Five Takeaways from Tallahassee — the 'session's half over' edition

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With the halfway point of the 2011 Legislative Session officially in the rear view mirror, Florida lawmakers this week spent much of their time teeing up spending plans, setting up a month of negotiations over retiree benefits and other budget differences – and mounting uncertainty over the governor? response to being only one leg of a three-legged stool, reports Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.

Wednesday marked the midpoint of the 60-day session, a symbolic milestone that often prompts naval gazing from those who follow the session? progress in hopes of deciding whether to extend their leases or start saving boxes for the trip back home. Optimists see the chambers?early vote on their respective budgets as a welcome sign while skeptics maintain the session? early efficiency will be more than offset by the time it takes to settle a $3.3 billion difference between the $66.5 billion House blueprint and the Senate’s $69.8 billion budget.

Leaders in both chambers say they hope to have overall allocations out next week, a necessary step before conferees can begin their work. Two of the budget? biggest sticking points remain what to do about retirement and how deep to cut benefits to the state? most needy.

With the question of whether to make changes to the Florida Retirement System decided, House leaders want to share the pain equally among workers at all salary levels by requiring all FRS recipients to kick in 3 percent of their income regardless of how much they take home, and what job they do.

The Senate plan would set different charges on different levels of income, ranging from 2 percent on the first $25,000 of pay to 6 percent on any pay above $50,000. Leading by example, lawmakers and statewide elected officers would kick in an extra percentage point at each salary level, meaning most lawmakers will kick in 5 percent of their compensation package.

On the health care front, the Senate budget proposal calls for spending $28.4 billion on health- and human-services programs, about $800 million less than the House. That difference shows up in areas such as the Medically Needy program, which the House would not cut, and in deeper Senate reductions in hospital Medicaid rates. The Senate proposal would cut those rates 10 percent, while the House would cut them 7 percent.

There were other issues pending before lawmakers that lay outside the budget as members wrangled over pill mills, the courts and other reorganizations. In response to criticism from court officials and other “stakeholders,” House Speaker Dean Cannon this week scaled back ambitious court reform proposals that critics said were thinly veiled attacks at a judiciary, especially the Florida Supreme Court, which has scuttled a few Cannon-backed constitutional measures.

Last month, Cannon unveiled a controversial slate of proposals that would have split the Florida Supreme Court in two. Other Cannon fodder would make it more difficult for a judge to get re-elected and easier for the Legislature to impeach them once they were seated.

Under the new proposed amendment, the Supreme Court would stay as one, but would add three justices and have a civil and criminal division of five justices each. The Senate would also have to confirm any new justice appointed by the governor.

The plan would also give the House access to investigative files of the Judicial Qualifications Commission to review possible cases for impeachment and would set aside at least 2.25 percent of general revenue every year to fund the judicial branch.

The House and Senate, meanwhile, have taken vastly different positions to combating unscrupulous pain clinics that dish out painkillers to drug addicts and traffickers.

House leaders say the answer is to ban doctors from dispensing drugs in their offices. They also want to eliminate a series of regulations approved during the past two years, including a requirement that the state use a new database to better track prescriptions.

Scott wants lawmakers to scuttle the database, which he says is intrusive.

But just how much political clout Scott can muster remains to be seen.

A Quinnipiac poll released this last past week shows Florida voters in a particularly foul mood across the political spectrum. What? unclear is who they dislike more, as evidenced by the fact that they think both Scott and President Barack Obama are leaving much to be desired among Florida voters.

Scott’s disapproval rating among Florida voters has ballooned from 22 percent to 38 percent, the poll found, with more than half of respondents saying the governor? budget cutting proposals are unfair to them.

“Today, Scott is a four-letter word to many Florida voters, but political popularity can change with time,?said Peter Brown, assistance director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. ?he experience of Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, who had 70 percent approval ratings at this point in his tenure, shows how fickle public opinion can be.”

But any solace Democrats can take in Scott? unpopularity was muted by the same polling group? finding that slightly more than half of voters, 52 percent, said they disapprove of the job President Barack Obama is doing.

About four in 10 voters say he should get a second term, compared to about 5 in 10 who say he shouldn?. It appears to be mostly about policy ?70 percent of those polled said they were inclined to like Obama personally ?with 30 percent of them saying they like him, but disagree with what he? done as president.

In other developments, the House passed a bill removing state regulatory authority over several professions. The bill, which would deregulate industries ranging from interior designers to auto mechanics to auctioneers, passed after Republicans rebuffed efforts by Democrats to keep several of the professions under state regulations.

In the resurrection category, a bill paving the way for up to five “destination resort” casinos in Florida passed the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee after being pulled from consideration by the bill? sponsor, who was apparently bluffing. Still, critics say the odds of passage this year are close to that of drawing an inside straight.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.