Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pinellas County GOP at Tiger Bay: Session was great, though Dems disagree

Posted By on Tue, May 14, 2013 at 4:30 PM

Pinellas Legislators breaking bread (from L to R) Larry Ahern, Jeff Brandes, Dwight Dudley, Ed Hooper, Jack Latvala, Kathleen Peters, Darryl Rouson (not pictured was Carl Zimmerman)
  • Pinellas Legislators breaking bread (from L to R) Larry Ahern, Jeff Brandes, Dwight Dudley, Ed Hooper, Jack Latvala, Kathleen Peters, Darryl Rouson (not pictured, Carl Zimmerman)
According to most of the Pinellas County area GOP state lawmakers who gathered at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club's meeting at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater on Tuesday, the just completed regular Legislature session was pretty awesome, with lots of love going out to House Speaker Will Weatherford for his fairness.

That's in large part because for the first time in a number of years, the state's revenues were up, allowing legislators to spend money on what they believed were worthwhile projects, instead of making drastic cuts.

"For those of us who have been there the last five, six, seven years, including some former members ... it was not always so good ... we were taking people's careers away, we were cutting our budget because we have to have a balanced budget," said outgoing Clearwater-area state Rep. Ed Hooper.

Republican freshman Rep. Kathleen Peters agreed, extolling the fact that some bills were passed unanimously in the GOP dominated House.

"The chair and leadership were willing to listen to what we had to say. They took the politics out of it, and we were not polarized!" she said.

"I think we had a wonderful Legislative session," continued Sen. Jack Latvala, who declared it the best year of the eleven he's served in Tallahassee. "There was very little acrimony, people worked together. We accomplished a lot of important things. We finished on time."

Latvala boasted about bills passed in his Ethics & Elections committee, like the ethics reform bill, which he called the most significant passed in Florida since 1976, as well as an elections bill that he said would alleviate the state of being "the butt of late night jokes on TV."

But the Democrats sitting on the dais, and there were only three (Darryl Rouson, Dwight Dudley and Carl Zimmerman), weren't about to affirm how great things went down from their perspective.

Rouson criticized the Legislature for not going further in terms of funding education or election reform, and he said the failure to pass a bill allowing more Floridians without health insurance to get on Medicaid was a "boondoggle."

Also playing party pooper to all the GOP bonhomie was Pinellas County freshman Rep. Dwight Dudley, who blasted Weatherford on the Medicaid issue. Dudley said Weatherford rejected Democrats' suggestions for speakers to testify on the issue.

"I think that's a failing," Dudley sneered.

The issue of House Republicans who rejected Medicaid expansion was brought front and center today with a story in the Tampa Bay Times that said those legislators pay just $8.34 a month for subsidized health insurance.

On the cover, the Times placed head shots of the local Republicans who voted against any Medicaid expansion plan, which earned a rebuke from Latvala, who did support a Medicaid expansion plan in the Senate.

"I respect very much the right of people who are in the Legislature to vote their own conscious. And I think that obviously $8 a month for insurance, that's an inflammatory thing. That's the reason it was on the front page of the paper: be inflammatory, make people mad."

However, Latvala said he noticed that every state employee, every judge, every elected official got a raise, except members of the Florida Legislature.

"So there's a lot of sacrifices that go on among all of us," he said, which earned him some snickers from the audience.

One of the most controversial bills that went down to defeat in the last week of the session was the parent-trigger law, officially known as the Parent Empowerment Act. The bill would have allowed a majority of parents of children in a failing school to petition their local school board to request that the school become a charter school.

Dwight Dudley publicly gave praise to Latvala for being part of a group of Republican senators to kill that bill.

"That was a beautiful thing," he offered.

Latvala said he appreciated the remarks, but voted against it (after supporting it last year) because he said school boards now have the ability to "redo" such schools already.

"I just like to take the opportunity to see how that works before I go in any more of an extreme fashion. Might be a day I can support that bill. I don't think it's nearly as bad and dangerous as people make it out to be," Latvala said.

St. Pete state Senator Jeff Brandes said shifting the control of whether a charter school should replace the failing public school made the bill much more palatable.

"The school board only must consider — not shall adopt — the parents' wishes. Now I don't know why that's so radical?" he said.

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