Florida taxpayers had such high hopes for the 2011 Legislature. With supermajorities in both houses and what Mike Haridopolos initially called the “most conservative” Senate in history, Gov. Rick Scott’s smaller-government agenda appeared all but assured.
But to use baseball parlance, there were no home runs, a few scratch hits and lots of strikeouts at the Capitol.
While liberal groups like Progress Florida, predictably, had little positive to say about the session, the real rage was on the right.
“More citizens were in Tallahassee and following session on the Florida Channel than I can ever recall. They’re mad. They’ve witnessed business as usual,” said Patricia Sullivan, head of the Tea Party Network, a coalition of 58 tea groups across Florida.
In a sarcastic summation, Sullivan noted: “We’ve probably named some new highways after someone, instructed youth how to dress, and pulled our state out of the mire by having an official amphibian.”
Some say Scott has been one of the few bright lights in Tallahassee. They point to his executive orders targeting undocumented immigrants, drug-using welfare recipients, job-killing regulations and overlapping state agencies. Notably, Scott acted independently of the Legislature, where a cabal of good ol’ boy (and girl) senators did their worst to muddy conservative principles.
As conservative activists in and out of the tea party movement make strategic plans to settle scores at the 2012 elections — when every legislative seat will be up for grabs under redistricting — here’s a short-form consensus 2011 scoresheet from “right” field:
EXTRA BASE HITS
MEDICAID: Lawmakers broadened Medicaid reforms in an effort to contain costs and produce a more “patient-centered” system. Currently, Medicaid consumes roughly one-third of the state’s budget. Chief sponsor, Sen. Joe Negon, said the changes will save up to $1.3 billion in the first year, with greater savings in subsequent years. This could turn into a home run, but skeptics caution that results of a trial program in Broward County don’t warrant such enthusiasm.
SCHOOL CHOICE: School choice was expanded through charter and virtual school legislation that promotes expansion of high-performing charter schools and high-performing charter school systems. The state’s tax credit scholarship (voucher) program also was expanded.
ELECTION REFORM: Shaking off Democrats’ tired partisan claims of vote “suppression” and “disenfranchisement,” lawmakers tightened rules to curb voter fraud. As Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, rightly put it: “Election Day is a voting day, not a registration event.”
TAX CUTS: Property taxes were reduced by more than $200 million and business taxes were phased out for roughly half of those that paid taxes last year. Nice, but far less than the reductions Scott proposed.
TEACHER TENURE: The Student Success Act (so-called “Son of SB 6”) establishes a system to pay the best teachers more and eliminates teacher tenure for new teachers. Education reformers predict, however, that the poorly conceived performance-based system will only create confusion at the local level.
COURTS: Tweaked by the Senate, House Speaker Dean Cannon got a version of his judicial-reform package onto the 2012 ballot for voter consideration. The Florida Bar, which successfully fought off many of the proposed reforms, would maintain a decisive hand over the influential Judicial Nominating Commission, which Cannon had sought to scrap.
TORT REFORM: Bringing Florida into line with other states, the Legislature passed a “crashworthiness” bill, a common-sense tort-reform initiative that allows the jury to hear the full story of what led to an automobile accident.
BUDGET: Yes, there was a cut, but far less than Gov. Scott’s proposed reductions. As Sunshine State News’ Kevin Derby accurately scored it: Lawmakers’ $69.7 billion spending scheme more closely resembled Charlie Crist’s budget than Scott’s.
PENSIONS: Instead of requiring 5 percent contributions by government workers, the Legislature settled on 3 percent and killed Scott’s plan to put new hires on 401(k)-style retirement programs. Scott’s program would have saved the state $2.8 billion over two years. The Legislature’s half-step was the kind of “compromise” one would expect from a body where Democrats actually had enough votes to do something.
GUNS: A measure allowing for “reasonable” concealed carry of a weapon with the proper license passed. Tea and patriot groups called the bill watered down. Another bill prevents doctors from infringing upon parents’ privacy rights by asking them if they possess a weapon at home.
IMMIGRATION: Lawmakers could not reach consensus on even a watered-down E-Verify bill. Florida’s GOP-led legislatures are now 0-for-31 with immigration-control bills over the last four sessions. Of all the issues that angered conservatives, this leads the list. Tea parties are already targeting Republicans who had any hand in strangling the bill (and, in so doing, gave Democrats a free pass on the issue).
PAYCHECK PROTECTION: Republicans kept the Democrats’ cash pipeline flowing through automatic deductions of union dues from state paychecks.
SCHOOL BOARDS: A plan to pay local school board members $100 per meeting and save taxpayers more than $10 million a year died quietly in committee. Unlike the majority of U.S. districts, which pay small stipends or nothing at all, county boards in Florida dole out salaries that meet or beat those of beginning teachers, and enable members to join the state retirement system.
NURSE PRACTITIONERS: Lawmakers failed, once again, to pass a nurse practitioner bill. A state study estimated that Florida could save $339 million in primary-care costs by permitting nurse practitioners to practice at their full scope, as they do in 48 other states.
TUITION: “Conservative” lawmakers raised college tuition rates 8 percent … for the second straight year. (What about that “no new fees” claim?) Meantime, administrative overhead and salaries at universities continue to bloat.
PIP: A bill cracking down on staged-accident scams was knee-capped in the Senate. As a result, Florida will remain a haven for fraud involving the state’s Personal Insurance Protection (no-fault) program, and premiums will keep rising.
SEPTIC: While the House deep-sixed any hope for immigration reform, the Senate could not get its act together on a bill that would have provided septic-tank relief urgently sought by property owners.
GROUNDED INTO A DOUBLE PLAY
ENERGY TAXES: Despite clear directions from voters in 2008, and passage in the House, the Senate failed to provide for an exemption from tax assessments for residential renewable energy and weather hardening systems.
ENERGY SALES: A competition-promoting proposal to allow independent producers to sell electricity to the grid to third parties and commercial tenants failed. Despite five strong GOP co-sponsors, the House bill couldn’t even get a hearing.
CALLED ON ACCOUNT OF DARKNESS
BIG UTILITIES: Florida’s big investor-owned utilities again sought to raise their rates by 2 percent and then use that money to build renewable energy systems. Lawmakers, who failed to pass this perk in previous sessions, couldn’t get it across the plate this year either. Consumer and taxpayer groups said that was for the best.