Florida Legislature gearing up for early session
Published: Monday, January 9, 2012 at 10:02 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 9, 2012 at 10:02 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE — What a difference a year makes.
This year's annual state legislative session is starting on Tuesday, two months earlier than usual. Legislators have to approve maps that redraw Congressional and legislative districts based on new U.S. Census figures, and the district maps must be ready in time for the 2012 elections.
Last session, lawmakers were fresh off an election that strengthened Republican control of both chambers.
That supermajority, with varying success, tackled several audacious goals: overhauling election laws, strengthening gun rights, reducing labor union power, exerting more authority over the court system and ending tenure for new public school teachers, to name a few.
Now, Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, is talking about the legislature having "limited bandwidth" for issues other than redistricting and the required passage of a state budget.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos is even saying the Legislature may skip dealing with the budget and the state's nearly $2 billion budget shortfall, and end the regular session earlier than the usual 60 days.
Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, explained last week it may be too soon in the year to have a handle on the state's finances. Legislators have until July to pass a budget and could convene a special session. Republican Gov. Rick Scott and GOP legislators say they will not raise taxes to help offset the projected shortfall.
Nonetheless, lawmakers have filed dozens of bills dealing with everything from abortion, to mandating drug testing for state employees, to giving parents the right to choose a different teacher if a teacher gets a bad evaluation.
It's up to Cannon and Haridopolos if they want to deal with contentious items during an election year when many Republicans are more concerned about knocking off President Barack Obama and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
For instance, a new gambling proposal would allow mega-casinos anywhere in the state, but only after a county referendum. That means voters could decide if dog tracks and horse tracks in their counties can add slot machines.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, also calls for regulating Internet gaming cafes, which offer sweepstakes entries to customers who buy Internet time.
Lawmakers also may again tackle insurance fraud that has led to steep increases for Florida drivers required to carry personal injury protection, or PIP. The PIP fraud issue has escaped resolution for more than 10 years.
State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, filed a bill that would require Florida employers to check the citizenship status of new workers with a federal database known as E-Verify. The requirement would start in January 2013 if passed.
Last year, lawmakers debated a tough immigration bill backed by several leading Republicans. But the House and Senate could not agree, and the measure died.
Haridopolos is committed to getting two bills passed that would compensate men whose lives were turned upside down by government mistakes.
One would benefit Eric Brody, who suffered brain damage and paralysis when he was 18 after a speeding Broward County sheriff's deputy — running late to work — crashed into his car in 1998. The other would pay $810,000 to William Dillon, who spent 27 years in prison for a Brevard County slaying he didn't commit.
But redrawing the state's maps for elected offices no doubt will take up much of legislators' energy. The Legislature must draw 120 House districts, 40 Senate districts and 27 congressional districts.
Anti-gerrymandering amendments put into the Florida Constitution in 2010 apply to congressional and legislative districts. For the first time, lawmakers will have detailed guidelines they must follow when redrawing district lines after every 10-year census. They ban drawing lines with the intent to benefit incumbents or political parties.
The state legislative maps, but not the congressional ones, go to the Florida Supreme Court to ensure they comply with the state constitution. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has veto power over the congressional maps but not the legislative ones.
The maps must also be reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department to ensure they comply with the federal Voting Rights Act because of past racial discrimination in five of Florida's 67 counties.
As they did in 2011, the Awake the State coalition, a pro-union movement, and various Florida tea parties are planning rallies and events for the first day of the legislative session. The progressive Occupy Tallahassee and Occupy Florida movements also are expected to attend.
Last year, a few hundred demonstrators lined either side of the street in front of Florida's Capitol to voice opposing views about government services and spending.
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