Halfway through session, friction heating up Legislature


In this file photo, the Florida House of Representatives chambers is shown during the first day of the 2001 session.

Jon M. Fletcher/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — One Republican state senator became so incensed when Democrats opposed his elections bill he claimed personal insult. Meanwhile, House Democrats faulted GOP leaders for not being “courageous” and expanding health insurance for the poor.

And so the tone in Tallahassee grew increasingly contentious as Florida's 60-day legislative session passed the midpoint last week.

Claims of excessive partisanship bubbled to the surface as Democrats and Republicans accused each other of putting politics above the public good. They scolded, and scolded some more.

Such political combat is hardly new in the state Capitol, but some lawmakers had expressed hope that this year would be different. Following a divisive election that saw President Barack Obama win Florida and Republicans hold large majorities in the Legislature, state leaders pledged to come together and take a more bipartisan approach to the legislative session.

There have been some notable examples of Democrats and Republicans joining forces on issues including elections reform and gay rights. But as the clock ticks down, the knives are starting to come out.

Perhaps it was inevitable.

This is also the time of year when every vote counts, and legislative leaders are counting votes. Bills must move or die, and lawmakers have to weigh concerns about how an issue will play in their district against cajoling from fellow lawmakers and legislative leaders.

Deals can fall apart in spectacular fashion, like on Tuesday when Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, blasted Senate Democrats for voting against an election reform bill he described as a bipartisan product.

“I know what partisanship is when I see it,” Latvala said.

Democrats were just as aggressive.

“We walked into this process, it was going to be a happier place, a bolder place, there'd be a new tone,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, before ripping House Republicans for refusing to expand Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor.

‘C' grade?

Legislative leaders say they never expected perfect harmony.

“Of course we're gonna have disagreements; we come from different political philosophies,” said Senate President Don Gaetz.

But Gaetz defended his chamber's overall level of inclusiveness.

“It seems to me that we have more across-the-aisle cooperation and civility in this session than I've seen previously,” he said, adding that “while we'll have disagreement on principles and on individual issues, there's no acrimony that exists across the aisle in this chamber that I can determine.”

Some Democrats echoed those sentiments.

Gaetz has appointed five Democrats to chair committees in the Senate, compared with just two under former President Mike Haridopolos last year. Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, used her position as chair of the Children and Families Committee to advance a controversial civil unions bill, which passed the committee with support from four Democrats and Venice Republican Sen. Nancy Detert. Sobel called Gaetz “a breath of fresh air.”

“The fact that I'm a committee chair shows a different tone,” she said.

But Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, said legislative leaders deserve a “C” grade at best for bipartisanship.

Bullard held a news conference last week to call for action on nearly a dozen stalled gun control bills. Democrats want “nothing more than workshops” on the gun bills, Bullard said.

Top lawmakers' refusal to have a frank discussion on gun violence does the public a disservice, he said.

Bullard also described House and Senate leaders' refusal to expand the traditional Medicaid system in Florida as a deeply partisan act that could deny health insurance to nearly 1 million Floridians.

The Medicaid issue led House Democrats to vote against the budget in committee last week.

Legislative leaders are working on an alternative to Medicaid expansion. But it has been slow to come together, and even if lawmakers agree on an alternative plan there is no guarantee the federal government will go along.

“We failed to be courageous,” Pafford said.

Tables turned

It is not unusual to see Democrats lash out in frustration in the state Capitol. They are severely outnumbered in the Legislature and often turn to the court of public opinion.

Republicans do not need support from Democrats to pass legislation. But many don't like to seem too partisan — and for good reason.

The perception that Gov. Rick Scott has been too ideological has contributed to his low approval ratings. Facing a tough re-election battle, Scott's tone has changed dramatically and he is emphasizing issues like education and economic development that are popular across party lines. Scott even went a step further and endorsed Medicaid expansion, a divisive issue in his party.

Lawmakers prefer to be seen as fighting for the common good, not partisan advantage. So when attacked this past week, some Republican leaders turned the tables and accused Democrats of being unreasonable.

Latvala said he had worked hard with Democrats on the elections bill and included many of their suggestions in the legislation, intended to address the long lines that arose during the last election season when early voting was curtailed.

The Senate elections bill is similar to the House bill Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, passed with bipartisan support, a fact noted by Latvala and Gaetz.

But Senate Democrats have insisted on a more uniform early voting system. The elections reform bill allows for additional early voting days and locations but makes some of the provisions optional for local officials. Democrats wanted a guarantee that every county would have early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.

Latvala was not happy when three Democrats on the Senate Community Affairs Committee voted against his bill.

Describing himself as one of the least partisan Republicans in the Florida Senate, Latvala said he was taking the Democratic opposition “a little bit personal.” He slammed Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, for being inflexible.

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