Miami Herald: Miami-Dade lawmakers ready to protect interests at legislative session

Mar 2, 2010

The Miami Herald published this article on March 2, 2010.

With political ambitions high and state funds low, the Miami-Dade delegation is preparing to fight to protect what’s theirs.


Heading into a legislative session where lawmakers will be scraping for every last political crumb as they eye higher office, Miami-Dade’s senators and representatives are trying to leave the usual infighting behind to preserve Miami-Dade’s public institutions.

“Last year, we probably had some of the toughest times, but it was what I thought was our best year,” said Rep. Juan C. Zapata, a Republican, who heads the county delegation. “This year, I think we’ll have to do the same and protect and provide flexibility to our schools and our hospitals.”

The 18 representatives and seven senators in the Miami-Dade delegation are working within the confines of a financially strapped budget with a $3.2 billion shortfall. Although the deficit is smaller than it was in 2009, it still presents a challenge to lawmakers. Significant cuts must be made.

“We are all geared toward finding cost savings,” said Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican, who heads the state’s budget committee. “Everything is on the table.”

The cuts will come during tense political times. With many legislators seeking new spots, Zapata said the delegation will be fighting for successes they can tout to their communities as a way to boost political résumés before voters head to the ballot boxes.

Rep. Luis Garcia, a Democrat, noted the delegation’s biggest strength: experience. Members lead several committees, including the general budget, the K-12 budget and the rules committee.

They’ll need the delegation’s support to push agendas through a statehouse that is more conservative than their home turf.

“Two years ago, there was a lot of division,” Garcia said. “But after you spend a couple years working together, people make friends.”

In fact, nine of the delegation’s 25 members have been in state politics so long that they must vacate their seat next year because of term limits.

Last year, one of the delegation’s biggest victories was protecting funding for Jackson Memorial Hospital as well as netting $11 million for Florida International University’s new medical school.

In the past year, the situation at Jackson has become more dire. In February, the Jackson Health System announced it was laying off 900 employees in the wake of a $200 million-plus deficit. The hospital’s poor economic health indicates that it needs more efficient budgeting, Zapata said.

But he added that more funding for the hospital is necessary, as is finding money for other local hospitals that can take more patients and help ease the strain on Jackson.

Other county initiatives for which the delegation will try to maintain funding include the Port of Miami tunnel project, the Tri-Rail system and building a viaduct from the Palmetto Expressway to the west end of Miami International Airport.

The fight for state dollars will come during a time when political ambitions are high and cash flow is limited.

All four Cabinet seats are open, and Republican Gov. Charlie Crist is in a fierce primary battle with former House Speaker Marco Rubio for a U.S. Senate seat.

Locally, the delegation has its own share of duels.

Rivera, of the budget committee, and Rep. Anitere Flores, head of the educational appropriations committee, have filed to run for state senate.

Flores and Rivera, who must leave office at the end of the year because of term limits, have similar proposals for the session. Both are advocating a tax-free holiday during back-to-school season and legislation to ensure that homeowner’s property tax bills are lowered if their property value goes down.

Their battle will be to replace Sen. Alex Villalobos and offers an example of what’s at stake for legislators’ political futures. Villalobos, a former senate majority leader, is refusing to endorse candidates unless they come out in support of the constitutional mandate on reducing class sizes.

“That is the reason I have not endorsed a candidate yet,” Villalobos said. “And maybe some of the guys looking to go from the House to the Senate will grow some fortitude and start fighting for their community.”

Sen. Frederica Wilson, noting that political candidacy might affect the session, added: “If you haven’t done anything before, you’re going to try to do something now. . . . I expect people to be tenacious this year.”

Wilson is vying to replace Congressman Kendrick Meek, who is running for U.S. Senate. Rep. Yolly Roberson, who is facing term limits, also seeks that seat.

Wilson plans on pushing a bill that would allow Florida high school graduates to be eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of their immigrant status. She said the bill would be especially helpful for Haitian teenagers in post-quake Haiti.

Roberson said she will focus this year on maintaining funding for elderly and health services.

Given the budget shortfall, Roberson and other delegates noted they are seeking consumer-oriented bills with low or no cost.

Such bills include heightening penalties for horse slaughter and selling horse meat, a ban on displaying nooses in public places and bills banning texting while driving.