By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Like the upcoming Republican presidential primary, the state legislative session opened earlier than usual — by two months — on Tuesday. But the session opened, as usual, with the usual spate of news stories reminiscing about the previous session and how efficiently Gov. Rick Scott pushed through his ambitious, highly conservative agenda.
Scott and the legislature privatized prisons, made welfare applicants take drug tests, attacked teacher and public employee unions and forced them to pay more for their pensions, slashed eight percent from public school funding, made it harder to conduct voter registration drives and tightened access to voting in general, intervened in teacher contracts, and even told doctors what they could not ask their patients.
Ambitious, to say the least. And maybe unconstitutional. Amid all the reflecting and backslapping, it’s important to remember that an unprecedented number — about a dozen — of those laws are being challenged today.
The confrontational agenda contributed to more than lawyers’ salaries. It also left the newly elected Scott with some of the worst favorability ratings of any governor in the country. And a year after the extremely confrontational agenda was ramrodded through the capital by Republican supermajorities, the view of state legislators is even worse.
So by the end of 2011, there started to be changes, many in form but some in substance as well.
Scott was suddenly pushing for an additional $1 billion for education and became a vocal advocate for Everglades restoration. And perhaps more telling, he’s pronounced that he’ll hold off on controversial proposals, such as higher-education reform, until 2013.
The makeover was fully unveiled in his State of the State speech Tuesday in which he closed it with his big campaign phrase, “Let’s get to work.” And then added the once-unthinkable word: “Together.”
This is a man who entered office proclaiming himself not Florida’s governor, but its CEO. The man who, when faced with overwhelming public discontent, said he wasn’t in office to be liked. But when a dozen laws and regulations that may be unconstitutional become law, the problem goes beyond a governor and his hard-line ideological agenda.
It’s a problem of a lack of checks and balances. It’s what happens when a party that makes up a minority of registered voters in the state controls the governor’s office and has veto-proof control of both chambers.
And how does something like that happen?
Republicans have a stranglehold on drawing up political boundaries. Districts in Florida have been so distorted and manipulated that voters passed two constitutional amendments last year, the Fair Districts Amendments, demanding that when lawmakers draw up districts this session, they do so without favoring a party or candidate.
There’s a certain irony that the thing that has put a stop to political overreaching in this session is the very thing that allowed it to happen in the first place. Redistricting is why you see headlines such as “Florida lawmakers plan controversy-free agenda.” Every suit-wearing politician in Tallahassee (and in every county in the state, for that matter) knows that redistricting is the political foundation for the next decade. Redistricting is king.
So there won’t be any attacks on teachers. No new drug-testing requirements or election laws. This session had more than 500 fewer bills filed at its inception. And don’t even think about bringing up immigration enforcement.
Anything more controversial than South Florida casinos can do like Chicago Cubs fans: wait ‘til next year.