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Making the Grade

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  • | 5:47 p.m. May 28, 2009
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Two-thirds of Gulf Coast House members get A's from two prominent business groups, but only one of 11 senators goes to the head of the class. There are other surprises.

School kids and collegians aren't the only ones getting their report cards this month. Legislators are getting theirs from business watchdogs Associated Industries of Florida (AIF) and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The Review's analysis of their scores says a lot about not only the legislators' attitudes toward business, but also the House's and Senate's views as a whole.

For one, the House is clearly more pro-business than the Senate, and that is even more true among Gulf Coast legislators. Plus, there is a strong correlation between profession and voting record. For instance, business owners tend to be the most pro-business while educators and lawyers tend to be the least pro-business.

The scores and rankings for all 42 Gulf Coast legislators taken from the AIF and chamber report cards are shown in the accompanying table. The results for each business group are shown along with the average of the two for each legislator and are also revealing for the 11 Senators and 31 House members representing the eight Gulf Coast counties from Pasco to Collier.

Although slightly down from last year, when 65% of House members received “A's” from the chamber, the House clearly has a more pro-business bent than the Senate.

Over half of the 120 House members still received A's this year, but only nine of 40 Senators achieved a 90% score or better from the chamber although that was up from just four last year. According to a chamber report card summary, “If a legislator files a bill attacking the business climate, their grade may be lowered.” Overall, 46% of legislators received the top grade from the chamber down from 52% last year.

AIF's scores, based on more than 10,000 committee and floor votes cast on nearly 120 business-related bills and amendments, reflect a similar pattern.

In fact, no Senators received a score higher than 89% from AIF, yet 59 House members scored 90% or better. Of Gulf Coast legislators, the top 15, based on averaging the two groups' scores, are all House members.

Asked about the striking difference in attitudes toward business between the House and Senate, House Speaker pro tempore Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, says, “The Senate has a tendency to be more moderate. The House is more business oriented. The
House tends to be more from business.”

As examples from the Gulf Coast he notes that Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, is a businessman and Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is a law firm partner.

This trend is more pronounced on the Gulf Coast, where House members are even more pro-business than the House as a whole, but Gulf Coast senators are less pro-business than the full Senate.

The differences between Gulf Coast House and Senate members are most striking in the chamber's report card where the more than 84% of House members sided with them compared to the 73% of Senators who voted with the chamber. For AIF, the difference was still more than eight percentage points with less than 76% going along with the business group compared to the 84% in the House.

Gold stars
The only Gulf Coast senator receiving a 100% score from either organization is Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples. He received the perfect score from the chamber to go with an 86% from AIF tying him for the fifth highest Senate AIF score.

Richter was a strong supporter of workers' compensation, growth management and insurance reform legislation. Chamber executive Adam Babington praises Richter: “He's a tremendous legislator. He's fighting for Florida employers and fighting to create jobs for Floridians.”

In comparison, 14 Gulf Coast House members are also members of the chamber's 100% club.

Rep. Faye Culp, R-Tampa, should get the gold star from business interests. While championing health insurance and education bills she also supported property and casualty insurance reform, property tax assessment challenges leveling the playing field for property owners, and a corporate income tax glitch bill.

Not only did Culp receive the perfect chamber score she also topped all Gulf Coast legislators with a 96% from AIF, which puts her in a second place tie for the highest AIF score among all Florida legislators. Asked about her scores, Culp says, “I feel very aligned with AIF and the Florida Chamber and the principles they are aligned with.”

Though her scores don't come as any big surprise to someone like AIF's Chief Lobbyist Keyna Cory, it's certainly out of the norm given that Culp is a retired former teacher and chairs the House Education Policy Council. Cory says of Culp, “She's consistently been very high. She's always been in the high 90s.”

Educators and lawyers get F's
Though there are exceptions like Culp, typically for Gulf Coast legislators who are educators and lawyers tend to receive the lowest scores.

In the House, the nine lowest rated Gulf Coast members are employed in academia or law. Notable examples are retired educator Betty Reed, D-Tampa, ranked second to last among Gulf Coast legislators, and lawyer Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who ranks dead last having received a 27% score from the chamber and the second lowest score among all 160 legislators from AIF. The lowest rated Gulf Coast House Republican is also a lawyer, Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa.

When informed that most legislators from academia received very low scores, Culp responded, “You have to have education and business as a balance because in order to have a good economy we have to have a more educated workforce.”

Other than Culp, the other pro-business exceptions in the House are all lawyers: Tom Grady, R-Naples, ranked tied for fourth, Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers, tied for 12th, and Galvano, ranked 16th.

No less than 13 of the 31 Gulf Coast House members have business or military backgrounds, and two are doctors.

Gulf Coast senators follow a similar trend. Other than notable exception Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, a teacher whose district includes most of eastern Collier County, the four lowest scoring from the Gulf Coast are either lawyers or from academia.
Bullard is the highest scoring Democrat and is third amongst Gulf Coast Senators, but also tied for second in the Senate in the eyes of AIF.

Besides Richter, a banker, other Gulf Coast senators with business backgrounds include Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, Sen. President pro tempore Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. Sen.
Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, is a chiropractor.

Richter and Fasano are among a group of nine legislators (eight Republicans and one Democrat) honored by AIF as their 2009 “Champions for Business.”

'Keeping tabs'
With more than 10,000 votes on nearly 2,400 bills being tracked by these business groups, boiling down the voting results for their members to evaluate their legislators becomes an invaluable service.

Says AIF lobbyist Cory, “When that legislator is running for another office our members like to see how they shake out. We don't solely base our campaign contributions on voting records, but it plays in it.”

The chamber's Babington sees it this way: “What the report card does is summarize an enormous amount of bills and issues that we're fighting for. For the employer back home in the district making payroll and keeping the economy going they can't spend every day keeping tabs on what's going on.”

One other business group watching Florida legislators is the National Federation of Independent Business. Although their Florida group only scores votes on just three major issues — workers' compensation, secret ballot and unemployment compensation — their scores appear highly correlated to the AIF and chamber scores.

NFIB's higher scores went to Republicans with business backgrounds and the lower scores to Democrats from academia or law. But due to the relatively small number of issues and votes included in the NFIB voting record, and the effect it has on some of the rankings, the Business Review chose not to average those in the scores.

Come election time, if legislators are looking for a pro-business role model to keep tabs on they've surely got one in Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Jacksonville. (See side bar.)

Carroll, an African-American blessed with movie-star quality features, is a highly decorated U.S. Navy veteran and now a business owner with an M.B.A. It's little wonder she was chosen as a spokesperson for movie-making interests when they were making their pitch for film production tax credit legislation on “Film Day” at the Capitol in March.

If all that weren't enough, she shouldn't have much to worry about from business groups come election time: she is the overall number one legislator for business with an almost perfect score of 97% from AIF and was one of the 47 House members with a perfect 100% score from the chamber.


Gulf Coast notables

Senator with highest average score: Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples
House member highest average score: Faye Culp, R-Tampa
Senate Republican lowest average score: Ronda Storms, R-Tampa
House Republican lowest average score: Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa
Senate Democrat highest average score: Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami
House Democrat highest average score: Janet Long, D-Seminole


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