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Legislature goes into overtime

TALLAHASSEE

A last-minute feud over a Senate move to help a Jacksonville greyhound track sent the Florida Legislature into overtime Friday as the planned smooth finish to the 60-day session dissolved with the Senate president sending members home at 1 a.m.

"I'll sleep in my office,'' said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, announcing that he would call his colleagues if the House passed the tax relief bill the Senate hoped to receive when it extended past midnight. But the House refused to respond because the bill included a massive economic development and tax relief bill that the Senate had loaded up with a controversial provision to allow parimutuels to install slot-like amusement machines.

After an hour and no resolution in sight, Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, called it quits, ordering senators to return at 10 a.m. today.

It was a rocky end to one of the most ambitious and ideological sessions in modern history in which legislators overhauled schools, health care, courts, pensions, development and even election laws.

The Senate voted 31-8 along mostly party lines for the $69.7 billion budget that eliminates 4,492 jobs, cuts state worker salaries by 3 percent, trims taxes by $300 million, privatizes more prisons and reduces regulations. The House was scheduled to vote on the measure today, with the session extended until 6 p.m.

Lawmakers also launched a historic experiment to overhaul the $22 billion Medicaid system and push 2.9 million sick, poor and elderly patients into managed care programs. They streamlined land permitting and reduced staffing at nursing homes. They repealed decades of growth management law and hundreds of environmental rules in the name of economic development.

In education, they ended teacher tenure, strengthened charter schools, expanded vouchers and cut education funding to $542 per student.

"I don't think anyone is going to say that we underworked ourselves," said Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

In addition to asking public employees to pay 3 percent of their salaries into their retirement accounts, Haridopolos boasted that lawmakers "balanced the budget with the biggest shortfall at least in my 11 years — with no stimulus money."

Despite a budget shortfall of more than $3.7 billion, the Legislature steered $60 million into targeted tax cuts for businesses and cut property taxes by trimming water management district budgets. Then, heeding the governor's suggestion that he might veto the budget without a corporate income tax cut, they raised tax exemptions on about 15,000 companies — at a cost of about $37 million.

"All this is about jobs," said Gov. Rick Scott. "We've clearly changed the direction of the state, our economy is getting better."

The governor, in his first year in elected office, remained on the periphery for much of the session as legislators tackled the red-meat Republican agenda that helped him and the GOP win veto-proof majorities in the Legislature and control the entire Florida Cabinet.

Republicans campaigned to limit abortion, protect gun rights and restrict lawsuits from trial lawyers. They delivered — though they didn't go as far as their GOP base wanted.

They passed laws to require all women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion and passed laws protecting gun owners who hold concealed weapons permits.

On immigration reform, which the governor wanted mirrored after Arizona's controversial law, the Legislature couldn't agree. A proposal to require every employer to verify the employment status of all workers using a federal database was watered down in the Senate and then stalled in the House, which rejected it as too weak.

More than anything, Republicans campaigned to create jobs. They pointed to the repeal of growth management laws as the antidote to job development. But their most immediate act, in approving the budget, will cut them. At least 1,300 of the 4,492 jobs eliminated in the budget are filled by state workers.

Democrats pointed out the irony.

"Who are we sticking it to today? Unfortunately, it's Floridians,'' said Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-West Palm Beach.

Others noted that rather than focus on job creation, the agenda was designed to re-elect Republicans.

"It's a tea party train wreck,'' said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "What guides the principles of this chamber is the Republican Primary of 2012."

Legislators waited until the final day to reach accord on two bills: one that finances a tax cut for business by cutting unemployment benefits for out-of-work Floridians, HB 7005, and another aimed at cracking down on the state's so-called pill mills.

The pill mill measure, HB 7095, was Attorney General Pam Bondi's top priority. She and Scott made a rare appearance in the House chamber as legislators debated the measure, then passed it out of the House 118-0.

The legislation tightens reporting requirements to a prescription drug monitoring database, enhances penalties for overprescribing narcotics and bans most physicians from dispensing powerful painkillers.

Lawmakers delivered on much of the governor's agenda.

"He set a bold agenda and we tried to meet it,'' said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the Republican's speaker designate.

In addition to tackling issues embraced by the conservative right, legislators loaded the November 2012 ballot with seven constitutional amendments aimed at banning public funds for abortion to a plebiscite on the federal government health care act.

Legislators also reversed a 1992 election reform and opened the door for special interests to invest directly in campaign funds controlled by legislative leaders.

As a result of strong victories in 2010, Republicans enjoy lopsided supermajorities in both chambers. That strength enabled them to steamroll Democrats on issue after issue, from weakening growth laws to rewriting voting rules and drug testing welfare recipients.

House Speaker Dean Cannon enjoyed almost monolithic control of his chamber, where 81 Republicans outnumbered the 39 Democrats. But Haridopolos, who became a candidate for 2012 U.S. Senate before the session, learned that his attempt to anoint his chamber "the most conservative Senate in history" was easier said than done.

The conservative agenda hit a roadblock in the Senate where a floating band of centrists, led by Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, blocked several bills and forced the Senate to moderate others.

The centrists succeeded in halting a bill to ban unions from collecting dues for political activity, revising membership in judicial nominating commissions, shielding online travel companies from local government taxes and dividing the Florida Supreme Court into civil and criminal divisions.

Legislators also rejected attempts to allow Citizens Property Insurance to raise rates up to 25 percent and restricting homeowners with property valued at more than $500,000.

"Senators are people who have been successful in their careers, who have spent a lot of time and money to get here and who like to make up their own minds,'' Latvala said.

But Democrats complained that Republicans drew up much of their broad agenda "behind the scenes," said House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West.

Legislative leaders came under fire in the final day for using the budget process to pass policy changes in so-called conforming bills that legislators cannot amend. They used the bills to enact into law the growth management overhaul, a plan to expand gambling and revamp the state health insurance plan.

Each of those issues failed to get a hearing in both chambers because it either appeared to be short of votes or out of time.

Republican Sens. Ronda Storms and Paula Dockery momentarily stopped the budget debate to complain the bills, which were not released until 10:30 p.m. Thursday.

"In all my 15 yrs in Legislature," Dockery tweeted after the debate, "I have never seen conforming bills handled like this. I can't read fast enough." Latvala called it a "big, big abuse of the process" while Saunders blasted it as suspicious.

"For all I know it could have been drafted by a lobbyist," he said.

As the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business groups boasted that legislators had addressed nearly all of their priorities, environmentalists, teachers and consumer groups complained that it was one of the worst sessions on record.

Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, the incoming House Democratic leader, said the session will be remembered for its harsh treatment of middle-class Floridians.

"It should have been a shared pain," he said.

Staff writers Marc Caputo, Steve Bousquet, Janet Zink, Michael C. Bender, Jodie Tillman and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

Coming Sunday

A look at the major bills that passed and failed during the 2011 session.

Legislature goes into overtime 05/06/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 7, 2011 9:07pm]

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