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Historic legislative reforms divide Hernando County's Republican delegates

BROOKSVILLE — Sen. Mike Fasano saw the news pop up on his computer monitor last Tuesday afternoon.

"He signed it," Fasano said to his legislative assistant sitting nearby in the New Port Richey district office.

Gov. Rick Scott had put his pen to SB 408, a sweeping property insurance reform bill that Fasano had spent much of the last Legislative session fighting.

Two days later, Fasano got another blow: Scott had signed a controversial election reform bill. Fasano went against his fellow Republicans by opposing that one, too.

It was another disappointment on top of plenty others from the 2011 session.

"What was a challenge for me this year was playing defense on behalf of the consumer, the rate payer, the premium payers in this state," Fasano said. "The majority of my time was used to stop bad legislation that would hurt the little guy or gal."

Love the results or hate them, few disagree that the session was historic in the breadth and scope of reform measures that passed, mostly aimed at furthering a conservative agenda.

From abortion to education, Medicaid to growth management, a GOP majority in both chambers pushed measures that Democrats were all but powerless to stop.

Like Fasano, the other three lawmakers who represent a portion of Hernando are Republicans: Sen. Paula Dockery, and Reps. Rob Schenck and Jimmie T. Smith. While they share party affiliation, however, their votes varied on several of the high-profile issues.

Schenck, of Spring Hill, and Smith, of Inverness, helped measures pushed by Speaker Dean Cannon sail through the House.

Just starting his third two-year term, Schenck has risen among the ranks. In his first session since upsetting moderate incumbent Republican Ron Schultz, Smith voted virtually in lockstep with leadership. He said he felt little pressure to do so.

"I'm a pretty conservative person so I was pretty much right in line," Smith said.

In the Senate, however, veterans Fasano and Dockery acted in several key cases as a stopgap to President Mike Haridopolos. In three cases, Dockery was the lone dissenter among the delegation.

"It's not that I'm not a good Republican or trying to be obstinate," she said, "but a lot of what we were doing seemed to be punitive or mean-spirited rather than achieving good policy goals that were well thought out and had a long-term plan for funding."

•••

Both Fasano and Dockery said they went to Tallahassee this session hoping to come up with an economic development package that boost the state's effort to claw back from the recession.

They left disappointed.

"We came off an election where the voters sent a clear message," Fasano said. "Their number one message was to get the economy going and create jobs, and there's not one piece of legislation that came up that would stimulate the economy and enhance the business community and allow them to create jobs."

Schenck disagreed.

He acknowledged the $4 billion state budget deficit "handcuffed us a little bit" from passing a major economic development package. But lawmakers were able to balance the budget without raising taxes or fees.

They did so in part by cutting compensation to unemployed workers while lowering taxes for corporations.

"For a lot of businesses in Hernando County that will be huge," Schenck predicted. "To say we didn't do accomplish anything for economic development is inaccurate."

•••

On several issues, all four lawmakers agreed.

They voted in favor of requiring welfare recipients to pass a drug test before receiving benefits. They agreed to shift nearly all 3 million of the state's Medicaid recipients into managed care companies. And the delegation was united in favor of easing the constitutionally mandated class size caps by reducing the kinds of classes considered core subjects.

It took a while, but Schenck eventually stopped fighting a prescription drug database endorsed by law enforcement. He compromised, supporting a measure that toughens laws on the dispensing of prescription medications and leaves the database — which he considered a Big Brother invasion of privacy — intact.

"The database is not going to save any lives," but stopping doctors from dispensing and tracking the distribution of drugs will, he said.

On other issues, though, there was often deep division.

Some of the provisions in SB 408 that Fasano opposed — such as freeing insurance companies from a requirement to offer comprehensive sinkhole coverage altogether — were removed from the bill.

But the law still allows for insurance premiums to go up, and policyholders should have no doubt, Fasano said: They will.

"The governor and some of my colleagues seem to think you allow premiums to rise on homeowners to solve the insurance crisis," he said.

Schenck called that inaccurate. The law sets a cap of 15 percent for reinsurance. There now is no cap, which adds a level of protection from rate increases, he said.

The measure also helps crack down on fraudulent sinkhole claims, a big problem in Hernando and Pasco, Schenck said.

"That's when rates will really start to go down," Schenck said.

Dockery and Fasano agreed it's time for state workers to contribute something to their pensions, but they couldn't go for an across the board 3 percent considering state workers haven't had a raise in three or more years.

"What I could not support was pretty much balancing the budget on the backs of rank and file workers," Fasano said.

Many lawmakers wanted to ease the blow by creating a tiered system based on income, or gradually increasing the contribution, or having the contribution affect only future or recent hires.

Legal staff said a tiered system would be unconstitutional, Schenck said. As for the other possibilities, he said he would have considered them.

"But at the end of the day, those weren't the options," he said.

The election reform bill cuts days for early voting from 15 to eight and requires some voters who have moved to cast provisional ballots, a change most likely to affect college students and renters. The bill ends a policy that allowed voters to update their legal addresses when they voted.

The bill passed on a party line vote. Supporters said it would prevent voter fraud by reducing the time period for early voting. Critics called in GOP vote suppression designed to handicap Democrats in the 2012 election.

"Those arguments are just pure political rhetoric," Schenck said.

But Dockery and Fasano said they asked for examples of fraud and no one could provide any. Fasano said at least three of the four elections supervisors in his district —Pasco, Pinellas and Citrus — urged him to vote no. He noted that there is just as much potential for fraud in absentee voting, which tends to favor Republicans, and the GOP-dominated Legislature left that untouched.

"If there's ever an area that ought to be non-partisan and have buy-in from all the members, it's fair and free elections," Dockery said.

Last year, then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a bill that would have allowed the leaders of both parties to operate unlimited campaign funds. This session, the Legislature voted to override the veto, which critics say now legalizes bribery.

Schenck and Smith said the move would make for more transparency, allowing voters to see where the money is going.

That could have been achieved by amending existing law, Fasano said. There's a reason why a bi-partisan effort in 1985 ended the leadership funds, he said.

"It allows present and future leaders of both parties to have control over millions of dollars with very little accountability," he said.

•••

The Legislature moved too quickly on another education bill and in the wrong order, Dockery said.

Though not opposed to basing a portion of teacher pay on student performance, she said it's unfair to do so without developing the test first and giving it a trial run. She also worries about a lack funding for merit pay once the $700 million in federal stimulus funds runs out.

"The answer was, 'Well, we'll make do out of our education budget,' " Dockery said. "It seems to me they're going to take more money out of the classroom to give to merit pay, and kids in failing schools will be receiving even less money."

Schenck said he doesn't share those concerns.

The bills that expand the state's voucher program and charter schools also worry Dockery.

"Unfortunately, I'm coming to the conclusion that the underlying agenda is to weaken and undermine public education and that's very sad to me," she said. "We should build up the teachers and the schools that need help rather than starving them."

The environment was one of the biggest casualties of the session, Dockery said.

House and Senate leaders tacked on a growth management reform onto the budget, forcing members to decide if they wanted to take a stand on growth management by voting against the budget. The measure repeals long-standing state growth oversight rules and the dismantles the Department of Community Affairs.

Dockery said she found offensive the argument that growth management rules are a drain on the economy.

"Development hasn't stopped. There's a glut of houses on the market," she said. "It was just stated over and over again without any factual basis."

Schenck, a former Hernando County commissioner, echoed supporters who said the bill gives power back to local communities.

"The state is no longer handcuffing the direction the county wants to go in," Schenck said. "DCA was just more bureaucratic red tape that was redundant."

Fasano said the state should have some kind of review authority, but reluctantly voted for the bill hoping lawmakers will revisit the issue.

"I would have liked to have seen that second check, but I think it would be tough with the makeup of the Florida Legislature right now," Fasano said.

Dockery is pro-life and supported other abortion-related bills, but said it's "fundamentally wrong" for government to require women seeking an abortion to pay to have an ultrasound first.

Conservatives espouse less government interference in people's lives, but not in this issue, she said. "It seems like when you attach abortion to it, things that don't make sense are okay," she said.

Smith makes no apologies for the reasons why he supported the bill.

"The mother needs to realize there's a baby there," he said. "That's a life.''

•••

The session could have been even worse, Dockery said.

She has been in the Legislature for 15 years, Fasano for 17. Both will leave next year because of term limits and in that way, they were less beholden to pressure from leadership, she said.

"In the end, enough members stood up to defeat a few bills and that made the session not nearly as bad as we thought it would be," she said.

But the session still revealed a disturbing trend, she said.

"We've never seen it this bad, this top down," she said. "I hate to use the word dictatorial, but in the House, members don't step out of line."

With leadership funds, the process will only grow more "top-driven," she said.

"And that's a shame, because that's not what the state Legislature should be."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Where local lawmakers stand

DockeryFasanoSchenckSmith
Abortion
Requires women preparing to undergo an abortion to have an ultrasound. They must sign to opt out of seeing the images and hearing a description. (SB 1744/HB 1127)NoYesYesYes
Drug tests for welfare recipients

Requires drug screening for adult welfare recipients. (HB 353)YesYesYes Yes
Education reform

Class size

Changes definition of core curriculum, reducing the number of courses that must meet class-size caps. (SB 2120/HB 5101)YesYesYesYes


Teacher tenure

Teacher evaluations will be based in part on student test scores, and administrators will be able to more easily fire teachers with weak evaluations. (SB 736/HB 7019)NoYesYesYes
Elections

Reduces days of early voting from 14 to eight, requires some voters who have moved to cast provisional ballots, tightens the time for third-party groups to submit voter registration forms and reduces the time that signatures on citizen-led ballot initiatives are valid.

(SB 2086/HB 1355)
NoNoYesYes
Growth management

Shifts review and regulation for development from the state to local governments with repeal of the 1985 Growth Management Act.

(HB 7207)
NoYesYesYes
Leadership funds

This veto override allows leaders in the House and Senate to operate campaign accounts that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash.NoNo YesYes
Medicaid

Reforms place the program's 3 million recipients into managed care. HMOs and other large, managed-care networks will bid with the state on managing any number of 11 regions in Florida. Also makes it more difficult for recipients to sue Medicaid doctors and hospitals. (SB 1972/HB 7107, 7109)YesYesYesYes

Pension reform

Employees in the Florida Retirement System will pay 3 percent of their salaries into their retirement accounts, face higher retirement ages, and their retirement accounts will no longer collect cost-of-living adjustment starting July 1. (SB 2100, HB 1405)NoNoYesYes

Prescription drug reform

Limits ability of doctors to dispense prescription drugs; establishes stiff penalties for illegal dispensing. (SB 818/HB 7095) YesYesYesYes
Property insurance

Allows insurance companies to pass on reinsurance costs to policyholders, shortens the window for filing sinkhole and storm-related damage claims, and limits claims for damage caused by sinkholes to primary structures. (SB 408)YesNoYesYes

Compiled by Tony Marrero

Historic legislative reforms divide Hernando County's Republican delegates 05/21/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 21, 2011 3:51pm]

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