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Florida Political Experts Talk GOP's Move To The Center, 'Battle Of The Flip-Floppers'

Florida House

A couple of political experts are weighing on whether the Republican-led Legislature as well as the Governor moved more to the center this year with some of the bills that passed this Session.

This year, state lawmakers passed 264 bills out of the more than a thousand filed bills. Among them are two very controversial issues that usually pit Democrats and Republicans against the other: One allowing doctors to prescribe a low strain of marijuana—nicknamed “Charlotte’s Web”—to help those with seizures. Another making in-state tuition rates available for students living in the country illegally.

Both are now heading to the Governor’s desk after passing both chambers of the Republican-led Legislature, and House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston says it’s all an election ploy.

“This is something that we’ve been working on for the past 16 years. This is something we’ve been fighting for 11 years, while the Lieutenant Governor was in the House and also, the Speaker was in the House.  We’ve tried to get this bill passed for the longest because it’s something that we truly believe in. It’s not something we’re doing because it’s politically expedient,” said Thurston.

University of South Florida Political Scientist Susan MacManus calls that moving toward the middle, especially in an election year when courting Independent voters is important.

“And, in our state, Independents tend to be younger and tend to be more moderate on some issues, particular social issues, and more conservative on fiscal issues. So, clearly the Republicans have seen that their policies that they’ve enacted this Legislature will be playing a whole lot better than they would have if they had not passed them,” said MacManus.

But, House Speaker Will Weatherford, who championed both those issues this year, says he wouldn’t agree with the premise that the Legislature moved to the left this year.

“I would say that we took on challenges that have been around for quite some time, and what was different about this year was that this year is that both chambers were allowed to have a serious debate on Charlotte’s Web, and helping people who were sick, particularly children. We had a serious debate allowed to take place on both floors with regard to tuition and undocumented students who did nothing wrong themselves but happened to find themselves here illegally because of the mistake of their parents, and I believe what we was we solved some injustices that are here in our society,” said Weatherford, on the last day of Session.

Adding to that, Senate President Don Gaetz says he doesn’t see it as an election ploy for Republicans, but more as a bipartisan win for Floridians.

“I think that Will Weatherford has proven that there is such a thing as not only a compassionate conservative, but an effectively compassionate conservative with the policies that he’s championed. But, none of this was done just in the Republican cloak room or in the majority office. Every initiative that we passed all the way through the Legislative process was bipartisan in nature. If they’re good Republicans and they’re good for Democrats, then they’re good for Florida. We’re more worried about the next generation. We think that if we do that, the next election will take care of itself,” said Gaetz.

Governor Rick Scott, who’s facing re-election this year, has hailed the in-state tuition bill during and after session multiple times, and even has an audio recording about the measure’s passage in Spanish. It was sent from the e-mail of Jackie Schutz—his now traveling campaign press secretary—taken from the Governor’s e-mail transparency program called Sunburst.

Translation: “Hello, I’m Governor Rick Scott. Thank you to our legislators for reducing college tuition for all students in the state, including the students known as the Dreamers.   My compromise is so that all families who dream of sending their children to college have the opportunity to do so.”

Scott’s not only touted the immigration tuition issue this year, but he’s also said he’d sign the measure legalizing the low strain of marijuana.

“I’m a parent and Grandparent. I want to make sure my children and my grandchildren have the access to the health care they want. So, if it passes, I’m going to sign it,” said Scott, during the last days of Session.

“The Governor had a good Session that brought him closer to the middle where most elections in Florida are won. You know, medical marijuana, education funding, Dreamer tuition, things of that nature, that you would have been surprised to see him touting during his first run for Governor,” said Mac Stipanovich, who's supervised several campaigns, including former Florida Governors Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush. .

For example, while first campaigning for Governor, Scott touted an Arizona-style immigration law for Florida and now, not so much.

“I think what happened was that Governor Rick Scott came into the job with no political experience whatsoever and had a rough start. I think that he has grown in the job and has matured in the job and has become good Governor. I think that the moves he made this Session were a natural part of his evolution and fortunately for him, they dovetail nicely with the politics,” Stipanovich added,

And, while some have accused the Governor of flip-flopping on issues, USF political professor MacManus says that’s essentially what this gubernatorial race will be about….for either party.

“The truth of the matter is that both Charlie Crist and Rick Scott have changed their positions on issues, but they will argue that their position now is much more in sync with what the voters are thinking and why. So, the battle of the flip-floppers is probably going to be the case that this election year is going to be described as that by some, after it’s all over.”

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.