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Scott, Weatherford, Rubio celebrate "non-partisan" James Madison Institute

If Ayn Rand were alive and living in Florida, she would have paid $125 for a ticket and attended The James Madison Institute’s 25th anniversary gala Wednesday night.

Most of the state’s conservative heavyweights were there: Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, House Speaker Will Weatherford. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio delivered a televised greeting to the institute. Attorney General Pam Bondi was scheduled to show but had to cancel for a funeral. 

They were there to celebrate property rights, free markets, states rights and deregulation and other causes that JMI, founded in 1987, has championed. As JMI’s influence as a “non-partisan” think tank has grown, so too has the Republican grip on power in Tallahassee.

In telling closing remarks, former House Speaker Allan Bense, who is chairman of JMI and Weatherford’s father-in-law, explained why the think tank matters so much for conservatives.

“There are so many times when there are tough bills you have to vote for,” said Bense. “A tort bill, whatever it may be, where the press is just pounding you on the other side, the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald, the Palm Beach Post, whatever, they’re just killing you, and what James Madison was able to do was present to members the other side. Here are the facts. So you could debate those facts on the floor, and JMI didn’t go lobby members, it was, ‘here’s the other side of the coin.’ And I can’t tell you how important that is if you’re a member of the Florida House or the Florida Senate or Cabinet member, to hear an objective, bipartisan, we’re a little conservative, agreed, but here’s our side.”

Kind of a Florida-version of The Heritage Foundation, JMI’s President and CEO Robert McClure does more than just provide facts. He frequently consults and advises on major policy issues, such as Weatherford’s proposal to close the state’s pension system.

The gala was thrown at the University Center Club at the Florida State University. It had dozens of sponsors. More than 400 guests dined on filet mignon (with a Cabernet demi-glaze), grilled salmon (with a dill cream sauce), and a chocolate baby bundt volcano (garnished with fresh berries) for dessert.

The real feast was for the ears, as speaker after speaker delivered a fresh helping of unrestrained capitalism. And not once did a speaker spoil it by uttering the name “Barack Obama.” Here are the highlights:

Rick Scott: In a story that highlighted the governor’s preference for unfettered private development that was sure to please the JMI crowd, Scott spoke about meeting with Gary Morse, the developer of The Villages and a major donor to the GOP. Morse showed him an aerial map of his project where more than 80,000 people live in Central Florida. Scott asked him why he couldn’t keep growing because of there was nothing but vacant land around the project. Morse, who is a billionaire and top donor to the governor’s reelection campaign, told Scott he could never afford to pay for the costs of having the project reviewed by state planners. “So with your help,” Scott told the JMI audience, “with the individuals you elected, with your thoughts and your ideas, we cut taxes, we cut 2,300 regulations, we streamlined the permitting process, we got rid of the Department of Community Affairs (which would have been the agency to review the Villages), we streamlined the water management districts, we got the Department of Transportation focused on where they can help us get more jobs.”

Adam Putnam: “Private property rights are a bedrock of our constitutional rights.(applause) We spend far too much of our time pushing back against a federal government that tells us how much water they’re going to let flow downstream, what we’re allowed to do with it, what we’re allowed to do with our land. That’s not just an ag issue, it’s a constitutional issue, that’s an American issue. We can never lose sight of protecting our sacred private property rights.”

Marco Rubio: “Most of the innovation in this country is happening at the state level. I know that first hand from having served there... Whether it’s curriculum reform or school accountability, regulatory and tax reform. So we encourage (JMI) to continue to be a source of ideas and inspiration, not just in Florida, but hopefully that will spread across the country.”

Will Weatherford: “I believe America is less free today than it was four years ago. We are less free. And I believe, under current trends and the current leadership that we have, we’ll probably be less free three and a half, four years from now than we are today. Now I have no control of that here in Tallahassee. But what I do have control over and what we have an opportunity to do is create a pocket of freedom that is unrivaled by any place in the world. We can do that. Right here. We can create little pockets of prosperity all over the country. I believe that the real battleground is taking place in states all over America. We have an opportunity, right here, to lead that charge.” He said the next two years, the House will focus on making Florida “the most prosperous free state that America has ever seen.” He repeated two of his priorities: closing pensions for new government workers and stopping Medicaid expansion.

Jeff Atwater: “Right now our choices are to reduce the size of our government, reduce the size of the debt, reduce taxes and reduce regulation. Those are the choices that Florida made because JMI was educating the people of Florida as to the consequences of the choices. In the same period of time we made those decisions, Washington increased the size of our government, increased taxes, increased our debt.”

Ed Feulner, president, The Heritage Foundation: “You don’t have to go to Greece to see the future of the liberal, progressive agenda actually play itself out. Go to Detroit -- 87 percent functional illiteracy among 8th grade graduates, 45 percent unemployment in the inner city, 500 plus liquor stores in the city of Detroit, not a single chain food store in the city of Detroit. And there hasn’t been a conservative elected to local office in the city of Detroit in over 50 years. It’s liberalism personified. You don’t have to go to Greece to see what the alternative future might well be.” The federal government and blue states can’t help, he said. “The two biggest lies in the world: No. 1 is the check is in the mail and No. 2 is I’m from Washington and I’m here to help you. We’re not going to learn it in Washington. We’re going to learn it in the state capitols. I’d much rather learn it in Tallahassee or Austin then I would Sacramento or Springfield.”

Former U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and incoming president of the Heritage Foundation, who helped destroy whatever remaining pretense JMI had that it’s a non-partisan think tank: “I know from being in Washington that the folks there are likely to keep spending and borrowing and digging a hole for this country. And it’s going to collapse under its own weight. I don’t know if it’s next month or if it’s next year, it isn’t going to be too long. But when that happens, they’re going to be looking around and the liberals are going to be saying, ‘We just need to spend more and do more and take more control. Their failures feed their success.’” DeMint also had an interesting take on voting patterns in the U.S. “Latinos are not voting for Democrats because they agree with their policies, it’s because they’re the ones who have been in their community, who have registered them to vote, and take them to the polls.”