TALLAHASSEE — To see how the Florida Senate has shifted to the right, look no further than Pasco County's Sen. Mike Fasano, an antitax crusader, former Republican majority leader, and cable news star during the 2000 presidential recount.
Fasano took to the Senate floor during last week's half-day special session and railed against a GOP blueprint for fixing Medicaid. At issue was a symbolic vote to tell Congress Florida plans to steer Medicaid patients into managed care networks.
"This is more than intent. We are setting policy today by doing this,'' scolded Fasano, a 16-year legislative veteran. "This should have gone through committees. … If you think you got a few phone calls last year, put people in an HMO and the phones will be ringing off the hook.''
But Fasano's protests were quickly drowned out by a GOP stampede in favor of the bill. In the new Senate, where newcomers value business and economic development over Fasano's populist consumerism, he has morphed from conservative stalwart to moderate maverick.
"I don't know if the Senate has changed or I have changed,'' he said. "I think it's a little of both.''
Fasano, 52, is a self-described conservative whose past crusades include repealing the intangibles tax on investments, barring sex offenders from living near schools and fighting insurance and utility rate increases.
Since he was first elected to the House representing New Port Richey in 1994, his politics have become more focused, he said.
"When I see something that's going to hurt the little guy and gal, or the small business man or woman, I have to speak up,'' he said. "It seems like no one ever speaks up for them."
Bill Bunting, a long-time Fasano nemesis who is Pasco County's Republican state committeeman, said Fasano's core political base comprises the thousands of blue-collar retirees living in Pasco County.
"Fasano is all about Fasano," Bunting said. "Not about the Republican Party."
Last spring, Fasano antagonized Republican leaders by vociferously backing two Public Service Commission members who voted against electricity rate hikes. And he alienated some colleagues in recent years by pushing to cut lawmakers' salaries as a gesture to struggling families, a move others dared not oppose.
When Gov. Charlie Crist left the Republican Party last April to challenge Marco Rubio for the U.S. Senate as an independent, Fasano stood by Crist and became his attack dog — an act of loyalty that got Fasano drummed out of the local GOP organization and hurt his legislative standing.
Under the new leadership of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, Fasano lost his prized chairmanship after six years in charge of the Senate budget committee on transportation and economic development.
His new assignment is overseeing spending on criminal justice and courts, an area where Gov.-elect Rick Scott wants to make deep cost savings. Haridopolos has made it clear he's watching to see how well his committee chairmen stay true to his agenda.
Whether Fasano fits that mold remains to be seen. His first act as chairman was to call for hearings into the deal for a new $48 million Tallahassee courthouse.
Fasano said Monday that he wants to tour the new courthouse, and has asked his staff for a report on the cost of the building and how it was approved.
"We can never allow this to happen again,'' he said. "And I want to find out what other uses we can get out of this building.''
At least Fasano got a chairmanship. Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who has criticized Senate ethical lapses, was the only top Republican not given a leadership post, while Haridopolos gave two to Democrats.
"Let's put everybody in the game and everybody who wants to be team players will be rewarded,'' he said.
The politics of the 40-member Florida Senate has traditionally been more moderate than those of the House, where 120 members represent smaller districts. In the past decade, the Senate halted or watered down attempts to pass stricter abortion laws and restrict the right to file lawsuits, and prevented state intervention in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush once complained about "wandering senators" straying his agenda.
Now, conservatives hold majorities in both chambers and Republicans have the votes to override any veto.
"It used to be you'd have to start every debate thinking: compromise," said former Orlando Rep. Tom Feeney, who was speaker of the House from 2000-2002 when Fasano was majority leader. "Now, the only constraint is their good judgment."
"It has definitely moved to the right. Nobody can say anything different," said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston. "The question is if we can build coalitions around issues that recognize the fact that the people of Florida are not where many of the senators are."
During last Tuesday's special session, in which legislators overrode eight of Crist's vetoes, Fasano described his GOP colleagues' actions as "petty.''
One of those overrides brought to a halt some state agency rulemaking. Now many rules must be approved by the Legislature.
Fasano said Monday that the override, aimed at reining in heavy-handed bureaucratic regulation, could have grim unintended consequences. He cited a Health Department rule involving pain pill abuse.
"This is a perfect example of what can happen because of this,'' he said. "Now, instead of putting these rules into effect right now we're going to have to wait until the spring. Seven people a day are dying because of this."
He wasn't the only GOP centrist who cast the occasional no vote on overrides. Dockery, Sen. Dennis Jones of Seminole and Sen. Thad Altman of Melbourne all cast a vote against overrides. Sens. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach voted for the proposals but raised questions.
Rich said it was "sort of fun" to have Fasano making arguments Democrats had planned against the Medicaid resolution.
"I was ready to go and he got up,'' she said. Fasano has "carved out a niche as a voice for seniors,'' she said, and has "been very consistent in his advocacy for them.''
Now, Fasano hopes he can convince GOP leaders that it's a bad idea to force Medicaid recipients into a system that he says would profit off their illnesses.
"These are the most vulnerable people in society who don't have an advocate and now they're going to be forced into an HMO that trades on the New York Stock Exchange, is answerable to their investors, and has to show a profitable return?'' he said.
If Fasano's position on Medicaid means he won't be lock-step with his fellow conservatives, he said he's willing to live with it.
"I didn't get elected by the lobbyists and people in Tallahassee,'' he said. "I got elected by my constituents."
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.