One by one, Republican lawmakers delivered dreary news at the Florida Chamber of Commerce's "Capitol Days" Tuesday in Tallahassee. On issue after issue, pro-business bills are stalled, from curbing growing abuses in property insurance claims to changing the workers' comp system. Business is battling a lawyer-friendly bill to require courts to add interest payments in cases won by plaintiffs.
"Trial lawyers are on the march," Steve Knopik, CEO of the Bealls clothing retailer, told Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, who didn't argue. "It feels like we're just getting trampled on."
The news didn't improve when Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, described a legislative response to court-ordered workers' comp rate hikes as "a reasonably okay bill."
Interest groups like the Chamber sometimes create doom-and-gloom scenarios to rally members or raise money, but this session looks bleak for business. Despite overwhelming Republican majorities in both chambers, key Senate committees include trial bar-friendly Republicans. Senate President Joe Negron wants to abolish a decades-old tax break for the insurance industry. Some Republicans want to repeal no-fault auto insurance that could drive up accident lawsuits and legal costs. Under Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who like Negron is a lawyer, the House has dismantled most statewide economic development programs.
That brought denunciations from Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who said it's "just wrong" for Corcoran to force House members to go on record on such a controversial issue when it has no chance of passage because a similar bill isn't teed up in the Senate.
"We made all those House members, including my son (Rep. Chris Latvala), who I love very much, take a very tough vote because the speaker made them, even though he knew there was not a bill to match up to in the Senate, and that's just wrong," Latvala told Chamber members. "That's putting personal ambition before the body that you are the presiding officer of."
Latvala said it's the first time in his 15-year Senate career that business has to "play defense." He blamed term limits -- championed by Republicans three decades ago -- for a system in which most lawmakers want to be career politicians and have no business experience. "We have a constant stream of people who get elected who were aides in the legislative process," Latvala said. "They've never run a business. They've never had those responsibilities."
"Capitol Days" continues Wednesday in the capital with a panel discussion that asks: "Is Florida closed for business?"