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Politics

Large Reforms Loom as 2011 Legislative Session Begins

March 3, 2011 - 6:00pm

Floridians could see fundamental changes in the way they receive health care, the way their children are educated and how they receive unemployment compensation benefits as a result of laws passed during the legislative session to get under way Tuesday.

Bills dealing with Medicaid reform, merit pay for teachers, unemployment compensation reform and tort reform will all get an airing during the two months the Legislature is in session -- some sooner than others.

The Senate will take on four bills offering transformative changes in its first week.

It does show the Senate is ready to get to work in the first days of session, said David Bishop, spokesman for Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

The Health Care Freedom Act, pushed by Haridopolos and co-sponsored by every single Senate Republican, would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow Floridians to opt out of the federal health care law that imposes penalties for not obtaining health care insurance.

Also on the Senates first-week schedule is a controversial merit pay bill that would tie teacher evaluations -- based largely on student test scores -- to performance and student learning. The bill is considered a watered-down version of last years Senate Bill 6 that generated teacher protests throughout the state and was eventually vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

Senators will also be voting on the smart cap bill next week that would prevent Florida from gathering in more revenues than is allowable for population growth and inflation. Supporters of the bill say the states existing revenue cap is not strict enough, even though Floridas revenues during the recession havent threatened the cap, struggling with a $3.6 billion budget deficit instead. Critics say the bill, which wouldnt take effect until 2015, would unduly tie the hands of future legislators.

A bill that would allow jurors to hear all evidence pertaining to an accident in enhanced injury product liability lawsuits is also in line for a first-week vote in the Senate.

Bishop said that although these bills involve comprehensive changes for the state, they are issues that have been thoroughly debated in recent years and shouldnt come as a surprise to anyone.

These are all important issues facing the state and they all went through three committee stops, Bishop said, referring to Haridopolos pledge to move all major legislation through at least three committee reviews.

Other bills dealing with reforming Medicaid and the states retirement pension fund have yet to come before the relevant committees, but are likely to be addressed by the Legislature later in the regular session.

If the Senate is trying to get off to a fast start in the regular session, the House is taking things a little slower. The 120-member body, 41 of whom are freshman legislators, will be addressing one substantive bill in the first week, as well as conducting some housekeeping by adopting House rules and voting on reviser bills that officially enact laws passed last year.

Its a fairly light week overall, said House Rules and Calendar Committee Chairman Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral.

The House will take up an unemployment compensation bill in the first week of the regular session that will knock six weeks off the maximum amount of state benefits a person can receive.

Government workers, unions and progressives will hold "Awake the State" rallies and demonstrations in Tallahassee and throughout the state next week to protest Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-held Legislatures plans to roll back unemployment and retirement benefits, cut Medicaid and enact a merit pay law for teachers.

Members of the tea party movement will also descend on Tallahassee Tuesday in support of Scotts agenda, which includes reducing the state budget by $5 billion.

Aubuchon said that lawmakers cant help but be affected by the protests on both sides.

To a various extent it does. The hoopla were not concerned with, but part of what makes Florida government good is that people can get out and voice their opinion, he said.

Despite the numerous comprehensive changes being proposed this year, Aubuchon said he doesnt think legislators are taking on too much too soon, and that Floridas problems demand a fundamental shift.

Its too early to tell whether or not we will attempt greater reforms than the state is willing to accept, Aubuchon said. Ordinary measures cannot deal with extraordinary times, he added.

Reach Gray Rohrer at grohrer@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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