Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: UWF President, Fight Club

September 18, 2016

Signs weren’t the only things causing fights in Florida politics this week. In fact, at times it looked like just about everyone was either battling someone else or getting ready to.

http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgThere was, of course, the shove not heard round the political world, when silent video emerged of state Rep. Keith Perry striking another man in a dispute over a political sign. And there were struggles over the presidential post at the University of West Florida, where a new leader was selected amid charges of political interference.

All the scuffling drew attention away from what might have been the most substantive developments of the week: a Legislature readying for a fight over state spending, and a governor preparing to name his first (and perhaps only, depending on how one reads a vague provision in the state Constitution) appointment to the Florida Supreme Court. There might not be a fight over that appointment — there’s no confirmation process in Florida — but whomever Scott picks will be the referee for plenty of battles in the future.


The board at the University of West Florida was voting to name its new president. And the person who got elected was not the one many of those following the process had expected.

For good or for ill — many academics would say the latter — state lawmakers have a pretty good track record of getting high-profile college and university jobs when they want them. So, many assumed that state Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who served as Senate president from 2012 to 2014, had the inside track on the position when he applied.

Instead, Provost Martha Saunders will take over at UWF on Jan. 1. She beat Gaetz on a 9-4 vote.

“I’m thrilled and honored beyond belief,” said Saunders, who returned to UWF as a provost in 2013 after serving at the school for 18 years in an earlier stint. “It has been a long and arduous process, but UWF is worth it.”

Her win came as a top trustee cited “interference” from Tallahassee in the decision — but not in an attempt to get Gaetz into the president’s chair.

Lewis Bear, chairman of the trustees, decried “character assassination” aimed at Gaetz, as critics tried to tie the senator to an ongoing investigation of a hospice company that Gaetz helped found but later sold his interest in. Bear said Gaetz had no part in the inquiry.

“I think we have spread bad rumors about somebody who has done a great job for our state,” Bear said.

Jackie Schutz, communications director for Gov. Rick Scott, said the governor “frequently talks with trustees on key issues at our universities.”

“He is thankful for their service to the state and the many hours they volunteer to make our higher education system more affordable and accountable,” Schutz said. “Gov. Scott appreciates all of the candidates who put their names forward to serve as president of UWF and looks forward to working with president-elect Martha Saunders as she meets with the Board of Governors to outline her vision for UWF’s future.”


Meanwhile, lawmakers were bracing to tackle the looming possiblity of a budget shortfall in future years, a scenario that is likely to spark fiscal clashes during next year’s legislative session.

The Joint Legislative Budget Commission, a panel of House and Senate members charged with supervising spending while the Legislature is out of session, approved a long-range financial outlook for the state Monday.

In the coming budget year, which begins July 1, the outlook projects a surplus of just $7.5 million — a tiny sliver of the state spending plan, which is now roughly $82 billion. The following year, a budget gap of $1.3 billion could open up, followed by $1.8 billion the year after that.

Republicans, who have run the state budget process for two decades, quickly zeroed in on a culprit: The state is being wasteful with the money that it has.

“It is 100 percent because of spending. Nothing else,” said incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who has been budget chief for two years.

Corcoran dismissed suggestions that the $784.9 million in tax cuts and tax holidays that lawmakers have approved over the last three years helped to create the situation the Legislature now faces. Instead, he suggested that reducing state government’s current spending will be the focus.

Democrats saw things differently. Rep. Janet Cruz, who is set to lead the House Democrats next year, issued a statement calling for lawmakers to take a look at those tax cuts before slicing spending.

“Actions have consequences,” Cruz, D-Tampa, said. “The last two years in particular, and for many years before, the majority has made decisions that are costing us now and into the future. Tax breaks that for the most part benefit big business interests mean we won’t have the flexibility to put the people of Florida first.”


Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry announcing that he will retire in December was far from unexpected. The Constitution requires that justices retire when they turn 70, though they can fulfill the remainder of their terms, depending on when their birthdays fall. Perry is already 72.

But the announcement by Perry, a Columbia Law School graduate appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist to the state’s high court in 2009, highlighted the choice that Gov. Rick Scott will make, and the stakes. Perry is part of a 5-2 majority that often rules against the governor and the Legislature and has emerged as one of the last resistance points to GOP rule.

“After over 16 years of proudly serving the citizens of the state of Florida, first as a circuit judge and currently as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court, I am constitutionally mandated to retire at the end of my current term,” Perry wrote in a letter announcing his Dec. 30 retirement. The letter was delivered Friday to Scott and released to the public Monday.

Scott’s anticipated appointment of a third conservative to the bench, joining justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, “may very well change the way the court has been ruling on cases,” former Justice Gerald Kogan said in a telephone interview Monday.

Scott, who regularly appoints judges to lower courts, told reporters Monday that he takes the role seriously.

“Think about it, every individual, every business wants to make sure when they go through the court system, it’s going to be a fair system. It shouldn’t matter what judge you get,” Scott said. “What I try to do is find people that will uphold the law. And so it’s a responsibility I have and I take very seriously.”

Scott said he is looking for two characteristics in a candidate.

“If you talk to any judges that I’ve appointed, that I’ve interviewed, I generally care about two things. Are they going to be humble in the process, and are they going to uphold the law. That’s what I care about. I want people that want to uphold our existing laws,” he said. “I get to sign or veto bills. I don’t pass laws. I expect our court system to uphold the laws of our state.”

Born in North Carolina, Perry — who said he decided to become a lawyer the night civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — became Seminole County’s first black judge after being appointed by Bush. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Perry returned to the South and went to work for Georgia Indigent Legal Services.

“The betterment of mankind was always my objective in life,” Perry told the Florida Bar Journal earlier this year.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry formally announced his retirement, paving the way for Gov. Rick Scott to name a replacement.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “All I know is I had spit all over my face. My reaction was an open hand to where that spit was coming from.”—State Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, on a videotaped confrontation with another man over a political sign. A state attorney from a different judicial circuit will decide whether move forward with a case against Perry.

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida


2 Responses to “Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: UWF President, Fight Club”

  1. TB on September 19th, 2016 10:05 am

    JJ, I will agree with you to a point. Saunders is the best choice but the real issue becomes in the long picture ahead; can she navigate the political “good ole boy” world that is the real world for getting funding and needs for the university. I hate good ole boy things but in the real world, you get rid of one and two come back in. A real leader and true person cannot be in politics since, if they are that way, they get put into places where they can do no damage. I just hope that the new president can change many things that I here from friends that work there to make it a better place. The university is a very good one with many good people and great students but, like any state driven thing, it is about politics in the end.

  2. jj on September 18th, 2016 9:26 am

    Lewis Bear, you are one of the good ole boys that finally didn’t get your way and you are whining about it. You guys scratch each others back, all of the time, and it’s about time you felt the sting of not getting something you pushed for. You and your boys are not part of the problem, you are THE problem.

    Gaetz was NOT qualified; period!

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