open government
Some perennial bad ideas, such as making searches for university presidents more secretive, are back and have momentum. Others, such as keeping secret the identity of murder witnesses, are constitutionally suspect. One of the most sweeping would make it harder for plaintiffs to collect legal fees from agencies that illegally withhold public records. Another would allow two members of the same city council, school board or other governing board to meet in secret. That would eviscerate government-in-the-sunshine.
• Easing gun restrictions
This time it's a shotgun approach, with bills allowing guns to be carried in airports, government buildings and a dozen or so other places that are now off limits. Gun owners with concealed weapons permits could carry openly on the streets, and bans on carrying concealed weapons would be lifted at universities, professional sporting events and polling places. If businesses dared to ban concealed weapons on their private property, they could be held liable if a permit holder is hurt or killed by an unlawful act. Unlike last year, some of these bills are likely to pass. Welcome to the Wild West.
• Attacking nonprofit hospitals
Repealing certificate of need requirements for the state to approve new hospitals or expansions comes up often, but this time it has momentum. So does lifting limits on the number of trauma centers. Scott, who ran a for-profit hospital system, is no fan of nonprofit hospitals and wants to cut millions they receive to treat the poor. Republican lawmakers advocate free markets. The changes would seriously hurt Tampa General Hospital, BayCare hospitals and other nonprofits by slashing money to treat the poor and diverting well-insured paying patients elsewhere.
• Expanding gambling
Bet on a deal. Plans are moving, and the state could use the cash from a new pact with the Seminole Tribe. As usual, the Senate wants a huge expansion of slot machines, a new Miami casino and dog tracks that have slots and no dogs. The House objects, and Corcoran talks tough. But can he turn down the money?