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Republicans in Legislature hold all the political cards

TALLAHASSEE — In the next 30 days, Florida lawmakers are poised to make it easier for insurance companies to raise rates, make it more difficult for women to receive an abortion and hand over control of prisons to private companies.

These are just a few of the proposals the Republican-led Legislature is pushing in the final weeks of its 60-day session. Others include radically changing the way the state handles Medicaid, state pensions, courts, growth and the environment.

The proposals are detailed, sweeping and encompass many conservative issues that legislators have resisted enacting in the past. And they are moving forward for one reason: They have the votes.

With a veto-proof majority, a hard-right conservative governor, and a determination to seize the moment in a non­election year, legislative leaders have packed the agenda — and Democrats are powerless to stop them.

"You've got a very conservative governor, president and speaker, so they've gone down some roads that people have kind of been afraid to go down before,'' said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.

The governor has already signed major legislation to change the way teachers are paid and to reduce compensation for the unemployed, and the Legislature has overridden seven vetoes of former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Next up are dozens of bills that remove government oversight, dismantle regulations and shift state jobs to the private sector. Also on the docket are plans to ask voters to amend the state Constitution to remove the ban on providing tax dollars to religious organizations, to make it easier for the Legislature to overturn rules imposed by the state Supreme Court, to ban public funding of abortions and to prohibit any laws requiring a person to buy health insurance.

Previous legislatures have tried and failed to pass similar bills. Among them:

• Allowing Citizens Property Insurance to raise its rates up to 25 percent and restrict homeowners with property valued at more than $500,000.

• Requiring all women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion.

• Shifting all Medicaid patients into managed care plans.

• Banning government unions from deducting dues from worker paychecks.

• Capping attorney fees in auto insurance disputes and restricting lawsuits against hospitals, nursing homes, doctors and foster care providers.

• Removing the state from development decisions and reducing the ability of local governments to charge developers for the cost of roads and schools.

• Allowing private companies to run prisons and probation services in 18 counties.

Republican leaders say the proposals are a response to voter outrage — fueled by tea party activists in Florida and nationwide — to reduce government and balance the budget with no new taxes in the face of a $3.8 million shortfall. Democrats say the ideas are moving because there is nothing to stand in their way.

"They're exercising that muscle now because they can — not because they're right, not because that's what people want, but because they can,'' said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

Bennett admits it makes him uneasy.

"I get nervous when we have one party control everything and you don't have to negotiate, you don't have to go to the middle," he said.

A small number of Republican moderates have joined the Democrats to point out that the no-new-taxes pledge is shrouded by the Legislature's plans to require public employees to pay a portion of their retirement costs, increase property insurance rates, raise utility rates for renewable energy and increase college tuition.

"Any time you vote for something that's going to hurt the pocketbooks of every home­owner in the state of Florida, every small businessman or woman in the state of Florida, that's a tax,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said that when workers contribute to their own pension, it "is not a tax increase." He defends the utility, tuition and insurance increases as a necessary evil.

"This is what leadership is about,'' he said last week. "The alternative is what you're seeing in Washington, D.C.: They don't cut anything."

Others warn that by using the budget as a backdrop and the federal government as a foil for their broad policy shifts, the Legislature may be going too far.

"It's probably the strongest antifederalism we've had since Jim Crow days or a vote to secede,'' said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera. He said he considers himself a fiscal conservative but is frightened by the "antifederalism sentiment" of the governor and legislative leaders who have rejected billions of federal dollars for health care, transportation and infrastructure. "That's misdirected. I think it's going to be a huge mistake."

To its credit, the Legislature has been more productive with an agenda marked by long hours and packed schedules on substantive bills.

"I think we're doing exactly what the people sent us up here to do — which is recognize the severity of the economic crisis we're in, the need for bold leadership to make unpopular, tough decisions,'' said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

Gov. Rick Scott echoed Cannon's opinion. "We've got to make sure this is the best place to do business and so I'm going to make the tough choices," Scott said last week.

Advocates for groups fighting the changes, however, say the sheer number of policy shifts and the steady pace at which House and Senate leaders have been pushing them has made it difficult, if not impossible, to stop.

David Murrell of the Police Benevolent Association, one of the public employee unions fighting the benefits cuts, puts it bluntly: "On some of these issues, these folks don't want the public to catch up."

GOP leaders seem only interested in cutting the budget and not seeking common ground, said Murrell, who cited Senate Budget Committee Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

He said Alexander scrapped one pension reform bill compromise with another bill that more than doubled cuts.

"Votes are locked down before you even get into a committee meeting,'' said Eric Draper of the Florida Audubon Association. "The Democrats have no chance of stopping anything. They are irrelevant for the most part."

Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich of Weston said she disagrees that Republicans were given the mandate they claim to have. "They were given a mandate to fix the economy and create jobs and not turn the state upside down," she said. "The pendulum will swing back. It always does."

Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Republicans in Legislature hold all the political cards 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 10:21pm]
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