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Fla. lawmakers plan quick start to 2011 session

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Legislature convenes Tuesday with Republicans fresh off an election that strengthened their control of both chambers, and GOP leaders have set early floor votes on legislation.

Measures scheduled for first-week roll calls include a pair of proposed state constitutional amendments, one to cap state spending and another attempting to thwart the national health care overhaul, and also bills that would cut benefits for unemployed workers and require merit pay for teachers while banning tenure for new hires.

Demonstrations are planned in Tallahassee and across the state by opponents and supporters of the measures as well as $5 billion in spending cuts, layoffs and reductions in salaries and pension benefits for public employees, including teachers that Republican Gov. Rick Scott has included in his $65.9 billion budget proposal.

“This is real change,” Senate President Mike Haridopolos said at a news conference Monday. “The House and Senate are much more conservative. Clearly we have a much more conservative governor. We’re going to be more ambitious with our policy objectives. It’s going to be more controversial.”

Republicans are expected to agree on most issues during the 60-day session, but there’s still room for discord within their veto-proof majorities – 81-39 in the House and 28-12 in the Senate.

GOP lawmakers already have signaled opposition to some of Scott’s budget proposals, including a 10 percent reduction for public schools.

Haridopolos of Merritt Island and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, also have expressed skepticism over Scott’s proposals to cut corporate income and school property taxes since the state’s facing a potential budget shortfall of up to $3.6 billion – more if lawmakers accept a House proposal for a $1 billion reserve fund.

“That’s a heavy lift given the fact that our first and our primary objective is to pass a balanced budget, cut spending by $4.6 billion and don’t raise taxes,” Cannon said Monday.

Republicans are expected to be united on major roll calls this week. They include Senate votes on the two constitutional amendments, which would go on the November 2012 ballot.

One would prohibit any requirement for people to buy insurance coverage or pay financial penalties for failing both key parts of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Sponsors last year conceded the measure could not override federal law, but they saw it as a way for Floridians to voice their opposition to the health care overhaul. Missouri voters approved a similar proposal by a wide margin.

The other proposed amendment would cap state revenues at their 2013-14 level with allowances for population growth and increases in the Consumer Price Index.

Sponsors say such a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” is needed to protect against excessive spending by the Legislature. Critics say the proposed cap uses a flawed formula and would only worsen Florida’s dire financial condition.

Amendments need a three-fifths vote in both chambers to get on the ballot. That’s 24 votes in the 40-member Senate and 72 in the 120-member House, both well within the GOP’s majorities.

The Senate also is set to vote on the teacher pay and tenure bill (SB 736). It’s similar to one that passed last year amid widespread protests by teachers, students and parents. That bill (SB 6) was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who subsequently quit the Republican Party to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as an independent.

The House this week is set to vote on a bill that’s designed to reduce unemployment compensation taxes that businesses pay and cut benefits for jobless workers. It would reduce the benefit limit from 26 to 20 weeks. If Florida’s unemployment rate, now at 12 percent, should drop to 5 percent, then the limit would drop to 12 weeks. The bill also would require jobless workers to undergo a skills review to qualify for benefits.

The biggest issue during the 60-day session will be passing a balanced budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. That, however, will take a back seat until state economists meet March 18 to update the general revenue estimate. The new forecast could increase or decrease the impending $3.6 billion shortfall.

Haridopolos, who is running for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, introduced the health care amendment and is a longtime advocate of the tax cap, both popular with the party’s conservative base.

He also insists he can keep his political campaign separate from his legislative duties ,but said his candidacy will “be successful or unsuccessful based on my performance as Senate president.”