Legislature looks to wrap up key issues this week


Published: Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 9:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 9:32 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — From immigration to an expanded Florida Supreme Court, Florida lawmakers are facing a dozen or more major policy decisions as they wrap up their annual session by Friday's deadline.

Facts

Legislature's to-do list:

Pass a state budget that cuts billions from the current $70 billion spending plan, including deep cuts for schools, health care and other state services and requires public employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to their pensions. It will get done.

Expand the Florida Supreme Court — a top priority of the House, but the Senate will decide its fate.

Change Medicaid to a statewide managed care system. Lawmakers have agreed but are working out the finer details.

Impose more restrictions on undocumented immigrants. The Senate will decide how tough the bill will be.

Cut the early voting period from two weeks to one. Republican majorities in the House and Senate will make it happen.

Rewrite the state's growth-management law. A done deal.

Create a statewide drug database and increase oversight of so-called "pill mills."

"It's been a very ambitious agenda," said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

And as lawmakers neared agreement over the weekend on a new state budget, which will cut state spending by billions of dollars, they have already accomplished several key tasks.

They sent a major education bill to Gov. Rick Scott that revamps the way public school teachers are hired, fired and paid. And they have agreed to make state employees — for the first time since the 1970s — contribute to their pensions.

Reflecting their conservative political philosophy, they are expected to pass a series of bills that will impose new restrictions on women seeking abortions — including a mandatory ultrasound exam — while strengthening gun ownership laws, including prohibiting doctors from asking their patients about their guns.

But as is almost always the case in the 60-day annual session, some of the toughest decisions won't be made until the final few days.

Among those critical decisions is whether or not legislative leaders will embrace Scott's call for major tax cuts, including nearly $1 billion by reducing the state corporate income tax and school property taxes.

Lawmakers have balked at those cuts, while saying they will still try to find a way to accommodate the first-year governor, who made the tax cuts a key part of his campaign.

Here are some of the major issues lawmakers will face over the next few days:

The courts

From the first day of the annual legislative session, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, has been pressing for a sweeping series of judicial changes aimed largely at the Florida Supreme Court.

In the final week of the session, Cannon may win support for a plan that would expand the state's highest court and then divide it into two branches, one dealing with civil litigation and the other criminal cases.

The plan would allow the governor to appoint the two chief justices of the new court and make all the new justices subject to Senate confirmation.

Another measure would remove all the current members from the nominating commissions that recommend judicial appointments and allow Gov. Scott to appoint the new members.

The Senate appears likely to accept Cannon's proposal — most of which would take the form of a constitutional amendment subject to voter approval in 2012 — although there is opposition to the plan to expand the Supreme Court to 10 members and divide the court into two branches.

Medicaid

Lawmakers agreed heading into the session that they wanted to covert Florida's $20 billion health care program for the poor and disabled into a managed care system.

But they have differed over the details of the plan, with the Senate pushing for a more aggressive conversion. The House had backed a five-year phase-in for a system that would use HMOs and other health care networks set up by hospitals and doctors.

House and Senate members are expected to reach a compromise this week. But the real key will come later this year when state officials must win approval for a statewide managed care system from the federal government, which pays for more than half of the Medicaid costs.

Immigration

One of the biggest unresolved issues of the session is immigration and an upcoming Senate floor debate on the issue will be the key.

Although Gov. Scott called for an "Arizona-style" immigration bill, neither the House nor Senate has brought an immigration bill to the floor.

The House has a measure ready that is closer to the controversial Arizona law that would allow authorities to check the status of anyone under a criminal investigation. It would also require businesses to check the backgrounds of their employees.

The Senate is looking at a proposal that would be far less sweeping but it would require background checks for those who are incarcerated or who are applying for public aid.

Passage of an immigration bill may be critical for Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who is running for the U.S. Senate and needs support from the conservative wing of his party.

Elections

In one of the biggest partisan clashes of the session, Republicans, who have large majorities in the House and Senate, are likely to use the final week of the session to pass legislation that will tighten standards for voter registration, shorten the early voting period by one week and raise new barriers for third-party groups to register voters.

Democrats charge the changes are aimed at "suppressing" Democratic votes in next year's presidential race. Republicans say the changes will reduce fraud and improve voting efficiency.

Lawsuit limits

An aggressive push to limit lawsuits against businesses and health care providers appears to have faltered in the session despite the pro-business philosophy of the legislative leaders.

In the final week of the session, doctors and hospitals may score a victory with a bill passed by the House that would give them more legal protections in malpractice lawsuits.

The measure would set new standards for the use of expert witnesses and exempt hospitals from liability if the lawsuit is aimed at a doctor who is an independent contractor.

Another measure that would cap damages in lawsuits involving nursing homes may not make it because of opposition in the Senate. Lawmakers are also considering a measure that would limit claims made by Medicaid patients against doctors and hospitals.

Pill mills

While lawmakers and the governor were initially divided over legislation to crack down on medical clinics — known as "pill mills" — that dispense narcotics, they are likely to reach agreement on a measure that will implement a drug database to track the drug sales and give law enforcement more tools to investigate questionable clinics. But the long-term viability of the program may remain clouded as the Legislature is expected to back prohibitions against using donations from drug manufacturers to pay for the database and will continue a ban on public funding for the program.

Growth management

In a dramatic reversal of longstanding state policy, lawmakers have all but agreed to overturn Florida's 1985 growth management law, which gave the state more oversight over local land-use decisions.

Lawmakers and Gov. Scott contend the growth management law, and related regulations, have been a barrier as the state seeks to recover from the Great Recession.

The new growth management bill would reduce state oversight of planning decisions and limit the ability of citizens and groups to challenge developments.

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