Senate president charts safe course for session

Mar 4, 2008

Miami Herald--Mar. 04, 2008

No ”major” insurance revisions or tax-cut plans. Big budget cuts. Money for the wrongfully incarcerated. More legislative control of state universities.

Don’t expect a whole lot more out of the Florida Legislature during the 60-day lawmaking session that begins Tuesday.

Technically, the modest agenda is just Senate President Ken Pruitt’s and not that of the full Legislature. But as Pruitt goes, so goes the Senate. And as the Senate goes, so goes the Florida Legislature.

Even last year, when Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio of West Miami set the agenda, the final decisions were ultimately made by the upper chamber, which has longer-serving members who have more political acumen, an institutional spirit of bipartisanship and is allied with Gov. Charlie Crist more closely than the House.

This year, talk of Rubio — and therefore the House’s agenda-setting prowess — was conspicuous in its absence.

Last year, Pruitt couldn’t praise Rubio enough as a ”star” and chief ”architect” of ideas that the ”master builders” in the Senate would refine. But this year in a pre-session chat with reporters, Pruitt skipped any mention of Rubio, whose hardball politics in pushing for steep and politically unfeasible property-tax cuts estranged senators from both parties last year and during three tense special lawmaking sessions.


Pruitt now wants to see the effects of two tax-cut measures — one approved by voters, the other by the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist — before doing anything more significant.

”I’ll be clear with you: There will be no concerted effort from the leadership of the Florida Senate to do anything more,” said Pruitt, a Port St. Lucie Republican. “I’m not going to stop anybody from filing a bill. But if we shared with them that there would be no leadership assistance, hopefully they’ll know there’s no appetite over here.”

Pruitt’s change of tone is marked from a year ago, when he repeatedly refused to ”pre-judge” almost any issue, saying everything deserved a fair hearing without the presiding officer weighing in. Pruitt did weigh in last year to block compensation for Alan Crotzer, who spent 24 years in prison for two rapes he didn’t commit.

Now, Pruitt has made Crotzer’s compensation a top concern. Rounding out his agenda: proposals to protect senior citizens, spend billions more on roads, reauthorize an environmental land-buying program and invest in alternative-energy production.

Pruitt is hesitant to do much more because the state’s finances are in such shambles. Legislators will need to cut this year’s and next year’s budgets during this session, and focusing on divisive issues could sidetrack them. Pruitt says the budget cuts won’t be ”slash and burn” but said some public employees should brace for furloughs.

”I’d rather have them do that and keep their job and know that next year it’s going to get better,” he said. “But there’s also public service. People that work for government better have a public-service mentality.”

Because it’s an election year, partisanship will color what relatively few policies get passed this year. That’s especially true in the bipartisan Senate now that Republican Sen. Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach, selected as next year’s Senate president, faces a potentially tough election in November against former Democratic Tamarac Sen. Skip Campbell. Polls from both parties suggest the race is a toss-up.


Atwater is leading a Senate committee that’s investigating whether hurricane insurers complied with the intent of a reform law passed last year that undid big portions of an insurance-friendly bill he sponsored in 2006.

Pruitt said he expects Atwater’s committee will ”refine” and improve the insurance reform of last year, “but I don’t see us doing anything major.”

Atwater’s likely successor for Senate president, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, also faces some political trouble over his $75,000-a-year lecturing job at the University of Florida. Some UF staffers have questioned the motives of the hire — especially as the university’s spending is reduced.


But Haridopolos’ UF job will be a sideshow to the real higher-education policy battle: Pruitt’s proposed constitutional amendment asking voters to clearly give the Legislature the authority over university tuition rates.

The amendment would largely undo a 2002 constitutional amendment, pushed by former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, that created the Board of Governors over the 11 state universities. Graham and the board have sued the Legislature to stay out of the university tuition business. The board’s just-aborted decision to tinker with the Bright Futures scholarship program further inflamed the bad relations with the Legislature.

The amendment also would make the board smaller and make the education commissioner a statewide elected position, which it was before 2002.


Despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that he never went to college, Pruitt has made affordable higher education a legacy issue. And he has helped steer hundreds of millions to top-notch research firms in an effort to help ”transform” Florida’s ”service-based economy” to a ”knowledge-based” one.

In that regard, Pruitt said the troubles with the economy are really growing pains.

”The days of coming to Florida with $500 in your pocket and living in a mobile home and living a life in paradise are over,” he said. “And that’s probably not a bad thing for Florida.”