The Florida Legislature officially began its 2011 session last week.

There were protests by progressive groups. There were tea parties. There were speeches by Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

“I say let’s shoot the sharks nearest the boat first,” Haridopolos said in his speech.

The Senate then began firing away, at ObamaCare, at possible tax increases by future generations of lawmakers, and at the current system of teacher pay and job security.

The House, meanwhile, kicked off its session with an overhaul of the state’s unemployment compensation system.

This is the first of our weekly recaps (this one’s out a bit late) of what went down in the Capitol.

Turning back the clock on civil rights

Florida earned a place on the national stage as one of handful of states clinging to Jim Crow-era restrictions on voting rights for felons, as Florida’s cabinet voted unanimously to roll back changes put in place under Gov. Charlie Crist that allowed offenders to have their rights restored automatically after serving their sentences.

Adam Serwer wrote in a blog at The Washington Post:

Let’s be clear about who is affected by this. According to the Brennan Center, a quarter of those disenfranchised by such laws in Florida are black. Florida’s original felony disenfranchisement law was enacted during Reconstruction, as an effort to limit the political power of newly freed blacks.

Felony disenfranchisement laws serve no civic purpose — no one ever stopped themselves from committing a crime simply because they might lose the right to vote. The formerly incarcerated have served their time, the argument for punishing them post-release by denying them the right to vote is pure politics masquerading as tough-on-crime moral uprightness. Florida Republicans are moving to restrict the voting power of a Democratic constituency in a presidential swing state, nothing more, nothing less.

A spokeswoman for Bondi’s office emphasized that the decision changes made based on principle, not politics.

Bondi said that the waiting period should be seen as part of a normal sentence. People should have to earn their rights back and prove they are committed to living lives free of crime. As Gov. Rick Scott, who also supported the changes, said: “A permanent loss of civil rights is part of the debt owed to society,” adding that having them restored is a privilege that has to be earned.

“I believe that if you are convicted of a felony that there should be an appropriate waiting time before you have your rights restored, and I firmly believe that someone should have to ask to have their rights restored. That is a privilege,” Bondi said.

 

Bondi explains plans to delay restoration of civil rights for felons from Travis Pillow on Vimeo.

Bondi said she supported “de-coupling” legislation that would allow felons’ to obtain professional licenses and make it easier for them to find work, separating those rights from the right to vote, run for office, or serve on a jury.

Several Democratic lawmakers who spoke against the changes argued they were being pushed through too quickly, and had not been made public until after the cabinet meeting began. Comments from the public were limited to two minutes per speaker, and half an hour overall.

“Payola” for Rick Scott’s jobs chief?

The Senate’s budget panel on economic development discussed briefly plans to merge pieces of the Department of Community Affairs and the Agency for Workforce Innovation and other agencies under one “Commissioner of Jobs.”

Under the proposal, the new agency (Jobs Florida) would be tasked, among other things, to “Recruit new businesses to this state and promote the expansion of existing businesses by expediting permitting and location decisions, worker placement and training, and incentive awards.”

The jobs commissioner could also receive “privately-funded performance bonuses” from the state’s public-private economic development projects. According to the Palm Beach Post, Senators from both parties mentioned “differences of opinion” with some parts of the proposal, and one Democrat on the panel described the job czar’s compensation scheme as “payola.”

More stalling for rail projects

Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood put Florida’s high-speed rail money up for an open bid, opening the door to a scheme supported by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson that could allow local governments to revive the line between Tampa and Orlando.

House Democratic leader Ron Saunders praised Nelson’s efforts in a statement – after touting to a Tea Party crowd his vote against the project in 2009.

Scott also announced he would wait until after session to decide what to do about $235 million in contracts for Central Florida’s SunRail commuter train that he held up upon taking office. Would that give him leverage over lawmakers who supported the project? No, said House Speaker Dean Cannon. Not unless he had my children in in handcuffs, said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, who filed a court challenge against Scott’s effort to nix the high-speed rail line, said the governor displayed a lack of respect for the legislative process, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Although the Supreme Court decided last week it didn’t have the authority to order Scott to accept federal rail funds, Altman said someone would have to challenge Scott again because now he was threatening to ignore a specific spending direction of the Legislature.

“He’s clearly violating his executive authority and at some point that’s going to have be checked because he’s doing a lot of damage,” he said. “We have a democracy for a reason. That’s not the way he’s making decisions. He’s making them unilaterally and behind closed-doors.”

Drug database death watch

A House committee voted to eliminate a prescription drug database and place new restrictions on doctors dispensing medications, effectively rolling back the efforts of previous lawmakers to crack down on painkillers and other prescription pills. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical company donated $1 million to fund the effort, and lawmakers speculated about what Gov. Scott intended to do about the private-sector money for a project he opposed. According to the Palm Beach Post, Scott’s spokespeople say that’s up to the foundation set up to run the monitoring program, not the governor.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos has repeatedly thrown his support behind the database, and his spokesman said the house proposal is unlikely to pass the Senate.

Also:

+As the “son of Senate bill 6″ passed the Senate, and concerns were raised over what it will cost.

+A House panel cleared an immigration bill that might face constitutional issues. The Senate is set to take up its own version on Monday.

+The investor information service Moody’s released a report saying tax cuts could hurt the state’s finances. Scott brushed off those concerns, saying he was “very comfortable” with the impact his overall fiscal package would have.

+House Speaker Dean Cannon proposed a sweeping set of reform measures for the state’s judicial branch that, among other things, could split the state Supreme Court in two.

+A legislative budget analyst announced that proposed cuts to the medically needy program, which helps provide care for the catastrophically ill, won’t save the state much money.

+The glocks won what the News Service of Florida described as “Docs V. Glocks, Round 1.” Meanwhile, Sens. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, were among lawmakers who successfully threw their weight behind an amendment striking provisions of a different firearm bill that would have allowed guns on college campuses.

+The federal government started investigating Scott’s firing of one of the state’s health ombudsmen. began his tenure under Jeb Bush.

+Novelist Stephen King joined the thousands of progressive protesters who held rallies around the state on Tuesday, and said he might write a horror story about Rick Scott.

+Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, unveiled a measure backed by tea parties and environmentalists that would prevent taxpayer-backed Citizens property insurance from issuing new policies for beachfront homes vulnerable to hurricanes.

+A senate panel cleared a scaled-back version of a measure that would require public employees to contribute to their pensions.

+Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, filed a bill to legalize medical marijuana.

+Dockery continued her yearly tradition of filing an ethics bill, which builds on recommendations issued recently by a statewide grand jury to crack down on political corruption. Will it go anywhere this time?

+Bills that would have provided for golf courses in Florida state parks have been withdrawn in both the House and the Senate.

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