ORLANDO, Fla. — The end of the space shuttle program after more than three decades of flights to low-earth orbit launched past Gov. Rick Scott's shakeup of state government and the Casey Anthony murder trial as Florida's top story of 2011, according to a poll of newspaper editors conducted by The Associated Press.
Atlantis' rolling stop on a Kennedy Space Center runway in July marked the end of the 30-year-old space shuttle program. It was a moment of celebration and apprehension for NASA's thousands of workers and contractors, many of whom lost jobs with the last shuttle flight. The mission itself was pro forma: Atlantis' four astronauts restocked the international space station with a year's worth of supplies and released a satellite.
But on the ground, the end of the mission ushered in an era of unprecedented uncertainty for Florida's Space Coast, the site of every shuttle launch, as well as for the nation's space agenda. U.S. astronauts must now depend on Russian Soyuz vehicles for rides to the space station in the near future, and NASA is outsourcing the logistics of sending supplies and astronauts to the space station to private companies. The three remaining active shuttles are being shipped to museums in Florida, Los Angeles and Washington. Thousands of skilled space workers are now looking for jobs in a state with a 10 percent unemployment rate.
Florida's governor played a role in half the stories chosen for the top 10.
The Florida newspaper editors voted Scott's taking over the governor's office, and his subsequent efforts to shake up state government with a pro-business agenda, as the year's No. 2 story. After becoming governor in January, Scott successfully pushed for the elimination of several state agencies dealing with growth management, labor, trade and economic development and cobbled them together into the Department of Economic Opportunity. Environmentalists and planning advocates criticized the dismantling of the growth management agency, saying it will open the door to sprawl and pollution.
These news items rounded out the top 10 stories of the year:
3. The trial and acquittal of Casey Anthony on charges of murdering her 2-year-old daughter captured the attention of the nation during the summer. National television shows provided hourly updates and round-the-clock commentary on the criminal proceedings, and Orlando's local television stations broadcast the trial live gavel-to-gavel. Even after she was released from jail and her legal saga appeared to be over, she was ordered to return to Florida to serve out a year of probation at an undisclosed location for an unrelated check fraud charge.
4. Shortly after he became governor in January, Scott pushed to shut down the main pension plan to new state employees, and he wanted public employees to contribute five percent of their salary to help cover pension costs. Legislators instead settled for a three percent contribution rate that public employee unions are now challenging in the courts.
5. After a disastrous tourism season following the Gulf oil spill in 2010, tourism along Florida's Gulf Coast rebounded to record levels. Local tourism boards were aided by millions of dollars in BP money that allowed them to try promotions they had never done before. In some Panhandle counties, visitor counts were up by 20 percent.
6. Even though Florida is regarded as "ground zero" for the nation's prescription drug problem, Scott had his doubts about a state prescription drug tracking system aimed at closing down "pill mills" that sell painkillers and other medications to drug dealers and addicts. He took office wanting the drug database scrapped, but he later relented after facing opposition from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and some state lawmakers. The system started operating in September.
7. The beating death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion after a November football game revealed a culture of hazing at the Tallahassee-based school and created a public awareness of hazing rituals at schools around the nation. In the wake of Champion's death, FAMU President James Ammons repelled two attempts to put him on administrative leave. Band director Julian White was fired by Ammons but then placed on administrative leave, and four students were dismissed by the university but then allowed to return to classes, pending the investigations.
8. Scott signed into law a merit pay requirement for new teachers. Once the law goes into effect in 2014, new teachers will be given one of four performance ratings, half of which will be based on student growth on tests. The ratings will be used in determining pay. The law also got rid of teacher seniority during layoffs. The statewide teachers union has filed a lawsuit claiming the law is unconstitutional because it changed the way teachers are paid and evaluated without going through collective bargaining.
9. Scott signed into law an election bill that reduces the number of early voting days, slaps new requirements on groups conducting voter registration drives, requires voters changing out-of-county addresses at the polls to cast provisional ballots and makes it more difficult to get citizen initiatives on the ballot. GOP lawmakers who sponsored the bill said the changes will prevent voting fraud, but opponents say it will suppress turnout of minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic. The new law is facing a challenge by groups that conduct voter-registration drives and also is under review by a federal three-judge panel in Washington.
10. A federal judge in Pensacola ruled that President Obama's massive health care overhaul was unconstitutional, saying the federal government had overstepped its authority to regulate interstate commerce by requiring all Americans to carry health insurance. Three other federal judges have upheld the law and a fourth has ruled against it, leaving it up to the U.S. Supreme Court to determine its constitutionality.