ORLANDO – Facing a room filled with local business owners, Tico Perez said there was some good news to report about the legislative session that would start in Tallahassee in January.
Florida’s lawmakers, he said, were unlikely to tackle any legislation that business owners might consider intrusive or an attempt to overregulate – although on the other hand, lawmakers were probably not going to do much in the way of pro-business legislating, either, Perez added.
“A lot of your issues may fall by the wayside, and that may be a good thing,” said Perez, the co-founder of Edge Public Affairs and the president of Tico Perez Solutions. “I always say if you’re not at the table, they’re having you for lunch.”
This afternoon, Perez and Dick Batchelor, a former state lawmaker himself and the president of the Dick Batchelor Management Group, were the guest speakers at the monthly luncheon meeting of the Orlando chapter of the Building and Office Managers Association, or BOMA. The meeting was held at the Sorosis Club in downtown Orlando.
They had been asked by the business group to provide a legislative update on the session that begins in January, and Perez and Batchelor agreed that Florida’s senators and representatives would be caught up in three controversial issues.
“I know your topics are important, but you’re not going to be a top priority this year,” Perez said, adding that lawmakers are facing huge challenges dealing with a projected $2 billion shortfall in state revenue, which will force another round of steep budget cuts; state legislative and congressional redistricting, held every 10 years to reflect population shifts in the past decade; and a possible expansion of gambling in Florida to allow casinos.
That last issue, Perez said, would likely be a doozie, because it would open the floodgates to large investors who thinks building the state’s first massive casino complex could be a financial goldmine.
“What it calls for is that the only ones that can do it will be companies that invest a minimum of $2 billion,” Perez said. “If it passes, it will be the largest casino in the world. This is going to dominate the Legislature this year.”
Batchelor said he was ready to make some predictions about the session – including the fact that it would be an awful one.
He said the need to make up $2 billion in declining tax revenues means more painful budget cuts, and he’s hopeful that unlike this year, schools will get spared. But he’s not optimistic about that, since the last round of cuts left Florida among the nation’s stingiest supporters of public school funding.
“Our children are important, they’re our future,” he said. “We used to say ‘Thank goodness for Mississippi and Alabama,’ but we can’t say that anymore. Now we’re at the bottom. I think the budget is going to be very difficult.”
He also warned that legalizing casino gambling as a way to boost economic development would backfire, bringing more crime and social problems to the state.
“As my grandfather used to say, ‘Same trough, different hogs,’ “ he said. “We don’t need to be Las Vegas, we don’t need to be Atlantic City. If we have casinos in this state, look for money coming out of your wallet – to pay for added law enforcement.”
Asked to rank the performance of Republican Gov. Rick Scott – who has among the nation’s lowest approval ratings for a sitting governor – the two men differed. Perez said Scott, who had never held public office prior to his win in November 2010, took on a major challenge overseeing a state hard hit by the collapse in the housing market.
“Governor Scott walked into a very difficult budget,” Perez said. “He had to cut $3 billion out of the budget. The good news is that we have a balanced budget in Florida.”
That’s because Florida’s Constitution mandates that the budget get balanced every year, Perez said, so lawmakers can’t run up huge deficits the way Congress and the White House routinely do.
“It’s really tough to be popular when you’re cutting money,” Perez said. “This guy has walked in and had to say no.”
Scott is showing signs of an improved learning curve, added Perez, a Republican.
“He’s learned how to work with the Legislature better,” Perez said. “I think you’re going to see a different Rick Scott this year.”
But Batchelor took a decidedly different take on the governor’s performance so far.
“He was a very wealthy man,” he said. “He bought a very expensive toy, the state of Florida, and he broke the damn thing.”
He said Scott made mistakes, both on the campaign trail in 2010 and then after he took office, which have demonstrated that he was not ready to run Florida state government.
“He ran his campaign around the media, so he didn’t have to be tested,” Batchelor said. “He brought in people who had never worked with the Legislature. I think he’s trying to reach out now, but he still has a long way to go.”
Facing billions in budget cuts, Batchelor said he’s not convinced Scott will do much more than dismantle Florida’s government, wiping out badly needed programs.
“We’re not beyond the fat, beyond the meat, we’re down to the bone and the tendons,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to go to the public and be able to lead and say ‘Okay, we’re in very tough times, so where do we cut?’ “
Perez said he doubts Florida lawmakers will consider any tax hikes next year, but that doesn’t mean Floridians won’t end up paying more after the next state budget gets approved.
“If there is some revenue raising, it won’t be on individuals,” he said. “It will be on fees.”
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