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Tea party leaders celebrate a session with limited victories

TALLAHASSEE — Tea party leaders are cheering one of the most conservative legislative sessions in recent history, even if it was only a fraction of what they wanted.

They claim significant victories on the budget, pension reform and health care, but most of their proposals failed to pass the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

Organizers in the conservative movement parrot Gov. Rick Scott when asked to summarize the session, saying progress was made and more will be accomplished next year.

But while some tea party leaders talk about learning the give and take of the legislative process, others already have identified Republicans to target in the 2012 elections.

Tom Gaitens, state director for Florida FreedomWorks, said he plans to recruit primary opponents to run against Republican Sens. Jack Latvala of St. Petersburg, Jim Norman of Tampa and Thad Altman of Melbourne.

But Gaitens gives other Republicans a pass. He said the Florida Alliance, a coalition of 130 tea party groups that settled on a legislative agenda for this year, no longer plans to grade lawmakers.

"When you try to rate a politician, the legislative process gets in the way," Gaitens said. "Sometimes there's a bill that he or she needs to support. We're very aware of this."

Clyde Fabretti, a co-founder of the West Orlando Tea Party, talked about a "maturation process" for the fledging tea party movement.

"We're pragmatic enough to understand that not every single issue was going to be a success," he said. "I'm pleased with what we got done, and there will be another session next year."

The tea party movement won a major victory on the state budget, which includes no significant tax or fee increases.

Teachers, law enforcement and other state workers will have to contribute to their pensions for the first time in decades.

A pair of state constitutional amendments taking aim at state spending and the federal health insurance laws are on the November 2012 statewide ballot.

But Republican leaders failed to pass 20 other bills and resolutions on the tea party's agenda.

Some of the proposals that failed included:

• A bill prohibiting Florida courts from relying on Muslim Sharia law or legal codes from other nations when making decisions (SB 1294, HB 1273).

• A resolution calling on Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution so that federal laws can be overturned if two-thirds of state legislatures agree (SCR 1558).

• A repeal of the Florida Climate Protection Act, which authorizes the state to create a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emission (SB 762).

But tea party leaders have been most vocal about the Legislature's failure to approve tougher immigration standards. They wanted lawmakers to:

• Force Florida businesses to use a federal database, known as E-Verify, to check their employees' citizenship (SB 518, HB 691).

• Let law enforcement check the citizenship of citizens when there is "reasonable suspicion" (SB 136, HB 237).

• Expedite the deportation process by creating new agreements between the state and federal government (SB 304, HB 205).

None of the bills passed.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, had more bills on the tea party's agenda than any other lawmaker, including the E-Verify proposal.

Hays said he will tell tea party members he is proud of the Legislature's work this year. Hays is scheduled to speak to several tea party groups this summer.

"It's a matter of trying to turn a battleship at sea," Hays said. "You can't maneuver a battleship the way you do a Jet Ski."

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Tea party leaders celebrate a session with limited victories 05/20/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 21, 2011 1:25pm]

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