LT 2016: Tallahassee

by Bob Bincarousky, TECO Energy

BincarouskyAt six-thirty in the morning on February 10th, the Leadership Tampa Class of 2016 boarded two buses for a two-day trip to Tallahassee.  The group’s goal?  To obtain first-hand experience with the state governance process.  Before the details, I offer a political story for perspective.

For those too young to remember, Bill Bradley came to the U.S. Senate with his reputation as a basketball superstar preceding him. Invited to make a speech at a large political banquet, the confident legislator sat at the head table waiting to make his address. When the waiter came around and put a pat of butter on his plate, Bradley said, “Excuse me, can I have two pats of butter?”

“Sorry,” the waiter replied, “just one pat of butter each.”

Historically known for his patience and manners, Bradley’s immediate hunger and compressed schedule forced him to make a withdraw from his bank of goodwill.  “I don’t think you know who I am,” Bradley responded. “I’m Bill Bradley, Rhodes Scholar, professional basketball player, two-time world champion with the New York Knicks, United States senator and Presidential candidate.”

“Well,” the waiter said, “maybe you don’t know who I am.”

“As a matter of fact I don’t,” Bradley replied, “who are you?”

“I’m the guy,” said the waiter, “who is in charge of the butter.”

This story can be applied to the nuts and bolts of politics and governing.  High ideals and lofty goals often meet with untimely ends after colliding with the folks “in charge of the butter.”

Now, the details of the trip.  After the bus ride to capitol, the LT Class of 2016 met with H. Lee Moffitt.  Moffitt is the former speaker of the House and served the Hillsborough County area for ten years as a state legislator.  After a much deserved acknowledgement of Class member Dana Rollison, Moffitt described the beginnings of his political career and the genesis of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.  In the mid-1970s, three of Moffitt’s close friends were diagnosed with cancer and forced to go out of state for high quality treatment.  After the loss of these compatriots, Moffitt vowed to bring a world class cancer center to Tampa.

This noble goal met with stiff resistance as other state legislators were competing for funds and working on their own particular hometown needs.  Moffitt worked all of the angles and successfully put forth legislation, only to have it vetoed by the governor.

Then Moffitt was elected speaker, a position which significantly improved his control of the butter.  His next attempt at legislation was successful and shovels were in the ground in Tampa in 1983.  The takeaway?  Access to support requires worthwhile projects and the political will to enact them, which often requires horse trading and compromise.  Holding a position that enables you to have direct input into which legislation comes up for a floor vote also helps.

As a result of these efforts, Tampa possesses a world class cancer facility.  As Brian Harris described so well in a previous Class write-up, the Moffitt Cancer Center is a $1 billion organization housed in a two million square foot facility with over 5,000 team members.  It is the only National Cancer Institute (NCI) designated cancer center based in Florida and is one of only forty-five in the entire country.  The Center sees 15,000 new patients per year.

Next, the Class heard from a panel of internal and external lobbyists moderated by ex-speaker Moffitt.  The panel encompassed both sides of the aisle, including:

Jan Gorrie of Ballard Partners

Ron Pierce of RSA Consulting

Mac Stipanovitch of Ballard, Ingersoll and Rooney

Sean Pittman of Pittman Law Group

Mark Walsh of USF Government Relations

These governmental affairs professionals discussed the currently contentious atmosphere in the capital and nation.  The discussion was broad, ranging from the historical relationship between legislators, their staff, and lobbyists to the likelihood of a Trump – Sanders general election.  The discussion of the current role of lobbyists and staff was particularly insightful.  The panel agreed that term limits on legislators increased the influence of non-elected participants in the political process, including staff and lobbyists.

The Class then broke into groups to watch the creation of legislation in person.  Groups were free to watch the early general sessions of the House and Senate, where various pieces of law were being formed.  The House members discussed specific education legislation, with bill sponsors answering the questions of other legislators.  This proceeding is often an opportunity for elected officials to get their questions and concerns on the record.  It also provides for the opportunity for political theater, as concerns are brought forth into the public forum after much debate in committees and other less visible venues.

Next, the Class took a quick tour of the statehouse building itself, including the chapel, governor’s offices, and the top floor with great views of northern Florida.  The Class rounded out the day with a reception at the Governor’s Club with local Tampa Bay area legislators.  Numerous topics were discussed in an informal setting.  The future of transportation was discussed in depth by Senator Jeff Brandes.  Other local groups were in town for Hillsborough Day in Tallahassee, which provided for the opportunity to meet leaders throughout the Tampa Bay area.

The next day kicked off with breakfast and a presentation by Steve Schale, past director for the Barack Obama campaign in Florida.  Schale discussed a variety of topics, including what makes Florida a unique barometer for national politics and a swing state in presidential elections.  Florida’s unique blend of old and new, rich and poor, ethnic groups, and media outlets make it vital to any politician interested in competing on a national level.  Schale expects Florida’s current position to continue in the future.

The group then visited the floor of the Senate, which provided for another group photo opportunity.

The Class then broke into smaller groups to attend committee meetings.  My group attended Senator Jack Latvala’s subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development.  In a short span of time, the committee approved a new leader for economic development and authorized payment for those impacted by past transgressions at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

Finally, the Class toured the old statehouse building for one last photo on the steps of the old state capital building.

So, who holds the butter in today’s Tallahassee?  Any comprehensive answer is dependent upon the specifics of the goal in question.  Suffice it to say that knowledge of the workings of the system is more important than ever.