This week state lawmakers kicked off the second half of the 2010 Florida legislative session and it has already been a busy one, with House and Senate members addressing a number of important matters over the last several weeks.
The session has not been without the usual conflict between state Republicans and Democrats, as well as disagreements between the House and Senate over several key issues. In addition, there has been some conflict between the executive and legislative branches, with Governor Crist vetoing legislation pertaining to “leadership funds.” The Governor went against members of his own party when he vetoed the bill, particularly incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-Melbourne). The legislation would have given party leaders in the House and Senate the ability to control political funds raised by legislative candidates. The Governor is also upholding his pledge to veto any legislation that raises insurances rates, just as he did last year when he vetoed a controversial bill which would have allowed insurance companies to raise premiums above rates set by the state.
Florida’s difficult budget situation is once again the main topic of the legislative session. While some reports indicate that Florida is slowly beginning to recover from the recession plaguing the nation, signs of such a recovery are not yet obvious to most citizens of the state. Unemployment numbers continue to grow, with Florida’s jobless rate reaching a record 12.2 percent in February. The areas most affected by the downturn are the utilities, construction and hospitality sectors. Economists do not foresee any sort of employment restoration until 2014. In addition, recent numbers show a continued decline in Florida’s land values, indicating that a full economic recovery is still in the state’s very distant future. Lawmakers will be faced with many tough decisions with regard to these issues as the legislative session moves forward.
House and Senate members have already achieved some significant accomplishments this session, including the successful passage of unemployment compensation tax “fix” legislation, which provides much-needed relief to Florida business owners. The bill was signed into law by Governor Crist in early March.
Lawmakers have recently placed their focus on the overriding issue this session – balancing the 2011-2012 state budget
House and Senate members convened for a short week last week (due to the Passover and Easter holidays) to pass their respective budgets. The two proposals are currently roughly $3 billion apart – mostly due to the Senate factoring in funding from a potential gaming compact, which now appears to be complete, as well as extra federal dollars for the state Medicaid program. The Senate has proposed a $69.9 billion budget. The House version is $67.2 billion.
Both chambers’ proposals include cuts to existing programs, including education, social services and state worker benefits. The Senate plan, which passed unanimously, includes roughly $880 million in potential federal stimulus dollars for Medicaid, as well as another $412 million from the gaming deal between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The House plan, which passed on a 74-44 party-line vote, relies heavily on cuts to education and health programs and sweeps of existing state trust funds. There are several key differences between the two proposals, which are outlined below.
In the area of K-12 education, the Senate plan includes a slight increase in per-student funding, while the House proposal cuts funding by $52 per student.
The House and Senate also differ greatly on the issue of the state’s Bright Futures scholarship program. While the Senate plan enforces more strict eligibility requirements and budgets $450 million for the program, the House plan makes no changes to program requirements or standards, but cuts funding to $393 million – a 12 percent reduction to each scholarship. Both plans allow for an increase in college tuition of at least eight percent and up to 15 percent. However, the Senate devotes about $200 million more to public universities than the House.
Both the House and Senate plans allow for a significant jump in Medicaid recipients. However, the House plan cuts funding to county health departments and reduces prenatal and chiropractic coverage, while the Senate plan relies on potential federal stimulus funds to preserve existing funding.
Under the House plan, state employees would receive a three percent salary reduction, but would see no change in health insurance coverage or prices. In a controversial move, the House plan cuts the monthly health subsidy provided to retired state workers to help them purchase health insurance. The Senate plan contains no cuts in pay but does require all state employees to pay for a portion of their health insurance (a significant change for the roughly 27,000 employees currently receiving coverage for free) and contribute a very small amount of their gross pay toward their pensions.
While neither chamber provides funding to revive Florida Forever, the state’s land conservation program, the Senate does provide $15 million for Everglades restoration.
Both proposals include nearly $2.3 billion in federal stimulus funds. However, the House has set aside approximately $1.8 billion in reserve funds to provide a buffer for programs currently funded by federal stimulus dollars when those funds run out. The Senate reserves only about $1.1 billion.
The House plan sweeps roughly $788 million from trust funds, with nearly half coming from the state transportation trust fund. This move is highly controversial and is called the “Job Killing Act of 2010” by critics who claim it would result in the loss of nearly 8,000 construction jobs in Florida.
There was some controversy with the passage of the House budget. While members were attempting to pass a measure to reduce their own pay by three percent, they unintentionally gave themselves a four percent raise instead. The mix-up was due to previous pay cuts authorized by lawmakers over the last two years and differences in the budget implementing bill and the amendment to cut members’ pay, which was offered by Rep. Adam Hasner (R-Delray Beach). When House Republicans realized the error and tried to hold a revote on amended pay language, they were stopped by Democrats, who would not offer their support. Rep. Hasner called the issue a “technical glitch” and indicated that plans are to fix the issue during the budget conference process.
With the vast differences between the plans proposed by the House and Senate, members will likely face a lengthy negotiations process. The two chambers will now enter into the budget conference process and will have until the last day of session – April 30 – to produce a final budget for the coming year.
Lawmakers began the session with a goal of coming to terms on a gaming compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Governor Crist has reached two previous agreements with the Tribe, but both were rejected by legislators. The convoluted issue has been ongoing, but with the state in yet another budget crunch, members saw the need to finalize an agreement on the issue and take advantage of the millions of dollars available to the state if a deal was reached.
Earlier this month lawmakers finalized a five-year compact which could bring a total of $1 billion to the state. Under the agreement, the Tribe is allowed to operate slot machines in each of its casinos and keep current card games like blackjack at five of its seven locations. The compact must still receive final approval by the Legislature, which could come as early as next week, as well as the tribal council.
The deal also includes a 15 percent tax reduction for existing pari-mutuel facilities in Dade and Broward Counties. If approved, the compact would net the state over $400 million for the 2010-2011 budget.
Federal health care reform has been a controversial and highly debated issue in Florida over the past several weeks. When the U.S. Congress passed health care reform legislation in late March, state Republican lawmakers sprung into action. Current Attorney General and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum joined forces with several other states and filed a lawsuit alleging that the federal measure was unconstitutional. It was announced earlier this week that five more states have recently joined General McCollum’s efforts, increasing the total number of states included in the lawsuit to 18. In addition, both chambers are currently working on legislation that proposes a constitutional amendment which would allow voters to ban any mandate that Florida participate in a health care system. There is much conflict between House Republicans and Democrats on this issue. Exactly how that contention will affect the outcome of the legislation is yet to be determined.
In an effort to reduce the exorbitant cost of health care in Florida, the House and Senate are also working on legislation to revamp the state’s Medicaid program and reduce Medicaid fraud. The Senate has proposed a plan to expand the current five-county Medicaid reform pilot project and increase the number of low-income Floridians receiving managed care. The House plan also includes Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO), but in an effort to reduce opposition, also includes provider-service-networks led by hospitals and doctor groups. The House plan also takes a more gradual approach to the expansion.
This matter will likely be discussed and debated through the month of April, depending on how fast the members move on the issue, may not be finalized until the very end of Session.
The 2010 legislative session has been dominated by education issues. Several proposals, which will enact sweeping education reforms in Florida, have passed through both chambers and will now be sent to the Governor for approval. The issues relate to class-size, high school graduation standards, teacher tenure and private school vouchers.
The most significant of the education proposals is the teacher-tenure legislation sponsored by Senator John Thrasher (R-Jacksonville). The bill requires school districts to adopt performance appraisals for school personnel and requires that more than 50 percent of each employee’s appraisal be based on student gains. The bill also shortens the amount of time teachers are hired under professional service contracts. Any school district that does not comply with these provisions will lose performance funds provided by the state. The controversial measure pitted teachers against state Republican lawmakers and was discussed at great length on the House floor this week, with members extending debate into the early morning hours. Governor Crist initially expressed support of the measure, but has since indicated that he is still undecided about signing the bill into law.
Lawmakers also passed legislation known as the “Right Size the Class Size” bill, which calls for a constitutional amendment to allow schools more flexibility in meeting class size requirements passed in 2002. The proposal requires class sizes to be measured at the school level, rather than the class level. In addition, lawmakers passed legislation to strengthen high school graduation requirements. The House and Senate also approved a measure which will expand the state’s corporate-funded school voucher program. Each of these bills will be sent to the Governor’s desk for approval.
In the area of higher education, both chambers were able to maintain funding for the State University System in their respective budgets. Both proposals include between $3.4 and $3.6 billion for Florida’s universities, as well as an 8 percent tuition increase.
The two proposals differ significantly on the Florida Bright Futures scholarship program. The Senate maintains the current level of funding but supports a measure to increase restrictions and requirements for obtaining a scholarship. The House makes no changes with regard to requirements, but does decrease funding for the Program. This issue will be addressed by the two Chambers during the budget conference process.
Energy & Environment
President Obama shocked both Republicans and Democrats by announcing a plan allowing oil drilling closer to Florida’s shores. State environmentalists, who have been in a long fight with Republican lawmakers over this issue, were stunned by the move. The measure would ease a ban currently placed on offshore drilling and reduce the requirement for drilling from 230 miles off Florida’s coast to 125 miles.
There are also several proposals being addressed this session to make changes to the workings of the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC). Both the House and Senate have proposed measures to ban ex parte communication and enforce employment requirements for former PSC Commissioners and staff. However, there are several differences between the two plans – primarily, a provision in the House proposal which would place PSC staff under the direction of the Governor and Cabinet. It is uncertain whether or not this measure will obtain approval by the Senate.
The House’s decision to include a controversial “raid” of the State Transportation Trust Fund has caused a significant amount of debate among lawmakers and private companies throughout the state. The House plan proposes pulling $466 million from the Fund, which pays for transportation and infrastructure projects. Many criticize the move, which could potentially result in thousands of jobs lost in Florida.
In other transportation news, Representative Lake Ray (R-Jacksonville) and Senator Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) have proposed legislation to revamp Florida’s seaport system. The legislation aims to overhaul the state’s permitting process and allow Florida’s 14 public seaports to be more competitive in the international shipping and trade markets. The legislation also seeks to improve funding for seaports in Florida, which would in turn create jobs and boost the state economy. The bills, which have garnered a significant amount of support, are currently moving quickly through both chambers.
Business & Economic Development
Late last month, the Senate passed landmark economic development legislation known as the “Jobs for Florida” bill. The legislation is the product of the Senate’s Select Committee on Florida’s Economy and was backed by the Florida business community. The bill outlines funding for several industries in the state, including $30 million for Space Florida. There was initially some opposition to the proposal due to certain environmental permitting language, which was eventually stripped. The measure has been sent over to the House for consideration.
There is also legislation pertaining to economic development in the House, which provides incentives and tax breaks to Florida businesses and creates Grant programs through the Florida Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development (OTTED) for businesses located in economically distressed areas. The House legislation also outlines funding for Space Florida as well as other industries in the state.
The next big step for members will be the conference process, where a final budget for Fiscal Year 2010-2011 will be produced and sent to Governor Crist for approval.
As the legislative session winds down, House and Senate members will continue to move quickly on priority issues in order to get bills passed before sine die on April 30th. It is expected that out of over 2600 bills filed this session, less than 200 will actually pass both chambers and make it to the Governor’s desk.