The week that was in Florida politics: Isaac and the Republicans head toward Tampa

By on August 26, 2012

With 50,000 people expected to converge on the Tampa area in a matter of days, all eyes turned to the Caribbean this week as Tropical Storm Isaac churned its way toward Florida and the Republican National Convention.

Twenty years after Hurricane Andrew flattened the southern part of the state, Gov. Rick Scott met repeatedly with local reporters and national networks and repeated a mantra befitting the state’s head cheerleader: Come to Florida, we can handle a little wind and rain.

When the governor was not meeting with emergency management officials or doing live interviews telling people to keep their travel plans, he spent the week revising his opening night speech for the upcoming convention.

It could be intently followed, as the Florida governor at times has been on a different page than the national party. Unlike many Republican naysayers, Scott is sticking to his message that Florida is doing all right and it’s going to get better.

It’s a message that doesn’t quite jibe with the more pessimistic sound bites the Romney campaign is trying to send about President Obama’s handling of the economy.

TROPICAL STORM ISAAC, ROMNEY TO PAY VISITS

Political attention focused on Florida all week as the state prepared for two seemingly unrelated events. While hotels and restaurant owners in the Tampa Bay region stocked up for a GOP party, Floridians in other parts of the state stocked up for a possible hurricane.

Scott and emergency officials watched and waited, with the governor saying the Republican National Committee would have final say about whether to pull the plug on the convention, which seemed increasingly unlikely as the weekend approached.

As Isaac progressed, local, state and federal responders made plans, stationing supplies and alerting personnel that they might be needed in the days ahead.

If past storm events are any indication, Scott’s popularity is likely to rise as viewers see him in charge of the state’s emergency response.

Scott remains on the periphery of national GOP politics, as the self-made millionaire and successful gubernatorial candidate remains relatively unpopular among his own constituents.

A Quinnipiac University/CBS/New York Times poll released this week found voters disapprove of the governor’s job performance by a 47-41 percent margin. That might sound unflattering, but Scott’s approval rating is the highest it’s ever been and stands in marked contrast to his 29 percent approval rating in May 2011.

While voters might be split on Scott, they really don’t like proposals to make significant changes to Medicare, with 62 percent saying they don’t approve of turning Medicare into a voucher-like plan.

PRESSURE ON EARLY VOTING

In other election news, the Monroe County supervisor of election this week balked at pressure to reduce the number of early voting days in the Florida Keys.

Harry Sawyer, the Republican supervisor in Monroe, didn’t support an effort by Secretary of State Ken Detzner to get federal approval for Monroe and four other counties to reduce the number of early-voting days from as many as 14 to eight.

A 2011 state law has caused Florida’s other 62 counties to adopt the reduced early voting schedule. But federal officials must sign off on changes in Monroe and four other Florida counties with a history of racial or language discrimination.

A three-judge federal panel suggested that election officials could reduce the number of days in the five counties if they guaranteed 12 hours of voting each day. The state asked the court this week to approve such a schedule in Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Hillsborough counties, but Sawyer contended the schedule wouldn’t work for his voters.

In a statement, Gov. Rick Scott said he would “take all necessary and appropriate action to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed, that supervisors are fulfilling their duties.” That was interpreted by some as a threat to remove Sawyer if he doesn’t go along with the changes.

JUDGE TAKES STATE TO SCHOOL ON TEACHER EVALUATIONS

An administrative law judge this week sided with two teachers and a union by ruling that Florida education officials did not properly carry out part of a 2011 law that has fueled a long-running battle over linking teacher pay with job performance.

In a 57-page order, Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham invalidated a state-approved rule that would spell out how school districts should evaluate teachers, declaring it “wholly invalid” because of the way it was cobbled together.

Though his ruling did not affect the underlying law, the judge said the procedural errors “taint the resulting rule in its entirety and cannot be cured without starting over and redoing the process.” Van Laningham said the department had to start over.

The Florida Education Association teachers union, which has been battling with the state over performance pay issues, hailed the ruling as a “huge victory.”

FPL SEEKS RATE HIKE

State regulators began a tense hearing this week about whether Florida Power & Light should be able to raise base electric rates by as much as $690.4 million next year.

FPL attorneys told the state Public Service Commission that the utility would continue to have Florida’s lowest residential electricity bills if rates increase. The rates are needed, FPL contends, in part, to help attract investors who finance costly improvements.

But the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers, and the Florida Retail Federation said FPL’s base rates should be slashed by as much as $253 million next year.

The Public Service Commission has scheduled a two-week hearing on the highly technical rate case. As signs of the complexity, 36 witnesses were expected to testify, and an FPL attorney said the case has involved 349,000 pages of data and information.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Tropical Storm Isaac headed toward the state and next week’s Republican National Convention.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “There are a lot of people interested in the potential overlap of the two events.” Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, on the possible disruption of the convention by Tropical Storm Isaac.

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