TALLAHASSEE — The once-moderate Florida Senate is growing more conservative under incoming leader Mike Haridopolos in the wake of high-level staff firings and resignations that have thinned the ranks of Democrats in the upper chamber.
The shakeup could leave the "New Senate'' filled with the most Republican members and staff members since Reconstruction, which paves the way for swifter approval of budget and tax cuts, pension reform and conservative social issues.
"We are rightsizing the Senate — saving taxpayers money," said Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, adding he hopes to trim $1 million from the Senate's budget by consolidating staff positions and shedding highly paid employees.
"I want to have the credibility when people ask, 'Are you tightening your own belt?' And I can look them in the eye and say, 'Yes, we have,' '' Haridopolos said.
But to some, the effort resembles a political purge as well. And they worry that an overly partisan staff could fail to give the neutral, expert analysis needed to properly vet legislation ranging from taxes to criminal justice to the environment.
A number of Senate staffers grew so worried about job security at the end of last year that many thought their party affiliations, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter posts were being monitored. Haridopolos, who is set to assume the Senate presidency from Jeff Atwater after the Nov. 2 election, said the fear resulted from a false rumor.
Still, an unprecedented number — 15 — switched party registrations this year out of the 44 high-level posts Haridopolos reviewed for cost savings, according to a Times/Herald analysis of voter data since 2000. Nine staffers became Republicans; the rest no-party-affiliation voters.
A total of 10 Democrats left their party. No Republicans did. Of those who switched registration, five were dismissed anyway.
In all, 13 staffers were let go. Only one of the dismissed, an independent voter just days before switching, was a Republican. Nine more are leaving of their own volition. Most are Democrats or independents.
Haridopolos has hired 11 replacements so far. Six are Republicans; three Democrats; the rest aren't registered with either party.
Haridopolos said he knew nothing of all the partisan issues. He said he didn't know of any rumor that he, his staff or anyone connected to him was checking party registrations.
"I have no idea what anyone's political affiliation is," he said.
Some insiders thought ideology mattered in hiring decisions.
Rick Watson, a conservative activist and lobbyist, e-mailed Haridopolos' incoming staff chief, Steve MacNamara, and recommended they hire Tim Leadbeater, "a solid conservative with excellent credentials."
The next day, Aug. 17, Leadbeater followed up and wrote in his own job-application e-mail that his interest in a job was "less about money for me than supporting the GOP Senate leadership in achieving their goals."
Leadbeater was soon hired to serve as the budget committee counsel for $105,000, relatively low for such a highly regarded tax lawyer. He had initially applied to be the Finance & Tax Committee's staff chief. In his e-mail, he said he was "puzzled, perhaps frustrated, over the years since the GOP gained control of the legislature'' that some staffers didn't have a "world view'' that reflected mainstream Republicanism.
Two tax committee staffers, Bob McKee and Alan Johansen, were let go by Haridopolos. Both had found legal and practical issues with Haridopolos' signature piece of legislation: a proposed constitutional amendment to cap government spending.
"The voters and myself believe that when you limit government you empower people," Haridopolos said.
Another dismissed staff director, Ray Wilson of the Governmental Oversight & Accountability Committee, stuck his neck out when he issued a staff analysis of a bill that sought to slap a tax on malt liquor sales and divert a portion of the proceeds to a charity linked to some "public officers." Among them: Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat and vice-chairman of the government oversight committee.
Praising Haridopolos for helping the Democrat-heavy black caucus, Siplin said he consulted with him on some staff changes, but wouldn't give specifics.
Though the malt-liquor bill had moved through another committee, the potential conflict of interest wasn't flagged until Wilson issued his staff analysis, the plain-language studies that decipher legislation.
Haridopolos suggested Wilson wasn't kept on staff because of his large salary, $130,092, not because of the malt-liquor bill, which died in the tax committee.
"One of the biggest problems we're facing as a state is pay and pensions," Haridopolos said. "The same guy who has been running pay and pensions has been there for 30 years."
But Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said the staff could see the dismissals as a warning that they risk their jobs "if they offer unbiased analysis on proposed policies that conflict with leadership's political agenda."
Still, it's widely known that staffers have long censored reports, keenly aware that their bosses and powerful lobbyists read their work closely.
Dockery said what she found "most troubling is the rumor that the incoming administration was checking the political party affiliation of Senate staff as well as their information on social media sites. More than one staffer indicated that they felt pressure to switch their political party affiliation in order to keep their job."
Haridopolos said he applied no such pressure and doesn't want to quash free thought or good analysis. He said conservative shifts in the Senate staff and membership are natural as Florida drifts Republican. This year most major GOP candidates are leading in state opinion polls.
"I fully expect to have a veto-proof majority'' of 27 members, said Haridopolos.