Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Reading

Because They Can — Mary Ellen Klas of the Miami Herald looks at what the Florida legislature has planned for the state’s trip back to the 19th Century when robber barons ran the government.

In the next 30 days, Florida lawmakers are poised to make it easier for insurance companies to raise rates, make it more difficult for women to receive an abortion and hand over control of prisons to private companies.

These are just a few of the proposals the Republican-led Legislature is pushing in the final weeks of their 60-day session. Others include dramatically changing the way the state handles Medicaid, state pensions, courts, growth and the environment.

The proposals are detailed, sweeping, and encompass many conservative issues that legislators have resisted enacting in the past. And they are moving forward for one reason: They have the votes. With a veto-proof majority, a hard-right conservative governor, and a determination to seize the moment in a non-election year, legislative leaders have packed the agenda — and Democrats are powerless to stop them.

“You’ve got a very conservative governor, president, and speaker, so they’ve gone down some roads that people have kind of been afraid to go down before,” said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.

The governor has already signed major legislation to change the way teachers are paid and to reduce compensation for the unemployed, and the Legislature has overridden seven vetoes of former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Next up are dozens of bills that remove government oversight, dismantle regulations, and shift state jobs to the private sector. Also on the docket are plans to ask voters to amend the state constitution to remove the ban on providing tax dollars to religious organizations, to make it easier for the Legislature to overturn rules imposed by the state Supreme Court, to ban public funding of abortions and to prohibit any laws requiring a person to buy health insurance.

Previous legislatures have tried and failed in the past to pass similar bills. Among them:

• Allowing Citizens Property Insurance to raise its rates up to 25 percent and restrict homeowners with property valued at more than $500,000.

• Requiring all women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion.

• Shifting all Medicaid patients into managed-care plans.

• Banning government unions from deducting dues from worker paychecks.

• Capping attorney fees in auto insurance disputes and restricting lawsuits against hospitals, nursing homes, doctors and foster care providers.

• Removing the state from development decisions and reducing the ability of local governments to charge developers for the cost of roads and schools.

• And allowing private companies to run prisons and probation services in 18 counties.

Republican leaders say the proposals are a response to voter outrage — fueled by tea party activists in Florida and nationwide — to reduce government and balance the budget with no new taxes in the face of a $3.8 billion shortfall. Democrats say the ideas are moving because there is nothing to stand in their way.

“They’re exercising that muscle now because they can — not because they’re right, not because that’s what people want, but because they can,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

Meanwhile, Gov. Scott is raking in the dough thanks to state business going his way because of his policies, according to Kris Hundley of the St. Petersburg Times.

If you have a $62 million investment, representing the biggest single chunk of your $218 million in wealth, and you put it in a trust under your wife’s name, does that mean you’re no longer involved in the company?

Florida Gov. Rick Scott says it does.

Scott has aggressively pursued policies like testing state workers and welfare recipients for drugs, switching Medicaid patients to private HMOs and shrinking public health clinics. All these changes could benefit that $62 million investment, but Scott sees no legal conflict between his public role and private investments.

And, experts say, under Florida law he is correct.

A few days before he took office in January, Scott moved his shares in Solantic Corp., a chain of 32 urgent care centers, to the Frances Annette Scott Revocable Trust. Scott co-founded Solantic in 2001 and was involved in its operation until last year. His wife’s trust now holds enough stock in the private company to control it.

Solantic’s walk-in clinics, clustered in mid-Florida and along the east coast, handle everything from stitches and sprains to school physicals and immunizations. Charges are posted like fast-food prices and there’s a three-day feel-better guarantee — if you’re not feeling better after three days, your follow-up visit is free. The company partners with hospitals in several markets, including Shands HealthCare in Gainesville.

By transferring the Solantic shares to his wife’s trust, which is represented on the Solantic board by one of his former business associates, Scott maintains he is free from any possible conflicts.

“As I’ve told you, I’m not involved in that company,” he said this week when asked why he didn’t sell his shares.

Unless Solantic does business directly with the governor’s office, there are no conflicts, says Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron, an expert on Florida’s ethics laws. Most states, as well as the federal government, forbid the kind of share shuffle Scott used.

But in Florida, nothing bars Scott from promoting policies that could benefit a company from which his family benefits financially.

It may be legal. That doesn’t make it right. What we have seen in other states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan is going to happen here. There will be a backlash, there will be consequences, and Mr. Scott is on his way to being a one-term governor, assuming he’s not indicted before his term is up.

More below the fold.

Moths To the Flame — The wannabe right-wing presidential candidates met up in Iowa with fundamentalist preachers to suck up their votes and their money under the rubric of Jesus America.

These meetings are part of a largely quiet drive to revitalize the religious right by drawing evangelical pastors and their flocks more deeply into politics — an effort given new energy by what conservative church leaders see as the ominous creep of laws allowing same-sex marriage and their sense that America is, literally, heading toward hell.

The Iowa pastors heard David Barton, a Christian historian, argue that the country was founded as explicitly Christian and lament that too few evangelicals get out and vote. They heard Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and like Mr. Huckabee a possible 2012 presidential candidate, say that constitutional liberties like the right to bear arms were ordained by God. They heard how to promote “biblically informed” political advocacy by churchgoers within the confines of federal tax law.

The other possible candidates who spoke were Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

Support from many of the pastors in the audience here helped Mr. Huckabee, an evangelical minister, win the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2008. He had been the only candidate to appear at a pastors’ meeting before the Republican caucuses and went on to gain a surprise victory, with 60 percent of the caucus voters describing themselves in exit polls as evangelicals.

This year, many more would-be contenders are making plays for support.

Mr. Huckabee, of course, was warmly welcomed back at the event here as he declared: “We face a spiritual war in this country. Let this weekend be a time when you say, ‘We will not fail, and America will not fall.’ ”

He and the other Republican speakers were careful not to sound too much like candidates in this officially nonpartisan forum, instead emphasizing the threats to conservative Christian values and the need for churches to be engaged. Mr. Gingrich, for one, described the “Rediscovering God in America” films he has made with his wife, Callista, and said America is exceptional because its founding documents enshrine rights “endowed by our creator.”

He told the crowd that it was their Christian duty to fight for the “truth,” exposing threats like overreaching by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama health care law that may put the country “on the road to dictatorship.”

Mr. Barbour pledged relentless opposition to abortion and accused liberals of trying to remove religion from politics. Ms. Bachmann challenged the pastors to “be the voice of freedom.”

The “voice of freedom” under a theocracy. How’s that worked before?

Doonesbury — One can only hope.