TALLAHASSEE — Mightier than ever, the Republican-led Legislature will send a clear message Tuesday to Gov. Charlie Crist and his replacement: We're in charge.
In an extraordinary one-day special session, the legislative leaders plan to use their newfound super-majority to override a handful of vetoes for the first time in 13 years.
"Republicans are trying to flex their new muscle," said Steve Geller, a Democrat and veteran political observer from Broward County who served in the House and Senate.
Republicans will swear in their first veto-proof Legislature in the modern era of state politics on Tuesday morning. Wasting little time, they'll open up a special session in the afternoon to override Crist's vetoes while the new transition team of Gov.-elect Rick Scott, also a Republican, observes it all.
The special session isn't just a display of the new Republican legislative power. It also highlights Crist's status as the ultimate lame duck and represents a dramatic reversal of fortune for the man once praised as a rising star in the GOP.
In 2007, Crist opened his term with a special session that defied traditional Republican policies by increasing the role of government in the state's insurance market to lower costs. Crist won bipartisan support and heralded the "golden age" of the Florida Legislature for the next two years.
But as the Florida Senate became more conservative, Crist's relationship with the Legislature soured.
In July, after Crist abandoned the Republican Party to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent, then-state Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Orlando, filed a bill to censure Crist. Adams, who won a U.S. House seat on Election Day, had accused Crist of wasting taxpayers' money by calling lawmakers back to Tallahassee to craft a statewide ballot question asking voters to constitutionally ban offshore drilling in Florida waters. Lawmakers did not vote on the amendment.
Crist said he hoped lawmakers would continue to keep their focus on "the people" after he leaves office in January.
"It was a great beginning," Crist said. "We had a genuine interest and concern for the consumers. Clearly it's my hope that will continue."
With two-thirds of the seats in both chambers, Republicans hold a majority that gives almost unbridled power to a single party to shape state policies on taxes, education, public safety and insurance, among other things.
Incoming House and Senate leaders say they will use that power to push "small government" principles.
"It's much less about flexing muscles and much more about pushing good policies," said incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
Cannon and incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, have not yet agreed on a final list of overrides, but say they will consider only bills that were passed by wide margins in the Legislature. They will leave until the annual spring legislative session the most controversial issues, such as requiring an ultrasound before an abortion and eliminating tenure for public school teachers — both vetoed by Crist.
"It's a humbling honor to have this kind of majority," said Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, one of seven Republicans — including four in the Tampa Bay area — who this year won legislative seats previously held by Democrats.
"We must be prudent but decisive in our decisions and not abuse the special trust our constituents have placed in us," Brandes said.
Crist said the overrides were not "terribly problematic."
But he suggested Scott intervene on one bill (SB 5611) that would require legislative approval of many rules in state agencies, move oversight of the Department of Management Services from the governor's office to the Cabinet and make 17 managers subject to Senate confirmation.
"It attempts to take some authority from the executive branch and put it in the hands of the Legislature," Crist said.
Scott's team has urged lawmakers to not override the veto and instead focus on reorganizing the agency during the spring session.
"I don't think that anybody is trying to go after my power," Scott said. "They're following through on the things they believe in, and we're reviewing that. Everything will work out, I'm sure."
Scott has not asked lawmakers to consider any specific issues on Tuesday.
That's in contrast to this summer when, embroiled in a Republican primary, he demanded lawmakers approve an Arizona-style immigration law during the oil-drilling special session that taxpayers were already "on the hook to pay for."
"The Arizona law is just a few pages long," Scott said in July. "It's not complicated, because it's just common sense."
Taxpayers are paying for this special session, too. But Scott has not raised the immigration issue.
Instead, he says he has one goal: creating jobs.
"We have the exact same agenda," Scott said after meeting with Cannon last week. "We're going to do everything we can to work on growing employment in this state. "We're going to work together well."
Michael C. Bender can be reached at [email protected]