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Grade Inflation

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  • | 2:53 p.m. July 2, 2010
  • Florida
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What. Business groups' annual evaluation of legislators' votes.
Issue. Better grades, particularly from Democrats, may be illusory.
Impact. Help for business and the economy in an election year.
By the Numbers. Click here for Legislators' Report Cards from 2009 and 2010.

On the first day of the spring legislative session, the Legislature quickly deferred a scheduled 1,094% increase in the state's minimum rate for businesses' unemployment compensation taxes.

The unanimous vote in both houses was a no-brainer given the high unemployment and struggling economy, and set the stage for unprecedented bipartisan cooperation on business and economic issues.

But many of the bills were probably one-year anomalies.

“That was a bill that needed to be passed, so we started off with bipartisan support,” says Jose Gonzalez, vice president of governmental affairs for Associated Industries of Florida (AIF).

Voting records show that support largely remained throughout the session. AIF and the Florida Chamber of Commerce both released in June their annual report cards grading how legislators voted on bills important to business.

The vote totals for the unemployment compensation tax legislation and seven other key bills supported by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida add up to 1,187-21. (Click here for a breakdown of the voting.)

The two business groups' report cards have much in common, yet also show marked differences reflecting their priorities.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce emphasizes specific issues and bills that fall in those groupings receive double-weighting in their scoring system.

AIF gives equal weight to all votes, but also scores more votes than the chamber by evaluating votes on proposed amendments which for some bills are numerous. AIF evaluated roughly 14,000 votes on 133 bills.

Overall, for the Legislature and for Gulf Coast legislators, this year the grades show more As and Bs and fewer Cs and Ds among both Republicans and Democrats than last year. When the AIF and chamber scores are averaged, the 11 Gulf Coast Senators as a group went from a B to an A. The 31 House members taken together moved up from C to B.

On the chamber report card, 56% of all legislators earned scores of 90 or better compared to 46% last year, though that shouldn't be interpreted to mean Democrats are fully on the pro-business bandwagon.

In fact, while Democratic legislators showed big gains from the Florida Chamber in both the House and Senate, House Democrats didn't fare too well in the eyes of AIF, getting an “F” as a group. The lobbying group is a major player in Tallahassee politics largely representing medium to big businesses.

Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, and the Democrats' policy caucus chair in the House, says with the economy we're in there's a trend among his Democratic colleagues to be more business friendly in general. But the political science professor at New College adds, “I'm always pro-business, particularly small business.”

That may explain why although Fitzgerald gained 18 points from the chamber this year — going from 49% to 67% — he still dropped a point to 63% from AIF.

That pattern is typical for other Gulf Coast House Democrats whose scores from the chamber rose, but fell with AIF. There's a 37 percentage-point margin of difference between House Republicans' and Democrats' support of AIF positions on bills. That's the biggest spread since 2001 (91% to 41%). House Republicans sided with AIF 95% of the time while House Democrats did so on just 58% of their votes.

In the Senate, 75% of Democrats supported AIF positions and 90% of Republicans sided with AIF, a much narrower 15-percentage-point difference. Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, credits Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, the Senate Minority Leader, a veteran lawmaker and an insurance agent, for providing pro-business leadership among Senate Democrats.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, rose to the head of the Gulf Coast's Senate class, jumping 12 points to 94% from AIF and 16 points to a perfect 100% from the chamber. “With a million unemployed Floridians, I would definitely vote more pro-business,” says Detert, a marketing representative for a real estate appraisal firm.

Detert is one of several former House members who have brought their conservatism to the Senate, according to Adam Babington, the chamber's director of governmental affairs.

Seeking consensus

For the entire Legislature, despite the economy and job losses, Democrats' scores from AIF declined from 65% last year to 62% this year. Republicans, in contrast, increased from 88% to 94%, their highest AIF score since 2006.

AIF's Gonzalez believes election year politics partly explain House Democrats' lower scores. “Some had primary election challengers. They had to prove to their base that they had to line up with the unions and the trial bar,” he says.

And that posturing led, for example, to more than 25 amendments filed by Democrats on the House floor in attempts to kill or water-down Senate Bill 6, the controversial teacher pay and performance legislation that passed, but Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it to the delight of the teachers' union lobby.

“These were amendments hostile to the bill,” says Gonzalez. “Democrats in the House got dinged by that. The one that sort of jumps out at you is Senate Bill 6.”

Sen. Crist offers another explanation: the leadership style of Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, and other Senate leaders like Lawson and Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne. “Atwater and the leadership wanted consensus,” says Crist. “They positioned the members with the least amount of friction. They wanted a lot of pro-economy, pro-jobs legislation through.”

Crist, now finishing up an 18-year legislative career, jumped on board, raising his scores from both AIF and the chamber more than any other of the Gulf Coast's 11 state senators. His AIF score moved up two letter grades over last year, rising from a 71% to a 91%. And his votes supporting chamber positions rocketed him from a high “D” — 68% — to a solid “A” at 96%.

While Crist's 20-point improvement by AIF's scoring makes him the most improved of the 42 Gulf Coast legislators, his 28-point jump from the chamber is only the fourth best. He says it has more to do with having more voting opportunities on business bills this year compared to last year when many of his committee votes involved judicial bills. An advertising executive, Crist notes that 2009 was more of an anomaly and that he typically scores high with business groups.

Judging a trial lawyer

Three House Democrats increased their chamber scores even more than Crist, though each started from a much lower score last year.

Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, improved from 32% to 65%, Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Pete, raised his score from 38% to 76%, and Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Pete, who came in dead last in 2009 among Gulf Coast legislators, increased his chamber grade 40 percentage points to 67%.

Asked if the slow economy and record unemployment was changing his thinking, Kriseman, a trial lawyer, responds, “I've always liked to think of myself as pro-business. I think that some of the positions that the chamber or AIF have taken have not necessarily been in the best interest of small business, so I've disagreed with them and cast votes that were more supportive of small business.”

Kriseman is only one of seven Gulf Coast House Democrats to receive a higher AIF score this year over last, though he still gets a failing grade with a 58. He says he deserves credit and the better scores for supporting the slip and fall tort reform bill even though only seven of the 160 legislators opposed it.

And, Kriseman argues, he's handled slip and fall cases. “As a trial lawyer, that's not a position that would be taken by most trial lawyers.”

That popular piece of legislation helps inflate Kriseman's grade because it gets double-weighting by the chamber for falling in their “lawsuit abuse reform” category of priorities.

Another chamber and AIF-supported bill that Kriseman voted for on the House floor received unanimous support from both the House and Senate. House Bill 1565 about agency rulemaking would have given the Legislature more authority over final approval of some state agency rules for the expressed purpose of protecting small business from onerous rules.

But Kriseman, and one other House member, changed their votes after the official roll call vote. The Florida Chamber bases its scoring on the roll call votes and doesn't revise its scoring if a legislator changes a vote later. On May 28, 10 days after Kriseman's reversal, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the bill.

Business Award Winners

The Florida Chamber's Distinguished Advocate Award winners from the Gulf Coast:

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples

Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral

Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples

Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey

Associated Industries of Florida Champions of Business Award winners from the Gulf Coast:

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel

Florida Education, Economic and Workforce Development Council Award:

Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice

Environmental Sustainability Council

Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers



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