THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 8, 2011 --
With competing protests outside the building, Florida lawmakers began their annual session on Tuesday, looking at a huge budget deficit, a stagnant economy and a new governor intent on controversial changes.
For the third year in a row a beleaguered Legislature began a session needing to reduce spending, and will be piling cuts upon previous cuts. Leadership in both chambers has acknowledged that the year will be particularly difficult.
“There is hardship yet to be endured, hard decisions yet to be made. Too many homes still teeter on the edge of foreclosure. Too many people who want work still cannot find work,” Senate President Mike Haridopolos said in his opening speech, outlining the bleak situation outside the Capitol. “And we will cut billions more from the state budget at a time when unfunded mandates from the federal government and the needs of our citizens demand more from us, not less. So, if it is true that adversity builds character, then every one of you can count on being a much better person by the time we adjourn in 60 days.”
If there was any question as to whether real people were paying attention, as lawmakers began their opening floor sessions Tuesday, members of the tea party movement were rallying near the Capitol in support of new Gov. Rick Scott, smaller government and other conservative causes. At the same time, union members and teachers, and backers of environmental spending, were on hand to protest against his plans or those of his GOP colleagues in the Legislature.
Scott was set to give his first State of the State speech later Tuesday evening, expected to again spell out his vision for a leaner - and opponents would say meaner – government as part of his plans for creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. Scott has promised to make his central focus reducing the state’s stubborn unemployment rate, stuck around 12 percent for several months.
As tea partiers showed support, teachers were around to remind the governor and lawmakers that not everyone likes what they see. A measure expected to pass the Senate this week would tie teacher pay in part to student performance instead of length of time working, against the wishes of many teachers, and their union. Teachers also will feel the full effect of the budget wrangling this year. Education cuts are on the table in a way they haven’t been years, with Scott’s budget proposing to cut as much as 10 percent per student in state spending.
Union members also were rallying at the Capitol on Tuesday, feeling targeted by legislation that would change their pension and health care benefits, and possibly eliminate their jobs, in the case of public employees. Union leaders, meanwhile, were carefully watching Republican-backed legislation to end their ability to collect dues through paycheck deductions of public employees. GOP backers of that say that money goes heavily to political activities and it’s unfair for government to be involved in collecting union dues.
But as protesters shouted and held signs, and Scott prepared to emphasize in his State of the State speech his election winning slogan of “Let’s Get to Work,” House Speaker Dean Cannon pleaded with legislators to go beyond the simplicity and slogans.
Cannon said the protesters and others trying to influence the process were welcome – and a key part of the American system.
But, Cannon said, “to those groups I say this: this Session, in this House, we will not make decisions based on the politics of fear or anger.”
And to those boiling down the issues to quick soundbites for political rallies or TV newscasts, Cannon had a warning about what he called the “politics of labels.”
“Eight is enough, the anti-murder act, three strikes and you're out - at the end of the day we must have more than a slogan,” Cannon said. “In lawmaking, details matter, and it is fine for a slogan or a label to start the conversation, but we the lawmakers have to finish it, carefully. We have to care about the details and the real impact of what we do.”
Both Cannon and Haridopolos also shot angry words at Washington – blaming the federal government for much of what ails Florida. Cannon, particularly, said that Florida can’t balance its own budget largely because of federal promises that can’t be kept through a “paralyzing web of entitlement programs.”
“We have become increasingly dependent on federal money in the areas of health care, social services, transportation, the environment, and education,” Cannon said.
Cannon gave as examples the federal requirement for unemployment compensation and Medicaid, which he called “a Great Society federal entitlement program run amok (that) has become the single largest cost driver in our state's budget.”
Haridopolos also was taking on Washington on Tuesday, with his chamber set to take up a bill on the first day of the session that would ask voters to change the constitution to make it a right not to have health insurance, an effort to block the Obama administration’s law requiring coverage by 2014. A vote on that was expected as early as Wednesday in the Senate.