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What's in store for Florida's 2013 legislative session

Legislators prepare to duke it out over more of the same: abortion, workers' rights, education, voting issues and campaign finance reform

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Photo: , License: N/A

Even before the first call-to-order convened the state legislature for its 2013 session in Tallahassee on March 5, there was a hitch in the usually one-sided tug of war between Florida's unevenly proportioned governing bodies. Two weeks earlier, Gov. Rick Scott raised the hackles of his Republican Party by caving on the Medicaid expansion necessary for the state to be in compliance with the Affordable Care Act – Scott gave a deer-in-the-headlights explanation to the media that the death of his mother had changed his mind about expanding Medicaid. The decision came on the heels of his public-relations-conscious budget announcement, which touted a $74.2 billion state budget ($4 billion more than last year) that offered $1.2 billion for public education, including an across-the-board $2,500 raise for teachers. Both moves, while transparently targeting a re-election effort in 2014 for an incumbent with abysmal approval ratings, seemed to catch Republicans off guard. Party leadership expressed muted disappointment with Scott's moderate-friendly moves, suggesting that, because the budget and the Medicaid expansion would require legislative approval, more conservative interests might yet have the last word. But with mounting public pressure – a reported 62 percent of Floridians support the health care expansion; nobody dislikes teachers – there were signs that the Tea Party fervor that swept the state further to the right in 2010 might be subsiding. "Rick Scott has betrayed Florida voters," crowed a Feb. 26 headline from Fox News columnist Cal Thomas. Or perhaps he's trying to attract them.

The governor's about-face wasn't the only scene-setter for this year's legislative session. New leadership in the Senate and in the House of Representatives – Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Speaker of the House Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel – ended 2012 with a promise of leaner, less-frivolous governance, attaching their respective tenures to ethics housecleaning and elections reform. Having dodged the bullet of a scandal shaped like former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer (who pleaded out last month amid suspiciously deactivated threats to take the party down with him) legislative Republicans still held a majority (albeit no longer a supermajority), and they promised not to abuse it.

Not everyone's buying the assumed public face of the new majority, public schism or not. Among the 685 Senate bills and 614 House bills already filed are the telltale signs of business as usual: a state government that promises proactive economic reforms while simultaneously chipping away at personal freedoms. Education legislation largely means greasing the wheels of the privatized charter system; election reform, at best, will mean a return to what was there before 2011 when Republicans cut early voting; campaign finance reform merely makes it easier for corporations to buy elected office; there are proposed bills that would weaken local government controls while hurting workers; and abortion – or the prohibition thereof – remains on the table. It's the same legislature in a different year.

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