The re-emerging centrist Florida Senate

Tuesday was a red letter day in the Florida Senate. It was the day the chamber quelled fears that the body would move right following the departure of several Republicans on parent trigger and the continued steady line the chamber has taken on pension reform and Medicaid expansion.

Term limits have had a devastating consequences over the past 12 years. The Florida Legislature has gotten worse and worse as we have gotten deeper into the term limits era.  Last year, five moderate GOP Senators were term limited and  despite three huge Democratic primary victories for liberals (electing Geraldine Thompson, Jeff Clemens and Dwight Bullard over more conservative opposition), the inevitable consequence we thought was that the upper chamber would look more like the reactionary lower chamber in 2013.

But in fact, the Senate has reinforced itself as a more responsible upper-chamber with its rejection of parent trigger, radical pension reform and the more reasoned stand the leadership of the body has taken on Medicaid expansion.

The Associated Industries of Florida (AIF) ratings that were released last year once again confirmed the House’s right wing views towards business, labor and insurance. The House contains 78 members that scored at least a 95% rating from AIF. The average rating for the entire House was 89%, meaning in many cases Democratic “leaders”  under former Rep. Ron Saunders were in fact functioning as proxies for the GOP agenda. In the past this was cause for great consternation.  The assumption was that much of the reactionary “pro-business” legislation passed by the House would either die in the Senate or face the veto pen of the Governor. But the Senate, already more conservative in 2012 than anytime since Dempsey Barron was running the chamber, we feared would be a different place for worse in 2013. But thus far, the Senate has continued its tradition of moderating the House’s excess and of taking conservative House members and turning them into more consensus oriented legislators in the Senate.

Every time we fear the Senate will look like the House, we come away pleasantly surprised the maturity of many in the upper-chamber and the moderating influence the body has on some of the previously radicalized members who cross to the other side of the capitol. During the In the 2002 session when AIF took it on the chin from a well organized House Democratic Caucus led by Lois Frankel and a Senate led by President John McKay (who scored 13% on AIFs annual scorecard, the lowest score ever recorded by a Republican since AIF started scoring the Legislature in 1979) shut down the reactionary anti-consumer agenda of AIF and its allies. But the combination of term limits for moderate GOP members of the Senate and a heavily partisan reapportionment map coupled with Jeb Bush’s reelection made us think the worst of,  times were around the corner.

The Senate was losing its moderates. John McKay, the Senate President, had pushed his own version of ESE school vouchers and some social issue legislation but on economics had essentially governed for two years like a liberal Democrat. McKay had stacked committee chairmanships with term limited or loyal moderate Republicans (such as Lisa Carlton, his former aide who had been one of the most moderate GOP members of the House before becoming a Senator, and the predecessor of Nancy Detert in both House and Senate) and several senior Democrats, effectively creating a buffer against the right wing agenda of Jeb Bush and his former running mate, House Speaker Tom Feeney. The overall Senate score average from AIF in 2002 was 42%, featuring a 13% for Senate President McKay, 26% for future Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith and 28% for future Senate President Ken Pruitt. Among leadership types only former Senate Democratic Leader Buddy Dyer scored over 50%. In 2002, the people truly won the battle with monied business interests. (Keep in mind from where I sit the lower an AIF score, the better)

Despite the gloom entering 2003, it proved to be a frustrating year for the business and insurance lobbies. While they got Medical Malpractice Reform eventually through the Senate it took three Special Sessions and lots of compromise. The center had held because several former House members had moderated their views after crossing to the other side of the Capitol. In 2005, we saw the centrist Republicans show the courage lacking in the national GOP to take on the religious conservatives in the Terry Schiavo matter. As a Floridian I am forever proud that more Republicans in the 40 member State Senate voted against Randall Terry and crazies on the right than in the entire 435 member US House of Representatives.

The trend continued through Charlie Crist’s Governorship. Mike Fasano, who had been one of the most conservative House members (except on issues related to Tort/Product Liability Reform) gradually became an economic populist, who took heroic stands on several pieces of terrible legislation.  Paula Dockery, who amassed a partisan record in the House, became a fierce critic of Governor Bush and became a de-facto Democrat on many issues, bemoaning the way the process in the Senate was handled. J.D. Alexander, always temperamentally moderate, became an effective leader on spending issues, curtailing the excessive cuts from the House. However, Alexander’s legacy will always be marred by this power grab in 2012 including the creation of the infamous Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.  Evelyn Lynn, generally an outspoken advocate on education issues, continued her moderation in the Senate. Dennis Jones, the longest serving legislator in Tallahassee, has had so much courage in his convictions through the years he often would not even give Governor’s Bush or Scott the time of day when they tried to buy his vote for school vouchers or prison privatization legislation.  All five aforementioned Senators were term limited last year, and all five were replaced by more conservative and  highly partisan Republican Senators.

The passing  of Jim King, the appointment to the PSC of Nancy Argenziano, and the term limits placed on Ken Pruitt and Lisa Carlton, in addition to the five members termed last year mentioned above meant we expected the Senate to gradually move right. But what we discovered again yesterday was that the Senate on many major issues continues to be the saving grace in an otherwise disastrous state government. We can be thankful for this.


  1. Gaetz is less conservative than Haridopoulous also.


  2. Mike Lake Worth · ·

    Clemens is not progressive. Not when you sponsor Alece bills


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