A Turn To Right In 2010

May 2, 2010

Bill Kaczor

St. Augustine Record

TALLAHASSEE -- The Republican-led Florida Legislature sharpened its rightward tilt this year and incoming GOP leaders are hoping to keep moving it in that direction after the November election.

The House historically has been the more conservative of the two chambers. The Senate, and Gov. Charlie Crist for the past four sessions, have taken a more moderate stance, killing or vetoing some of the House's right-leaning handiwork.

That changed during the 2010 session that ended Friday with the Senate not only embracing but initiating measures championed by such conservative stalwarts as former Gov. Jeb Bush, who has a foundation that lobbies for his education policies.

"I would call it an instantaneous veering to the right," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "All the Jeb Bush stuff came roaring back, all the unbridled right-wing ambitions of leadership came into play."

It culminated during the session's final two days with passage of an abortion bill that would require women seeking the procedure to first pay for an ultrasound scan and then view the image unless they can prove they are victims of rape, incest of domestic violence.

Gelber and other opponents are seeking a veto by Crist, who just a day before the session ended left the GOP to run for the U.S. Senate without party affiliation.

"I'm concerned about it, I am," Crist said Saturday, adding that he hasn't yet made a decision. "I don't know if I want government telling people what to do, and I want to look at the details of how it's drafted, the final language and what the practical effect of it would be and give it some thought."

The Legislature's rightward slant also is evident in issues lawmakers put on the Nov. 2 ballot. One is a nonbinding straw poll asking voters if Congress should balance the federal budget without raising taxes.

The others are state constitutional amendments that would loosen class size limits voters adopted in 2002 even though Bush had campaigned against them, counter a pair of citizen initiatives designed to curtail favoritism toward incumbents and political parties in redistricting and a ban on Floridians being forced to obtain insurance coverage.

The latter is a response to the health care overhaul passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama, though legal scholars say it cannot override federal law.

"It's going to get even more exciting next year," said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, a Merritt Island Republican who is slated to take over as Senate president. "My agenda was pretty clear when I came into the Senate. My goal was to move the Senate to the right on the financial issues."

His focus may be fiscal, but Haridopolos said he's also happy to accommodate lawmakers who want to advance socially conservative legislation such as the abortion bill.

Haridopolos' partner in conservatism is Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who is in line to become House speaker in November.

It's unlikely either will have to worry about losing control of his chamber to the Democrats. The GOP has commanding majorities of 76-44 in the House and 26-13 in the Senate. In the Senate, a Democratic seat became vacant when Ted Deutch stepped down to make his successful run for South Florida's 19th Congressional District in a special election.

The GOP leaders will be campaigning and raising money to help their favorite legislative candidates, but they aren't supporting just any Republicans.

"We're picking people who are more in the Jeb Bush mold," Haridopolos said.

Crist said the same political climate that pushed him out of the Republican Party also may be affecting GOP lawmakers who are worried about getting primary challenges from the right.

"That wouldn't shock me," Crist said.

Gelber, who won't be returning because he's running for the Democratic attorney general nomination, believes the Senate's rightward veer began with the death of Sen. Jim King last July.

King, a Republican from Jacksonville and former Senate president, was a moderating influence. He was replaced in a special election by John Thrasher of St. Augustine, a conservative and highly partisan former House speaker who also chairs the Florida Republican Party.

"I love Jim King, I'd have to say that to begin with," Thrasher said. But, he added, "I am what I am and he was what he was."

Thrasher sponsored the most high-profile piece of conservative legislation this year, a bill (SB 6) that would have made it easier to fire teachers, tied their pay to student test scores, barred tenure for new hires and cut funding for school districts that failed to comply with the pay provision.

Teachers and their unions said it would result in the loss of good as well as bad teachers and that test scores cannot be trusted because they are affected by many factors outside a teacher's control.

The bill passed over their objections. Crist vetoed it after he was deluged by thousands of calls and e-mails from angry teachers, parents and students, many of them also taking to the streets across the state to hold protest demonstrations.

The veto may have sealed Crist's political fate by further alienating conservative Republicans.

"It certainly will be interpreted that way," Crist said. "I guess it was part of the progression toward that."

Polls showed he already was badly trailing former House Speaker Marco Rubio, a favorite of the tea party movement, in their race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

"It was a remarkable session given all the drama that had to play out," Thrasher said. "A lot of drama, a lot of distractions. (But) I considered it a good session overall."

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Political advertisement paid for and approved by Dan Gelber.