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Capital Report

Legislature leans to the right in 2011

By James Call

Tallahassee, FL – The Speaker of the Florida House and the Senate President are seeing their time in office being defined by a budget crisis. When the Florida Legislature begins its 2011 session Tuesday, Dean Cannon and Mike Haridopolos will have super majorities to enact their agenda, but little money to spend. And James Call reports, that seems to fit their political philosophy just fine.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos was elected to the Florida Legislature in 2000 and assumed the Senate Presidency in November. He began preparing to lead the Senate more than four years ago by raising money for candidates receptive to his ideas. In the last election cycle, Haridopolos broke with tradition and took sides in Republican primaries. With the GOP holding 26 of 40 Senate seats, Haridopolos has the votes to exert his will on how Florida closes a four- billion dollar budget shortfall, evaluates a teacher's performance in the classroom and, the level of medical care Florida provides to the elderly, the poor and catastrophically sick.

"I feel, that the Florida Senate has not been as conservative as it should be. I think if you ask Jeb Bush, if you talk to past House Speakers, they felt that the overall body was moderate. It was one which was very sympathetic to unions, very sympathetic to trial lawyers, very sympathetic to the idea that the government does not need to go on a diet."

Haridopolos has a friend in the House Speaker. Dean Cannon was first elected to the House in 2004 and jokes his wife would like his political career to end with his Speakership next year. Like Haridopolos and Governor Rick Scott, Cannon believes government spending and regulation stifles economic growth. And with 81 Republican Representatives to the Democrats 39, Cannon has the votes to steer state policy towards his view.

"The regulatory burden and the tax burden visited on small business by the government needs to take a serious look. And I couldn't be more excited about the enthusiasm for common sense conservative approach coming out of the Senate that we in the House share, and I think Governor Scott shares, an I'm excited about working with them."

When he was installed as speaker in November, Cannon issued a challenge to House Members. He described a terrible temptation for politicians; a belief that, "we in Tallahassee can make all things better through government."

"So in the next two years I'm going to challenge you to ask a much harder question. Instead of asking what government can do to fix a problem. Or prevent a potential wrong when confronting the problems facing our state I challenge you to ask whether government should be involved at all. Or perhaps better yet what can government stop doing that will allow greater freedom to our citizens."

Cannon has compiled a list of bills he wants voted out of the House and sent to the Senate in the session's first week. A proposal reducing the number of weeks a worker can collect unemployment compensation leads the list. Before lawmakers leave in May, they will also tackle Medicaid reform, the Senate is working on a proposal to move most patients into HMO-like plans and a teacher-tenure bill that former Governor Charlie Crist vetoed last year. They say this year's proposal is more focused on merit pay. Senate President Haridopolos.

"Clearly the voters spoke. And if we didn't change directions we would be unresponsive to voters. Look the Senate from a year ago to this year is a very different place. I think you have seen it in some of the votes that have already taken place. It is a much more financially conservative place. And I think the policies we are pushing now reflect that."

The policy changes will be reflected in the state budget, which economists say will be about 4.6 billion dollars short of maintaining current spending levels. Tuesday, the first day of session, groups across Florida are planning to protest proposals to close that gap. Lawmakers will have until May to decide how to balance the state budget.