Last week state lawmakers wrapped up what turned out to be a contentious and difficult legislative session. The House and Senate adjourned Sine Die late Friday evening, officially bringing the 2010 session to a close. While there were many important topics on the table this year including education reform, legislative redistricting and key health care proposals, the session was really dominated by two key issues: the state’s continued economic woes and the political strife between the Governor and the Legislature.
Lawmakers began the session with the monumental task of filling the state’s $3.3 billion budget shortfall for Fiscal Year 2010-2011. Debate over differing methods for balancing the budget continued throughout the session, but lawmakers were eventually able to come to terms and produce an agreed-upon final product before the Friday deadline.
Governor Crist seemed to remain at odds with House and Senate members throughout much of the session, first with his veto of leadership funds legislation backed by Republican leadership, then with his veto of SB 6 – the teacher merit pay bill. Recently lawmakers rejected two of the Governor’s nominees for the Florida Public Service Commission, which has become a very contentious issue. The strife culminated late last week when the Governor made a controversial decision to leave the Republican Party and run with the label of “No Party Affiliation” (NPA) in the 2010 U.S. Senate election. The Governor made the announcement the evening before the last day of session and since then, many key state Republicans, including Senator George LeMieux, have denounced his decision and expressed loyalty to the Party.
Underlying all the acrimony and political intrigue regarding Governor Crist’s decision to run as NPA, were troubling revelations about how leadership funds were used at the Republican Party of Florida, particularly Party-issued American Express credit cards. Newly elected Chairman John Thrasher has called for a forensic audit and Governor Crist called on the United States Attorney’s Office to investigate any wrongdoing. It remains to be seen how the fallout will affect the November elections and those running for office that may have wrongfully used American Express cards.
Despite the political in-fighting, lawmakers had one of the busiest sessions in recent memory, passing landmark legislation relating to education, economic development, health care and other issues. In addition, the Legislature finally came to terms and passed a gaming compact between the State and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Lawmakers concluded the session on Friday by passing a $70.4 billion budget for the coming Fiscal Year, which begins July 1st. This year’s budget, characterized by members as “lean, not mean,” includes cuts to many state programs. Unlike last year, when lawmakers balanced the budget by levying $2 million in fee increases on a substantial number of state services, this year’s budget only included one major revenue enhancement – the long-awaited gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe. The deal, which has been in the works for more than three years, allows the Tribe to expand gambling at its Florida casinos to include Vegas-style slot machines outside of South Florida and banked card games like Blackjack at five of its seven facilities. The compact should net the state roughly $1 billion.
The House passed the 2010-2011 budget by a vote of 77-43, with all but one Democrat – Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) – voting in opposition. The Senate voted 33-4 to pass the measure.
In the area of education funding, lawmakers included a slight increase in per-student spending in the plan, as well as a tuition increase of up to 15 percent for Florida’s 11 public universities. Bright Futures scholarships were cut by $1 per credit hour.
There were several cuts to health care programs, including a seven percent reduction in reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes, a $2.6 million reduction to Healthy Start, which offers aid to at-risk pregnant women and infants, and a $10.5 million cut to county health departments. State Medicaid recipients did not see a cut in services.
Lawmakers did set aside funds for environmental programs, including $10 million for Everglades restoration as well as $14 million for the Florida Forever conservation program.
The budget includes $2.3 billion in federal stimulus funds and $433 million from the newly signed gaming compact. In addition, lawmakers netted $507 million by sweeping several state trust funds, including $160 million from the Transportation Trust Fund. This was very controversial and criticized by many as a “job killing” move by lawmakers. In addition, the sweep included $174 million from the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Lawmakers also set aside $1.4 billion in reserves, primarily to offset the significant shortfall expected next year as a result of federal stimulus funds running out.
The remaining question is whether or not Governor Crist will approve the budget passed by lawmakers. The Governor has indicated that he may veto some or all of the measure, voicing concerns about cuts to substance and mental health abuse programs, as well as the controversial raid of the Transportation Trust Fund. If the Governor vetoes the entire budget, which some see as a possibility given his recent strife with Republican legislators, lawmakers will have to return to Tallahassee for a special legislative session to pass a new plan.
In the final hours of session, lawmakers passed a highly contentious health care bill which consumed a significant amount of time and resulted in very heated debate. The most controversial provision of the bill requires pregnant woman to have an ultrasound examination before they can have an abortion. Current law requires women to have an ultrasound in their second and third trimesters, but the recently-passed legislation will require the exam in the first trimester.
Another provision in the legislation would prohibit any insurance plan receiving tax subsidies from paying for abortion procedures. In addition, a third provision supports Attorney General Bill McCollum’s lawsuit to give Florida an “opt-out” provision relating to federal health care reform. In November, Floridians will vote on a state constitutional amendment to keep the federal government from requiring the state to implement the health care plan recently approved by Congress.
Many are waiting to see whether or not Governor Crist will approve the landmark health care legislation passed last week, as he has expressed concerns about the measure, including the abortion language.
The Senate also voted this week to confirm Governor Crist’s appointment of Tom Arnold as Secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. This was a switch from earlier in the session, when Senate leadership indicated that Arnold would not be confirmed due to concerns over his handling of Medicaid fraud in Florida.
A long-awaited overhaul of the state’s Medicaid system died when House and Senate members could not agree on how many recipients should be steered into Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs). The House wanted to put HMOs in charge of managing care for all of the state’s 2.7 billion Medicaid recipients, but the Senate only wanted an extension of the current reform program.
Education issues played a major role in the 2010 session. House and Senate members passed landmark reform legislation with SB 6, which would have based a significant portion of teacher pay on performance, and would have made it easier to fire teachers considered low-performing. Governor Crist shocked state Republicans and Democrats alike when he vetoed the measure last month.
Florida voters will decide on a constitutional amendment known as “Right Size the Class Size,” this November. The proposal requires class sizes to be measured at the school level, rather than the individual class level, and would save approximately $350 million. Under current law, individual class sizes would be limited to 18 students through third grade, 22 students in grades fourth through eight, and 25 students in high school. If the new amendment passes it would soften the standard by limiting the school wide average class size to those totals, but allows individual classes to go as high as 21, 27 and 30 students, respectively. In addition, lawmakers passed legislation to increase high school graduation standards, requiring all students to take two years of algebra, biology, chemistry or physics and an additional “rigorous” science course. The Governor also signed a bill expanding tax credits for businesses that pay tuition for students attending private schools.
In the area of higher education, the 2010-2011 budget includes a tuition increase of eight percent for all state universities and community colleges. In addition, these institutions have the ability to add a seven percent “tuition differential” increase. Universities are also able to raise certain fees for student activities by up to 15 percent next year. In addition, lawmakers increased eligibility standards for Florida Bright Futures scholarships.
Energy & Environment
The most notable development pertaining to energy this session was the Senate’s rejection of Governor Crist’s Public Service Commission (PSC) appointees last week. Senate members indicated that the rejection was due to concerns surrounding the two members, including their lack of experience. Governor Crist, who touted the appointees as consumer-friendly, lashed out at the Senate, indicating that the move was due to the Senate’s alliance with powerful utility companies in Florida. Many suspect the move was political and could have been a form of payback for the Governor’s recent veto of several key measures.
On Friday lawmakers approved legislation to implement a 75 percent recycling goal in Florida by 2020. Florida currently recycles roughly 28 percent of the state’s total waste. In addition, members passed legislation to establish the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which will provide incentives for renewable-energy and storm-resistance improvements and create jobs throughout the state. The legislation will allow local governments to finance the PACE programs.
There were two key energy measures that did not pass this session. First, legislation which would have allowed utilities to recover money from customers for renewable energy projects was not taken up by the Senate. In addition, legislation proposed by incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon (R-Winter Park) and Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos (R-Melbourne) to allow oil drilling three to 12 miles off the Florida coast essentially went nowhere. Cannon pulled the plug on the proposal mid-session because there was little support for the measure in the Senate. With the recent oil-rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which has become a major environmental disaster for states along the Gulf Coast, it is doubtful this issue will be readdressed anytime soon.
The key issue pertaining to transportation this Session was the Legislature’s controversial decision to raid $160 million from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which provides funding for infrastructure projects throughout the state. According to the Florida Transportation Builders Association, the loss of the funds will cost 11,000 road construction workers their jobs. Governor Crist has expressed concerns over the raid of the fund.
In other transportation news, Representative Lake Ray (R-Jacksonville) and Senator Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) sponsored legislation this session to revamp Florida’s seaport system. The bills aimed at providing an overhaul of the state’s permitting process, allowing Florida’s 14 public seaports to be more competitive in the international shipping and trade markets, received final approval last week and will now be sent to the Governor’s desk for signature. Other legislation seeking to improve funding for seaports in Florida, which would in turn create jobs and boost the state economy, unfortunately did not make it for a vote in both chambers.
Business & Economic Development
Lawmakers passed key economic development legislation last week, which aims at stimulating the state’s economy and creating jobs by providing more than $203 million in tax credits and other incentives. The “jobs bill,” sponsored by Senator Don Gaetz (R-Ft. Walton Beach) provides nearly $150 million in film industry tax credits over four years, $29.8 million to offset federal cuts in the space shuttle program and $15 million to help lure businesses to Florida.
There is also a proposal headed to the Governor to re-institute the popular back-to-school sales tax holiday, although it will be a scaled-down version. The holiday will save shoppers money for three days beginning August 13th and exempts sales taxes on books, clothing, shoes, wallets and bags costing less than $50, as well as school supplies costing less than $10.
Other Important Issues
Lawmakers passed key legislation pertaining to property insurance in the waning hours of session on Friday. The bill is a tempered version of legislation passed and vetoed by Governor Crist last session, and makes it easier for insurers to raise rates. Governor Crist pledged at the start of session to veto any legislation seen as “anti-consumer,” and, as a result, this bill may see his veto pen.
Floridians will vote in November on a number of conflicting constitutional amendments regarding the reapportionment of legislative districts, a process that begins next year once the U.S. Census returns are in. A coalition of Democratic-leaning groups known as “FairDistricts” worked to obtain petition signatures and place two amendments on the ballot to prohibit the Legislature from drawing districts aimed to benefit a particular candidate or party, as well as form “compact,” contiguous districts. However, Republican lawmakers put a counter amendment on the ballot aimed at protecting oddly-shaped minority districts. Lawmakers complain that the FairDistricts amendments would shut out minority voters and put minority districts at risk.
Out of a total of 2,477 bills filed by the House and Senate this session, only about 301 passed through both chambers. Once a bill is passed and enrolled by the Legislature, it is sent to the Governor’s desk for approval. At that time, the Governor has 15 days to act on the legislation. It will be interesting to see how Governor Crist decides to act on several key bills during the veto period. Governor Crist has indicated that he may veto the abortion bill, the property insurance bill and several items in the budget. The Governor has also indicated that he may call lawmakers back to Tallahassee for a special legislative session to address anti-corruption bills and ethics reforms pertaining to the Public Service Commission, which did not make it through the legislative process during the regular session.
Campaign season will resume in full force now that session had adjourned. With all four cabinet seats open, as well as all 120 House seats and 20 Senate seats open or up for re-election, 2010 should prove to be a very interesting year for Florida politics. However, the key race will be for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Senator George LeMieux, particularly now that Governor Crist is running with NPA. The Governor will face former Republican House Speaker Marco Rubio and current Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek in the general election in November.