The week that was in Florida politics

week in reveiw

At the end of the first week of the 2015 Legislative Session, the Capitol City’s newspaper printed an editorial cartoon that compared lobbyists to great white sharks. The cartoon asks which species pose a greater threat to Floridians; paid advocates or Jaws.

Psychologists tell us we see what we know and what we know influences how we think, which affects what we see.

It wouldn’t be fair to say the cartoonist provided insight into his view of the world when he may just have needed a quick frame to elicit a smile, but there are people who think the political process is hopelessly corrupted by Gucci-wearing lobbyists.

I see lobbyists as integral players in the act of self-government.

Tuesday, the people of Florida began a 60-day negotiation session over a budget and policy initiatives for a state of 20 million people. They elected 160 part-time lawmakers. Let the words part-time sink in.

Lawmakers arrive in Tallahassee with different levels of expertise. Some, like Speaker Steve Crisafulli and House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, we can expect to understand the water problems the state is facing and the different avenues to resolving problems.

They may have different perspectives because one is a farmer and another an environmentalist, and they represent different parties and regions of the state but they know the issue.

The members of their caucuses, though, are bankers, insurance agents, roofers, and contractors and so on with expertise in other areas. However, all of them get one vote on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of people they represent.

That’s where the lobbyists step in, providing research, explaining the ramification of proposals, and suggesting ideas that haven’t been considered while hundreds of proposals are dispensed with during a 60-day negotiation period.

There are millionaire lobbyists walking the halls of the state Capitol, for sure, and there are lobbyists who save money by skipping lunch. It’s a diverse state.

Like the journalists covering the process and the lawmakers participating in the process, lobbyists have their areas of expertise. Some are good at what they do, some not so much. Some you trust and others you don’t.

Their presence may indicate a process perverted and corrupted by money as much as it shows what self-government in action looks like. After all, not all 20 million of us can take two months off work and attend committee meetings and debate the intricacies of standardized testing, now can we?

And if one side of an issue or one party is more organized and is better prepared to participate in the negotiations that occur during committee meetings are they the threat to self-government or is it the group that can’t figure out how the game is played?

Big developments occurred this week in two issues that will play out during the next nine weeks, and the waiting game for medicinal marijuana continued for the estimated 1,600 children afflicted with an often-fatal form of epilepsy.

Thursday, the third day of the session, the House passed HB 7003 designed to reduces pollution in runoff, protect natural springs, and lift environmental restrictions north of Lake Okeechobee.

Environmentalists don’t like it and now are hoping for the Senate to revise the bill.

“It has been described as a comprehensive water bill and it’s missing one thing, it’s not comprehensive,” said House Democratic Leader Pafford. “There’s nothing about Apalachicola, frankly there’s no discussion of anything South of the Lake (Okeechobee). Lot’s of discussion of east and west of the Lake, lot of discussion of north of the Lake, no discussion of Florida Bay and salinity levels.”

There’s more on the issue here.

The House moving so early on a major policy initiative suggests the making of an old- fashioned donnybrook is down the road. Recalling being mentored by the late Sen. Jim King when he moved from the House to the Senate, former legislator Carey Baker said in his day the House wasn’t about thinking deliberately about issues.

“You know in the House I didn’t feel we should do deliberate; let’s get things done and let’s get things done now, but guys like Sen. King were like, ‘Now hold on there, young fellow,’” Baker said. “Sen. King’s view of the Senate was the same one as the founding fathers; slow down, think this through, let it rest a little, and see what happens.”

In other words, HB 7003 could just be an opening bid.

Let’s move to the budget where the Senate Appropriations chairman said things are at a stalemate.

“Until we get some clarity to this picture on how we are going to address healthcare and unreimbursed care in the state of Florida, we are not going to be allocating large chunks of resources to any priorities, including individual member priorities,” Sen. Tom Lee said Thursday.

The uncertainty stems from the scheduled June 30 end of a federal program that reimburses hospitals almost $2 billion annually for the care of the uninsured. Gov. Rick Scott has included the money in his budget proposal, which Lee said was an irresponsible thing to do.

Scott wants Washington to reconsider saying he will not use state dollars to fill a hole in the budget created by Washington. There’s more on that here.

The key to understanding what happened during the first week of the session may be in the advice a lawmaker gave to a Florida State University political science student this week.

“Never be rational at the beginning of negotiations or else you will lose,” a South Florida legislator said. I wasn’t a part of the conversation so I won’t identify anyone but it’s the tactic that is important here.

“If you want 50% of something start by asking for 90,” the student was told.

“Take this transportation project, I’m not going to get what I want but it’s going to be a hell of a lot better when I’m through with it.”

The theory may have very well been the organizing principle for the Department of Health when attempting to implement the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014. The rewrite of a rule is much different from the original proposal.

There’s about a week left in the challenge period for the proposed regulatory structure for a medicinal marijuana industry in Florida. Growers challenge the first proposal delaying a start-up that should have occurred Jan. 1. So DOH invited a group of stakeholders to help write a second proposal, which now sits in a cooling off period while affected parties decide whether to allow it to become finalized.

One lobbyist confided that there is “chatter” about a challenge. One can read the tealeaves in a letter from the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee to the Office of Compassionate Use and the OCU’s response  to try to discern on what grounds the rules would be challenged.

Rep. Matt Gaetz who sponsored the act in the House said he thinks the joint negotiated rule-making session the OCU held created a consensus, and he is hopeful there will be no challenge.

“I keep my fingers crossed every day that no one will challenge this rule so that needy patients can get the medical cannabis they need,” Gaetz said Wednesday.

Senate and House leaders agreed that they want to see the 2014 act implemented before considering any other medicinal marijuana legislation.

“I think there is brilliance in the Brandes bill but my preference is to go around the block with the training wheels on before we take them off,” Gaetz said. “I would like to see what is working and what is not working with the structure that we have already put into law before changing that structure in any meaningful way.”

If no challenge emerges next week then the rule will be effective the first week of April and Florida’s first legal marijuana crop could begin to sprout in August.

James Call


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