TALLAHASSEE — Promising long-term financial dividends and thousands of jobs, Gov. Rick Scott stood at the Port of Miami in early March and committed $77 million to a dredging project that he says will boost Florida’s role in international trade. Less than a week later, during the first week of the 2011 legislative session, House Republicans passed an unemployment compensation bill that would reduce the number of weeks recipients could receive state benefits and provide tax relief to Florida businesses. The Florida Senate followed that up with a tort reform bill that could make it easier for businesses to avoid large payouts in product liability cases.

It’s moves like these, combined with an overall pro-jobs mood, that have led some industry officials to call this the most business-friendly climate they’ve seen in Tallahassee in years. “I think it’s fair to say this is probably the most pro-jobs Legislature we’ve had in decades,” said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Conservative Republicans have veto-proof majorities in both chambers, and Scott, a former CEO who famously promised the state 700,000 jobs in seven years, is at the helm. House and Senate leaders have their cross-hairs set on scores of state regulations, permits, taxes, liability laws and other measures that promise to make life easier for Florida businesses. But critics argue that what’s good for business isn’t necessarily good for average Floridians.

The moves that Republican lawmakers want to make could lead to an anything-goes business climate where big corporations reap rewards at the expense of everyday Joes who get hit with higher costs and less help from the state, said Mark Ferrulo, executive director of the left-wing advocacy group Progress Florida. “They’ve really demonized government in all aspects of our lives,” Ferrulo said.

“Gov. Scott, Senate President (Mike) Haridopolos and Speaker (Dean) Cannon, they just want this sort of completely wild, wild west of business in Florida.”

There’s been little that dissenting voices can do. During floor debates, Democrats have routinely protested Republican legislation, only to watch the bills pass along largely party-line votes. “We’ve stuck it to the unemployed already, we’ve stuck it to teachers, we’re sticking it to public employees, women, and now we’re sticking it to the unions,” Democratic Rep. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth said during a recent House debate over ending automatic payroll deduction of union dues. “We’ve spent three weeks in session, and it seems like we spent that entire time going after the poor, the middle class, the working class.”

There is an obvious divide this year, but it’s not pitting businesses against the poor – it’s between the philosophy of Republicans and Democrats, said Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican who has sponsored several pro-business bills. “It all comes down to jobs,” Richter said. “The more jobs we create, the more paychecks get cut. The more paychecks that get cut, the more spending people can do. … If people start buying more, then businesses have to produce more, and if businesses have to produce more, then they have to hire more producers. “It all just turns into a big cycle.”

With the state’s unemployment rate hovering near 12 percent and more than 1 million residents out of work, most Florida lawmakers say job creation is job No. 1 during the ongoing session. Legislation that would provide increased protection for the property insurance industry, a huge growth management scale-back, and deregulation of the telecommunications industry are in the works.

Arguably the biggest deregulation plan, House Bill 5005, would delete state licensing requirements for auto mechanics, yacht brokers, hair braiders, talent agents, interior designers, movers, ballroom dance studios, and 13 other professions. Regulation of ballroom dance studios isn’t a bad thing, said Jonathan Burt, who along with his wife, Sybil, run Etudes de Ballet of Naples. If HB 5005 passes, the regulations of his studio won’t change much, Burt said. What will change, he said, are those that deal with prepaid dance lesson packages, particularly ballroom dancing.

Many clients and acquaintances have told nightmare stories through the years of fly-by-night ballroom dance studios that sell package deals only to take the money without finishing their end of the bargain, Burt said. “They would sell to little old ladies these packages and they would skip town only to do it again somewhere else,” he said. Current regulations require bonding for studios using prepay arrangements with their clients.

Overall, Burt said, it’s good for the consumer, but he acknowledges an argument can be made for deregulation as well. “There were a lot of gullible old ladies that got swept up,” he said. “However, there are not as many (bad) companies as there used to be and not as much demand.” Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said he’s generally a deregulation fan, but not when it can leave citizens vulnerable against potentially shady businesses. “Some of them, there’s a public safety, and public health need,” Negron said. “And I’m definitely against it for yacht brokers, because they hold large deposits.

There should be some regulation so if your money’s taken, there’s at least a remedy against the person.” Throughout the House and Senate, legislators also have called for an added halo of lawsuit protection for businesses, nursing homes, hospitals, foster homes and other entities. Businesses in Florida deal with the nation’s 42nd worst legal climate, according to 2010 U.S. Chamber rankings. “The fact is, by some standards … parts of Florida, especially Southeast Florida, are called a judicial hell hole, meaning you can get sued at the drop of a hat,” said Bob Sanchez, policy director for the conservative James Madison Institute in Tallahassee. “There are people with a little cottage industry that makes money suing businesses, even small businesses that can be ruined by one lawsuit. Even when you win you lose.”

Opponents of the tort reform and deregulation measures say that if passed, residents could pay higher property insurance and land-line phone rates. They may be less confident going to an auto repair shop or buying a boat, have a tougher time recovering legal damages against companies and nursing homes, and receive fewer unemployment benefits if they’re laid off. Sanchez said critics of the pro-business bills assume a zero-sum game, where anything that’s good for business is by definition bad for the “little guy.” “In reality, the ability of businesses to prosper, make a profit, enables them to hire more people to be self-sustaining, to have an opportunity to make a living rather than, say, being on the dole,” Sanchez said. Reinhold Schmieding, founder and president of Arthrex Inc., a Naples-based medical device manufacturer, said in an email that his company has gained confidence in investing and expanding its business and job-creation efforts in Florida based on the new legislative climate and Scott’s agenda. “In a globally competitive environment to retain and attract successful high-tech, high-wage, non-seasonal private enterprise, the Florida Legislature is moving in the right direction to create a fertile foundation to stimulate investment and growth for Florida business,” Schmieding said.

It’s not the role of government to create jobs, per se, but to create an environment where businesses can thrive, said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida, a business lobbying group. He expects the 2011 Legislature to match 2006, when lawmakers voted 94 percent of the time with his organization’s agenda – the high-water mark over the past decade. “You have to have a vibrant private sector because state employees don’t create revenue,” Bishop said.

Bishop, who describes himself as a “lifelong Democrat,” is critical of “liberal do-gooders” who in his view want middle-class Floridians to pay for other peoples’ benefits. Without a strong business economy, he said, there would be no safety net, and no money to pay teachers, firefighters or police officers. “So take your poison,” Bishop said. “Your poison is either you believe in the capitalist system that we’ve all been taught that’s only been operating for almost 300 years in this country, or you throw it all down the drain and go with Obama and we’re going to take care of all of our neighbors whatever it costs. “That is fantasy land, and I would suggest that anybody who believes in that ought to move to California, because that’s a state that believes in that.”

Staff writer Kelly Farrell contributed to this report.