Legislatures heading to Tallahassee
BY JIM SAUNDERS
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Florida lawmakers will return to the Capitol next week for an election-year legislative session.
Expect the 60-day session to start amicably enough, with the House and Senate poised to quickly pass bills about water policy and boosting opportunities for people with disabilities – priorities of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
But as always, the true legislative sausage-making will happen near the end of the 60-day session as lawmakers race to pass bills, tack on amendments and negotiate a budget.
Here are 10 issues to watch during the session, which starts Jan. 12 and is scheduled to end March 11:
•Budget – Lawmakers will enter the session with a surplus as they prepare to negotiate a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a $79.3 billion spending plan as a starting point. Among other things, Scott wants to set a record for per-student funding in public schools, boost economic-development incentives and cut taxes. But a key question could focus on the size of the surplus. State economists have predicted a $635.4 million surplus, while Scott’s administration contends the number could be as high as $1.6 billion. The resolution of that issue could help determine how much money is available for education, health care, economic-development incentives and tax cuts.
•Economic development – Scott, who has made job creation the hallmark of his administration, clashed last year with the Senate about providing economic incentives to try to attract businesses to Florida. Scott has kept up the pressure, requesting that lawmakers set aside $250 million for incentives and make changes in the incentives process. Senate leaders, however, have questioned the need to plow such a large amount of money into incentives and whether incentives programs have been effective.
•Education – Continuing to face pressure from educators and parents, the Legislature could again grapple with making changes to Florida’s high-stakes testing system. As an example, Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has raised the idea of allowing schools to use tests other than the state’s Florida Standards Assessments. Another closely watched issue could be whether lawmakers decide to continue a controversial program that offers bonuses to teachers based on their ACT or SAT college-admission test scores.
•Gambling – Lobbyists likely will swarm as the Legislature debates whether to make potentially far-reaching changes in the gambling industry. Much of the debate has been prompted by a proposed $3 billion agreement that Scott reached last month with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. In exchange for payments to the state, the tribe would be able to offer craps and roulette at its casinos. But the deal also opened the door to a series of other issues, ranging from allowing slot machines at a greyhound track in Palm Beach County and at a new facility in Miami-Dade County to allowing dog and horse tracks to stop running live races.
•Guns – In the months leading up to the session, gun bills have drawn perhaps the most public attention. Lawmakers are considering a controversial proposal that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on college and university campuses. Second Amendment groups are supporting the proposal, while university-system leaders have opposed it. In a separate proposal, lawmakers are debating whether to allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry firearms.
•Health care – After the 2015 session was dominated by battles about health-care issues, lawmakers will go into this year’s session still dealing with major budget and policy decisions. Part of the focus again will be on the Low Income Pool, or LIP, program, which helps hospitals care for poor and uninsured patients. Federal officials have said the program will receive $608 million during the upcoming year, down from $1 billion this year. Meanwhile, House leaders are pushing a series of proposals aimed at reducing regulations in the health-care industry. One of the most-contentious would eliminate what is known as the “certificate of need” approval process for new or expanded hospitals.
•Justice system – With critics arguing that Florida charges too many juvenile offenders as adults, the House and Senate are looking at possibly limiting the ability of prosecutors to make such decisions. Lawmakers are debating how much discretion prosecutors should have in using a practice known as “direct file.” Among other issues involving the courts, some House members are backing the idea of seeking term limits for members of the Florida Supreme Court and appeals courts. Such a proposal, if approved by the Legislature, would need to go before voters.
•People with disabilities – For Gardiner, whose son has Down syndrome, this is personal. Gardiner has long made a priority of trying to provide more opportunities for people with developmental disabilities – or as he calls them, “unique abilities.” The Senate and House are poised to approve a package of changes that would seek to spur state agencies to hire people with disabilities, expand educational opportunities and create a financial literacy program. Also, lawmakers likely will create a program to recognize businesses that hire people with disabilities.
•Tax cuts – Florida businesses will watch closely during the legislative session to see how much of Scott’s proposed $1 billion tax-cut package will get approved by lawmakers. The package, in part, would permanently eliminate a tax on manufacturing equipment, reduce a tax on commercial leases and make smaller cuts, such as holding a back-to-school sales tax “holiday” and extending a temporary elimination of sales taxes on college textbooks. Scott also wants to eliminate income taxes on manufacturers and retailers. But it remains unclear how far lawmakers will go with tax cuts, with a particular concern about the long-term financial impact of permanent or “recurring” tax cuts.
•Water – Crisafulli and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam have made a top priority of passing a wide-ranging bill to set new water policies for the state. And with the House and Senate going into the session with identical proposals, it appears Crisafulli and Putnam will quickly get their wish. The proposal, which has drawn criticism from many environmental groups, includes establishing water-flow levels for springs and setting guidelines for the Central Florida Water Initiative. Also, it includes steps such as further establishing management plans for farming around Lake Okeechobee and waterways in surrounding areas.