Sen. Dockery remains Florida GOP's independent voice

Republican state Sen. Paula Dockery's swan song could be The Song Remains the Same.

In 2012, she will be uncompromising, independent-minded and possibly rewarded by being marginalized by the Republican powers in Tallahassee.

Dockery, whose Lakeland-based district stretches to eastern Hernando, is term limited out of the Legislature in 2012 after 16 years between the House and Senate. She has no desire to try to go to Washington, D.C., and doesn't plan to be on the ballot next year. She doesn't necessarily rule out a future run for statewide office after a failed five-month campaign for governor in 2010, but fatigue has dimmed her immediate ambition.

This week, she was in Hernando County to address the National Association of Retired Veterans Railway Employees (she'll never escape the rail issue) and spoke to Times journalists prior to the luncheon.

Dockery's focus is her final legislative session that begins in January and working to avoid a repeat of the 2011 train wreck. That was the session in which the Legislature, among other things, dismantled oversight of growth management, cut education spending, forced public employees to pay a portion of their pension costs, ended teacher tenure, zeroed out money for conservation land and made it harder for some women and students to vote.

It was the session that saw legislative leaders drop 2,200 pages covering 43 laws on senators' desks at the end of the session and asked for a vote on the measures without giving elected lawmakers time to read the content, vet the impact or debate the merits.

Schools, the environment, consumers, teachers and other public employees, voters and government transparency all took a back seat to the Republican agenda. It provides insight into why Dockery wanted to be governor in the first place.

''I thought as governor you could be that responsible (person) that doesn't let the bad things happen. Yes, I have a vision for the state. Yes, there are things I want to do, but I want somebody to stop the bad stuff.''

Stopping the bad stuff sounds simple enough. But the Senate leadership's response to Dockery speaking out in the past was to make her the only Republican senator without a committee chairmanship. Nobody ever said politics wasn't punitive.

Expect more of the bad stuff in 2012. Already the economic forecasts are gloomy. The current budget could be short $600 million on the revenue side and the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2012, may be nearly $970 million off earlier projections.

Dockery has a few ideas of her own on state spending. She wonders if a portion of the state Board of Education's $216 million budget that finances an 1,128-employee payroll could be moved to the classrooms. More on teaching, less on testing.

She agrees that local school boards need more flexibility to spend state dollars and she already introduced a bill to study exactly how much it costs to educate a student in Florida. Instead of taking the amount of money available and dividing by the number of students in the state, the study could be used to establish a minimum financial commitment for each student. If adopted, the results could provide some level of future planning or local school districts that now must absorb funding levels that can fluctuate wildly from year to year.

Schools aren't the only focus. She questions why the state set aside $770 million to buy right of way for future roads when the Department of Transportation didn't spend $300 million from the prior year for the same purpose. Build roads, don't save to buy land in difficult budget years, she said.

She again will seek creation of a chief state inspector general and tougher ethics standards for legislators as recommended by a statewide grand jury on public corruption.

Helping schools. Putting people to work. Stronger ethics. Doing the right thing. It is a checklist that makes you realize that 2010 was a missed opportunity for more than just the senator.

Dockery's failed bid for the GOP nomination for governor was undone by Rick Scott's wealth and her own desire not to split the opposition vote to the presumed frontrunner, then-Attorney General Bill McCollum. Had Scott not entered the race, she believes she would have capitalized on the tea party discontent toward corporate subsidies considering her high-profile opposition to the $432 million payout to CSX as part of the $1.28 billion SunRail commuter line in central Florida.

And if things had worked out differently?

"There would be common sense and fairness,'' said Dockery, "and somebody looking out for all the voters of the state instead of just the party that they represent.''

Sen. Dockery remains Florida GOP's independent voice 10/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2011 7:32pm]

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