April 7 - Florida lawmakers have crossed the mid-point in their 60-day march to craft new laws, amend existing ones and agree on a roughly $75 billion budget for the next fiscal year.
And they’ve done so mostly without controversy.
A day at the Capitol was blown out to honor the Florida State University football team for winning the national championship, and another day was seemingly devoted to lawmakers taking “selfies” with retired British soccer star David Beckham, who wants to build a soccer stadium in Miami.
With the two chambers working in tandem on most issues, Gov. Rick Scott was able to sign a series of bills into law this week. They included a bill, dubbed the “Florida GI Bill,” aimed at making the state more military friendly; a package of bills aimed at keeping sexually violent predators locked up; and a bill that will roll back motor-vehicle registration fees.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the 1,826 bills, resolutions and memorials filed by members and committees as of Friday morning had already died with barely a murmur.
Here’s a look at where a dozen major issues stand as lawmakers head toward the homestretch of the 2014 session::
The House on Thursday approved a $75.3 billion spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1. The Senate countered a few hours later by approving a $74.9 billion proposal. Both exceed the $74.2 billion budget proposed by Scott. Leaders in both chambers said they should be able reach agreements on allocations — overall spending caps for broad areas of the budget — in the coming days and start scheduling meetings to hammer out the final budget. Both chambers are touting increases in spending on education and programs such as the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Also, both chambers have built in election-year tax and fee cuts.
In response to media reports about a series of child deaths last year, lawmakers have crafted a sprawling proposal that attempts to address a number of areas in the child-welfare system, from upgrading the education of child protective investigators to keeping siblings together when possible to expanding the transparency of state and privatized agencies. The House and Senate bills aren’t far apart, but senators are still working on several provisions. The heart of the matter is funding, though, and the final numbers are still in flux. Scott called for nearly $40 million to hire 400 new child protective investigators. But privatized community-based care agencies say they’ll need an additional $25.4 million to hire case managers and provide services to meet the needs generated by more investigators.
The Republican-dominated Legislature has handed Scott what some see as a dilemma and others see as an election-year gift — a measure that would allow illegal immigrants to pay cheaper, in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities if they meet certain requirements. The House has already approved the proposal, a top priority of Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. The bill also includes a sweetener for Scott: a reduction of the “tuition differential” that allows universities to hike tuition by up to 15 percent annually without legislative approval. The Senate version of the bill has started moving through committees. Scott wants to eliminate the tuition differential, but he has remained mum about granting in-state tuition to undocumented students. Many view the proposal dealing with young, undocumented “Dreamers,” named after the congressional “Dream Act,” as a way for Scott to extend an olive branch to Hispanic voters. But Scott also faces a backlash from some conservative voters, who supported him in 2010 when he backed an Arizona-style immigration law.
After months of discussion, lawmakers won’t move forward with an expansion of gambling, such as proposals to allow resort casinos in South Florida. That will remain the case until Scott completes negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida about a portion of a 20-year gambling deal that will expire in mid-2015. Scott has given no indication how far the talks have progressed.
The power of the National Rifle Association has once again been on display inside the Florida Capitol. Both chambers have passed what is known as the “warning shot” bill, which would allow people to show guns and fire warning shots if they feel threatened. The measure is ready to go to Scott. The House, meanwhile, has passed the so-called “Pop-Tart bill,” which would prevent children from being disciplined for simulating guns while playing or wearing clothes that depict firearms. The Senate version is scheduled to go to its final committee Tuesday. Among other measures, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that seeks to prevent insurers from discriminating against customers because of gun ownership. Also, the House is ready to take up a bill that would allow people without concealed weapons licenses to pocket their guns during emergencies. And a proposal that would allow district school superintendents and school principals to designate one or more individuals to carry a concealed weapon or firearm on school property is one stop away from reaching the House floor.
Many of the major-health care issues pit different parts of the industry against each other. For example, hospitals are in a lobbying fight about bills dealing with the approval of new trauma centers. Lawmakers have waded into the issue after nearly three years of litigation that focuses on trauma centers the Department of Health approved at Blake Medical Center in Manatee County, Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Pasco County and Ocala Regional Medical Center in Marion County. Also unresolved are closely watched issues about granting more powers to advanced registered nurse practitioners and expanding the use of telemedicine in Florida. Supporters say those proposals could help expand access to care, but physician groups oppose more authority for nurse practitioners and also are worried about out-of-state doctors using telemedicine to provide treatment to Floridians.
GOP leaders in both chambers are backing proposals that would make available a strain of cannabis that is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component in marijuana, but high in the derivative cannabidiol, or CBD. The effort is being pushed by parents of children who suffer from a rare form of epilepsy who say the substance dramatically reduces life-threatening seizures. It also comes as a proposed constitutional amendment will go before voters in the fall that would legalize medical marijuana in the state. Details of the House and Senate bills differ about how to address the low-THC, high-CBD strain of marijuana. House sponsor Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, is trying to work a deal out with the Senate, while House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he will hear the bill but has not determined when.
The House has spent much of the first half of the session pushing for more school choice, from a sweeping expansion of a voucher program to a measure meant to help charter schools get started and expand. But the Senate so far has proved to be an obstacle. The upper chamber pulled its version of the voucher expansion less than a month into the session. The House responded by tacking the language onto a bill that would help parents pay for the services of children with disabilities, but the Senate seems to be resisting that. And the charter school bill was essentially gutted by a Senate committee at its most recent stop. Lawmakers are expected to approve a bill streamlining the state’s school-grading system and suspending penalties for bad grades for a year. While some education groups have pushed for a longer transition period after a new test is introduced in the 2014-15 school year, Republican members in particular haven’t shown any willingness to extend it.
Legislative leaders made clear before the session that one of their top priorities was to toughen laws dealing with sexually violent predators. They moved quickly to approve a package of bills, which Scott signed into law this week. The emphasis on the issue came after an investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentinel found that hundreds of sexual predators had been released only to be convicted of new sex offenses. Lawmakers also pointed to specific incidents such as the kidnapping, rape and murder last year of an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl. The bills make numerous changes to the state’s criminal and civil-commitment laws, such as requiring mandatory minimum sentences of 50 years in prison for what are known as dangerous sexual felony offenders.
Lawmakers and Scott have already signed off on a bill repealing a 2009 increase in vehicle-registration fees. That move, which eventually will save motorists about $400 million a year, will be campaign fodder this year for Scott. At least another $100 million in savings for consumers and businesses are on the way, including a number of sales tax-free shopping periods. It remains to be seen how the House and Senate will work out the final details. Chances are good there will be sales-tax holidays for back-to-school shopping in August and for buying hurricane preparedness gear in June. There may even be one in September for energy-efficient appliances. The House has approved a package that also includes issues such as an increase in the corporate income-tax exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.
Senate Transportation Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, drew widespread attention when they called for repealing the state’s red-light camera law. But that idea appears dead, though lawmakers could put some more restrictions on local governments that use the cameras. Meanwhile, a measure that could raise speed limits by 5 mph on Florida roads has raced to the Senate floor, but the House companion has been idling for a month, waiting to get agenda time in its final committee.
The big money so far is headed to South Florida, where Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has advanced nearly $160 million in projects intended to reduce polluted runoff from Lake Okeechobee and to clean the Florida Everglades. The House is offering less than $130 million, but Negron said he will fight to secure the higher amount to improve the health of the Indian River Lagoon. And while a group of senators continues to pursue new policies and a massive boost in funding for the state’s natural springs, the aspirations may have to wait for another year or two, when Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, become the leaders of their respective chambers. Both have declared water policy issues as a priority for the 2015 and 2016 sessions.