State Politics

GOP power beginning to crumble in Tallahassee

TALLAHASSEE — At a white cloth-covered table dotted with glasses of orange juice, Republican legislative leaders proudly toasted the on-time end of a lawmaking session, a no-new-taxes budget and the ascendancy of the GOP in Florida.

That was a dozen years ago. Today, the sense of optimism that buoyed the state’s Republicans has begun to crumble as legislative leaders struggle in a nearly deadlocked session to meet their constitutional duty to craft a balanced state budget.

Gridlocked, legislators likely won’t finish a budget by session’s end Friday.

“Not getting done on time sends a wrong signal to the taxpayers of the state,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican. “It’s embarrassing.”

And Republicans, who have dominated the Legislature since 1996, aren’t just down because of budget talks. They’re also confronting other issues that make them wince: They’re raising taxes. The economic news is blotting out other topics that traditionally fire up supporters, like abortion or guns. Even Florida Forever, a popular land-preservation program begun by a Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, is endangered.

Fasano fondly recalled the 1997 juice-toasting ceremony between Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker Dan Webster. It underscored the Republicans’ new businesslike approach to lawmaking — and put the final touches on a long downward spiral by Democrats.

“If we’re not careful, we could end up making the same mistake the Democrats did in Florida or that Republicans did just a few years ago in Washington,” Fasano said.

While many Republican senators remember the day they celebrated their party’s control of the Legislature in the Capitol rotunda, no one in the House does. None of them was there.

The House is now packed with freshmen and sophomore lawmakers, as term limits continue to take their toll. Most House members never knew a Legislature before Republicans held a large majority and control of the governor’s mansion.

Though he supports term limits, Fasano said the logjammed budget talks are partly due to that lack of experience, coupled with an overly partisan ideology in the House. The Senate’s proposed budget passed unanimously. The House’s passed on party lines.

Yet House leaders say the Senate is acting like the less experienced chamber by refusing to take a long-term view. The House wants the Senate to make deeper cuts to state workers’ pay, a transportation trust fund and higher education so that the state can sock away more cash for bad times -- and for the day, just two years from now, when federal stimulus dollars disappear.

Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who was in high school when the GOP took full control of the Legislature, dismissed any comparisons to past legislative sessions. He said the state has never been in such dire straits, and people will

understand if the Legislature doesn’t finish on time Friday.

“If we can’t finish on time,” he said, “I don’t think it’s a function of us not working together. I think it’s a function of the fact it’s a very complicated issue and sometimes it takes a lot of hard work to get it done.”

Lawmakers must have a balanced budget by July 1, the start of the new state fiscal year. Many legislators expected to have broad agreement on the general ways to allocate money in the more than $65 billion budget by Tuesday. As of Friday, budget talks remained stalled.

When the budget finally is hammered out — by May 1 or during an extended or special session — a core principle of Republican campaign ideology, no new taxes, will likely be gone. The Senate wants a cigarette tax and the House is raising taxes on motor-vehicle tags, yet 30 Republicans have signed pledges against increasing taxes.

Republicans in both chambers have stopped bashing President Obama’s stimulus package, and are fortifying the next budget with about $5 billion from Washington.

Despite the extra cash, lawmakers are still struggling with balancing the budget.

The Senate wants to accept about $440 million more in unemployment-compensation stimulus cash than the House, which is resisting because of fears it could lead to future tax increases when the federal money runs out.

Gamesmanship and political ambition also pervade the budget process. Legislative leaders continue to meet secretly to negotiate agreement on their proposed budgets, which are $547 million apart.

And the House recently began pushing budget cuts and tax increases that would ensure there’s upward of $3 billion in savings in three years. That would coincide with the speakership of Winter Park Rep. Dean Cannon, who has emerged from the budget disarray as the House leader in talks Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander.

As the two chambers gridlocked last week, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist was largely absent. He said he’s spoken with House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater and is “encouraging their continued dialogue.”

But what’s he telling them? “Do the right thing,” Crist said.

Crist’s cryptic, middle-of-the-road approach has made it especially difficult for the party to embrace a consistent ideology. That’s a sharp contrast with his predecessor, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who devoured policy, helped closely steer legislation and frequently engaged legislators since his first legislative session in 1999.

For Democrats, Crist’s 2006 election coincided with their own gains in the Florida House and winning a Cabinet-level post.

In the end, a party can only grow for so long before it starts to lose its way, said Democratic Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West.

“It’s not the party. It’s the power that causes the downfall,” Saunders said. “It’s the arrogance.”

Saunders should know. He was in the House until 1994, two years before Democrats lost control of the chamber. Then, as now, one-party rule didn’t ensure peace.

“There are going to be disagreements, and people understand that,” said the Senate’s Republican leader, Alex Diaz de la Portilla of Miami. “People want us to get the budget done right. And in these challenging times, we will. This isn’t about the Republican Party.”

Diaz de la Portilla’s Republican colleague, Miami Sen. Alex Villalobos, isn’t so sure. He said the budget struggles are troubling and recall the Democrats’ problems from the 1990s.

“We may repeat that cycle if we don’t finish on time and in the right way,” Villalobos said. “This is a wake up call for the Republican Party.”

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

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