FOP State President James Preston Honors His Members By Drawing The Line

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FOP

March 1, 2012

Florida Public Employees Partnership commends President Preston and urges all labor organizations to stand in Solidarity with his message.

“Brothers and Sisters,

The Florida Chamber of Commerce is the enemy of our union and who we have been telling you about for the last two years.  Here in their own words is there plan to destroy the unions who protect you and your jobs.  We defeated them for the last two years and stopped there legislation but they will continue the attack.  Any candidate who signs on with the Chamber or receives their endorsement need not apply to the FOP for any support.”

Published February 25, 2012 in the Sun Sentinel What Florida’s top power broker is planning next.

TALLAHASSEE — Mark Wilson gets a report on his desk every morning at the Florida Chamber of Commerce headquarters on expected vote counts and opposition to the 60 bills his team of three dozen lobbyists tracks in the Legislature.

Next door to his office, a political operation staffed by former Jeb Bush and Ronald Reagan campaign hands is recruiting and researching legislative candidates — for the 2016 election.

While lawmakers a few blocks away are debating limits on injury lawsuits, the chamber is polling voters on the issue in two proposed new Senate districts to decide how potential votes this session can be used in the fall campaigns.

Wilson, the chamber’s president and chief executive, is paid $308,000 — more than the governor’s agency heads and many university presidents — to run what has become the most influential business group in Florida, thanks to an alignment of political stars and hefty campaign financing from major corporations such as Disney, Publix and Florida Power & Light.

And he’s eyeing a massive goal ahead: using term limits and the once-a-decade redistricting process to preserve a GOP supermajority in the Legislature and sweep the last vestiges of union and trial-lawyer influence out of the state Capitol.

Wilson’s multimillion-dollar operation is the biggest and most sophisticated arm of a business lobby that wields extraordinary influence in Tallahassee. In concert with groups such as Associated Industries of Florida and like-minded trade associations, he’s poised to make a huge bet on Republican candidates he hopes will lock down their influence for the next decade.

“Anybody who understands politics looks at a redistricting year and says, ‘This is a chance to reset the table,’ ” Wilson said.

With 12 of the 40 Senate seats open this year, turnover in the 120-member House and litigation over new proposed districts that could drag into the summer, Republicans face uphill battles to keep their two-thirds supermajorities in both chambers and an effective hegemony over state government.

The election outcome will depend in part on what changes — if any — the Florida Supreme Court demands in the new maps. But business groups will be at least as influential, and they’ve already set up “war rooms” to analyze the races and groom candidates.

“We’re going to be very successful in impacting key races,” said AIF President Tom Feeney, who took over the big-business group in December and is rebuilding its political operations.

The coordination between AIF and the chamber could be a potential game-changer. The two have traditionally butted heads over candidates. The chamber has made it a point not to endorse candidates who support trial lawyers or unions, while AIF sometimes does.

But Wilson has been meeting weekly with Feeney, the former Oviedo congressman, to push the group to abandon that strategy and focus on opposing candidates backed by lawyers or labor unions.

“You’re going to see all of us work together in a pretty unprecedented way to get the union and trial-lawyer influence out of the Legislature,” Wilson said.

The chamber’s multimillion-dollar operation includes 12 different political committees that funneled more than $3 million into the 2010 elections — overwhelmingly to Republicans — from companies such as U.S. Sugar Corp., Disney, Publix and physician prescription-software maker Automated Healthcare Solutions.

And the investment appeared to pay off.

In 2011, lawmakers scaled back Florida’s growth laws, cut unemployment benefits, ended tenure for new teachers, passed managed-care changes to Medicaid and chipped away at the public-worker-pension system — all while cutting taxes for corporations and imposing new limits on litigation against auto manufacturers.

“They don’t have a whole lot left to ask for,” said Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican.

For next fall’s legislative races, the chamber and AIF combined already have raised more than $1 million, and that’s just a start.

“When you’ve got unlimited funds, you will always have tremendous influence,” said Rep. Scott Randolph, an Orlando Democrat and frequent thorn in the side of the business lobby. “It comes down mostly to the amount of checks they can write to the Republican Party.”

For their part, the Florida Justice Association — the trial lawyers’ lobbying arm — has heard the business boasting before. And the lawyers and unions remain some of the most heavily financed political combatants in state politics.

Unions from ironworkers and longshoremen to teachers, firefighters, police and prison guards have raised more than $3.7 million through 50 different state political committees for the coming elections, while the FJA has amassed $745,000 so far — not counting the hundreds of trial lawyers who help finance campaigns individually.

“I can’t tell you how many folks predicted our demise the day after the 2010 election,” said Steve Schale, the former Barack Obama Florida director who now oversees political operations for the FJA.

Though the trial-bar lobby will lose some sympathetic legislators such as Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, and Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, to term limits, it has the potential to gain new allies in the Senate, including Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat running for a new Hispanic-leaning Senate seat, and Volusia Commission Chairman Frank Bruno, who is running against Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, in a redrawn coastal seat. Both seats could be competitive for Democrats.

“I don’t think we’re losing a lot of friends,” said FJA Executive Director Debra Henley. “I think it’s a draw.”

The business lobby has had its victories this session — and setbacks.

The Chamber, AIF, the Florida Retail Federation and other business groups are advancing tax breaks for an assortment of industries and companies, including private-airplane repairs and engine manufacturers, onshore-oil drillers, citrus packers, commercial-airport bases and even the parking garage at the Miami Marlins’ baseball stadium.

And the chamber was a primary lobbying force behind the Senate’s failed push to privatize prisons this year because it offered a chance to reduce union political clout. Both companies interested in taking over South Florida’s prisons — Boca Raton-based GEO Group and Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America — are Chamber members.

But Wilson said the group was pushing the issue more to set up “a real live laboratory where the government-run union systems are going to have to explain why they don’t get better outcomes but they cost more.”

The privatization push failed partly because of fierce opposition from unions representing prison guards. Similarly, public-employee unions have avoided a repeat push from GOP lawmakers this year to prohibit them from automatically deducting dues from workers’ paychecks, a “paycheck-protection” effort they said was an attempt to thin their ranks and bleed resources.

Still, the business lobby is a powerful force — and intent on getting stronger.

“They don’t usually get every last thing they want,” said Brad Ashwell, a lobbyist with the Florida Public Interest Research Group, which has opposed chamber-backed bills.

“But those in power are eager to be seen as a friend of the business community, and many of their priorities are adopted as top priorities of those in power.”

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