EDITORIAL: Legislature 2008

May 6, 2008

South Florida Sun-Sentinel–May 6, 2008

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board

The biggest impact from the session just ended, undoubtedly, will come from nearly $7 billion in budget cutting. The ax fell hard, owing to a prolonged slump in the state’s depressed housing market.

Still, the session had its successes, most notably the creation of new health insurance programs and changes in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, lawmakers chose not to soften the hurt with two fair, justifiable revenue-generating proposals, joining other states in a compact to collect revenue from Internet sales and by raising taxes on cigarettes.

The other sore spot for residents is that lawmakers didn’t make deep changes in property insurance. Premiums aren’t likely to drop and, unfortunately, neither is the risk of having to pay for any major damages from future hurricanes.

Here’s our annual assessment of the work of the Florida Legislature. If there’s any consolation that can be drawn from a session that saw record spending cuts, ideological bickering and efforts to outlaw “Truck Nutz,” it’s this: It could have been much worse.

Autism — This measure requires insurance coverage for behavioral treatment therapy for autistic children. Backed by NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, it fills a hole in coverage.

Claims Bills — In an almost lottery-like process to determine which case most deserves to receive compensation from the state, little Marissa Amora won out. A one-time foster child who was abused at the age of 2 and suffered irreversible brain damage while in the state’s care, she received an $18.2 million settlement. The money will be spent on her care under a judge’s supervision.

Condo and HOA associations — Maybe, just maybe, governance in condo and homeowners associations will get a little bit more neighborly. Lawmakers passed a slate of best-practice-type regulations after years of debating.

Economic Investment — Billed as a boost for the state economy, SB 2310 allows the state pension fund to invest up to 1 percent of its assets in private companies in high-growth industries to bolster Florida’s technology sector. State Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Parkland, sponsored the bill and its upside is promising.

FCAT — Lawmakers passed the first overhaul of the statewide assessment test, which will still serve as an accountability tool, as it should. The measure broadens the gauges used to assign school grades, including graduation rates. The test will also be given later in the school year, giving educators more time to prepare students.

Health Insurance — The Legislature approved a plan that would permit insurers to offer uninsured Floridians no-frills coverage. It’s a political win for Gov. Charlie Crist, but a big policy victory for Floridians. The plan provides some health screenings, doctor visits and office surgeries. It’s not complete coverage, but providing uninsured people with this much is better than nothing.

State Troopers — This group of state employees received a 5 percent pay raise, a long overdue bit of compensation for one of the lowest paid law enforcement agencies in Florida. The lawmakers passed over other employees, though, but managed to give themselves a 5 percent pay cut.

Corporate Vouchers — The Legislature decided to expand the minimum tax credit for firms that pay for school vouchers. However, the better argument, and public policy, would be to better fund Florida’s already existing public schools, something lawmakers decided not to do this time.

Guns — Anyone with a concealed weapons permit can bring firearms to work as long as they leave them locked in their parked cars. This may be an improvement over the original push from years ago, but this bill should have been shot down as an infringement on employers’ private property rights.

Health Care Reimbursements — The upcoming budget will hurt doctors, medical providers and other vendors who rely on hospital, Medicaid, nursing home and other government health care reimbursement plans. They’ve been cut to save approximately $23 billion, which remains a poor prescription for health care.

Homeowners Insurance — Ignoring the advice of Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the Legislature failed to limit the state’s exposure to catastrophic damages from future hurricanes. It also froze the rates Citizens Property Insurance Corp. charges its clients through Jan. 2010. This inaction by state leaders leaves Floridians with one option — pray for a storm-free season, or else.

Wrongly Convicted — A good bill in need of a major fix. The measure sets a means to compensate individuals who were wrongly sent to prison. The compensation, though, is limited to first-time felons, a notion that is so outrageous and unfair that it will most likely be challenged in court.

Budget and Tax Reform — Tallahassee didn’t offer much reform in this important area from either the state Budget and Tax Reform Commission or the Florida Legislature. The commission gave voters the chance to vote on several outlandish ballot questions, including two that would overturn Florida Supreme Court rulings barring the use of taxpayer dollars for school vouchers and religious organizations. State lawmakers simply shot down any revenue-generating ideas as backdoor tax increases. No real reform here.

Tri-Rail — All the commuter rail line wanted was a new source of state revenue to keep the trains running. It didn’t happen, and if either the state Department of Transportation or the three county commissions cut funding, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority will be forced to cut its current level of service, drastically, just when it’s needed most.