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Monday, February 28, 2011

The Fast Track to Florida's ruin

From the Palm Beach Post

by John kennedy

TALLAHASSEE — Senate Republicans say they are intent on making good on last fall's campaign. promises -- setting the stage for a highly partisan opening week of the 2011 Legislature.

In party-line votes this week, the GOP-ruled Senate Budget Committee OK'd four high-profile bills that touch on many of the issues raised by Republican Gov. Rick Scott and other Florida GOP candidates during last fall's contests.

"We have a very ambitious opening week planned," said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. "As we promised, we're going to take our job very seriously."

Two measures approved by the budget panel would put ballot proposals before voters next year. One proposal is a constitutional amendment that seeks to cut Florida out of the federal health care overhaul, while the other would put strict new spending limits on state government into the state's constitution.

The spending-limits measure, referred to as "Taypayer Bill of Rights," or TABOR, would limit future state revenue using a growth factor based on population and inflation, and limit future borrowing. It does not apply to counties and cities. Backers say it will limit excessive spending, but critics say it would cripple basic services and point to the existing revenue cap in the Constitution.

Another bill would eliminate teacher tenure, create a new teacher evaluation system and introduce merit pay, an approach generally opposed by the state's largest teachers' union, a big Democratic base. In large part, it's a rewrite of last year's SB 6, which then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed.

Unlike last year, though, the new version would allow the evaluation formula to consider students' attendance, disciplinary records, disabilities and English proficiency when evaluating teachers for merit pay. However, teachers say it doesn't go far enough to consider the struggles of high-poverty students.

Rounding out the ripped-from-the-campaign-trail ideas: a product liability bill opposed by Democratic-allied trial lawyers. The bill, sought by the auto industry, would reverse a 2001 Florida Supreme Court ruling and allow juries to hear evidence about to a driver's actions in product liability cases and require that fault -- and damages -- be apportioned among the parties involved.

"They're all obviously being moved on a fast track for the first week of session," Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston told fellow Democrats.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said he had no control over when the legislation could be lined up for the Senate floor, saying that's up to the Senate president.

Haridopolos, who has already raised more than $1 million for his campaign to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year, has said he is committed to making a big early impression on core conservative issues when the legislature opens March 8.

That includes getting the health-care ballot measure out quickly. Following the committee vote, Haridopolos said he wanted the legislation bearing his name to be the first bill voted on by the Senate after the session opens on March 8.

"Our message is clear -- Floridians can make their own health care choices without mandates from the federal government," he said.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story,0,7675847.story

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