Florida Senate leader struggles to keep GOP “soldiers” in lock-step
Mar 7, 2012
The following article was published in the Palm Beach Post on March 7, 2012:
Florida Senate leader struggles to keep GOP ‘soldiers’ in lock-step
By Dara Kam
With just two days left in the legislative session, at least two high-priority — and contentious — measures remain unresolved and at least one poses a potentially embarrassing loss for Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and other Senate GOP leaders — including Rules Chairman John Thrasher and Majority Leader Andy Gardiner — are backing a controversial “parent trigger” school choice measure (SB 1718) that will come up for debate today and get a vote on Friday.
Despite it being a priority for the GOP leaders as well as former Gov. Jeb Bush, Haridopolos may not have the votes to pass it.
That would be just another loss for Haridopolos, as he prepares to leave office because of term limits. Bipartisan coalitions have formed to block at least three other red-meat Republican measures, including a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott’s, from passage or getting to the floor.
So far this session, Democrats and Republicans have joined forces to kill a prison privatization plan important to Scott, blocked a controversial abortion bill from getting to the floor for a vote, and transformed a property insurance measure to force people out of state-owned Citizens in, but in a way that its sponsor said gutted the bill.
This week, the Senate watered down a personal injury protection car insurance proposal — Scott’s top legislative priority — and overrode Haridopolos and his leadership despite two attempts to undo the damage.
“They’ve got the taste of blood,” veteran lobbyist Brian Ballard said. “And when you win on big issues, then you’re emboldened to take on other ones.”
Fueling the revolt are a confluence of factors: term-limited senators unafraid of bucking leadership, moderates unwilling to bend on conservative issues and a battle over the future Senate presidency creating an undertow that drowns allegiance to the chamber’s current leaders.
Sen. Jack Latvala, a veteran lawmaker who returned to the Senate two years ago, beat back a presidency coup staged by Thrasher and Stuart Republican Joe Negron. Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, joined their team long enough to create a revolt.
Latvala had been challenging Gardiner, R-Orlando, to take over the Senate in 2014. Now Thrasher, a former House Speaker from St. Augustine, is fighting against Gardiner, and Negron is battling Latvala for the 2016-2018 presidency.
The battle lines have intensified the already-independent senators’ defiance and created an at-times bilious atmosphere in the typically staid Senate.
The GOP defectors aren’t a solid group of Republicans but vary, depending on the issue. For example, Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, sided with Democrats and others on the privatization and Citizens insurance-shrinking issue but voted with Haridopolos on the abortion and school choice measures.
“Certainly there is a battle for power in the Senate, for a majority rule,” Storms said. “But it’s more like an amoeba trying to form. So something is trying to form but it’s not solid yet.”
The leadership dispute won’t be settled until after the November elections, in which at least eight new members will join the chamber.
But for the short remainder of the 2012 session, Storms said, senators are liberated.
“If things are failing that they’re trying to muscle through, then there is no reason not to be free to vote your own conscience and do what you think is right,” she said.
And more than a dozen budget related bills — yet to be released late Wednesday evening — could intensify the battle lines. Those bills last year included items never agreed to in committees and caused Latvala to lead a rebellion that resulted in an overtime session and a meltdown between Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Merritt Island. He threatened to do the same this year if surprise items appear in the bills.
The discord over the school choice measure sets the stage for what could be a testy conclusion of this session, at least within the Senate chamber.
“It’s going to be a very divisive and bitter kind of a debate,” said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston. “There are good bills out there. Focusing on what unites us rather than divides us would be a good thing for us to be doing.”
But Thrasher said the debate won’t tarnish the end of the session or Haridopolos’ two-year term, regardless of the outcome.
“I don’t want to end on a sour note. I want to end on a note that says look, this was an issue, this was an idea. And we let the members argue about it and discuss it and debate it and we came to a conclusion one way or the other,” Thrasher said.
While some observers question Haridopolos’ strategy of allowing votes on issues when he is uncertain he has the votes to secure passage, others credit him for doing so.
“If you tried to run the Senate a different way, I think you’d have a much bigger revolt than what you’re seeing now,” he said.