Absolute power

Folks often talk about the risks of having both chambers of Congress as well as the presidency held by the same political party. Of course when your party is the one in power, you think its great … but when its not, you realize what’s wrong with it.

Today I saw the light.

Of course I knew that after a close race, Democrat Alex Sink lost to Republican Rick Scott to be Florida’s next governor, and I knew the Republican Party continued to control the Legislature.

But I didn’t realize that due to Republican gains in both chambers, they now have enough votes to pass constitutional amendments by a 3/5ths vote and to override a veto by the Governor with a 2/3rds vote.

Wow. Now that’s absolute power. The Republican Legislature can do anything it wants. And it’s a scary thought.

That’s not all. In addition to controlling the Legislature, the GOP completely controls the State Cabinet. This is a change from prior years when a Democrat, most recently Alex Sink as Chief Financial Officer, provided a counterweight to the other three Republican Cabinet members (Governor, Attorney General and Agriculture Commissioner).

Ben Wilcox, the Florida League of Women Voters’ professional lobbyist, writes a weekly update called the Capitol Report on the legislative issues chosen by the League. These updates are emailed to members and are also available on the Florida LWV’s website.

The pre-Legislative session summary dated January 31st provides this insight into the priorities of the leaders of Florida’s Senate and House:

[New Senate President Mike] Haridopolos has proclaimed this Senate the most conservative ever. Earlier this year, he announced that he intends to run for the U.S. Senate in 2012, and those political aspirations will likely influence his legislative agenda. His priorities appear to be evading the new federal Affordable Care Act through a constitutional amendment that allows Florida to opt out of the requirement to purchase health insurance and another constitutional amendment to limit state revenue and spending (TABOR). [New] House Speaker [Dean] Cannon’s priorities include Medicaid and judicial reform. [emphasis added]

A new Senate rule allows the President Pro Tem or the Majority Leader to vote in any committee, further strengthening leadership’s ability to move its agenda.

One of the League’s priority issues for this Legislative session is how the decennial redistricting process will be done in 2012. Despite the fact that voters passed constitutional amendments in November to require a fair redistricting process that would do away with Florida’s infamous gerrymandered districts, both Governor Scott and the Republican leadership are determined that the good-old ways should not be changed.

According to Wilcox’s report:

Governor Scott ordered Amendments 5 and 6 withdrawn from the Justice Department, where they must be “pre-cleared” to ensure compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act. Scott’s action to delay preclearance was criticized by FairDistrictsFlorida, LWVF, and other groups that worked to pass the amendments. Governor Scott has also appointed former Secretary of State Kurt Browning to that post again. Browning chaired the “Protect Your Vote” committee that campaigned against the redistricting amendments. The League had a meeting with Secretary Browning on February 1.

In addition:

The Senate has appointed a Reapportionment Committee chaired by Senator Don Gaetz. The committee has held two meetings to discuss the technicalities and the timeline for redistricting. The committee expects to have the necessary census data by April and to have its “MyDistrictBuilder” website online in June. The website will allow any member of the public to draw redistricting plans. The committee anticipates holding 20 public hearings throughout the state during the coming summer. …

The House has yet to name the membership of its redistricting committee, but Representative Will Weatherford has been named to be Chair. The House has also joined a lawsuit filed by Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart and Congresswoman Corrine Brown that challenges the constitutionality of Amendment 6, dealing with Congressional redistricting. Critics have questioned the House’s use of taxpayer money to challenge an amendment that was put in the Constitution by more than 60% of the voters.

Other significant issues the Legislature intends to take on this year in addition to passing a balanced budget include, according to Wilcox:

Medicaid reform; education reform, including merit pay for teachers and school vouchers; immigration; [and] “The Taxpayer Bill of Rights” (TABOR)…. Potential side issues include privatization of mental hospitals and prisons; abortion related issues; tort reform; water quality; and energy policy.

I can’t tell you how concerned this agenda makes me as a Florida Democrat.

As President Obama said, elections have consequences. The 2008 election put him in the White House and gave Democrats control of both chambers of Congress. I now understand how Republicans felt at the time.

They got themselves organized, and two years later the people voted to take some of that power away. Democrats lost control of the House and are hanging on to the Senate by a thread (57 Democrats; 41 Republicans; 2 Independents), and getting the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster is now even more difficult than it was before. Compromise will be necessary, and we can expect to see a lot of it. (See last week’s post It Takes an Attitude Adjustment for more about that.)

But in Florida, don’t expect bipartisanship of any kind. In fact, the only compromises we’re likely to see will be Governor Scott’s efforts to persuade the Legislature to follow his lead. And he has next to no leverage.

The only positive thing that might come of this is a re-found resolve among Florida Democrats to get out the vote in 2012, something that is needed in any case to reelect Obama.

But now it’s hitting even closer to home. The future of Florida is at stake as well.

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