With Thanksgiving already a speck in the rearview mirror, Capitol insiders are slowly plodding toward the advent of the 2018 legislative session next month.
The legislative agenda was bare this week, but the Florida Supreme Court and the Constitution Revision Commission made up for the quiet in the halls of the House and Senate.
Legislators will be in town next week to begin going through Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed $87.4 billion budget, along with a variety of other issues ranging from the salvage of pleasure boats to a Florida slavery memorial, and, of course, ubiquitous gun bills.
But, like much of the past month, the chatter around the Capitol remained concentrated this week on sexual harassment allegations lodged against Sen. Jack Latvala, a veteran politician who is defending himself, in part, against charges that he repeatedly groped Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers.
Scott this week stopped short of calling for the resignation of Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is running for governor.
But on Thursday, Scott called Latvala, who is the subject of two Senate investigations about sexual harassment allegations, a “distraction” in the upper chamber and again called on Latvala to step down if the accusations are true.
Latvala remained mum about Scott’s comments throughout the day, but eventually lashed out at the governor Thursday evening via Twitter.
“I’m sure HCA stockholders thought your efforts to defend yourself in theft of billions from taxpayers was a distraction but you had a right to defend yourself! I have that same right!” Latvala tweeted.
Latvala was referring to a case in which Columbia/HCA, the hospital company Scott helped found, agreed to pay $1.7 billion in fines to the federal government. The fines, which were paid after Scott resigned from his post as CEO, stemmed from allegations of defrauding Medicare and other health programs.
The news this week from the Florida Supreme Court and the Constitution Revision Commission wasn’t nearly as sensational as the ongoing drama involving Latvala, or the overall shadow of sexual predation in the workplace, which is a serious matter that needs to be confronted.
But the issues emanating from those other arenas could have equally, if not more far-reaching, impacts on the lives of millions or even all of Floridians.
For now, it’s probable that many lobbyists, lawmakers, aides and others — in statehouses and workplaces throughout the nation — are scrutinizing their actions to see how they could be viewed in the current climate.
A Japanese proverb provides guidance for those evaluating how they govern themselves in the future: “The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour.”
Scott’s attempt to have Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente removed from a case that could have a lasting impact on the makeup of the high court failed this week, after Pariente refused to recuse herself.
Scott’s lawyers had accused Pariente of being biased against the governor in the case, which centers on whether Scott or his successor has the power to appoint three new justices before he leaves office in January 2019.
Attorneys for Scott, who contends he has the appointment power, argued that Pariente should be disqualified because of comments she made that were caught on a “hot mic” after oral arguments in the case. The Scott administration alleges the comments indicated a bias against the governor.
But, accusing Scott of trying to “fan the flames of false controversy,” lawyers for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause filed a 12-page response Tuesday saying the motion to disqualify Pariente should be rejected. The two groups filed the underlying case about the appointment power in June.
According to legal precedent, Pariente alone — and not the full court — has the authority to decide whether she should step aside from the case.
The court on Wednesday issued a one-line rejection of Scott’s motion to disqualify Pariente, leading Scott spokesman John Tupps to blast the decision.
“Governor Scott expects all judges to be fair and impartial. It is disappointing that today’s decision was made without providing any plausible justification or explanation for Justice Pariente’s comments. Given the gravity of this case, Floridians deserve better,” Tupps said in a prepared statement.
In filing the case in June, the voting-rights groups argued that Scott’s successor should have to the authority to appoint replacements for Pariente and justices R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who will be forced to leave the bench in January 2019 because of a mandatory retirement age.
Whether Scott or his successor will have the authority could have a far-reaching impact on actions by the governor’s office and the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Pariente, Lewis and Quince are widely considered part of a four-member liberal majority on the seven-member court. If Scott makes the appointments, he could reshape the court in a more conservative mode for years, if not decades.
DOGS, RELIGION AND VAPING
The Constitution Revision Commission is moving forward with a variety of proposals in its once-every-two-decades process of proposing changes to the state Constitution.
Items that receive the 37-member commission’s approval will be placed on the ballot in November and will require 60 percent approval from voters to pass.
Altering the governing document might seem like a dry process, but committees of the commission pushed ahead this week with several initiatives sure to spark interest, including one that would ban vaping in the workplace.
Commissioner Lisa Carlton, a former state senator, backed the proposal, which received unanimous support from a committee.
Like cigarette smoke, second-hand exposure to vaping can lead to breathing in toxins, according to Carlton.
“No one should be forced to endure a cloud of harmful vapor in their cubicle as they work to support their families. No parent should have to worry about the health of their child because someone is vaping at the adjoining restaurant table, movie-theater seat, grocery store or next to them inside the mall,” she said.
Another Constitution Revision Commission proposal that’s repeatedly been floated in the Legislature but has failed to gain traction would shut down greyhound racing.
Supporters of the proposal pointed Thursday to issues such as greyhound injuries and deaths in arguing to shut down dog racing — a staple of Florida’s gambling industry for decades.
“This is, for me, a matter of conscience,” said commission member and state Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who is sponsoring the proposed ban.
Lee said society has changed and people have evolved since the heydays of greyhound racing.
“And that’s a good thing. And as we’ve evolved, we’ve banned all sorts of activities that have been considered cruel to animals — bullfighting and cockfighting and all kinds of things. To me, this is just the next step on that plane of becoming more sensitive to this kind of inhumanity,” he said.
Meanwhile, a committee advanced what will surely be one of the more controversial ballot items, if the measure receives approval from the full commission: doing away with a ban on state support for religious groups.
The commission’s Declaration of Rights Committee endorsed a measure that would eliminate the Constitution’s so-called “no-aid” provision, which prohibits public funding “directly or indirectly” for any church, religious group or “sectarian institution.”
The no-aid provision, which dates to Florida’s 1885 Constitution, has been invoked in recent years in legal fights over using publicly funded vouchers to send students to private schools. A state appellate court in 2004 cited the provision in striking down a voucher program, though the Florida Supreme Court later found the program unconstitutional on other grounds.
Commissioner Roberto Martinez of Miami said he sponsored the proposed change because he believed the no-aid provision was being used to prohibit churches and other groups from performing non-religious activities based solely on their statuses as religious organizations.
Martinez said the ban was unnecessary and that groups using state funding to promote religious activities would violate another constitutional provision prohibiting laws involving the “establishment of religion.”
“If the church was going to use it in a way that would promote a particular religious objective, then I think it would run afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Martinez, an attorney, said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott lost out in an attempt to remove Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente from a case that could have far-reaching implications on the makeup of the state’s highest court.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It is obvious that Senator Latvala remaining in the Senate is a distraction. It seems that everyone in Tallahassee is talking about this and not how to make Florida better.” — Gov. Rick Scott, on Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is under investigation for alleged sexual harassment.