Legislative Q&A: What to expect in session


Published: Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 at 11:55 p.m.

Capital Bureau reporters Joe Follick and Lloyd Dunkelberger answer questions about the 2009 legislative session, which begins Tuesday.

Q: So how bad is the state's budget situation?

A: As bad as it's ever been in Florida. Revenues have declined for three straight years as the real estate and construction markets continue to plummet. The state's budget was nearly $73 billion just two years ago; it's already down to around $65 billion, and some lawmakers say it could drop to $60 billion or lower next year.

Q: We've been hearing the gloomy stuff for years. What's different this time?

A: Lawmakers have run out of things to cut. There are only so many vacant positions and pay freezes that can tide the state over. Even the most doctrinaire conservatives say that without some new infusion of cash, the levels of spending for K-12 schools and low-income health care will drop below acceptable levels.

Q: But Gov. Charlie Crist's proposed spending plan for next year doesn't sound so bad.

A: That's true, but it's based on a lot of feel-good flimsiness. Crist used $4.7 billion in federal stimulus money to balance his budget; lawmakers say only $3 billion may be available. And with lawmakers' prediction that next year's budget may be $5 billion or more short, there is still a multibillion-dollar hole.

Q: Will lawmakers consider any tax increases?

A: It depends on what your definition of a tax is. Crist promised not to raise any taxes, but his budget plan includes nearly $530 million in new fees on everything from bottled water to driver's licenses. Legislators seem ready to raise the state's cigarette tax, and a few items exempted from the sales tax may lose that status. And tuition at public universities could rise as much as 15 percent next year.

Q: That's a lot of numbers. What's it mean to the average Floridian?

A: The most dramatic change may be fewer classes packed into four-day weeks at schools. Universities will be even harder to get into. State workers will probably go a third straight year without any regular pay increase. Health care for low-income Floridians will be harder to come by. And prisoners could spend some time in tents rather than buildings.

Q: Beyond the budget blues, what else will lawmakers talk about this year?

A: Environmental issues could be a big topic. Lawmakers are growing more wary of Crist's $1.34 billion plan to buy U.S. Sugar and restore the Everglades, even though state money is not involved. Higher emissions standards for cars and questions about how much reliance the state should have on nuclear energy will also be on the table.

Q: Any other plot lines?

A: The most titillating drama seems to have passed with the resignation of Ray Sansom, R-Destin, as the House speaker. But the investigations into allegations that Sansom funneled state money to donors and friends will continue. And lawmakers are already eyeing the 2010 election and prepping for their campaigns so, alas, the debates on public policy may again hinge on the political ambitions of a few. But that's not really anything new for this year.

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