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Having a Republican governor and Legislature is no guarantee of harmony

TALLAHASSEE — When voters swept Republican Rick Scott into office and gave the GOP the kind of dominance no governor has seen since Gov. Bob Graham was elected 32 years ago, the new governor-elect declared it the "end of politics as usual in Tallahassee."

But if history is any indication, absolute numbers won't translate to absolute agreement. Conflict is already brewing between Scott's campaign promises on budget cuts, immigration, abortion and what leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate are willing to do.

Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said last week that while he wants to enact more conservative policies, he may not see things the same way as Scott.

Scott campaigned on a promise of cutting $1 billion from the state prison budget. Haridopolos said Senate leaders are open to prison reform, but instead of wholesale cuts, they are looking at other steps to determine prisoners' means.

"If they qualify for Medicaid, let them in. If they are really wealthy, make them pay," he said. "We are looking at all options."

On immigration reform, Scott wants an Arizona-style law.

Haridopolos is not ready to sign on: "If we choose to go this direction, we're going to create a Florida-style plan that works for Florida," he said. "Arizona's a different state."

Haridopolos said he wants to revive a law Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that would have required a woman seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound of her fetus. Scott supports a law similar to Nebraska's, which would ban abortions in most cases after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Haridopolos would say only that such a proposal will get a hearing.

Scott opposes moving ahead with Central Florida's $1.2 billion SunRail commuter rail project unless the federal government is willing to contribute more money.

The project, approved by the Legislature in a special session, is a priority for the hometown of incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. He says Scott's concerns are valid and that he looks "forward to talking with him about it."

Also working against Scott's ability to dominate the legislative agenda is the Republican's supermajority in both chambers. As in Graham's first term, Scott faces a Legislature with enough votes in his own party to override his veto.

That gives legislators more of a role in shaping the agenda than they had under Gov. Jeb Bush, who controlled much of the GOP agenda in his first term, or outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist.

"One of the hallmarks of Graham's first four years was his difficulty with the Legislature," said Jill Chamberlin, Graham's former press secretary. "It really is going to depend on how firmly Scott wants to stick to his guns because there will be times when the Legislature is going to disagree with him."

Scott comes into office with no legislative experience and a promise of being an outsider. But legislators depend on their staff and lobbyists, both of whom are woven through state government and resistant to change.

Legislators also have to run for re-election in 2012, in newly redrawn legislative seats that may be more competitive than they have been in the past. That dynamic, and the fact that legislators depend upon special-interest cash from lobbyists, also may play a role in influencing how far legislators are willing to go with Scott on his plan to "upset the applecart" in Tallahassee.

For example, David Murrell of the Police Benevolent Association, which helped to bankroll Scott's opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, said he is confident legislators won't buy into Scott's plan to replace salaried prison employees with private contractors.

"On both the House and Senate side, there are some legislators who don't want to go as far as Scott, so that'll be interesting," Murrell said.

Scott's victory speech included some clear shots at the status quo, something that both Haridopolos and Cannon have been a part of for six years.

"Some are beginning to wonder if anyone in Tallahassee can turn things around," Scott said.

Cannon said he didn't interpret that as a criticism. "What he said is we need to be more bold and more dynamic — take a common sense approach," he said.

With Scott at the helm, Republican lawmakers will be able to enact many of the proposals that were rebuffed under Crist: linking teacher tenure with student performance, expanding school choice for public school students, and limiting liability for health care providers who serve Medicaid patients.

But veterans of previous governor-vs.-Legislature conflicts say the person Scott chooses as his legislative liaison will be critical to his ability to get things done.

Bush hired former Senate Republican leader Ken Plante to be his first legislative liaison, then relied on his lieutenant governor, Frank Brogan. Gov. Bob Martinez persuaded Pete Dunbar to leave his House seat and become his general counsel and chief lobbyist.

But Graham was so ineffective at influencing the Democrat-led Legislature that the St. Petersburg Times called him "Gov. Jello" until he tapped Charlie Reed, "a behind the scenes, hail-fellow-well-met, street fighter" to be his top lobbyist, Chamberlin said.

Scott, however, has ridiculed government agencies that use lobbyists to work with the Legislature as wasteful spending. Still, whom he picks as his "half a dozen senior advisers will be crucial to his success," Dunbar said.

"He would do well to find a well-respected current or former legislator to be his adviser," he said. "You've got to have good rapport to have the optimum success."

Jon Mills, the Democratic speaker of the House when Republican Martinez was elected governor, said that no matter who is in power, the Legislature and governor will be forced to find agreement or voters will send them a message in two years as they did to Democrats this year.

"People are cognizant they are representing the whole state — people who agree with them and those who don't agree with them," he said. "And all those folks have to run again"

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]

Correction: Claude Kirk was the first Republican governor elected in Florida after 100 years of Democratic governors. An earlier version of this story incorrectly gave that honor to Bob Martinez.

Having a Republican governor and Legislature is no guarantee of harmony 11/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 10:00am]
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