TALLAHASSEE -- Heading into a critical election year, Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders appear ready to scale back the number of substantial issues they plan to tackle in 2012.
Lawmakers already expect to be consumed by the once-in-a-decade chore of drawing new districts for themselves and for Congress. State leaders will also have to grapple with a budget shortfall that may be as much as $2 billion.
The prospect of a possibly highly charged political session -- which starts in January this year -- could discourage lawmakers from pushing for any major ideas.
Speaking on Wednesday to reporters and editors at The Associated Press Florida Legislative Planning Session, the governor and top lawmakers said they were unsure if they were willing to tackle items such as expanding private school vouchers, making additional changes to Florida’s judiciary or even moving ahead with a restructuring of the state’s higher education system.
Scott, for example, has said he wants all parents in Florida to have the option of receiving vouchers to send their child to a private school. But he said he has not made up his mind whether he will push the proposal in the coming year.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, who earlier this year called for sweeping changes to the state Supreme Court, said he was satisfied with a scaled-back proposal that is headed to voters next fall.
Both Scott and Cannon also appeared unsure on how far Republicans would go to change the state university system. Scott says he wants to change how universities function, including steering students into programs that could yield jobs such as those in science and engineering.
But the governor said he still does not have a definite plan on how he could achieve that goal. Cannon said changes to state universities may take more than one year.
“I hope we can make some changes, but my real goal is get the dialogue going,” Cannon said.
Scott himself added “I would like it to be done quicker, but we’ve got to do it right.”
Senate President Mike Haridopolos went so far as to say that he got everything he wanted during this year’s session that ended last spring.
“The goals we outlined have been accomplished,” said Haridopolos, who did not mention immigration. Earlier this year Haridopolos was unsuccessful in pushing a tough immigration bill through the Legislature.
Haridopolos did repeat Wednesday his desire for the Senate to vote on creating three casinos in South Florida. But Cannon said he was philosophically opposed to the expansion of gambling and that he was skeptical if the legislation could muster enough votes to pass.
House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders said the divide among Republicans over gambling legislation could give members of his party some leverage on the issue.
“We’re not going to sit down with them unless we have some say,” said Saunders, who added he would vote no on the current proposal because he is uncertain how it would affect existing dog and horse tracks in the state.
Saunders also predicted that the battles over redistricting and the budget would force lawmakers beyond a regular 60-day session. He said legislators may want to wait before passing a new budget to see if the economy improves.
Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, said she was concerned that the Republican-controlled Legislature would push a “right-wing agenda” that includes bills dealing with school prayer and abortion. During the 2011 session lawmakers passed a measure that requires most women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound exam.
Rich noted that several measures passed this year have been challenged in state and federal court. He also criticized Republicans for not heeding warnings that some of their proposals are unconstitutional. Federal judges this year blocked a drug-testing program for welfare recipients and a measure aimed at stopping physicians from asking their patients about guns.
“We don’t have enough money yet the Legislature passes bills and statutes that we know are unconstitutional,” Rich said.