Capital Reporters Review Legislative Session(s)

Jul 16, 2015

After the yearly legislative session, one of the more eagerly awaited occasions is the regular reporters’ roundtable hosted by the Capital Tiger Bay Club.  But the unusual circumstances of this year, which included a sudden early adjournment and return of lawmakers for a special budget session, delayed that roundtable by more than a month.

Capital reporters (l. to r.) Bill Cotterell, Mary Ellen Klas, Matt Dixon, Tia Mitchell and Jim Saunders regale Capital Tiger Bay club members with their assessment of the past few months.

On Friday, July 10, five of the Capital Press Corps’ most respected journalists took the stage to give their assessment of what’s been going on during the past couple of months.  The Florida Times-Union’s Tia Mitchell thought one of the biggest political casualties has been Governor Rick Scott, even among some of his most faithful supporters.

“They feel pushed out in that they no longer have his ear.  And I think that’s very surprising because these are the people who helped him get elected and still support him publicly, but everyone’s kind of scratching their heads and don’t know what he’s doing,” Mitchell told club members.

What struck Politico Bureau Chief Matt Dixon was how so much session activity is driven and controlled by non-elected legislative staff members.  As a result, he said, only those lawmakers in senior positions of leadership have a real clue as to what’s going on.

“It really comes out if you’re able to grab a member on the floor and get a question to them; one that’s not used to the media coverage or doing interviews.  It often can come through that even if it’s a policy area they’re supposed to know, they don’t often have a huge grasp on it and I think there’s some term limit issues involved with that.  But from a behind-the-scenes perspective, staff makes the ship go and I think that’s more global and not specific to this session, but it still applies.”

Mary Ellen Klas with the Miami Herald was intrigued by all the personal and political animosities between people in the same political party. 

“I sense this year a level of distrust that I haven’t see in a really long time between the chambers,” she said.  “I think part of it is driven by the ideology and the fact that the Republican Party…the foundations are really feeling a tension within.  You’ve got moderates in the senate and conservatives in the house.”

The debate over Medicaid expansion, Klas said, only served to intensify and focus the bad feelings, which ultimately led to the regular session running into the ditch back in May and forcing the June special session.  All that lingering bad blood also had Capital Press Corps Veteran Bill Cotterell concerned.

“Since 1970, I think somebody says or I’ll say every year, ‘It’s never been like this.’ But I kept thinking, ‘This year, it REALLY has never been like this!’ This was completely new to all of us and I don’t think it augers well for the future.”

For News Service of Florida’s Jim Saunders, much of the session breakdown could be traced to the determination of the head of the Florida Senate, Andy Gardiner, to expand Medicaid.

“President Gardiner just kept pushing and pushing and pushing.  Also, I think a lot of his Republican members – and I don’t know this for sure – but I think if you gave them truth serum, they probably wanted that issue to go away and I think probably a lot of Republican house members – some – might have actually supported Medicaid expansion except for the fact that their leadership was so strong against it.”

Nearly a full-hour of additional analyses and observations followed.  But the Capital Press Corps will have little time to rest and recover this summer.  As we’ve learned in the past few days, there will be at least one more special session coming up next month, along with a number of legislative committee weeks to follow starting in September.  That will lead up to the 2016 session that begins just a few days into the New Year, on Tuesday, January 5.