TALLAHASSEE — With an eye toward the 2012 elections, Florida Republicans are mounting the broadest assault on their Democratic counterparts since taking control of the Legislature 15 years ago.
Bills barreling through the House and Senate attempt to starve Democrats of their primary sources of cash and halt partisan gains of the last two election cycles. With Republican supermajorities in both chambers, Democrats can't stop them.
On Thursday, the House passed a bill to block the kind of voter registration drives that helped sweep President Barack Obama into the White House and gave Democrats an edge of more than 600,000 votes.
Republicans are also moving bills on litigation overhaul that make it more difficult for trial lawyers — big contributors to Florida Democrats — to mount or profit from lawsuits against hospitals, HMOs, nursing homes, insurers and others. Another large Democratic donor — unions — would be starved of campaign cash through legislation that would sever payroll deductions, a key union fundraising tool. Republicans are also effectively cutting worker salaries, making it harder for public employees to contribute to unions.
They have also passed measures that could add to their nearly absolute power in the Capitol: new campaign finance laws that would increase fundraising power, coupled with deregulation of private business, insurers and developers that would lift burdens from traditional GOP contributors.
"They're going through their entire wish list,'' said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Fort Lauderdale.
It is bare-knuckle politics at its purest as Republicans shrewdly take advantage of their clout before the once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative and congressional boundaries in Florida leads to a potential dilution of their strength.
"The last election cycle called for bold and aggressive action and what you've seen from the Florida House is bold and aggressive action,'' said Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, one of the House's top leaders.
He is the sponsors of a contentious bill passed by the House to ban unions from using payroll deduction to collect dues.
Dorworth's bill also requires unions to get permission from each member to use the dues on political activity — hurdles unions fear will inhibit their ability to raise money. Passage of the bill remains uncertain in the Senate.
Dorworth warns, however, that with two weeks left in the 60-day session, it's too early to declare victory for the Republican agenda.
"Yes, a bunch of bills have been filed, a bunch have been heard, but not a bunch have been passed,'' he said.
Republicans, if successful, view it as partial payback. Trial lawyers and unions — especially the Florida Education Association — were primary sponsors of constitutional Amendments 5 and 6, approved by 64 percent of the voters in November. It was the only significant victory for liberals on the Florida 2010 ballot.
Under the amendments, lawmakers must adhere to a specific set of new redistricting standards that ban them from protecting incumbents and political parties when redrawing political lines.
'Chance of lawsuits'
"I don't think anyone is clear how it's all going to work and there is a 100 percent chance of lawsuits," said David Johnson, the Republican Party of Florida's executive director during the last redistricting process in 2002.
State and federal constitutions require the Legislature to reconfigure the state's political boundaries after the decennial census. The goal: reapportioning legislative and congressional districts to ensure they represent the same number of constituents. By 2012, that means that every legislator will be running in new, untested districts.
There's no guarantee Republican numbers will be deflated by redistricting but, judging by voter registration, the Legislature's composition is upside down.
According to the Division of Elections, if Florida's Legislature mirrored the state's voter database on April 1, 41 percent of the Legislature would be Democrats, 35 percent would be Republicans and 24 percent would have no party affiliation.
The actual numbers are much different: 68 percent — 109 — of Florida's 160 legislators are Republicans; 32 percent, or 51 members, are Democrats. No registered independents hold office.
But voter registration numbers don't matter as much as elections. In 2010, Floridians overwhelmingly rejected Democrats, emboldening Republicans to push what they say is good conservative policy.
The tightening of election laws is also a priority for Republicans. The Senate wants to limit the number of days for early voting, which tends to draw more Democrats. The House on Thursday approved a bill that imposes new limits and penalties on groups that register new voters. Voter registration forms would have to be turned in to supervisors of elections offices every 48 hours, instead of every two weeks under existing law. The measure also bars anyone who has moved out of a county, including military personnel or college students, from updating his or her information at the polls on Election Day.
'Republican power grab'
Democrats say these measures are aimed at "suppressing" key Democratic voting groups — college students and minorities. They complain that the Republican antidote to less reliable districts is to make electing Democrats less reliable.
"This is a blatant, partisan Republican power grab,'' said Scott Arceneaux, the Florida Democratic Party's executive director. "What's most obscene is they want to make it harder for people to vote."
In 2008, third-party groups, many of whom were supporters of Barack Obama, registered 230,000 new African-American voters between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1 in Florida alone.
"The third-party voter registration language is the biggest dagger to Democrats in the 2012 election," said Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor and voting law expert.
But Rep. Seth McKeel, a Lakeland Republican, said the bill is "absolutely not harmful to democracy" and, like other Republicans, said it is needed to prevent voter fraud. But he could not cite any examples.
The House also passed a plan to ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to overhaul the Florida Supreme Court. Democrats say the GOP wants a newly Republican-packed court to oversee any redistricting lawsuits.
Susie Wiles, a Jacksonville political consultant and campaign manager for Republican Gov. Rick Scott, said there should be no surprise that the 2012 presidential campaign overshadows everything political in Tallahassee, the capital of the nation's largest swing state: "We have a reasonably early primary. We are a big state, donor rich and the ultimate purple microcosm of the nation."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.