Florida lawmakers will convene in Tallahassee tomorrow to kick off the 2014 state legislative session. House and Senate members have spent much of their time in recent months holding interim legislative committee meetings to prepare and outline a list of priorities for the 60 day session. For the second year in a row, legislators will work to craft a state budget with a revenue surplus rather than a shortfall – a surplus of more than $1 billion. In January, Governor Rick Scott unveiled his budget recommendations for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1st. The Governor’s budget proposal calls for an increase of more than $500 million in education funding, as well as numerous tax cuts and other economic development initiatives. Governor Scott enjoyed a successful session with a limited agenda last year, and looks to be pushing a narrowed down wish list again this year. The Governor’s priorities for session include rolling back vehicle and license fees and implementing policies to strengthen protections for Florida’s children and families.
On the legislative side, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have also rolled out their legislative priorities for the coming year, known as “Work Plan Florida.” The priorities outlined in the plan include waiving out-of-state-tuition for veterans, as well as numerous sex offender reforms and tax cuts. Legislative leaders are also calling for a number of changes relating to governmental accountability and efficiency, including clarifying residency requirements for state legislators, and working to reform Florida’s pension and retirement system. The willingness of the two chambers to work together is not always typical in Florida, when even in recent years differences between House and Senate leadership have caused numerous session battles and stalemates on various key issues. Governor Scott’s agenda is also in line with that of the Speaker and Senate President, which could result in a more harmonious session than usual.
While lawmakers are prohibited from campaigning during the legislative session period, all House members and numerous Senate members will be up for re-election this year. Therefore, issues that are more controversial, such as gaming and Medicaid, will be more difficult for the legislature to take up and resolve. In addition, with what is sure to be a heated Governor’s race on the horizon, the 2014 election is already a key topic of discussion in Florida.
Last year marked a long-awaited improvement in the state economy, allowing lawmakers to work with a revenue surplus for the first time in more than five years. Legislators will have extra to work with again this year, to the tune of just over $1 billion.
The $74.2 billion budget proposal released by Governor Scott earlier this year calls for a number of tax cuts, including a $100 million cut to the sales tax on commercial rents, a reduction in vehicle and license fees and an expansion of certain business tax exemptions, as well as an expansion of the state’s back-to-school sales tax holiday and a revival of the sales tax holiday for purchasing hurricane supplies.
The Governor’s plan includes an increase of more than $500 million in spending for Florida’s public schools, as well as a boost in funding for state colleges and universities. Governor Scott has also proposed boosting funding for numerous other state agencies and programs. The increases include additional funding for economic development programs, state land buying, Everglades restoration and courts. The proposal also outlines around $287 million in spending cuts, which include the state’s health and human services agencies.
The Governor’s budget recommendations are intended to serve as a blueprint for the budget crafted by House and Senate members, although legislators are not required to follow the Governor’s plan. Both chambers will work throughout session to create their individual budgets for the coming year. The proposals will be presented during the last weeks of session, with members coming together at that time to work out any differences and pass a final budget plan to send to Governor Scott for approval.
Senate President Gaetz and Speaker Weatherford have outlined several early legislative priorities relating to education, including raising the cap on Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, halting automatic tuition increases at state universities and waiving out-of-state tuition for veterans in Florida. The Florida G.I. Bill is expected to pass through both chambers on the first day of session. Another issue set to be discussed and debated this session is a proposal to give in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.
At the K-12 level, there has been significant focus placed in recent months on the Common Core State Standards for public schools, as well as a new school grading formula implemented by the Florida Department of Education. Many lawmakers and education officials have expressed concern regarding the Common Core standards, which are intended to be implemented as part of the federal Race to the Top initiative. As a result, state executive officials announced earlier this year that Florida would put forth its own standards for math and reading. The changes were approved by the State Board of Education last month. In addition, Florida Education Commissioner Pam
Stewart announced a new, more simplified grading system for Florida’s schools earlier this year. However, several lawmakers remain skeptical of the new and existing policies, and last week, Senator Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) introduced a proposal to overhaul the state’s school accountability system.
Lawmakers are also considering a proposal to increase the maximum millage rates that local school boards can tax, which could allow school boards to raise more money. In addition, last month, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam announced he is working together with the House and Senate on a proposal to cut the state commercial energy sales tax in half, and use the remaining revenue on the Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO), which pays for construction and maintenance of state schools, colleges and universities.
One issue not included in the legislative priorities outlined by either branch is the topic of expanding Florida’s Medicaid program. This issue was addressed last year, with a number of proposals offered and considered by the Senate, but House leadership was strongly opposed to expansion due to funding concerns and inflexibility of requirements handed down at the federal level. The Medicaid expansion provision was included in the federal Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 and later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. While Speaker Weatherford has stated that the expansion issue is not dead, the House looks to be in strong opposition again this year. Democrats in both chambers continue to push the issue and have filed legislation for expansion, but it is highly unlikely that any measure will pass this session.
Lawmakers will instead focus on issues relating to health care providers, including telemedicine and expanding the scope of practice for nurse practitioners in Florida – the measure being considered will allow nurse practitioners to practice without a supervising physician.
Governor Scott and legislative leaders have outlined a number of priorities relating to law enforcement and criminal justice this session – primarily, strengthening laws for sex offenders in Florida. With a number of child deaths in the state in recent years due to sexual predators, lawmakers are making it a priority to overhaul sex offender laws in an effort to protect Florida’s children. The measures currently moving through the legislative process include proposals to increase sentences for offenders, strengthen their monitoring after release, and eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual predators who commit crimes against children, among other proposals. The ultimate goal, as expressed by lawmakers, is to make Florida the most unfriendly state for sex offenders. House and Senate leaders plan to take up and pass a number of the measures on the first day of session.
Lawmakers will also consider measures this session relating to self-defense and Florida’s gun laws. One proposal currently moving through the process, known as the Warning Shot bill, will allow for showing a gun or firing a warning shot without receiving a lengthy prison sentence for doing so. This will bring about a bigger discussion relating to Florida’s 10/20/Life rule, which provides for mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses. Also expected to pass this session are a proposal to prohibit school administrators from disciplining students for simulating guns at school, as well as a measure to prevent insurers from charging gun owners higher rates.
Lawmakers will also consider legislation that would require a unanimous vote in order for a jury to recommend the death penalty. During the 2013 legislative session, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar) filed legislation to speed up the execution process in Florida. The measure passed and was signed into law, but is currently being challenged in the Florida Supreme Court.
There has been pressure placed on lawmakers to make changes to the state’s Stand Your Ground law, considering a number of recent cases in Florida, but the law is unlikely to be changed this session.
The topic of potentially expanding gaming in Florida has been debated by lawmakers for the past several years. Measures to expand gambling laws in the state, particularly in South Florida, have been strongly backed by Vegas-style casinos but have ultimately failed to pass through the legislative process.
This session, the Senate has expressed more interest than the House in considering expansion measures, but Speaker Weatherford has suggested a constitutional amendment to let voters decide on the issue. The amendment language would require all future expansion to receive statewide approval by voters. Speaker Weatherford has also expressed one other stipulation for supporting any expansion measure – that the Governor renegotiate the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe this year.
The package being offered by the Senate will make a number of changes to gambling laws in Florida, including allowing two new casinos in South Florida and creating a Department of Gaming Control to oversee gambling operations. In addition, the measure would allow slot machines at dog and horse race tracks. The Senate plan also provides for a constitutional amendment to require statewide approval of any gaming expansion.
Retirement and Pension
On the agenda for lawmakers this session will be an overhaul of the Florida Retirement System (FRS). The measure currently moving through the Senate has brought division in the chamber, primarily over a provision to set up a cash-balance pension plan in the FRS for new employees. This recently led Senate President Gaetz to express that the measure may be in trouble this session.
Members also considered retirement and pension overhaul measures last session, but the two chambers could not come to agreement about moving new employees into a “defined contribution” plan. While the House wanted to move new hires to the 401K-type investment plan, the Senate proposed letting them stay in the “defined benefit” program. This session, the Senate proposal includes the cash-balance plan, which serves as a type of compromise between the defined benefit and defined contribution programs. The contention over the measure within the Senate stems from what members argue is a lack of available financial data relating to the change. However, Speaker Weatherford has expressed support for the cash-balance plan.
Transportation and Economic Development
Each session the House and Senate transportation committees put forth their respective legislative packages, which include priorities outlined by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) for that year. Members in both chambers are already debating their plans for this session. One key difference between the two plans currently being considered is language relating to red light cameras, which is not included in the Senate plan but is currently provided in the House plan.
Both proposals include language to allow FDOT to fully fund projects at strategic airports throughout the state, similar to measures passed in recent years relating to seaports. The transportation packages are usually heavily amended throughout session and often face a tough fight for passage. Last year’s bill was weighed down with a number of contentious provisions and ultimately died in the final hours of session.
Officials in both the executive and legislative branches have also expressed continued support for Florida’s seaports, particularly with the Panama Canal expansion scheduled to be completed in 2015. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam recently called for Florida farmers to export their crops back out of the state on the increased number of ships that will result from the canal expansion.
Lawmakers will also consider legislation re-introduced this session to allow counties to establish freight logistics zones, which would be eligible for state economic development incentives, to attract business.
Environment and Energy
As mentioned previously in this report, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has proposed cutting the state commercial energy sales tax in half, and directing the remaining revenue to PECO to pay for education construction and maintenance projects. Commissioner Putnam will continue his push for light legislative changes for renewable energy this session, as he has in recent years. The Commissioner noted in a discussion last month that the need for renewable energy changes is lessening due to the falling prices of natural gas. One item the Commissioner will push this session is an extension of a renewable energy tax exemption to commercial property.
Lawmakers are also working on legislation to address protection of Florida’s springs. In addition, Governor Scott continues his support for the Everglades, calling for $130 million in additional funding for Everglades Restoration in the coming budget year.
2014 Constitutional Amendments
At this time, Florida voters are set to consider two constitutional amendments on the ballot this November – one regarding funding for land and water conservation and another to allow for the use of medical marijuana in Florida.
The land and water amendment will provide funding for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund from an existing excise tax on documents. The controversial medical marijuana amendment has seen a lot of opposition, including Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who argued the amendment language was unclear. The issue was sent to the Florida Supreme Court, which approved the wording in late January. If passed, the measure will allow physicians to prescribe medical marijuana to patients with debilitating conditions.
While lawmakers are set to come together to pass a number of bills seen as universally good, including stronger sex predator laws and the Florida G.I. Bill, time will tell if the discussions on other more controversial issues turn the session into a contentious one. The next 60 days will certainly be influenced by the coming election, when voters will consider a number of candidates and races, including all U.S. House of Representatives seats, all Florida House of Representatives seats and numerous Florida Senate seats.
In addition, all Florida Cabinet members, including Governor Scott, Commissioner Putnam, Attorney General Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, are up for re-election.
The 2014 session will extend through Friday, May 2nd.