Legislature 2008 scorecard

May 5, 2008

South Florida Sun-Sentinel--May 3, 2008

Tallahassee Bureau

On Friday, Florida’s annual 60-day lawmaking session ended with legislators approving a $66.2 billion state budget and a law that would provide more affordable health care for autistic children, as well as the declaration of an official equine and saltwater reptile. Among the actions taken by the House and Senate:

CHILD OBESITY: Legislators took a swipe at the growing obesity problem, approving a bill to require 30 minutes a day of physical education in elementary schools and 45 minutes per day for at least half the year in middle school.

IMMIGRATION: About a dozen bills targeting illegal immigrants were filed this year, but the uptick in proposals did not translate into new laws. Proposals that didn’t pass by Friday’s end of session included bills that would have required public employers and contractors to check employees’ immigration status and local police to notify federal authorities when they detain illegal immigrants.

EVOLUTION: A hotly debated evolution bills that critics said would inject religious doctrine into public schools in the guise of science died a quiet death Friday. House and Senate supporters, mostly Republicans, were unable to resolve their dispute over two versions. The Senate favored a bill that would have prohibited school officials from punishing teachers who used "scientific information" to challenge evolution. A House bill would have gone further, not just allowing such challenges but requiring that schools teach "critical analysis" of evolution.

HUMAN SMUGGLING: A bill that would have made it a state crime to knowingly bring someone into the state illegally did not pass. It would have allowed local law enforcement to detain suspected human smugglers coming across the Florida Straits. Right now, only federal agents can do that.

STATE ANIMALS: As the session’s final minutes ticked away, legislators found time to declare the cracker horse Florida’s official equine and name the loggerhead turtle as the state saltwater reptile.

ANTI-COUNTERFEITING: Legislators approved a law targeting those who manufacture, distribute or possess counterfeit goods with the intent to sell them. The bill would also provide enhanced penalties for those who counterfeit goods which cause bodily injury or serious bodily injury.

AUTISM: Families of children with autism would have treatments of up to $36,000 a year covered under private insurance policies, under a last-minute deal struck by legislators. The House had wanted to expand the coverage to all developmental disabilities, but accepted the autism-only mandate in the last minutes of the session. The autism mandate sets in April 1.

HEALTH CARE: Lawmakers on Friday handed Gov. Charlie Crist a victory on his top election year priority, approving a health insurance package to extend no-frills coverage to the state’s 3.8 million uninsured. Health insurance companies will offer policies for as little as $150 a month, in exchange for an exemption from the 50-plus mandates in current law. That plan sets aside $1.5 million to establish a corporation that will negotiate rates and handle premiums and claims for companies with fewer than 50 employees.

FCAT: The Legislature on Friday approved the first major education revamp for public schools in nearly a decade. The package of bills sent to the governor changes the standards that students must meet in each grade and pushes the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test later in the school year.

BAGGY PANTS: The Senate wanted to outlaw sagging pants in public schools, but the House opted instead late Thursday to let school boards set up committees to implement school dress codes.

EXPEDIA TAX: Democratic legislators in the Republican-controlled House blocked a measure that would have protected online travel companies such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz from having to pay higher taxes. The dispute revolves around whether online travel companies that sell hotel rooms should pay taxes on the rate they negotiate with hotels or the higher rate they charge consumers. The online companies only pay on the lower rate, arguing that the marked-up price reflects the cost of a service that should not be taxed. But a host of counties have sued, saying the companies are supposed to be paying taxes on the price consumers pay.

COMMUTER RAIL: Confronting the frantic end of the 60-day lawmaking session, Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, conceded there was slim chance he could nudge his chamber to pass the legal protections for CSX Corp. that the state needs before it can buy 61 miles of rail line for Central Florida’s commuter rail deal. Without the state no-fault liability insurance protections, rail backers have argued they would be sending a signal to Washington not to appropriate federal money for the project thereby and scuttling the sale.

STATE SONG: The House approved a compromise adopted by the Senate last week to keep Swanee River as the state’s official song but with rewritten lyrics that are not racially offensive. The bill, which now goes to the governor, also designates Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky, written by Broward music teacher Jan Hinton, as the state’s official anthem.