Just two weeks after Florida voters delivered a veto-proof majority of Republicans to the Legislature, its new leaders are exploiting that power to try to force tax breaks for large landowners, roll back environmental regulations, help big business and rush privatization of Medicaid for the poor. The test now for Republican legislators, including two who beat Democratic incumbents in Pinellas County, is whether they will blindly embrace these bad ideas during a one-day special session on Tuesday or exert their independence on behalf of Floridians and push their leaders for more thoughtful consideration in the regular session.
Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon of Winter Park and incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos of Merritt Island have listed nine bills vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist and three other topics for potential consideration in a special session following the routine postelection organizational meeting. The list does not include the divisive issues the 2010 annual session was known for, chiefly abortion and teacher tenure measures that Crist also vetoed.
Some measures on the list do deserve immediate consideration, including Crist's line-item veto, largely unexplained, of a $9.7 million appropriation for Shands Teaching Hospital at the University of Florida; and authorization to provide $31.3 million in federally funded rebates promised to Floridians who bought qualifying solar energy or heating and air-conditioning systems.
But it's the balance of the list that shows the extraordinary arrogance of leadership with no fear of reproach. The list is chock full of favors for the special interests that gave generously to Republicans and their third-party committees in the recent election cycle.
Consider, for example, that before new legislators have attended a single committee meeting, they will be asked to embrace a memorandum to Congress on Medicaid reform, including signing on to Haridopolos' and Cannon's plan to largely turn the state's Medicaid program over to privately run managed care companies.
New lawmakers — which constitute more than one-third of the 120-member state House — will be asked to approve a generous tax break for developers and large landowners. House Bill 981, rightly vetoed by Crist, would allow new owners of large tracts of land purchased for far above their agricultural value to continue to pay taxes at the much lower agricultural property tax assessment rate.
And freshmen legislators will be asked to embrace HB 1565, a bad bill that is the antithesis of streamlining government as it rewrites the state's regulatory framework so that agencies will have to return again and again to the Legislature before ever implementing future laws.
Other measures on the docket would reverse Florida's policy of diverting yard waste from landfills; postpone deadlines for removing petroleum pollution; delay requirements for inspecting septic tanks; rework workers' compensation for state employees; and scuttle efforts to ensure a home buyer is informed of a property's hurricane-worthiness.
Some of these measures may be worthy of overrides. But one day is not enough time for freshmen legislators, much less the public, to weigh in. Many returning and newly elected lawmakers — including Reps.-elect Jeff Brandes and Larry Ahern of St. Petersburg — promised voters this cycle that they would work for them in Tallahassee, not special interests. That job starts this week.