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Saturday, April 9, 2011

The poor and middle class harmed by Rick Scott and the GOP

From The Gainsville Sun/Associated Press

Unions, teachers, students, state workers, lawyers, the courts, Medicaid recipients and women seeking an abortion are among those in the GOP bulls-eye along with nearly any mandate that comes from Washington. Florida legislators are trying to cut about $4 billion from the state's current budget of $70 billion before their scheduled May 6 adjournment.

“We make cuts because the alternative is unacceptable,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. “Raising taxes would destroy an already fragile economy.”

It's where the cuts seem to be biggest that troubles Democrats. Outnumbered by better than two-to-one in the Legislature and with Republican Rick Scott as governor, they have virtually no say in Florida government.

“The poor and middle class are worse off today than they were before session started and will be even worse off after this budget happens,” said Rep. Ron Saunders, the House Democratic leader. “There's only more bad stuff coming.”

Republicans, however, claim some cuts — like eliminating the agency created to monitor urban sprawl across Florida — were long overdue and frees up money for other stressed areas.

“Imagine if we didn't do that,” Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said. “We'd have to thin the soup in the school cafeteria and the nursing home even more.”

Both chambers passed their respective budget bills Thursday, but significant differences remain to be settled in conference committee work that begins next week.

Scott has already signed one divisive bill into law that will create merit pay for teachers and end tenure for new hires. A similar measure was vetoed last year by former Gov. Charlie Crist, but it was the first bill to reach the new governor this year. Education funding is also expected to get a cut of more than $400 million, about 6 percent less than current spending.

Republicans are trying to exert more control over the one branch they don't rule — the judicial. They've introduced a raft of measures to drastically alter the state's judiciary, in part by splitting the Supreme Court in two, creating one court that oversees criminal matters and the other civil, and requiring legislative approval for all rules of court. Some of those proposed changes would require voter approval.

Other issues that have frustrated legislators for years such as Medicaid, prison privatization and resolving both the property insurance and personal injury protection (PIP) crises are still in the works.

Pending legislation would force Medicaid recipients into a managed care system. Most Democrats are against that plan, arguing that it would enrich private health care companies at taxpayer expense while reducing the level of care. Republicans argue it will cut fraud and the skyrocketing cost of medical care for low-income and disabled people that's now consuming about a third of the state budget. Reductions in Medicaid reimbursement rates for hospitals and nursing homes also are in the works.

“We've got to come up with a way to take care of the vulnerable in a way we can afford,” Scott said this week.

Although little was heard from Republican candidates on the abortion issue last fall, there are at least 18 measures that would restrict abortions filed in the Legislature and their sponsors are optimistic they will be passed. They rammed through in the final hours of last year's session a controversial measure that would have required women seeking a first-trimester abortion to get an ultrasound and view the picture or have it described to them. Crist also vetoed that measure.

But this time around, those issues have the backing for the most part of the more conservative Scott.

Lawmakers are also looking at finding savings in the unemployment lines. With one in nearly every eight Florida worker jobless, the Legislature wants to cut state unemployment compensation benefits from 26 weeks to 20.

The Legislature also aims to weaken public employee unions by ending their ability to collect dues through automatic paycheck deductions. Republicans also want individual union members to provide written permission before their dues money could be used for political contributions. Another measure would strip unions of their collective bargaining rights if they fall below a certain level of membership.

And there's already plenty of angst among state employees, who haven't had a pay raise in five years. They are being asked to begin contributing to their pension and absorb increased health care premiums. The House and Senate each passed bills to require the pension contribution, but there are differences in the proposals that remain to be worked out.

Republicans also are pushing a 128-page elections bill that would require voter-registration groups to register with the state and turn in completed forms within 48 hours. It forces voters to use provisional ballots instead of regular ballots if they want to update their name or address in voting records at the polling place. And the bill would prohibit approaching any voter waiting in line and giving voting advice, even if the voter is more than 100 feet from the polling place entrance.

Veteran Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho predicts would dampen voter turnout next year when Florida's 29 electoral votes are up for grabs in the presidential election.

“The changes that they're making to oversee elections are simply partisan politics, seeking more control over the process,” said Sancho, who predicted the proposed changes couldn't survive a court challenge. “Pure and simple, it's vote tampering.”

The Republican sponsor of the proposal, Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, said the bill “preserves and protects the political process.”

One issue that was hot in last year's GOP gubernatorial primary but has fizzled during the session is immigration. Talk about a tough Arizona-style law aimed at identifying illegal immigrants quieted after Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and tourism officials warned that such a measure would be particularly harmful to the Sunshine State.

The wild card for the GOP-dominated Legislature is their governor. A product of corporate America, Scott operates with a more imperialistic approach. He's already complained that it takes lawmakers too long to get their work done.

“When the governor actually realizes that there are three branches of government, three equal branches, he has to come around the realization that we're not his employees,” said Saunders, the House Democratic leader. “We're just trying to hold him accountable.”

Legislators have signaled Scott that they're part of this deal too — in one instance with a bill that would cut in half the $1.2 million allocated for the governor's security detail. The governor is currently protected by 16 Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents, a number that was beefed up for former Gov. Jeb Bush at the time his older brother, George W. Bush, was president and the economy was much stronger. Scott, a multimillionaire, previously paid for private security during his transition.

Haridopolos also sent a letter to Scott late last month asking him to follow the law and release $35 million in federal stimulus money for Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Haridopolos, who is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, also aren't on board with Scott's push for business and property tax cuts. Scott, for his part, won't say whether he'd veto a budget that didn't include the tax cuts he wants.

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