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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Has the hornets nest been kicked?

From the Palm Beach Post

by John Kennedy

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature's ruling Republicans have kicked over a political hornet's nest by promoting budget cuts, pension overhauls and civil justice changes, which are now emerging as targets for statewide rallies by Democratic-allied organizations.

The GOP's tough medicine for a state pocked by foreclosures and almost 12 percent unemployment may be breathing life into a Florida Democratic Party, virtually left for dead after wholesale election defeats last fall. It also may effectively prove the opening round of the 2012 presidential contest in the nation's biggest battleground state.

"Democrats last fall were down and outspent," said Susannah Randolph, campaign manager for defeated Orlando Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson and now an organizer of the March 8 rallies.

"Now we're seeing that we have to respond to a threat level like DEFCON 1," said Randolph, who also is a leader of Florida Watch Action. "And sure, we want to keep this energy going."

Using a Facebook page, "Awake The State," organizers are planning events in most major Florida cities on the legislature's opening day. Although locations are still being determined, teachers and public employees' unions, including police and firefighters, are forming the core of those protesting expected cuts in education, pensions and government workforces.

Counter-punching, tea party supporters are rallying behind Scott, and looking to converge on the state Capitol for the session's launch, which coincides with the new governor's first State of the State address.

Political spring training

Florida hasn't been rocked yet by the kind of political convulsions coursing through Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, where unions and Republican governors have squared-off in angry protests and even walkouts by Democratic lawmakers.

President Obama carried each of these states in the 2008 presidential contest and next year, combined, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Florida contain one-quarter of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

Florida is the largest of these toss-up states. And the Tallahassee power struggle, while growing more fierce, is clearly looking like a proxy fight or - this being Florida - spring training, for the 2012 campaigns.

"Gov. Scott campaigned on exactly what he's doing now, and, unlike a lot of politicians, he's keeping his promises," said Robin Stublin, with Florida Alliance, a coalition of 130 tea party groups planning to rally on the steps of the state's Old Capitol within hours of the session's opening.

"But I guess to some extent, he's also woken up the Democrats' base," Stublin conceded. "You know, they woke up three years ago, too, and we're in a worse mess than ever."

Some tea party organizers said they expect several thousand Scott supporters to travel to Tallahassee for the legislature's opening day. Others plan to go to the Capitol two days later for a round of meetings with lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Orange Park, who has formed a tea party caucus among Republican lawmakers.

"Any time the status quo is threatened with billions of dollars in cuts, there's a lot of special interest groups that are feeling put upon," said Henry Kelley of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party.

"We always say elections have consequences. And we did our best to elect people and now we're going to do our best to hold them accountable," Kelley said.

Republican legislative leaders look ready to play to their crowd.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has already raised $1 million for his bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year. Haridopolos last week said the Senate was looking to make a political splash during the session's opening hours.

The Senate chief said he wants the first legislation his chamber passes to be a proposed ballot measure designed to cut Florida out of the federal health care overhaul.

Another proposal set for an early vote in the Senate would ask voters in 2012 to impose a strict new spending limit on state government.

Budget shortfall focus

Other bills poised for swift action would eliminate teacher tenure, create a new employee evaluation system, and introduce performance pay, an approach generally opposed by the state's largest teachers' union, a big Democratic voting base.

Other legislation taking shape is aimed at reducing product liability lawsuits, a measure opposed by Florida trial lawyers, who typically pour millions into state Democratic campaigns.

But the dominant focus for Scott and lawmakers is closing a state budget shortfall that has cratered to at least $3.6 billion.

Scott has proposed making the 655,000 government workers enrolled in the Florida Retirement System - the biggest share being school board employees - contribute 5 percent of their paychecks to the plan.

That would pull an additional $1.3 billion into the state's cash-strapped budget.

Scott's $65.9 billion budget recommendation would cut $4.6 billion in state spending, trim 8,681 jobs across state agencies, and set the state on course for even more reductions next year.

The state's Education Department draws the largest single reduction in Scott's plan - losing $3.3 billion. While education also is the largest item of state spending overall, the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, campaigned heavily last fall for Scott's Democratic opponent, Alex Sink.

Meanwhile, Scott's blueprint also leaves room for $2 billion in tax cuts - for property owners, corporations and businesses.

At a Jacksonville rally last week opposing budget cuts, Duval County School Board Chairman W.C. Gentry, a trial lawyer who has contributed heavily to Democratic candidates, may have sounded a theme that will echo into the 2012 campaigns.

"Can you explain to me how it is that we should give tax cuts to the most profitable corporations in this state on the backs of our school children?" Gentry said, to applause from a crowd of 300 parents, educators and students.

Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida political scientist, said such "us against them" shadings are certain to color the ideological clash burgeoning in Florida.

"You're seeing a precise political strategy on the part of both parties to mobilize their bases as another election year looms," Paulson said. "Whichever party gets the upper hand in Tallahassee this spring is going to be in good shape for next year."

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