Candidates Saw Their Legislative Agendas Flourish, Die
Florida politicians may have had one foot out the door the past few weeks ready to hit the campaign trail, but they were also pushing their own legislative agendas to use as political currency in the coming months.
Gov. Charlie Crist wanted a Seminole Gaming compact. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink wanted pension reform. Attorney General Bill McCollum asked for fee caps for lawyers. And Sen. Paula Dockery hoped for an open records bill.
Their victories or losses could provide each candidate with fodder for campaign commercials, political talking points or attacks against opponents.
Gov. Charlie Crist proved timing is everything in politics.
The governor’s late-session veto of the teacher merit-pay bill pushed by House and Senate Republican leaders effectively rerouted his U.S. Senate candidacy. But just as that timing proved pivotal, Crist also was helped by the lousy economy in finally getting a Seminole gambling compact through the cash-strapped Legislature.
Many ridiculed the governor in January when he included more than $400 million from an envisioned compact in his budget proposal. Two earlier attempts at forging a compact had failed – but with lawmakers facing a $3.2 billion budget shortfall, the governor’s top priority was fast-tracked through the Legislature.
In his final year as governor, Crist had a modest political agenda. And his success with the Seminole deal outweighs a loss column that includes a proposed 1 percent reduction in the state’s corporate income tax – a proposed election-year jobs creator that even some fellow Republicans dismissed as a giveaway to businesses.
In the end, the proposal’s $60 million price tag killed it. Similarly, budget decisions scaled-back many of Crist’s proposals – with his economic gardening pitch getting two-thirds of the $3 million he wanted, a sales-tax holiday coming in shorter than he proposed, and Everglades restoration and Florida Forever getting less than the $50 million in guaranteed dollars he wanted for both programs.
While Crist pushed for a build-up of affordable housing dollars, state and local housing trust funds were tapped for almost $175 million, part of a sweep of trust funds that were used to plug budget holes in other programs.
Attorney General Bill McCollum tried to shore up his business credentials in his final year as attorney general as he goes up against pro-business Democrat Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is a former Bank of America executive.
His top priority was thought to be a fee cap on private lawyers hired by the state, and that passed early and was signed by Crist in April. McCollum was strongly behind other measures seen as possible hits at the trial bar – a Democratic constituency, the opposition of which wins points in the business community, including a bill that shifts the burden of proof in slip and fall cases to the plaintiff. That also passed.
McCollum said they were “pro consumer” bills rather than pro business bills, which he said are a part of his job.
“I didn't focus on them for campaign reasons,” he said. “Right now I'm still wearing my attorney general hat.”
McCollum and Sink also fought each other directly for dominance over the pension reform issue starting far before the Legislature came into session, proposing various reforms on the issue. The Legislature passed HB 1307, which included many changes to the operating procedures of the pension fund advisers.
The bill included ethics reforms for staff and members of the pension advisory council, the creation of an audit committee to ensure annual independent audits, and enhanced reporting at quarterly meetings of the State Board of Administration, which manages the pension fund.
The pension fund reform was the center of Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's legislative agenda as she tried to polish her image as a financial executive and someone who could handle difficult financial problems facing the state.
In addition to the changes that have been included in HB 1307, Sink pushed for an expansion of the SBA Board of Trustees, which now includes Crist, McCollum and herself. She has maintained that the trustees need to include more people with financial backgrounds. Crist and McCollum are both attorneys and Sink is a former banker.
“Although the Legislature has finally made the decision to put into law reforms that I have advocated for over the last two years, they failed to include what I have consistently said is the most meaningful reform – the expansion of the Board of Trustees to include people with financial experience and expertise,” Sink said in a release Friday. “The buck stops with the Trustees and I believe that by not having the strongest oversight possible, we do a disservice to our police officers, firefighters, teachers and other state employees who entrust their retirement to our pension fund.”
Recommendations by Sink also formed the basis of SB 2386, which tried to make the contracting process more efficient. That bill passed on Friday and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
The dark horse in the governor's race, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, had the most to prove in her legislative session, having been known outside the Capitol mostly for her fervent opposition to SunRail, a proposed commuter rail system in central Florida – an issue on which she lost last year.
“Knowing that I was in a statewide campaign, I really did not introduce many bills, whereas most senators may do 30 or 40 bills, I usually do only a dozen, and this year I did less than that,” said Dockery, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Dockery said that many of the issues important to her did get attached to bills in amendments.
One of her biggest priorities, however, was a public records overhaul bill, which was based on a report issued by Crist's Commission on Open Government. The proposal would have required officials to get open government training, prohibited agencies from charging for the cost of duplication if it takes less than 30 minutes to make the records available, and created a misdemeanor offense for any public official who willingly violates the Sunshine Law. But the bill went nowhere in either the Senate or House.
Dockery said the bill's failure was “disappointing” but said she didn't think the Legislature really cared for the issue in general.
“The Republican Legislature really doesn't like the issue and second of all, I think that was a little bit of a slap to the governor,” she said, noting that Crist supported it as well.
House companions to two of her measures related to technical changes in criminal justice statutes did pass without opposition.