TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature christened a new era of conservative government Tuesday, flexing its muscle by overriding eight vetoes in a half-day special session.
Lawmakers also put Congress on notice that they intend to revamp the state's multibillion-dollar Medicaid system, and berated Florida Supreme Court justices for overreaching their authority.
The historic override of Gov. Charlie Crist's vetoes came after the House and Senate swore in 54 new members and named Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, as their presiding officers for two-year terms.
The veto overrides will shield homeowners, farmers, gas stations and small businesses from higher costs by stripping away or delaying regulations — steps essential to create jobs, legislators say. The message lawmakers sent Congress and the court: Keep your distance.
In his opening speech to members, Cannon criticized "government run amok'' in Washington and blasted Congress for "taking over banks and financial institutions … socializing medicine … and trampling the property rights of citizens and the sovereignty of states."
He criticized the state Supreme Court for striking from the ballot three constitutional amendments crafted by the Legislature, saying the lawmakers' work was ''demolished by five unelected justices on the Supreme Court."
Cannon, a lawyer who personally defended the Legislature's substitute amendment for two redistricting referendums backed by Democrats, called the court's and congressional actions "just a few examples of threats to freedom," but added "there are many others."
Haridopolos, a college professor, set the tone in his opening remarks for what he has pledged will be the most conservative Senate in more than 100 years.
"We're facing a $2.5 billion shortfall," he said. "We have two options: Raise taxes or spend less … We will do more with less, we will tighten our belt and we will not raise taxes a single dime."
While pledging to give all bills a thorough hearing in at least three committees, Haridopolos warned: "If your piece of legislation raises a tax, makes it easier to file a lawsuit against a fellow Floridian or increases red tape, then I don't like your chances."
Legislators spent the afternoon winding their way through seven bills and a budget item vetoed by Crist this year. With near-unanimous votes in both chambers, they conducted the first overrides of a governor's veto since 1998, when lawmakers restored two bills rejected by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles.
They approved bills that authorized $31 million in federal stimulus money to provide rebates to an estimated 13,000 people who bought high-efficiency air conditioning and heating systems or solar energy systems. They delayed a new law that requires septic tanks to pass an inspection every five years, and enacted a new requirement that state regulations costing $200,000 per year or more be ratified by the Legislature.
Lawmakers also passed bills that would loosen rules for petroleum site cleanup, repealed a requirement that homeowners in coastal counties provide a "windstorm mitigation rating'' to potential buyers, and allowed farmers who want to sell their land to transfer their agricultural tax credits to the buyer.
Lawmakers sent Congress a nonbinding statement of their intent to pass a Medicaid reform bill in the spring. The resolution says they intend to expand on a pilot program begun by Jeb Bush and steer most Medicaid patients into managed-care plans.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, voted against the resolution. He said managed care essentially means HMOs and warned: "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."
The overwhelming majorities by which the Republicans passed the measures underscored the weak position of House and Senate Democrats. Because their numbers are so small, Democrats can't stop or even slow down the GOP unless maverick Republicans join them.
That happened once in the Senate on Tuesday, when three Republicans voted to oppose the new hurdles for regulations. But only four Florida Democrats joined them and the measure passed 32-7, a signal to GOP leaders that most Democrats were eager to please as they await assignments, offices, parking spaces and committees.
"We're not going to throw rocks at people who can throw boulders at us. That doesn't make any sense," said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D- Hallandale Beach.
Senate Democrats chose Sen. Nan Rich of Weston as their minority leader and Tampa Sen. Arthenia Joyner as chief deputy.
"As the loyal opposition, we've got to be the voice of the voiceless," Joyner said.
The House Democratic leader, Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West, said the party would be a watchdog, making sure Gov.-elect Rick Scott and the GOP-controlled Legislature follow through on their promises to create jobs and revive the economy.
Some Democrats were disturbed by Cannon's sharp criticism of the Supreme Court in his opening day speech, which he delivered with Chief Justice Charlie Canady — a former legislator — seated 50 feet away.
"The chief justice is sitting there in the front row and you're taking a shot at him right off the bat," said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.
Cannon said his pointed remarks were meant to open a "dialogue about how we can support them in fulfilling their role and they can support us in fulfilling our role."
But high court spokesman Craig Waters raised questions about how far the justices could go to with a "dialogue.''
"The word 'dialogue' is very open-ended and can include meanings that would violate the Code of Judicial Conduct," Waters said. Because justices cannot discuss any issues that could come before the court, "dialogue is trumped by ethical considerations," he said.
Staff writers Lee Logan and Janet Zink contributed to this report.