Times Tallahassee reporter looks ahead to GOP control in 2011

12/17/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Skies may have been blue in the Tampa Bay area today, but a dark cloud looms for many Florida Democrats. One seasoned Tallahassee reporter says Republican supermajorities in Tallahassee might not be the end of the world.

State House District 53 Representative Rick Kriseman is one of the few Florida Democrats to survive the November election. He said he has some grave concerns over governor-elect Scott’s proposed policies, especially when it comes to education.

"The plan that the Governor-elect has put forward. I think, will absolutely gut public education. It'll cease to exist as we know it, and while there are things that need to occur and fixes that need to happen to make our system better, I don't think the things proposed are going to take us in the direction we need to go."

He said he also wonders how such a staunch opponent of government spending is going to create jobs.

"On the one hand we've got a governor who said he has a plan to create 700,000 new jobs, while at the same time he's talking about cutting thousands of jobs."

But even with GOP supermajorities in the state house and senate, some are saying Scott’s governorship may not turn out to be political paydirt for ultraconservatives. Steve Bousquet is the Tallahassee Bureau Chief for the St. Petersburg Times. He’s been covering Florida politics for decades, and believes the Sunshine State is headed for some interesting times – especially for a reporter. Today at a Sun Coast Tiger Bay Club event in Downtown St. Petersburg, Bousquet had a few predictions for Tallahassee in the months to come.

"I think we're headed for the shortest honeymoon in the history of Florida politics. I say that because of several red flags. He is new to the whole process. He's in for a rude awakening in Tallahassee. I mean, you can run as an outsider, but I don't think you can govern as an outsider."

He said moderate Republicans like Jack Latvala, Mike Fasano, and Paula Dockery may challenge state GOP policy that veers too far right. And unlike the corporate environment that bred Scott, he can’t give them the pink slip.

"If a state senator won't hear one of the bills or issues that Scott thinks is important, he can't fire a state senator."

Bousquet said another potential challenge Senate President Mike Haridopolos’s potential US Senate bid, which could at best be distracting and breed corruption at worst. Bousquet cited former state house speaker Johnnie Byrd’s 2004 US Senate bid as a case-in-point.*

"Aside from the fact that he's distracted, constantly, and raising money, you've heard story after story of -- this is how Tallahassee works from a reporter's standpoint. A lobbyist will bring you aside in a hallway and say, 'hey, you've got to blow the whistle on this guy Byrd, he's shaking people down for campaign contributions in return for getting their bills heard.' That's when I reach for my notepad and say 'really, tell me some more about that.' 'I'm not going to go on the record, what do you think I am, nuts?' "

He said one Scott campaign promise that might cause a rift within the party is his stated desire to shave hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s prison budget.

"Even Republicans are scared out of their minds about this idea of cutting a billion dollars out of the state prison budget. That's one of his campaign promises that we did a lot of reporting on and inspired that ad that showed hardcore convicts getting released from prison. What's ... with that ad? 'Let's get to work.' Many towns in north Florida are totally dependent on prison, and prison related facilities for their economy. You shut the prison down in a town like Marianna, the unemployment rate will be 80 percent, not 12 percent."

Governor-elect Scott has said that federal health care reform is one of the main things that inspired him to run for office. Yesterday the St. Pete Times site Politifact dubbed the tea party’s misrepresentation of the bill as the lie of the year. Tiger Bay Club member Beverly Mitlin asked Bousquet why the right wasn’t called out sooner.

"How did we permit this to go this long? Why didn't this come out across the country before this?"

Bousquet replied that such claims are kind of a moving target.

"They twist and distort the truth so often it's hard for us to keep up with it on a consistent basis. We're the only one's with this Politifact meter holding them accountable for lies and half-truths."

Bosquet also said that, come the 2011 legislative session, Tallahassee’s press will have tons of fodder for investigative journalism. Outgoing Suncoast Tiger Bay Club president Rob Eschenfelder, a Republican, asked Bousquet if that statement confirmed the right’s claim that the mainstream media has a liberal bias.

"...announce that, not editorialists, but news reporters are going to be digging in because they were resentful that this Republican candidate cut them off. And I wonder do you ever engage in introspection that perhaps there is some validity to the fact that why the perception of you and your media, or your industry is the way it is? Is because you do seem to betray a bias ... ?"

Bousquet said that claim is way off mark.

"It's more the media wanting to be a check on whoever's in power. When Lawton Chiles was governor, he got more than his share of negative press. And that's what I think our responsibility is to, you know, hold people in power accountable for what they're doing. It just so happens that the people in power being held accountable now are overwhelmingly Republicans."

The next Tiger Bay Club meeting will be January 5th, and will feature St. Petersburg mayor Bill Foster.

*Reporter's note: This is not intended to imply corruption on the part of former state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd. The intent was to highlight the challenges that may face a leading state legislator who is running for higher office.

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