TALLAHASSEE - The weeks after the legislative session are typically a decision season for the governor, who has to plow through dozens of bills and hundreds of spending items sent to him by lawmakers and pick which ones become law and which ones don't.
On that front, Gov. Rick Scott is already getting some pressure, especially from education organizations and other advocates opposed to a sweeping public education measure (HB 7069) stuffed with popular and not-so-popular ideas.
But the decisions go beyond bills, and even beyond Scott. The governor and other officials were closing in on choices for two agency heads. And across the street from his Capitol office, the Supreme Court issued a major decision on gambling laws that could upend House and Senate discussions about the rules on gaming in the future.
At the center of the legislative wrangling over a potential gambling bill in the session that just ended --- no bill was ultimately approved --- were what to do with eight counties whose voters had approved slot machines.
That question was also moving through the courts, though, and on Thursday the Florida Supreme Court said the decision to allow pari-mutuels to add the lucrative games rests with the Legislature, not voters.
The unanimous decision, siding with state regulators in a lawsuit filed by Gretna Racing, not only puts the kibosh on slots for the tiny Gadsden County horse track but also for pari-mutuels in seven other counties --- Brevard, Duval, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington --- where voters have approved slots in referendums.
“…There is no specific constitutional or statutory authority for Gadsden County to act on the subject of slot machine gaming,” Justice Charles Canady wrote in Thursday's 16-page main opinion.
The ruling is based on a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2004 that authorized voters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to allow slots.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, issued a statement Thursday that said the Supreme Court “confirmed that the responsibility to determine the future of gaming in Florida lies with the elected members of the Legislature.”
“With current law upheld, the Legislature now has every opportunity to shape gaming policy for our state in a manner that respects both the authority of local referendums and the ongoing relationship with the Seminole Tribe, without the underlying concern that a court ruling could suddenly upend productive negotiations,” Negron said.
The Seminole Tribe and the state have been trying to hash out a deal, known as a “compact,” after a component of a 2010 agreement giving the Seminoles “exclusive” rights to operate banked card games, such as blackjack, expired in 2015.
After failing for years to get the Legislature to act, pari-mutuels in various parts of the state turned to county referendums to push the slots forward. But Thursday's unanimous ruling made it clear that counties and pari-mutuel lobbyists will have to go back to the Legislature for a possible expansion of slots.
The Supreme Court decision takes pressure off lawmakers, especially House members loath to expand gambling by allowing slots in the referendum counties, to craft a deal that would expand slots. It also eliminates the possibility of a special session on the topic.
“This gives us the ability to step back, catch our breath, doesn't send a rocket into the compact, and now we can continue on a more measured approach to determine how we renew our accord with the Seminole tribe and what decisions we make going forward with regard to expansion,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and key figure in gambling negotiations.
There have been several bills sent to Scott for his signature or veto over the last few weeks. But the one that presents the biggest choice for the governor remains in the Legislature, waiting with other budget-related legislation to be released.
As lawmakers wait to send Scott HB 7069, a $419 million bill covering everything from school uniforms and sunscreen to teacher bonuses and recess, the opposition to the measure is gathering. Practically every major mainstream education organization - the status quo, as critics call them - has lined up against the bill.
The Florida School Boards Association urged Scott to veto the measure.
"Legislators took a six-page, single-subject bill, tacked on the content of two very contentious bills, and then added the camouflage of popular provisions from more than a dozen other bills to produce a 274-page behemoth. ... We believe that this entire process for developing this conforming bill constitutes an abuse of the legislative process in general and the budget conference process in particular," wrote Andrea Messina, organization's executive director, and Tim Harris, its president and a member of the Polk County School Board, in a letter to Scott.
The Florida Association of District School Superintendents also said they opposed the bill. That organization went even further in its initial pitch, calling for the governor to also veto the main funding source for public education --- essentially forcing the Legislature to try again and include more money for schools. The school boards quickly followed on the funding issue in a second letter to Scott.
Not everyone, of course, is opposed to the bill. House Education Chairman Mike Bileca, R-Miami, appeared in front of the State Board of Education to defend the law.
"Our approach has been, how do we create this transformative approach to closing the achievement gap, to help really transform these persistently failing schools as well as the areas of the highest poverty in our state," Bileca said.
And the Florida chapter of PublicSchoolOptions.org, which advocates for public school options like charter and magnet schools, issued a statement calling on Scott to sign the conforming bill.
"HB 7069 is a win for parents because it gives us more options for our children's education and it entrusts us, not bureaucrats, to make these decisions for our children," said Carmen Potter, a leader of the group in Florida. "After all, we know them best."
Scott's decision on education might not be known for a couple of weeks, at least. But with one more session and a likely U.S. Senate bid looming, it could be a momentous one.
THE REVOLVING DOOR
Meanwhile, Scott's staff and agency heads were shuffling around. His most recent chief of staff, Kim McDougal, said she was leaving the administration July 1. McDougal, the latest in a string of chiefs of staff for Scott, spent a little more than a year in the job.
Shortly after taking over as Scott's chief lieutenant, McDougal was faced with overseeing the state's response to two hurricanes and the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, a terrorist attack that left 49 victims dead.
“During these tough events, Kim has led my team through crisis and helped ensure we did all we could to help Florida families during these dark hours. Despite these challenges, we have also had great success this year, and she has worked every day to make sure Florida remains the top place for families to succeed and live their dreams,” Scott said in a statement.
In a statement issued by Scott's office, McDougal --- a longtime veteran of the state politics and government --- called it an “absolute pleasure” to serve Florida for nearly three decades.
“It truly has been an honor to wake up every day and fight for policies that will make a difference in our families' lives. Governor Scott is focused on making Florida the top place to get a great job and education, and I was honored to help work on policies to make Florida number one in the nation for families,” she said.
Scott tapped Jackie Schutz Zeckman, who has been with either his administration or his campaign practically from the beginning, to take over for McDougal. She becomes his sixth chief of staff in as many years as governor.
Schutz Zeckman will be at the helm for Scott's final session and (presumably) a potential bid against incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
Describing Schutz Zeckman as a “trusted adviser,” Scott praised her for “conveying my vision of Florida as the best destination for families and businesses.”
Other Scott loyalists appeared to be in line to get other powerful positions. Michael Dew, a former aide to Gov. Rick Scott, was added Wednesday to a short list of candidates to become the state's next transportation secretary.
The Florida Transportation Commission agreed to recommend Dew; Ronald Howse, a commission member from Orlando who is the president of an engineering and land planning company; and Richard Biter, a former department assistant secretary. The short list goes to Scott, who will select a new secretary.
Dew, a former external affairs director for Scott, is currently the chief of staff for the Department of Transportation and served in the same position for the Florida Department of Corrections.
After interviewing five candidates last week, commission members appeared to favor Howse, Biter and Phillip Gainer, a Department of Transportation district secretary, for the short list. But during a conference call Wednesday, Dew replaced Gainer in the top three.
Commission Vice Chairman Ken Wright, an Orlando attorney, suggested the commission “give the governor a good choice” by adding Dew, in part because of the chief of staff's knowledge of the department.
And Noah Valenstein, an architect of Gov. Rick Scott's conservation platform during the 2014 election, will be the only applicant who will be interviewed next week to become the state's environmental secretary.
Valenstein, currently the executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, was one of 142 applicants for the job of secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a prominent environmental lobbyist, said interim DEP Secretary Ryan Matthews, who also applied for the job, would have been a good choice.
But Draper added that for an agency that needs strong leadership to enforce its policies, Valenstein has a “great reputation” and “the potential to be one of our best environmental secretaries.”
“Noah did a really good job for Scott in 2014 in terms of burnishing the governor's environmental credentials,” Draper said. “I certainly would hope that Noah's not going to go over to just be part of the campaign, but I think running an environmental agency is a lot different than running the environmental policy office in the governor's office.”
There will soon be other personnel decisions to make. Scott announced Friday that Lottery Secretary Tom Delacenserie was resigning after 17 years with the agency.