What issues legislators will tackle before adjourning May 2
Mar 3, 2008
News-Press.com–March 3, 2008
news-press.com Tallahassee bureau
Money, as always, will dominate the session. In this election year there will be less to go around. Here are summaries of some of the issues lawmakers will tackle before adjourning May 2.
The Legislature agreed last year to a $15 billion rollback of local property taxes and then launched two contentious special sessions that eventually produced Amendment 1. At Gov. Charlie Crist’s urging, voters in January approved the plan, which will provide another $9.3 billion in relief over the next five years and give the average homeowner a $240 windfall.
Crist wants more cuts and House Speaker Marco Rubio wants a 1.35 percent flat tax plan that would slash $9 billion in the first year. But look only for incremental changes this session. Senate President Ken Pruitt is in no mood for more big cuts. House leaders are pushing changes left out of the Amendment 1 compromise, including a break for first-time homebuyers that could bolster Amendment 1’s chances of surviving a legal challenge, and another provision to help “working waterfronts,” or hotel and marina owners.
— Jim Ash
Florida’s colleges and universities look to solve financial straits this session or, their leaders say, there could be severe cuts, including faculty and fewer students being admitted.
The Board of Governors voted to recently raise full-time student tuition by 8 percent. The courts have yet to decide whether the Legislature or the board can make that call.
University administrators already cut their budgets in the fall in a $65 million reduction to the state’s 11 public colleges and universities.
Further cuts — diminished a bit from projections earlier in the year — await as lawmakers will take an ax to this year’s budget once again in the first weeks of session.
Gov. Charlie Crist is against raising tuition.
— Stephen D. Price
After passing changes to property insurance last year that vastly increased Floridians’ risk of having to pay off huge hurricane losses long into the future, there’s movement to step back a bit this year on the scary parts and press forward on common-sense elements. The House seeks to reduce the amount of cut-rate backup insurance the state-run Hurricane Catastrophic Fund offers to insurance companies, and therefore the amount of charges people possibly face to pay off debt for years to come.
Continuing to push home-strengthening programs will still be a focus as the long-term solution — there’s a proposal to start a zero-interest loan program to harden homes against hurricane winds. Lawmakers also are sure to make plenty of noise about the failure of insurance companies to respond with lower rates to the legislation passed in 2007. The governor, regulators and lawmakers are pushing various legal, regulatory and legislative responses to still high, still-rising rates.
— Paul Flemming
Florida’s conservation land-buying program expires in 2010, and there will be a push this year by Sen. Burt Sanders, R-Naples, who’s an environmental committee chairman, to renew it. Environmental groups want the $300 million annual spending increased now, but Saunders says there’s no money. He’s looking ahead to the expiration of Florida Forever bonds in 2013 to provide money under Florida’s debt ceiling. Also, Saunders has introduced a bill establishing a pilot program for limited springs protection. Environmentalists hope it will lead to greater protections for springs statewide, but developers are opposed. The governor’s budget request includes $200 million for South Florida environmental restoration, including $50 million for water storage projects and treatment marshes to protect the estuaries of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.
— Bruce Ritchie
Energy is a key issue after Gov. Charlie Crist last July signed executive orders addressing climate change. The Florida Energy Commission, created by the Legislature in 2006, issued 85 recommendations in December.
The governor directed utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and for the Public Service Commission to demand more renewable energy from investor-owned utilities. In his legislative package, Crist proposes creating rules for a program that could set limits on emissions but allow utilities to sell or trade credits for emissions reductions. Crist also proposes requiring at least 20 percent annual energy growth be achieved by utilities through efficiency and conservation.
The Florida Energy Commission directed regulators to review its cost-benefit test, which environmentalists say weighs against conservation and renewable energy. The Florida Chamber of Commerce says it wants to make it easier to build new nuclear power plants to provide power for future growth.
— Bruce Ritchie
A proposed constitutional amendment to require voters to approve local land-use changes may have stalled, but it will influence legislation. Florida Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham says the Florida Hometown Democracy proposal reflects dissatisfaction among some residents with state and local planning. He has proposed a “Citizens Planning Bill of Rights” that would limit votes on land-use changes to once yearly instead of twice. His proposal also seeks to restrict the numerous exemptions from state review lawmakers have approved over the years.
Pelham’s proposal has raised concerns among some builders and developers, but the Florida Home Builders Association says it hasn’t taken a position. DCA also proposes requiring local governments within the Lake Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River watersheds to adopt growth policies consistent with Everglades restoration. Homebuilders also want tighter restrictions on new development fees to pay for schools.
— Bruce Ritchie
At a time when lawmakers are looking at another $500 million in budget cuts for the current fiscal year and $2 billion for the next, Gov. Charlie Crist wants to help the 3.9 million Floridians who have no health insurance, especially the 548,000 children. He wants regulated insurance companies to cover the children of existing policyholders longer, up to age 30 and to dramatically expand KidCare, the program for blue collar Floridians who can’t qualify for Medicaid.
He would do that by lifting income caps and making all children in Florida eligible. Parents would still have to pay based on income and some doubt whether the coverage would be affordable.
Crist recently ordered a three-year, $63.9 million experiment to beef up county health departments and target low-income neighborhoods with mobile health vans. Crist also wants to eliminate “certificate of need” regulations that for 30 years have tied hospital and health facility expansion to market demand.
— Jim Ash
It could become a felony to smuggle a cellular phone to a Florida prison inmate, if the Department of Corrections has its way.
The agency’s agenda for the 2008 legislative session projects a growth from 98,000 to almost 104,000 in prison population, so Gov. Charlie Crist has put $343 million for prison construction in his budget. The Department of Corrections also has drawn up short-term plans for the current fiscal year, converting unused vocational classrooms at five prisons to house 900 prisoners and putting another 1,000 in 21-man tents at some institutions.
The cell-phone change is a security measure, adding all forms of portable communication devices to the existing ban on contraband within the secure perimeter of a prison.
— Bill Cotterell
The state’s judicial system will be seeking 19 new circuit judgeships and 42 more county judges in the 2008 legislative session.
But first, the courts have to work out $17 million in impending budget cuts for the current fiscal year. That will be brutal, with employees furloughed for three to 10 weeks in some areas and trials postponed.
“I am pleading for the life of a branch of government,” Chief Justice Fred Lewis recently told a Senate budget committee.
Because of the state’s revenue shortfall, all agencies have been told to trim 4 percent from this year’s spending — before state lawmakers even get to pared-down planning for the fiscal year starting July 1.
“If the money is not there, we can’t spend it,” said Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who chairs the Senate justice-appropriations committee.
— Bill Cotterell
The exonerated and wrongfully incarcerated could have an easier path to receiving compensation from the state but they better have a clean past.
A bill (SB 756) proposed by State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, would give the exonerated $100,000 for each year he or she was wrongfully incarcerated. That person would be able to apply for the money directly with the Florida Chief Financial Officer. But one caveat to the bill says no compensation will be paid if he or she has been designated as a violent offender.
— Stephen D. Price