Don't Blink

By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida
By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida

you close your eyes for even a minute these days, you might miss the sale of a state plane, the cancelling of a train project – or two – a major change in the way teachers are paid, all kinds of things that seem to be happening in the blink of an eye, at least in terms of the usual government time for getting things done.

When Gov. Rick Scott gave his first State of the State speech this week and urged legislators, “don’t blink,” that wasn’t exactly what he meant, but people could have taken it that way.

In a whirlwind week for the Legislature and for Scott, a front-loaded legislative agenda had major pieces of legislation sailing through one chamber or the other.

In the first week of the 2011 session, the Senate passed a complete change in the way teachers are paid, voting to end a years-old system where educators are compensated based on their tenure to one where they get raises based on their students doing well on tests.

Also in the first week, the House voted to shorten the length of time unemployment benefits are available in an effort to help out businesses who say all the people without jobs are costing them too much. That’s a major change for the unemployed who would see their benefits end sooner if the proposal gets through the Senate.

If that wasn’t enough excitement, late in the week Scott put the brakes, at least for now, on central Florida’s SunRail, a commuter train system legislators approved a couple years ago.

Don’t blink, indeed.

What Scott meant when he told lawmakers to keep their eyes wide open during his State of the State address on Tuesday evening was that they shouldn’t be afraid of bold change, of standing up to interest groups who will urge lawmakers to go slow, to think carefully about the consequences before doing big things, or undoing things. Consequences be damned – Scott clearly isn’t a plodder or, really, much of a compromiser.

Making quick, bold decisions without slowing down to get buy-in from all the parties involved has become the new governor’s signature, and he promised in his State of the State that those who want him to tread carefully would be disappointed. They are, he said, simply wrong, which would appear to mean, by extension, that he is right.

“There are (those) who agree on our policy but say that our agenda is too bold - that we need to trim the sails of our imagination and settle for small improvements,” Scott said. “They’re wrong.”

Some legislators might have “thoughtful, constructive modifications” to Scott’s effort to create jobs, he acknowledged. And he said that might be OK. But he warned them not to lose focus on what he – and in his mind many of them – want to do, or blunt his momentum.

That Scott even bothered to go to the Legislature and deliver the State of the State may have surprised some lawmakers, several of whom have said pointedly that Scott should be more respectful of the Legislature’s role in policy making in Florida. And those are just the Republicans.

Here’s one Republican – Sen. Thad Altman – who has already gone to court in an effort to block Scott from killing high speed rail, only to become incensed again late this week when he blinked for a minute and Scott put SunRail on hold:

“He doesn’t respect the legislative process, and the fact that we had a special session where this project was debated and vetted,” Altman told the Orlando Sentinel. “Eventually his bad decisions will catch up with him. The unfortunate thing is how much damage he will do to the people of Florida before it does.”

Wow.

But there Scott was this week, standing before the roughly 160 people who he has come to find out he is supposed to share some power with, asking them to work with him to create jobs, not try to stand in his way.

“I did not fight to become the 45th Governor of the greatest state in the nation to settle for a status quo that does not promote the enormous potential of our people. I am completely committed to this mission,” Scott told them.

“Don't blink. Don't let special interests persuade you to turn your back on the people who elected you,” he said.

The state of the state is not particularly good – and Scott acknowledged that.

In the same week when state officials announced that unemployment in January ticked down only slightly and still hovers right around 12 percent – just where it was a year ago – Scott said there were lots of people looking at the first week of the regular legislative session more like an emergency session. They need jobs, he repeated.

Some of those unemployed people were actually at the Capitol this week, though, rather than screaming for Scott to create jobs, they were protesting legislative plans to cut their unemployment benefits off.

There were other protesters at the Capitol this week – tea partiers showing their support for Scott and union members trying to show their dismay at several proposals pushed by Republicans. But the numbers were pretty small – many inside the Capitol could go about their business without really even noticing much about the demonstrations outside.

While much of the theme of Scott’s speech was being bold and not being afraid to dramatically change the status quo, Republicans in the Legislature and Scott and his fellow Cabinet members also moved in a couple of ways this week to block change.

The Senate on the first day of the session voted to ask voters to block the federal health care law – saying that change isn’t what people want. Floridians could still have the right to go without health insurance if the House agrees with the Senate and voters then vote to change the constitution, though it’s not clear if the courts would go along with that idea.

Scott and his fellow members of the Cabinet, sitting as the Executive Clemency Board, also moved to reverse course on some change that was hailed as groundbreaking a few years ago (although primarily by liberals). The board led by Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi voted to reverse a change that had made it easier for ex-felons to get their civil rights back.

When the previous board – with four entirely different members – had voted four years ago to do that, it was hailed as an end to a remnant of the Jim Crow era that had kept former felons disenfranchised. Scott and Bondi said this week, however, that ex-felons should have to work a little harder to prove they’re ready for the responsibility of voting and other rights they’ll now have to work harder to regain.

That one also could be bound for that other branch of government that seems to get in the way when people have big bold ideas, the courts.

Speaking of the courts, House Speaker Dean Cannon also got in on the whole big bold change thing this week. Cannon, who has been clear about his concern about judicial overreaching, proposed this week that the Supreme Court should be split in two, with five justices hearing civil appeals and five justices hearing criminal appeals.

That would be a radical departure from the current seven member court, and it would also require a constitutional change.

So don’t blink.


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