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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Dec. 28, 201112:00 PM EST

The 11 most important stories of 2011

by: David Royse

We take a look back at the year with the stories we think were the most important in terms of their impact, and how much attention they received from those who closely watch Florida state government and politics.

11. Taj Mahal costs Hawkes job.

The new First District Court of Appeal building was so nice that controversy erupted over how it was built at a time when the down economy meant other courts were trying to figure out how to fix leaky pipes and whether they’d be able even to stay open amid budget shortfalls. This story started before 2011, but the ramifications played out this year. Eventually, questions about the courthouse led to a judicial qualifications case for the chief judge, Paul Hawkes, who late this year announced he was stepping down.

10. The national infatuation with Marco Rubio.

In Tallahassee, Marco Rubio is a known quantity, having been there as a young speaker of the House and as a rising star in the Legislature even before that. But if the novelty of a Hispanic, super-telegenic, super-articulate conservative has worn off in Florida, he’s still a hot commodity nationally. Few discussions of possible GOP vice presidential aspirations have failed to include Rubio, who also has been mentioned as presidential material.

9. Primary debate.

One of the first big news stories of 2012 will be the Jan. 31 presidential primary. One of the most closely watched stories of 2011 was the decision to hold it then. Florida moved up its primary to make sure its Republican voters get a say in the GOP primary before all the candidates are swept away by early results. It will cost Florida delegates at next year’s GOP convention, but Florida will play an early role in deciding the GOP nominee.

8. Gambling? You betcha.

The debate heated up over helping Florida overcome its economic woes by opening it up to more gambling. Lawmakers began discussing “destination resorts” in the spring, and while the idea didn’t immediately gain a lot of traction, it soon caught a hot streak. This fall, it has been, after the budget, the most discussed item at the Capitol.

7. Putting brakes on high-speed rail.

Something that didn’t happen was one of the biggest stories of the year. Gov. Rick Scott canceled the state’s plans to create a high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando and eventually Miami. The federal government had offered a money train full of cash to build it, but Scott said he thought the train would be a boondoggle and the state would eventually be on the hook to pay for it. It was an interesting, and bold, move during Scott’s first year because he bucked the business community establishment — a key Republican constituency — in making the call. He even was sued by a member of the Legislature in his own party. But he was in line with another big player of 2011, the so-called tea party movement, which was against the train.

6. Major health care changes in store.

In terms of long-term reach, the state’s effort to overhaul how it provides health care to the poor would be one of the biggest stories of a decade. But we don’t know what the health care system will look like in 2014 because of another big Florida health care story — the state’s challenge of the federal health care law, derisively called Obamacare — which is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s hard to say what the long-term impact of Florida’s Medicaid changes will be.

5. Massive budget cuts.

No tourists spending money and no people buying houses add up to no tax dollars to put into government programs. While tied to the larger story of the national and statewide economic downturn, the extent of the cuts, and the impact, while hard to gauge just yet, is a story unto itself. The budget is now several billion dollars smaller than just a couple years ago, and those cuts will have long-lasting effects. Schools have less money, health care programs have less money, lawmakers have looked to privatize prisons, juvenile justice facilities have been closed and state workers have been laid off.

4. Merit pay for teachers.

Scott signed into law a merit pay bill that will fundamentally change how public schools evaluate and compensate teachers. For years, teachers have been paid largely based on tenure — how long they’ve been in the system. Now, they’ll be paid based on how well their students perform on certain benchmarks. It’s a monumental shift and one that was entirely possible because of Scott’s win in the governor’s race. The same bill passed a year earlier, but was vetoed by previous Gov. Charlie Crist.

3. Divided government.

Scott is a lawyer and he’s been in some courtrooms. But it’s not clear how much he expected that the judicial branch of government would keep checking his work. Nearly every major item on his agenda — from a freeze on state rulemaking, to requirements for drug testing state employees and welfare recipients, to privatizing much of the prison system, to requiring state workers to contribute to their pensions, to changing how teachers are paid — has been challenged in court. Most of those cases are still in the courts, but Scott has lost in preliminary rounds on several of them. Scott has called it frustrating, saying some judges are making law instead of interpreting it.

2. It’s the economy.

By now, lawmakers had hoped to be well on the upswing of the graph that measures the health of the economy. While there have been promising signs, overall, the slump continues, now passing three years since it began. Housing starts are still slow, and though home sales have picked up, the reason is prices are still well below 2008 levels. The jobless rate, consequently, remains high, with 10 percent out of work, and many more underemployed. Economists say we’ve seen the worst and while things will come back slowly, they’ll come back some next year.

1. Rick Scott, you spent $73 million to get here. Welcome to a tough job.

Scott takes office, a new governor coming into one of the worst economic downturns in a century. He comes in with a plan to start the state moving again, but isn’t particularly successful right away and isn’t very warmly received. He comes in promising jobs, jobs, jobs, and while unemployment does drop about 2 full percentage points in his first year — among the biggest drops in the nation over the year — it remains stubbornly above 10 percent right up until December, and never drops below 10 percent.

He announces a number of companies moving jobs to the state, or expanding, but most of them are pretty underwhelming in their numbers. A couple of chain restaurants opening new outlets announce they’re hiring more wait staff, with no help from the state, than some of the companies touted by the state and receiving government incentives to create jobs.

Scott can’t persuade lawmakers to agree with all the tax cuts he wants, and he can’t get them to pass an immigration bill he campaigned on. He feuds with the media over access issues at first, and his approval ratings plummet into the 30s. Scott is undaunted, trumpeting the success in creating jobs.

“This was a state that was losing jobs for four straight years and this year we’ve generated 134,800 private sector jobs,” Scott said. “So we’re heading in the right direction.”

Happy holiday season. The News Service also will look ahead to what are likely to be the big stories of 2012.

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