Rick Scott falls victim to the legislature’s historic “seven year itch”

Florida’s legislature has a way of reinforcing checks and balances on second term “lame duck” governors. Governor Rick Scott experienced this session what Jeb Bush did in 2005 and Lawton Chiles did in 1997 – once you have no midterm election where you need to run with the Governor or a shift in priorities, the legislature reasserts its control of the process.

Each Governor had different circumstances – In 1996, Governor Chiles’ Democrats lost control of the House by a 61-59 count (the Senate favored the GOP 23-17) despite Bill Clinton’s six-point victory in the state.  The GOP picked up four seats but they also seemingly picked up the loyalty of lots of Democrats who weren’t concerned about Lawton Chiles “power” any longer, determined heir apparent Buddy MacKay wouldn’t be elected in 1998 and made common cause with conservative Republicans for self-preservation. Some newly elected Democrats began voting with the GOP immediately and one, Rep. Sandy Murman of Tampa switched parties right after the session ended. Her switch opened the door for veteran legislators (some of which really weren’t that conservative at the time but were sitting in districts where no longer being in the majority party meant suddenly you could get beat easily) to switch parties and by the time the 1998 election rolled around Chiles Democrats were down 66-54 and the Governor had used his veto pen over and over again on issues related to reproductive rights, tort reform and education.

For many legislators, Governor Chiles didn’t exist come 1997. The GOP takeover was such an earth shattering event in Florida political history, and such a traumatic event for Democrats, that many in the newly minted-minority party stopped looking to the Executive Branch for cover and began cutting individual deal after deal. It’s a culture the Democrats have not gotten away from two decades later. Chiles for his part vetoed legislation even if it had been sent to his desk with massive “bipartisan” support.

For Jeb Bush things were different – his party held record majorities after the 2004 GOP sweep (84-16 in the House and 26-14 in the Senate) where George W. Bush had won the state by five points over John Kerry and Mel Martinez was elected to the US Senate thanks largely to Bush’s coattails. But Bush found an environment not to his liking in the State Senate come session. Senate President Tom Lee appeared to be losing control over members of his own caucus and on the highest profile issue to hit the Florida Legislature in years, the Terry Schiavo case, more Republicans crossed over and voted with the Democrats (nine) in the State Senate than had on similar legislation in the US Congress! The dissidents that crossed over included a former Senate President (Jim King) and a future one (Ken Pruitt) as well as Polk County heavyweights J.D Alexander and Paula Dockery.

For those who weren’t around Tallahassee in 2005, it was unlike anything anyone had ever experienced. The eyes of a nation were fixated on Florida’s capitol building even while American soldiers were getting their heads blown off in Iraq at an alarming rate. The Schiavo case became the fulcrum of the culture wars that were sweeping the nation. The Bush brothers in alliance with the likes of Randall Terry and elected officials such as Tom Delay and Rick Santorum attempted to allow the Federal Government to interfere in a Florida case by passing legislation. The case and the debates in Congress and legislature dominated cable news for weeks in the way Jim Comey’s firing does today – meanwhile protesters on both sides from around the country converged on Tallahassee and made it virtually impossible for other business to be dealt with.

The Schiavo situation was resolved by early April, but as session wound down, Bush’s second biggest priority was defeated in the Senate as Majority Leader Alex Villalobos flipped sides and opted to vote the Democrats in opposition to an expansion of school vouchers. Some Republicans including Dennis Jones of Pinellas County were so off the reservation by that time, The St Petersburg Times reported the Governor hadn’t even bothered to lobby for his support on vouchers, preferring to lobby potentially wavering Democrats instead. Jones like Villalobos and several other GOP lawmakers had moved on from supporting what they felt was bad public policy simply because the Governor wanted them to. Villalobos for his trouble would be stripped of his leadership position and would barely survive an intense and well-funded primary challenge in 2006 that had Governor Bush’s open backing.

Bush’s relationship with the legislature was never as good as it should have been considering his immense popularity and the large majorities the GOP enjoyed in both houses during his eight years in office. His first Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan enjoyed a great relationship with GOP leaders but that didn’t always translate to legislation. Brogan left office in 2003 to become the President of Florida Atlantic University, and his replacement, Toni Jennings had been Senate President for four years from 1996 to 2000. Jennings had immense respect among her former colleagues but couldn’t stem the tide of growing weariness with Bush in the legislature.

Bush got a reprieve the next session as so many of the priorities the state was focused on was influenced by the Hurricane Season of 2005, which like 2004 had been disruptive and historic.

Rick Scott has always had a bit of a hit or miss relationship with legislators but this year was especially bad for him. The question is does Scott like Chiles before him use his veto pen to remind  legislators he exists or like Bush just use the bully pulpit to change the subject and to challenge legislators in primaries? Scott has shown some inclination do challenge Republican legislators rhetorically but will he look to fund and support primary challenges? That’s a big question going forward.

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