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This Week in Florida Politics — It’s All About Independence

If Gov. Charlie Crist decides to forgo running in the Republican U.S. Senate primary this year to run without a party affiliation, the day he vetoed a bill to change the way teachers are paid will likely be remembered as his Independence Day.

The fireworks that surrounded the veto this week would be fitting for any Fourth of July celebration.

Crist spent most of the week publicly waffling on the legislation, which came to be more widely known outside of Tallahassee by its bill number – SB 6 – than any in recent memory. When it was all said and done, Crist had struck down the bill, which would have scrapped a part of teacher pay based on years of experience in favor of a merit pay plan tied to student test gains.

In doing so, he declared his independence from the Republican party line, and possibly, its ballot line too.

Crist tried mightily to cast the veto as an apolitical move, saying he agreed broadly with the goals of merit pay for teachers, but thought the particular bill was flawed. But in explaining the decision, he compared the way the bill moved through the Republican-led Legislature to Congressional Democrats’ push to pass a national health care bill, which has riled the GOP.

"Quite frankly it reminds me of what happened with the health care bill in Washington where members of my party criticized the Democrats for sort of jamming something down their throat, and then here, about a month later after that happened, the very same thing happens here in education," Crist said.

That likely didn’t sit well with what could soon become Crist’s (Grand) Old Party. “He's got an `R' (on the) back of his name right now. (But) you'd have to ask him if he believes he's following the principles of the Republican Party," Florida GOP Chairman and State Sen. John Thrasher said after the veto.

By week’s end, Republicans in the Legislature, who had endorsed Crist when he looked unbeatable in the primary, were talking about rescinding their support. Among them was House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, who said after the veto that it would be difficult to continue supporting Crist’s Senate campaign.

So difficult, it turned out, that hours later he gave up trying and wrote Crist a letter saying sayonara.

Perhaps even more painful for Crist, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, who Crist has long identified as a mentor, stepped down as a co-chair of his campaign over the veto.

Crist’s office cited a flood of E-mails and phone calls as the motivation for the veto, saying he received 65,259 phone calls and E-mails in opposition and 3,090 in support, plus an additional 50,902 E-mails that have not been categorized yet.

If Crist was looking for more numbers to justify bolting the Republican Party, he got those this week too. A poll that had once shown him leading former House Speaker Marco Rubio by about 30 percent showed him trailing this week by 23 percent. However, the same poll, by Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University, showed Crist leading 32 percent to Rubio's 30 percent and Democrat Kendrick Meek's 24 percent if he runs as an independent.

Crist's campaign has flatly denied that he would leave the Republican primary as recently as early April. But the numbers, combined with the veto and a surge in fundraising by Rubio, fueled speculation he might not have a choice.

"Obviously at this point, the governor's chances of being a U.S. Senator at this point appear to be a lot better if he runs as an independent candidate than if he runs in the U.S. Senate primary on the Republican side," Quinnipiac Polling Director Peter Brown said this week.

Crist didn’t downplay his veto either. This was no middle of the night quiet rejection. After a daytime news conference announcing the veto, Crist went to a Tallahassee high school for what looked like a pep rally, shaking hands as students and teachers cheered.

Democrats in Legislature cheered too, thanking Crist for stopping the bill they couldn’t. Just as after his State of the State speech this year, when Democrats cheered and Republicans mostly sat on their hands, there was enthusiasm from the left and center.

“With this veto, Governor Crist earned the increased respect of not only the 14-members of the Senate Democratic Caucus who voted unanimously against this bad legislation, but the tens of thousands of teachers, parents and students throughout Florida that raised their voices in opposition,” said Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson.

“(The) veto of SB6 shows why Floridians need to elect Alex Sink as our next governor,” Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman chimed in. “She will be a check on the Legislature's attempts to gut local control, bully Florida's teachers, and hurt the students of our state.”

Of course, governors don’t typically check legislatures led by their own party.

WAITING ROOM

The chilly relationship between Crist and GOP lawmakers was the elephant in the room this week when one Senate committee showed the governor to his seat and told him it would be a 30 minute wait and another panel voted against confirming his head of the state health care agency.

With tensions running high between the governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature as the SB 6 veto grew more likely, the Senate Health Regulation Committee voted against Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Tom Arnold. The Legislature being poised to dramatically rewrite the state's $19 billion Medicaid program serving 2.7 million Floridians was not enough for the panel to give Arnold a clean bill of job health. Blaming Arnold for failing to crack down on fraud and overspending in the state's Medicaid program, the panel voted 4-3 to spike Arnold, though it is essentially a recommendation to the full chamber, So Arnold could still survive.

A day later, Crist left little to chance as the Communications, Energy and Utilities Committee held confirmation hearings for his two appointments to the Public Service Commission. Crist showed up in person and showered the nominees with praise.

It’s rare for the governor to make an appearance before a legislative committee, but it is even rarer for a panel to keep the governor waiting. But despite Crist being in the front row, the panel took up two bills - and 30 minutes - before it got to the nominees.
Crist's appearance did not foreshadow quick confirmations for his picks either. Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, the lone vote against the two commissioners, took the governor to task for not re-appointing former PSC Chairman Matthew Carter, who had been the only African-American on the panel.

Crist deflected the claim the PSC lacked diversity after his appointments of two white men – David Klement and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens – saying repeatedly "I felt like we needed some new blood on the commission."

Klement told the panel that the PSC was diverse in other ways, saying "there's more, I'd like to suggest, than one kind of diversity."

Stevens came under fire as well for statements made during a January hearing on a rate increase request in which he appeared to indicate that he was not in favor of any rate increases, not just the ones before the PSC at the time. But Stevens attributed his statement to the economy, but quickly added that he would "have to go through it, look at where we are right now, and look at each issue."

The committee ultimately approved Stevens and Klement, but its chairman did not give Crist credit for swaying the committee to approve his nominees.

“The Senate is very independent,” the chairman, Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, told reporters. “We appreciate the governor coming and we have the utmost respect for him, but he plays no role in the Senate. He only played a role in the Senate when he was a senator.”
Elsewhere, a Senate committee that once approved an ambitious requirement that Florida power companies increase the amount of renewable energy they use by 20 percent by the year 2020 followed the House's lead in turning out the lights the standard, which had been long-sought by environmentalists. The Communications, Energy and Public Utilities committee approved an amendment that matches House legislation to increase the amount of renewable energy used by Florida power companies with incentives instead of requiring them to do so with mandates.

Additionally, the Florida Senate went all in on a $1 billion gaming deal by a 29-9 vote, sending the measure to the House for a final vote. Making the compact look like a sure bet after three years of crap shoots, the Senate – with no debate - approved the deal, which would expand gaming in the state and infuse $437.5 million into a cash-strapped budget this year.

Also, Republican Matt Gaetz, the son of state Sen. Don Gaetz, was elected this week to the House seat vacated by former Speaker Ray Sansom and state Sen. Ted Deutch won the race to replace Robert Wexler in Congressional District 19. Both were sworn into their new offices this week to complete the unfinished terms and both say they’ll run for full terms of their own in November.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Charlie Crist showed his independence, with a veto of a bill that was a top priority of Republicans in the Legislature. With his second buck of GOP legislative leadership – he earlier vetoed a Republican-backed campaign finance measure – Crist touched off yet another round of speculation that he would declare his independence from the party too.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “With a couple weeks to go before the filing deadline, I’m not going to place any bets because I’d like to wait to see if there is going to be a Republican primary.” Newly-elected U.S Rep. Ted Deutch in response to a Washington Post reporter asking him to handicap the Florida U.S. Senate race.

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