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Protesters to rally on Florida Legislature's opening day

TALLAHASSEE — As legislators bang the gavel on the opening day of the session Tuesday, the Capitol will be buttressed by dueling rallies from groups with opposing views over how deep to cut the state budget.

On one side will be the tea party, a disparate group of antigovernment activists who want lawmakers to pass Gov. Rick Scott's plan to eliminate 6,700 jobs, cut property taxes and phase out the corporate income tax. With an assist from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-brothers supported small government group, tea party activists plan to bus about 2,000 protesters here to do what is rarely done in Tallahassee: lobby for less money from government.

On the other side is a ragtag group of progressives, Democrats and union sympathizers who have organized Awake the State rallies in Tallahassee and 26 other cities. By Friday, 1,300 people had preregistered to attend the rallies from Key West to Pensacola, most of them scheduled for drive-time sign waving between 4 and 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Their goal is to oppose what they consider "draconian budget cuts to every walk of life,'' said Damien Filer of Progress Florida, one of the rally organizers. "The overarching message is Florida simply cannot afford the drastic cuts in this budget that are going to hurt everybody from teachers to firefighters to hospitals to all those people they serve.'' Instead, they say, the state should be focused on closing corporate loopholes and tax breaks handed out at the expense of the middle class.

The conflicting messages illustrate the dilemma facing legislators as they open the 60-day session. State law requires them to pass only one bill during their two months in Tallahassee: the state budget. With a shortfall of nearly $4 billion, and another $1.2 billion in reserves needed to protect the state's bond rating, the Republican-dominated Legislature has put dozens of state programs, state worker pay and teacher benefits on the chopping block.

"I just hope the two groups with conflicting views keep their protests respectful,'' said Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican and the House majority leader. "It's the beauty of the Democratic process."

The Florida Chamber of Commerce began stoking the tension last week by airing a 60-second radio ad in Central Florida suggesting that Florida will see echoes of Wisconsin because "Florida is next on the union bosses' hit list." Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to end public employee collective bargaining spawned crowds of as many as 70,000 protesters, sit-ins and walk-outs by Democratic lawmakers there last month. But Tallahassee is unlikely to see a repeat of Madison.

For one, the Capitol Police and the Tallahassee Police Department have been dispatched to monitor the crowds at Florida's Capitol and the union presence is expected to be small. Only 141 protesters had signed up for the Tallahassee rally on the Awake the State website by Friday, with larger crowds expected in West Palm Beach and Orlando.

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, one of the state's most powerful unions, plans to have its members working and not taking part in the demonstrations, said Matt Puckett, the union's deputy executive director. "If they're going to have a stressful situation, we don't want to add to that stress."

Adding to the cacophony will be the tea party, whom Gov. Scott has been courting since he unveiled his budget last month. To drum up support for the rally, Americans for Prosperity Florida director Apryl Marie Fogel invoked the antiunion rhetoric also employed by the chamber.

"Union bosses will be bringing members from across the state to protest the much needed reform that will put our state back on track," she wrote in an e-mail. She added that "buses are available from various cities around the state" and urged people to "sign up for this free event and a bus ride.''

Filer said the Awake the State rallies sprung up locally by an assortment of loosely-affiliated groups who have used Facebook to round up support for rallies in dozens of cities. "We're not doing any busing,'' he said.

Unlike Wisconsin, Florida's legislators can't stop debate on antiunion legislation by leaving town. Florida's legislative rules allow for a majority of members to make a quorum and Democrats don't have the numbers to stop that.

Also, unlike Wisconsin, Florida is a right-to-work state that requires that union membership be voluntary, not mandatory. Scott has echoed the call for an end to collective bargaining in Florida, though he admits that will be a tall task since the right to bargain collectively for benefits and rights is written into the Florida Constitution.

At the same time, the tea party continues to gather strength. Fogel, the director of Americans for Prosperity, said membership has soared from 29,000 to 87,000 in the last year. The group is tracking dozens of bills and using its website, keepemhonest, to tell lawmakers where they stand.

In keeping with the libertarian ideology of the Koch Brothers, who run a Wichita-based oil and gas conglomerate, AFP Florida opposes bills offering economic incentives to business and supports repeal of state policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, the push to tighten the noose on union influence in Florida is moving forward, inciting protests.

"We're taking a stand and we will not be silent,'' said Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade.

Tea party organizers also expect to remain vocal throughout the session. Rep. Mike Weinstein, a Jacksonville Republican, has organized the Legislature's Tea Party Caucus, which will have its first meeting after the rally on Tuesday. He expects "dozens of Republicans" to attend, he said.

Protesters to rally on Florida Legislature's opening day 03/06/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 7, 2011 3:26pm]
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