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Tracking the Senate's rightward shift

Sen. John Thrasher, center, is congratulated by Sen. Don Gaetz, left, and Sen. Mike Haridopolos following passage of a bill that he sponsored. The three lawmakers are a significant reason the Florida Senate has shifted to the right.

Associated Press

Sen. John Thrasher, center, is congratulated by Sen. Don Gaetz, left, and Sen. Mike Haridopolos following passage of a bill that he sponsored. The three lawmakers are a significant reason the Florida Senate has shifted to the right.

TALLAHASSEE — You've heard the old axiom about the Florida Legislature: "The House proposes and the Senate disposes."

The reference is to the fact that the Senate has traditionally been a more deliberative body, and for at least a decade, more politically moderate and much less ideological than the House.

Some frustrated House conservatives used to call the Senate the place "where good ideas go to die."

You don't hear much of that talk this session.

What you hear instead is a Democratic senator, Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, tweeting his followers that this is a very successful session for former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Floridians may have voted for a Democratic president in 2008, but their state Legislature is becoming more conservative.

If the trend continues, it could cause major changes in public policy.

What's taking place underscores the shift that occurs when a Senate seat or two changes hands, and a conservative replaces a moderate.

The best example is in greater Jacksonville.

The death last year of Jim King, a moderate Republican who had little interest in wedge issues, hastened the election of John Thrasher, a conservative firebrand and former House speaker who's making a big splash, defying conventional wisdom that freshman senators should know their place.

Thrasher is pushing laws to lessen the threats of lawsuits on businesses, relax limits on class sizes and virtually abolish tenure for teachers in the name of more accountability.

"I talked to Jeb this morning," Thrasher said Thursday, still celebrating passage of the tenure bill, albeit on a close 21-17 vote. "He was very pleased with what we did. Very pleased."

Running in a special election in the fall, Thrasher promised to disrupt the status quo in Tallahassee — and to not forget who tried to defeat him, such as personal injury lawyers.

He has what he calls a one-year contract and must run this fall for a full term.

"If the voters give me another contract, we'll continue to be disruptive, in terms of what I consider to be good public policy. There is a difference here," Thrasher said.

Already, Thrasher is seeking a way to become a future Senate president, and follow in the footsteps of fellow conservatives Mike Haridopolos of Melbourne and Don Gaetz of Nice­ville.

It was less than two years ago that the Florida Senate defeated, by the barest of margins, a bill requiring a pregnant woman to be offered to view an ultrasound image of her fetus before undergoing an abortion.

Seven Republicans, including King, voted against that bill, which defeated a priority of one of the Senate's most respected members, Dan Webster.

"The Florida Senate has become more conservative than the House. I'm a big believer in that," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Fasano has a bill that illustrates the point.

It would expand Florida's vehicular homicide law by applying that felony to a fetus "at any stage of development." Current law defines a viable fetus as that which would be capable of living outside the womb.

The legislation has not been heard in the House, but it has passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"There's no question," Fasano said. "With John Thrasher in the Florida Senate, the ideology of the Senate has changed."

The bottom line: Elections really do matter.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Tracking the Senate's rightward shift 03/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010 8:58pm]
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