One of the Roughest, Toughest Sessions Ever, Say Lawmakers
Around the State
Nearly $4 billion in cuts. Reductions in education, Medicaid, state worker compensation and other programs. Taking on highly controversial measures like immigration control, union dues legislation, even plans to shake up the Supreme Court and rework elections laws.
It's been a combustible mixture. And it resulted in what many lawmakers say is the most difficult legislative session they've ever experienced, as teachers decry a new merit pay law, public-sector unions fight to keep automatic dues deductions, undocumented workers and migrant-rights advocates swarm the Capitol in near-daily protests, and other interest groups do their own informal brand of lobbying.
"It's been tough," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who served as House speaker in 1999 and 2000. "It's a lot easier to govern when you have resources, and this has been a tough year."
With one week left to go in the 2011 regular legislative session, there is evidence that the perceived unpopularity of some measures and the pressure from interest groups is getting to at least some lawmakers.
The Senate's immigration bill is watered down compared to the House version, which calls on more stringent verification of legal status for employers and the ability for law enforcement to check legal status during traffic stops, and might not make it through the upper chamber next week. The union dues bill, which squeaked through its committees, may not even come up for a vote in the Senate, and the unemployment compensation reform legislation -- which does not include a six-week cut of benefits in the Senate like the House version does -- has not yet been placed on the special order calendar.
If other legislators have been fazed by the commotion brought about by the large-scale reforms, Thrasher, who has carried the union dues bill through its rocky committee ride, has not.
"I'm a conservative, I believe in limited government, I believe in low taxes, so I don't have a problem with what we're doing," Thrasher said.
Furthermore, Thrasher thinks his fellow lawmakers should not be intimidated by the sometimes large, loud protests at the Capitol.
"There are tough decisions. If that bothers anybody, it shouldn't. People have a right to come up here and state their case, and I hope they do it in a respectful way. Again, there'a a lot of passion in these issues and I get that," Thrasher said.
The pledge from House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, to not raise taxes or fees made it easier for lawmakers to focus on finding savings in the budget, Thrasher added.
"We pretty much had an agenda for what we wanted to accomplish ... we knew we were going to have to cut spending, so we've been pretty principled about that," he said.
Along with other controversial items that have caused an uproar, the two main pieces of the Legislature's to-do list for next week are the budget and Medicaid reform. Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, who has served in Tallahassee for three decades, said they have set the tone for the whole session.
"I've been here now 30 years and every session has its own personality. Obviously, this year the session was driven by the budget, and driven by Medicaid," Jones said.
Jones added that the session has also been marked by Gov. Rick Scott's emphasis on jobs, but said he would have liked to have seen the political outsider, who won a narrow victory over Democrat Alex Sink in November, take a greater hand in lobbying for legislation earlier on in the process.
"Hopefully, (next year) he'll be a little more hands-on involved with the Legislature. I've only seen him twice. I filed a destination resort bill, which will create 140,000 jobs -- he talked about jobs, and I never had one call from his office, and I just withdrew the bill. I thought it was a fabulous bill, a great way to employ a lot of people but the governor's office never called one time," Jones said.
That feeling is by no means universal among legislators. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Scott has been very open with him, returning his phone calls. He noted that a request for a business plan to justify the governor's push for consolidation and greater gubernatorial control of the state's economic development agencies has not been delivered to him yet, but gave the new officeholder the benefit of the doubt.
If Scott had copied former Gov. Jeb Bush's playbook, Gaetz said, getting into the details of legislation, he could have received the criticism Bush did, that he meddled too much with the Legislature's affairs.
"Sometimes he would be damned if he did or damned if he didn't. If Rick Scott would have done what Jeb Bush did, he might have been subjected by his critics to the same kind of observations," Gaetz said.
Since being sworn into office in January, Scott's policies have certainly had an impact on Florida -- shunning federal money for high-speed rail, supporting a dredging project for the Port of Miami, signing an executive order freezing regulations -- but the big-ticket items on his agenda do not appear to be making it through the Legislature.
With one week left, lawmakers have poured cold water on his plan to reduce corporate income taxes from 5.5 percent to 3 percent, and phase them out completely by 2010. The immigration bill, if it gets through, is unlikely to look anything like the Arizona-style bill Scott called for during his primary campaign against then-Attorney General Bill McCollum. The House and Senate have also agreed upon a 3 percent contribution rate for all 655,000 state workers in the Florida Retirement System, whereas Scott called for a 5 percent rate, calling a press conference earlier in the month to push legislators to accept his proposal.
Cannon and Haridopolos have stated their first focus is on cutting nearly $4 billion from the budget in order to make up the state's shortfall. They have done just that in their budgets, but say there is little room left for further cuts to accommodate Scott, although they claim they are willing to do so if the extra $330 million needed to make up for the lost revenue can be found.
Veteran lawmakers agree, and say the recession forced deep cuts in recent years, which already took care of the "low-hanging fruit."
"In deference to the governor, I can appreciate what he had as a vision for this legislative session as far as maybe some of the tax cuts, but the governor wasn't here the previous two years when we already cut $5 billion out of the budget," Jones said. "So having cut $5 billion out of the budget, all the easy things to cut -- the vacant positions, the programs that haven't gotten started yet, the surplus monies -- all the easy stuff was gone. So this year, by the time we're able to make the additional cuts that we have to make, some of his other expectations were not realistic."
Scott has touted the corporate tax cuts as a way to spur economic growth and lower the unemployment rate, but even Republican legislators have shied away from business tax cuts at the same time as they are cutting education and social programs.
Gaetz said he preferred a rollback of the increases in driver's license and automobile tag fees in recent years.
"Those affect working families, middle class folks, people who have to get to work, people who don't have a choice, they need their car, they need to be able to drive. To me, that's more compelling than a corporate tax cut. I like tax cuts, but I would rather see a tax cut that benefits the average Floridian," Gaetz said.
Given the short shrift many of Scott's proposals have been given by the Legislature, they could be lost in the shuffle of the last week of session, as lawmakers do the heavy lifting on Medicaid reform, the budget and pension reform, all the while attempting to tackle divisive immigration, union dues, unemployment compensation, court reform and election law legislation.
Whether Scott's ideas make their way into law this year, though, the wins and losses chalked up by the GOP could be owned by all involved since November, when 2011-2012 budget talks began.
"If the governor looks bad, the Legislature looks bad, and if the Legislature hasn't done its job in the people's eyes, neither has the governor. I don't think there's a way for the governor to come out as a shining star and the Legislature to come out as a failure, or vice versa," Gaetz said.
Reach Gray Rohrer at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.