Legislature begins uphill battle
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- The first day of the legislative session is supposed to be a joyful time of pomp and celebration. But lawmakers who gather today will see trouble everywhere.
The state faces its biggest budget shortfall in a decade. A voter mandate for smaller classes must be dealt with. The Senate and House are deeply divided. Doctors, lawyers, insurers and employers demand different solutions to problems with medical malpractice and workers' compensation.
Such ominous times pose a challenge to Gov. Jeb Bush, who will open the 60-day session with a State of the State address to a crowded House chamber and a statewide TV audience.
Bush is expected to challenge lawmakers to consider asking voters to repeal the costly class size amendment. He also will likely invoke the specter of war as he seeks contingency plans to protect trade and tourism, twin pillars of the state's service-driven economy.
"I think we're in better shape than most places, but I'm really concerned about what the short-term implications of this war will be," Bush said at Monday's annual Florida Economic Summit.
Democrats say Bush is "misleading" the public by pinning problems of his own making on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the class size amendment, and now, war.
"Our budget troubles are a culmination of four years of misplaced priorities," said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, leader of the 14 Senate Democrats. "While some attempt to squarely shift the blame elsewhere, the evidence leads us back to Florida's capital."
That's where lawmakers will spend the next two months and maybe more. The only bill they must pass is the budget. A rift between the House and Senate over Bush's proposed budget threatens to keep them there longer.
For weeks, university students, public defenders and parents of autistic children, among others, have mobilized to protest Bush's budget.
Bush said he would not consider more taxes or expanded gambling. That puts him at odds with the Senate, which is willing to consider one or both to avoid deep cuts in schools and health care.
Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said he hoped Bush was candid about his budget's shortcomings.
"I'd like to see how he couches what the negatives of his proposed budget are," King said. "Maybe he doesn't feel the pangs of remorse . . . that the teenaged juvenile justice programs are eliminated."
The idea in Bush's budget that has received the most criticism is actually one of the smallest: a projected savings of $10-million by giving the state library to a private university in South Florida. Librarians and historians have flooded lawmakers with angry e-mails and are scheduled to stage a protest in Tallahassee today.
"This by far has been the most overwhelming public response I've ever seen," said Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa.
Democrats outlined their agenda: higher teacher salaries, more prescription drug coverage for seniors, more high-tech jobs and the preservation of Bright Futures college scholarships. But they don't have the votes.
Republicans hold an overwhelming 81 seats in the 120-member House. It's one of the least experienced group of House members in Florida history, with three-fourths of the members having two years there or less.
The House proposed a bill Monday that would continue to reduce the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds. The bill, HB 47, would cut taxes by $308-million next year. But King is questioning the timing of a tax cut when state universities and community colleges are threatening to cap enrollments because they lack funds.
The only people left to benefit are the "wealthiest of the group we tried to help," King said.
The gloomy atmosphere even spread to a Tallahassee tradition. A party on the eve of the session, thrown by Associated Industries of Florida at its spacious headquarters, normally attracts 5,000 people. But a cold, steady rain kept Monday's crowd to less than half that. Shivering patrons struggled to balance an umbrella in one hand and a drink in the other.
"I'm shocked at how many people are here in the pouring rain," said AIF president Jon Shebel from beneath his umbrella.
Instead of a live band, as in past years, Jimmy Buffett songs blared from a speaker. Some wondered why they were there at all.
"This just proves that all of the damn fools ain't dead," said Rep. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness.
-- Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.
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