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Politics

House Leaders Lay Out Issues for the 2011 Session

January 18, 2011 - 6:00pm

Speaking in Tallahassee Wednesday, two key leaders of the Florida House offered glimpses into the 2011 session which starts in March.

Addressing the annual Legislative Planning Session held by the Associated Press, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, addressed the editors and reporters on a host of issues ranging from the budget to the judicial branch.

As you know, we currently face a significant budget shortfall, said Cannon. We have a constitutional obligation to balance that budget and I believe a strong responsibility to do so without raising taxes.

As you know, our state is facing record unemployment, continued Cannon. As a result, many of the policy and budget choices before the Legislature this session will be rooted in our desire to foster an economy that allows businesses to locate and expand in our state, creating the jobs and resulting economic activity that will rekindle our real-estate market and revitalize our small businesses.

Cannon also focused on health care issues -- including the problem of rising Medicaid costs.

Additionally, this year we must work to curb the exponential growth of entitlement programs, specifically the Medicaid program, while facing an unprecedented mandate by the federal government, said Cannon. The House will propose a comprehensive reform of Medicaid consistent with the principles and approach developed by the Select Council in 2010, and the language included in the Joint Medicaid Memorial passed by the House and Senate last fall.

Cannon noted that the Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, will hold public hearings on the matter.

The speaker also said the House would focus on education issues.

We must also work to modernize our education system while dealing with the challenges of the class-size amendment and an education adequacy lawsuit, said Cannon. We are taking a hard look at merit pay, school choice and teacher tenure, and looking at ways we can reward our best teachers for their commitment to excellence in the classroom and what we can do to provide parents a greater stake in their childrens education."

Cannon also touched on pension reform and agreed with Gov. Rick Scott that the state government needed to make Florida more attractive to businesses that can bring new jobs to the Sunshine State.

We are also taking a hard look at business regulations and examining areas where we can streamline or eliminate regulations, said Cannon. We are continuing to review the Scott transition teams proposals for consolidation of state functions and as we receive more information we look forward to weighing in on various options.

Cannon said that the House would be forced to make hard decisions in 2011 as it wrestled with the budget.

There is no doubt that the road ahead is difficult, said Cannon. We know that there is no secret stash of money; no hidden account, and no politically easy, pain-free magic bullet. Governing in 2011 is not about choosing between programs that you like and those you dont like. With our current budget, all levels of government must responsibly make difficult choices between worthwhile ideas.

Cannon also followed up on comments he made when he took the gavel after the elections in November, taking aim at the state Supreme Court which struck down a number of proposed constitutional amendments that passed the Legislature in 2010.

I believe that government functions best when each level and branch operates within its proper domain, respecting the others' various roles and fostering a sense of collaboration and mutual respect that our unique form of government anticipates, said Cannon. The Legislatures authority to place questions on the ballot is unique to the Legislature. It is unshared. And, it is self-executing. And, there are very good reasons that the Florida Constitution intentionally omits the authority for either the executive or the judicial branch to stop amendments proposed by the peoples elected representatives from being considered for adoption by the electorate.

I firmly believe that allowing the court to remove legislatively proposed amendments from the ballot denies the people their right to amend their Constitution, added Cannon. I believe that the need for ballot summary reform is critical. But, I also believe it is one of many components of comprehensive court reform that we can and should explore over the next two years.

Floridas judicial system has the authority to take away not only a persons liberty, but also a persons life, continued Cannon. Understanding the severity and irreversible nature of that penalty, we have a responsibility to ensure that justice is administered not only fairly, but also efficiently.

Cannon pointed to the fact that more death-row inmates have died of natural causes since 2000 than were executed.

Significant and unreasonable delays plague the current process of conducting state post-conviction review in these cases and it appears that there is little the Supreme Court can do to improve or streamline the process, said Cannon. Though the Supreme Court does not publish the amount of time spent hearing and deciding different types of cases, testimony suggests that death-penalty cases constitute about 50 percent of their workload, though only 12 percent of their caseload.

I believe this imbalance could be corrected through court reform that would capitalize on the expertise of judges specialized in the field of criminal law, while at the same time improve efficiency in the Supreme Courts handling of civil matters by better utilizing judges with an expertise in noncriminal matters, continued Cannon. We need to provide the court a better opportunity to decide and resolve cases correctly and expeditiously, and we need to address the longstanding criticism that the courts are underfunded and judicial dockets are overcrowded.

I believe the Legislature can and should work with the judicial branch to significantly improve the administration of justice in death-penalty cases, said Cannon in closing. I am hopeful that reform could lead to a more equitable judicial system for all Floridians, and as we move forward toward the 2011 legislative session we will continue to explore this issue to determine when and what the right course of action for Florida may be.

Cannon also addressed the assembled media on communications issues between the Legislature and the press, noting that he was expanding the Office of Public Information and Appointments which was created by former Speaker Larry Cretul.

Maybe we stopped talking because you stopped listening, or maybe you stopped listening because we stopped talking, said Cannon. But either way, we have reached a point where we talk past each other, and that is a problem for the Legislature, for the press, and most importantly for the people who rely on lawmakers to properly represent them and trust the press to accurately and fairly tell the story.

I am committed to working through this problem and to maintaining an open relationship between the Florida House and members of the press corps, added Cannon. One of the ways I hope to address this problem is by confronting the frequent critique of government and lack of transparency, he noted, pointing to greater efforts to use technology to make House proceedings and legislation available to the public.

Cannon also said that he expected to have a good relationship with Scott and Senate President Mike Hardiopolos, R-Merritt Island.

We have a common general philosophy about the role of the private sector in the economy, limited government, things like that, said Cannon.

House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West also addressed the meeting, saying that his caucus, which controls 39 of the 120 seats in the House, would shine a light on some issues but also work with the Republican majority on others.

Republicans are in charge of Tallahassee, noted Saunders, adding that the GOP has controlled the Legislature and the executive branch for more than a decade. You would think that every problem in the state of Florida was made by Democrats, he added, referring to the 2010 campaign cycle and Republican rhetoric about making the state government accountable.

Saunders said the House Democrats would act as a watchdog on certain issues and oppose efforts to expand oil drilling in Florida waters, attempts to make women considering an abortion have a mandatory ultrasound, and efforts to bring an Arizona-style immigration law to the Sunshine State.

Therell be issues we may work together on, insisted Saunders. The No. 1 priority in the state is job creation, he said, agreeing with Scott.

Saunders also said that he was open to backing Scotts plans to reduce property taxes as well as the governors call for zero-based budgeting of state agencies.

The governors ideas are worth a look, said Saunders. He wants to look at agencies top to bottom.

Saunders predicted that redistricting would be a thorny issue -- and could lead to Democratic gains.

Were looking for the Republican majority to adhere to the will of the public and follow Amendments 5 and 6, said Saunders, referring to two constitutional changes backed by Florida voters in November that alter the redistricting process. With Amendments 5 and 6, it will be a lot harder to keep their supermajority, added Saunders, noting there were more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state.

No matter what happened with the new redistricting amendments in place, Saunders said he expected there would be a legal challenge of some sort no matter how the Legislature drew lines for Congress, the Senate and the House. Its going to go to court, insisted Saunders.

Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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