The 2011 Legislature was one of the most conservative and reckless in modern history, as the veto-proof Republican majority ran roughshod over reasonable policy and treated compromise as a dirty word. In just 60 days, it reversed decades of bipartisan efforts to manage growth, protect consumers, improve public education and encourage voting. This radical agenda does not reflect mainstream Florida, but it is a sobering reminder that elections matter and there are consequences for failing to participate.
Led by Senate President Mike Haridopolos of Merritt Island and House Speaker Dean Cannon of Winter Park, this Legislature treated public school teachers, college students, lawyers, government workers, union members, voters, women and consumers as enemies. Among the powerful smiling when the legislative session ended Saturday morning: developers, property insurers, health maintenance organizations and polluters.
Issues that would have normally consumed an entire session were dispensed with in short order, without moderation and often without full information. Lawmakers dismantled more than 25 years of Florida's already lax growth management laws to make it even easier for developers to build without paying for roads, schools, parks or other infrastructure. They claimed it was necessary to spur development, even as an estimated 440,000 foreclosed homes are expected to flood the market in coming years.
They made it harder for citizens to challenge developers' plans on environmental grounds or for local governments to regulate fertilizers that pollute water bodies, even as the state already thumbs its nose at federal clean water standards.
A new law that ends teacher tenure and creates a sweeping merit pay system was put in place even before school districts could determine if a new teacher evaluation system will actually work. The poor will be forced to pay for drug tests before receiving welfare. And those enrolled in Medicaid, starting next year, will have their health care overseen by managed care organizations that will share profits with the state — a plan that ultimately should not past federal muster.
Despite a property tax system that already forces higher taxes on newer homeowners, lawmakers put a measure on the 2012 ballot that would extend those inequities to commercial property and further strain local governments already dealing with declining revenue. Starving cities and counties to death is not the answer to reviving the economy.
Average Floridians were, at best, an afterthought. New measures stack the deck against consumers who seek damages from a doctor after medical malpractice or a car manufacturer whose vehicle's design contributed to an accident. Homeowners will find that property insurers can more easily raise annual premiums up to 15 percent or deny a sinkhole claim. And Floridians who have the misfortune to lose a job in a state with 11 percent unemployment will now receive three fewer weeks of compensation, the maximum of which is $275 weekly, so lawmakers could provide an $18 per employee tax break to businesses.
Women who seek to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion will now be forced to pay for an expensive ultrasound, whether they need it or not. They will have to sign a piece of paper if they do not wish to view the image or have it described to them. Restriction by restriction, lawmakers are whittling away the rights of women to make the most personal of decisions.
But perhaps nothing reflects this Legislature's disregard for the electorate as much as its effort to suppress voting by shrinking the window for early voting and embracing other limits that particularly discriminate against young voters and minorities. Voters seeking to notify the supervisor of elections at the poll on election day of an address change can be forced to vote on a provisional ballot — which is far less likely to actually be counted. And groups seeking to register voters or collect signatures for constitutional amendments will face onerous and unnecessary regulation.
This was also the session where lawmakers slashed public school funding by 8 percent, a stunning shift in priorities that would have been unthinkable under governors or Legislatures of either party in previous times. The cut comes in a budget that already was balanced on the backs of schoolteachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters and other government workers who have not had raises in years but will now have to hand over 3 percent of their pay for pension benefits.
Amid such wreckage, there were a few bright spots. The Legislature wisely passed new regulations to stem the prescription drug abuse epidemic and lifted the rules that unfairly bar released felons from obtaining some occupational licenses. Thankfully, lawmakers rejected plans to divide the Florida Supreme Court in two, to further politicize the appointment of judges, to allow destination casino resorts and to raise premiums even more for customers of the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. A harsh illegal immigration bill died when even Republican lawmakers working on it called it unworkable and morally wrong.
But those good decisions did little to balance the bad, each of which deserved more thoughtful attention and moderation. Florida needed to adjust teacher tenure, growth management laws and its public employee pension policies. But the Republican leadership went too far, too fast — and with too little regard for opposing viewpoints.
Lawmakers waxing nostalgic on the House and Senate floors last week predicted that the public would look back on this Legislature's accomplishments with amazement and awe. They were right. But it will be with horror, not gratitude.