Politics & Policy

When Rubio Was the Man of Florida’s House

Rubio in 2008. (Joe Raedle/Getty)
What the newly declared 2016 candidate's political origins suggest he'd be like as POTUS.

One of the recurring knocks on Senator Marco Rubio, now officially a presidential candidate, is that as a senator, he’s never run or managed anything — a criticism that isn’t quite accurate. Rubio managed the Florida House of Representatives as speaker for two years, a period marked by some distinct successes but also lingering frustration with Republicans he deemed too passive and comfortable with the status quo.

As speaker and in earlier leadership positions in the Florida House, Rubio demonstrated a willingness to delegate to focus on his strengths, communicating and negotiating. The record suggests that a President Rubio would drive a hard bargain, and hold out until the eleventh hour, but rarely walk away from the table without a deal.

Nelson Diaz met Rubio when both were working for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign in Florida, and was the first legislative staffer Rubio hired, working for the young lawmaker from 2000 to 2003. Diaz, who became a lobbyist after leaving Rubio’s staff, describes his old boss’s management style as “principled . . .  I wouldn’t say unbending, but even as close as I am with him, one time, as a lobbyist, I remember sitting there with some gaming legislation, and he said ‘no.’ He couldn’t [support] it. You knew what you’re getting with Marco.”

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The speaker of the Florida House is an important and powerful position, but one perhaps a bit easier to reach than comparable positions in other states. Representatives in Florida are limited to four two-year terms. Florida’s speaker is elected by his fellow representatives for a two-year term, and is usually in his final term – meaning the Florida House is effectively led by a new speaker every two years.

Because of the term limits and constant turnover at the top, careers in the Florida state legislature accelerate quickly. The legislature works a brief, fast-paced schedule, a 60-day session starting in March, supplemented by occasional special sessions. The legislature is the GOP’s ballgame; Republicans have controlled the Florida House and Senate since 1996. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t often deep divisions; Rubio’s tenure as speaker exacerbated friction with the man who would later become his defeated Senate rival, then-governor Charlie Crist.

Rubio won a special election to his state House seat in February 2000, giving him an extra half-session that didn’t count toward his four-term limit — a small-but-key advantage in seniority. By December 2000, just nine months later, the incoming majority leader, Mike Fasano, tapped Rubio to fill his old job as majority whip.

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At the end of the 2000–2001 session, Rubio aimed to step up to the position of Florida House majority leader, but he was warned by veteran lawmakers that the arm-twisting the job required would cause tensions with his colleagues, most likely derailing any hopes he had of becoming speaker. So Rubio and the speaker for the upcoming session, Johnny Byrd, agreed to shift the vote-counting responsibilities to the whip’s office — leaving Rubio to focus on communicating the majority’s goals. Two years and nine months into his state legislative career, Rubio was majority leader. It was a high rank for a young man who looked even younger; Rubio was mistaken for an aide and ordered to make copies by the lieutenant governor, Toni Jennings, in 2003.

The race for speaker began with intense competition, but Rubio had the advantage of that slight edge of seniority, four years in leadership positions, and the failed effort by Representative Gaston Cantens of Miami to be the state’s first Cuban-American speaker the previous cycle. Despite some past tensions between the pair, Cantens endorsed Rubio, and Rubio went on to become the first House speaker from the Miami area in more than three decades.

#related#Just as he had when he was majority leader, Rubio didn’t hesitate to delegate power as speaker. He allowed his leadership team to decide which members should chair which committees, and allowed committee chairs to skip the subcommittee step when considering legislation. Committees were given budget allocations and authorized to determine how to fund their priorities within those allocations.

Florida speakers had the ability to decide which committees could consider a bill — an authority that amounted to a de facto veto power, as a bill assigned to several committees was much less likely to pass than a bill assigned to just one, particularly in an abbreviated 60-day session.

“Under my speakership, committee chairmen would have more power than ever before, but a greater share of the responsibility as well, and greater accountability,” Rubio wrote in his autobiography, An American Son. “I trusted the leaders I had chosen.”

Right before taking the speakership, Rubio headed a special committee assigned to craft legislation in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo vs. New London, which broadened the power of governments to take private property through eminent domain. Rubio put together a bill that limited the state’s authority to seize property and declared that the prevention or elimination of slums, blight, or public nuisance was no longer considered a valid public purpose for the government’s use of eminent domain. Few lawmakers wanted to stand up for the government’s right to seize private property, and the final bill passed with only three nays.

Rubio began his tenure as speaker with a dramatic — some would say flashy — public-outreach effort. He was officially designated the speaker in September 2005, and at the ceremony in the House chamber, every member had a book printed with the cover, “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future.” Rubio asked the members to pick up the book and look inside. The pages were blank, and Rubio told them that he expected the lawmakers to fill them with ideas from constituents by the beginning of the next session. “Together we will write a book which will detail and outline our vision for the future,” he said.

Rubio’s biggest win came on the issue of taxes. The tax cut enacted during his speakership in 2007 was touted as “the largest tax cut in Florida’s history,” although it was significantly smaller than what he’d originally proposed. Florida is perceived to be a low-tax state because it has no income tax, but its property taxes remain high; from 2000 to 2007, property taxes in cities doubled, and county taxes jumped as well.

Rubio’s initial solution was bold: Roll back property tax rates to their 2001 level and replace the portion of property taxes used to fund schools with a 1 percent increase in the sales tax. Counties could chose to eliminate the rest of the taxes on primary-residence properties in exchange for another sales tax increase of 1.5 percent. The move amounted to trading the elimination of all property taxes for a 2.5 percent increase in the sales tax. It would have meant a $40 to $50 billion reduction in property taxes.

But neither the Florida Senate nor then-governor Crist liked the sweeping plan. Crist pushed for a smaller alternative: doubling the state’s property tax exemption from $25,000 to $50,000. He estimated it was a $33 billion tax cut, but Rubio contended it amounted to small potatoes, particularly in parts of the state where real estate values were skyrocketing.

“Governor Crist fought him on it, just because Governor Crist didn’t like Marco,” Diaz recalls. “It was always this battle between the two. Charlie was not going to give Marco a victory on that.”

After the House passed Rubio’s bill, the Senate ran out the clock on the 60-day session. But the issue had generated enough public interest that not delivering any property tax relief would be a political disaster, so both chambers agreed to a special session. Rubio saw himself as fighting for the principled approach of limiting government and not taking taxpayer dollars for granted; the Florida media saw him as stubborn.

“Rubio’s insistence on deep cuts contributed greatly, if not entirely, to the stalemate that led to a special session,” wrote the then-St. Petersburg Times. “But it may also reward taxpayers with more relief and put a bigger hurt on local governments — factors that only elevate his stature as the tax cut king.”

The property tax elimination–for–sales tax increase swap was dropped, and House and Senate negotiators came back with a two-stage plan: a $15.6 billion property tax cut over five years, and another $16 billion in property tax exemptions to be approved through a referendum. But a court struck down the proposed referendum, so the House and Senate had to go back for another special session. With time in the legislative year ticking down, the House agreed to Crist’s original proposal, on top of the non-referendum cuts enacted earlier.

“If we rejected it, there would be no property tax relief that year,” Rubio wrote in An American Son. “I knew the bill wasn’t good enough. I knew it would be hard to bring the issue back up if we passed it. But I also knew we had gone as far as we could. We had done our best, and fallen short. I accepted the hard reality of the situation, and let the bill pass.” Rubio called his legacy on property-tax reform “incomplete.”

The second-biggest piece of legislation passed on Rubio’s watch was insurance reform, where again he held a limited amount of leverage against a Republican Senate and a Republican governor with quite different philosophies.

Crist had run for election in 2006 demonizing the state’s insurance companies. Seven big hurricanes had hit the Sunshine State in 2004 and 2005, and rates increased as the companies paid out more claims. Crist sought an expansion of state-sponsored reinsurance for private insurance companies and froze rates for Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, the state-run insurer that had picked up an additional 400,000 policies from 2004 to 2007. The move was popular, but also put taxpayers on the hook for gargantuan payouts if the state took a direct hit from a major hurricane. Democrats in the legislature wrote large portions of the bill, and largely loved it, despite occasionally griping that it didn’t go far enough.

“Everything Crist found convenient, he would say was part of the Republican philosophy,” Diaz says. “That’s not the way Marco is; either it’s a conservative principle, or it isn’t. Increasing taxes to increase the size of government — Crist could turn around and say that was part of the Republican philosophy.”

The bill was stripped of a provision banning Florida-only insurance subsidiaries, and a proposal to limit the types of policies insurers could provide was phased in instead of starting immediately. But the law represented de facto price controls and, in the words of some state Republican lawmakers, amounted to “socializing the state insurance market.”

“[Crist] had beaten us in a game of chicken over the property insurance bill, threatening to veto anything that didn’t meet his demands,” Rubio wrote. “We won a few concessions and let it go. I had passed a bill I didn’t like.”

Though Rubio might not have reached the post of speaker without the state’s strict term-limits laws, they also limited his leverage, particularly in his second year in the job. But even so, throughout his term, everyone around Rubio seemed to sense he wouldn’t be done with the world of politics when his time in the Florida House ended. The seeds for his bitter rivalry with Crist had been sown, and a future statewide bid seemed assured. Some of his colleagues went further, suggesting he was destined for the national stage.

Shortly after Rubio became speaker in 2007, State Representative Dennis Baxley told the then St. Petersburg Times, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s governor some day. Or maybe even president.”

Now Rubio’s hoping the country sees in him a hard-nosed dealmaker, the right combination of principled conservatism and pragmatic compromise — and wants to put him into the Oval Office.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NationalReview.com.


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