Energy, insurance, budget laws effective Tuesday

Jun 30, 2008

The Tampa Tribune--June 30, 2008

Associated Press Writer

TALLAHASSSEE, Fla. (AP) — Power companies in Florida face limits on greenhouse gases and hurricane premiums charged by a state-backed insurer will be frozen for another year under dozens of new state laws going into effect Tuesday.

Other laws will cut state spending by about $4 billion, attempt to tamp down the frenzy over high-stakes testing in public schools and compensate people who are wrongly imprisoned.

Another new law will allow workers and customers to keep guns in their cars when parked in lots owned by private and government employers, but two business groups are challenging it in federal court.

At a hearing last week, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said the gun law is so badly written that it’s “stupid,” but he delayed ruling on a temporary injunction until mid-July.

The greenhouse gas provision is part of a new law that will put many of Gov. Charlie Crist’s energy and climate change policies into effect.

“This legislation protects our natural resources, stimulates our economy and reduces our dependence on foreign oil,” Crist said last week as he signed the law at a climate change summit.

It directs state regulators to set up a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Such gases are widely suspected of causing global warming. The state then could require utilities to pay for exceeding their limits. Utilities also could be required to rely more on wind, solar and other renewable power sources.

The law will create a commission to help set future energy policy and strengthen green building codes and efficiency standards for appliances. The approval process for nuclear power plants will be simplified.

It also directs the state to develop pollution limits for new vehicles sold in Florida.

The hurricane insurance law will extend an existing rate freeze for 1.2 million customers of Citizens Property Insurance Corp., Florida’s largest property insurer, through the end of 2009 instead of this year.

The law also gives state regulators more authority over rates charged by private companies and allows Citizens to insure homes valued up to $2 million, twice the previous limit.

The $66 billion state budget statute includes spending cuts for most segments of government, including public schools, because tax revenues are falling due to Florida’s ailing economy.

Another new law will try to boost the economy by requiring the state to invest up to 1.5 percent of its $137 billion employee pension plan in Florida high-tech industries such as aerospace, renewable energy technology and biosciences.

The budget includes a 6 percent tuition increase for community college and university students. More than 140 court-related fee increases also go into effect Tuesday. It’ll cost $45 more to get a divorce. Speeding tickets will increase by at least $17.50.

A far-ranging education law will reduce the importance of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in grading high schools by including other factors such as graduation rates and participation in advanced classes. Elementary and middle school, though, will continue to be graded solely on FCAT scores.

The same law will attempt to prevent “FCAT frenzy” by banning such activities as rallies and practice tests, with some exceptions, during regular school hours. It also will delay the exam, now given in February and March, by about a month to give students more time to study.

Third-graders must pass the FCAT reading exam to get promoted and high school students have to pass the reading and math sections to get a standard diploma. FCAT scores also are used to determine which schools are sanctioned and which get financial rewards – $85 per student this year instead of the usual $100 due to the austere budget.

Another provision directs state education officials to strengthen standards for reading, math and other subjects.

Other new education laws will:

– Establish uniform teacher ethics rules to replace widely differing local criteria. A provision that bans confidential agreements is designed to prevent teachers from hiding records of sexual or physical abuse to get jobs in other districts.

– Require 30 minutes of continuous exercise daily for elementary students and, starting in the fall of 2009, daily gym classes in middle school.

– Allow single-gender classes and schools.

People proven innocent after spending time in prison would automatically get $50,000 for every year of lost freedom under another new law. Those with prior felony convictions, though, are excluded and will have to seek compensation through the Legislature.

Other new crime-related laws will increase penalties for repeat child molesters and indoor marijuana growers and make a hallucinogenic herb called Salvia divinorum illegal.

An 11-year-old boy, Jack Davis of Coconut Grove, came up with the idea for a new law aimed at encouraging restaurants to donate leftover food to the needy. It would prohibit lawsuits against restaurants if someone gets sick from the food they donate to charities and nonprofit organizations.

State symbols are the focus of a couple other new laws.

One would replace racially offensive lyrics in Florida’s state song, Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” also known as “Way Down Upon the Suwanee River,” and designate “Florida – Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky” as the state’s official anthem.

Another will make the Florida cracker horse, also known as the “marshtackie,” the official state heritage horse and the loggerhead turtle Florida’s saltwater reptile.

All new motorcyclists will have to take a basic rider course under another law. Previously only riders under 21 were required to take the course.