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GOP agenda loses traction in Florida Senate

TALLAHASSEE — Legislation that would open the door to school prayer and discourage teaching evolution has been declared dead. Prospects don't look good for a proposal to require ultrasounds for first-trimester abortions. Same goes for a bill to make marriage licenses more expensive for couples who don't take a premarriage education course.

Conservative Republicans' hallmark legislation, some from sessions past, is stagnating this session, victim of the all-consuming state budget deficit and the political realities of a Senate that is Republican, but moderately so.

"Some of these things would definitely pass in the House," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "But in the Senate, the numbers just aren't there."

The Senate has 40 members, and the chamber's committees are smaller than those of the 120-member House. That means just one or two moderate Republicans on a committee can kill a bill right out of the gate.

"You get one or two leaning with the other side," Fasano said, "and that's it."

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, chairs the Senate health regulation committee — first stop for the controversial abortion bill by Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. SB1854 would require doctors providing first-trimester abortions to perform ultrasounds, and that doctors give women the option of seeing the image unless they sign a waiver opting out.

Gaetz said he hasn't scheduled the bill for consideration because "the feeling is, the votes aren't there."

The political math backs him up.

The eight-member committee includes just three Democrats, but two of the Republicans — Mike Bennett of Bradenton and Dennis Jones of Treasure Island — voted against similar legislation on the floor of the Senate last year, killing it in a rare 20-20 vote during the final days of the 2008 session. That means the committee is likely to kill it in a 5-3 vote.

Mike McCarron is executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference, which supports the ultrasound bill.

"Absolutely, we're disappointed," he said. "Occasionally, you'll get the attitude of statesmen being willing to move a bill out of committee so that it can at least be considered and heard. But when you're dealing with legislation that is controversial, they're more inclined to keep bills they don't like from going forward."

The House companion, by Miami Republican Rep. Anitere Flores, cleared its first committee in a 5-2 partisan vote last month but hasn't moved since. Flores said she wants to keep pursuing the abortion legislation this session, but she concedes the Senate isn't showing enthusiasm.

"They've sent the message they don't necessarily have the appetite for some of these social issues this year," Flores said. "I'm personally disappointed. I think it's an issue that is important for Florida, important for the women of Florida. "

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, sponsored the ultrasound bill last year, along with a controversial measure against the teaching of evolution in schools. This year, she is proposing legislation that promotes a premarital education course. Like the evolution bill last year, it is backed by the conservative Florida Family Policy Council. Storms also is sponsoring a bill to allow for "inspirational messages," including student-led prayer, at public school events.

She pulled the school prayer bill before it could be heard in its first Senate committee last month, and the House companion hasn't been heard at all.

Gaetz said he "let it be known" to Storms that he had "problems" with the bill, including concerns over its constitutionality.

The eight-member education committee that was supposed to consider the bill includes three Democrats, but if Gaetz had voted no, it would die in a 4-4 tie.

"The question becomes, how much political effort do you want to make if you think the votes aren't in the committee," Storms said.

This session, with the state facing a $3-billion deficit, the bulk of political efforts are being spent on the budget and debates between the House and Senate about how to balance cuts with new revenues from such things as a cigarette tax and expanded gambling.

"It's clear we have moved few substantive bills this session," Flores said. "While the budget is not the only thing, it certainly takes up a lot of our time."

Fasano and Flores believe socially conservative legislation might have better chances at passing in coming years, as term limits create more turnover and more Republicans jump from the House to the Senate.

"As a result of term limits, we've already seen a very quick shift in the makeup of the House," Flores said. "And we'll see the full effect of term limits in 2010 with both chambers."

Flores said she'll be ready to try again with her ultrasound bill when the political air is ripe.

"If we can't do it this year, we'll try again next year."

Conservative legislation going nowhere

SB 2396: Evolution Requires that public school instructors teach a "thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution."

SB 1360/HB 533: Inspirational messages Gives school districts authority to allow for an "inspirational message," including prayer or invocation, at noncompulsory high school events as long as a majority of students participating request the message and select a student to deliver it.

SB1854/HB983: Abortion Would require all women seeking a first-trimester abortion to get an ultrasound exam. Doctors must allow the woman a chance to see the scan, unless she signs an opt-out waiver. Doctors also would be required to provide information on fetal development.

SB2310/HB1185: Premarital education Raises the marriage license fee by $100, unless the couple completes a premarital preparation course.

GOP agenda loses traction in Florida Senate 04/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 1:45pm]
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