Lawmakers face a host of issues when legislative session begins Tuesday
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 10:37 p.m.
From health care and insurance to teacher raises and election reform, the 60-day session of the 2013 Florida Legislature starts Tuesday with issues aplenty to confront.
For House and Senate leaders, it's a chance to revise some of the changes in the election law they wrote in 2011, which cut early voting days in half and was blamed for Election Day lines as long as seven hours.
For Gov. Rick Scott, it's a chance to push his proposed $1.2 billion increase in education funding, including a $2,500 raise for every public school teacher.
For all sides, it's a chance to wrangle over the federal health care overhaul known as the Affordable Care Act.
Here's a look at the hot-button issues as the legislative session arrives:
After years of struggling with the Great Recession and its aftermath, Florida lawmakers are looking at one of their best budget years in recent memory.
Scott has already advanced a generous $74.2 billion spending plan for 2013-14, which includes a $1.2 billion boost for K-12 schools, a $2,500 teacher pay raise and a $393 million increase for state universities. Lawmakers will have the ultimate say in the annual appropriations bill and will temper the governor's ambitious spending plan.
For one, legislative leaders want to use a merit-pay system to reward teachers rather than Scott's across-the-board pay plan. But it looks like it will be a good year for schools, teachers and perhaps even state workers will get a general raise — which they have not had in more than six years.
There are some caveats, including the continuing turmoil over the federal budget and its potential impact on state funding.
It may be the pivotal decision of the 2013 Legislature, and it should happen early. Will lawmakers back the expansion of Florida's $21 billion Medicaid program — which treats more than 3 million poor and disabled Floridians — as allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act?
Gov. Scott shocked political observers by backing the expansion of Medicaid, which he once bitterly opposed as part of the federal health care reform law. Florida hospitals are pushing strongly for the expansion, saying it will mean improved health care and more jobs and economic activity.
The Senate seems open to the idea. House leaders have been skeptical. The expansion decision could come in the first few weeks of the 60-day session.
Florida again became a national laughingstock in the 2012 general election as the last state to declare a winner in the presidential race.
Polling places in some of Florida's largest counties were plagued by long lines where voters had to spend hours waiting to cast ballots. Now lawmakers are moving to correct those problems, including reversing several of the key provisions of a 2011 elections bill that Democrats say hurt the system by shortening the early-voting period.
There is general agreement on a plan to allow counties to expand early voting again to 14 days, allow voting on the Sunday before the election and give local election supervisors more autonomy to pick early voting sites.
Lawmakers may also limit the ballot summaries for constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature.
The House wants to raise the limit on campaign contributions from $500 to $10,000 per election, while eliminating fundraising groups known as Committees of Continuous Existence. The Senate wants to reform CCE spending and has not embraced higher contribution limits.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has made ethics reform one of the priorities for his chamber, and senators are expected to pass an ethics bill off the floor in the first week of the session.
The bill would give the Ethics Commission more authority to collect fines from lawmakers and other elected officials. It would also allow the governor, state attorneys and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to refer cases to the Ethics Commission. The bill would prohibit lawmakers from voting on issues in which they have a conflict of interest.
Lawmakers would also be banned from lobbying state agencies for two years after they leave office — although the ban would not apply to current legislators.
The Senate bill would also put curbs on spending from CCEs — including limits on using the money for meals and entertainment.
Lawmakers again are aiming legislation at Citizens Property Insurance, the state-backed insurer that provides coverage for some 1.3 million Floridians.
Gov. Scott and legislative leaders want to shrink the insurer's coverage, arguing that if Florida is struck by a major storm season it could cost taxpayers as well as result in assessments for non-Citizens insurance policyholders.
A bill taking shape in the Senate would lift the current 10 percent annual cap on Citizens' premium increases and take other steps aimed at increasing the cost of the state-backed policies, with the idea it would make private insurer coverage more attractive.
But passing a bill that makes sweeping changes in Citizens will be difficult since the plan is likely to face opposition from the Democrats and a number of Republicans who represent coastal areas where many constituents rely on Citizens.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is behind an initiative to move new public employees, including state workers, school employees and county workers, in the Florida Retirement System — the state's main pension fund — into 401(k)-type plans beginning in January 2014.
The bill has already cleared one committee, but its fate may rest on the completion of an actuarial study that is expected to outline the cost of that move.
Meanwhile, the Senate has taken the lead on the local government pension funds, with the chamber considering legislation that would give cities more leeway in using the insurance premium tax funds to shore up their pension plans.
Local governments are lobbying lawmakers to lift restrictions on the use of the insurance premium tax in order to improve their pension plans.
Texting and driving
Some 39 states have texting and driving bans. This may be the year that Florida joins that trend.
The Senate is advancing a bill that would make texting while driving a secondary violation — meaning motorists would have to be stopped for another reason before they would face a potential $30 fine plus court costs for the infraction.
The key remains the House, which for the last two years has not even heard a texting and driving bill. Rep. Doug Holder, R-Osprey, said House leaders have assured him the legislation will get a fair hearing this year.
Meanwhile, the Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has been criticized as being too weak. Detert has defended the measure saying it is a realistic proposal that could win support this year.
This may be the year that Florida joins a growing number of states in imposing the state sales tax on Internet transactions. Then again, it may not be.
The Internet taxation bill has proven to be a heavy lift in recent years, never gaining much traction in the House. Proponents, including Florida-based retailers, are trying to give the measure momentum this year by linking the Internet tax to tax breaks — essentially making the bill “revenue neutral.”
A Senate committee tied the Internet tax to Scott's plan to exempt manufacturing equipment purchases from the sales tax and a reduction in the communications tax that consumers pay on their cellphone and cable bills.
A separate bill is moving that would clarify that prepaid cellphone services are subject to the sales tax and not the higher communications tax. Lawmakers are also talking about revamping the overall communications tax, although that appears to be a challenging task.
The Legislature has a long history of supporting gun ownership rights. Despite the school shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, lawmakers are not likely to embrace any major gun control laws in this session.
Some lawmakers are calling for changes in Florida's so-called “stand your ground” law after Martin's shooting last year. But a task force, headed by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, has recommended no changes in the law.
Following the Connecticut school shootings, some lawmakers said they would support measures aimed limiting automatic weapons. But other lawmakers are advancing legislation that would require school personnel to be armed to ward off potential attacks.
Lawmakers are also considering budget measures that will give Florida schools more money to improve their security measures.
There will be a number of skirmishes over the future of Florida's K-12 schools. House Speaker Weatherford is a big advocate of expanding online education.
The House is working on a measure that would allow school districts to launch online schools in addition to the statewide Virtual School that Florida now operates.
Public education advocates are leery about how the measure may impact traditional schools as well as other legislative initiatives that are aimed at increasing the role of charter schools in Florida.
Another controversial measure, known as the “parent trigger bill,” has also been filed, which would allow parents to petition their school boards to adopt a turnaround plan for any school that was rated an “F” by the state for two straight years.
Cities and counties have been told their local smoking bans — including Sarasota's ban on beach smoking — are invalid under existing state law.
The Legislature this spring will consider measures restoring the local governments' right to prohibit smoking on public property, including beaches, parks, playgrounds and other sports and recreational areas. Governments could also ban smoking at entrances to public indoor workplaces.
The legislation mirrors a successful effort from two years ago when lawmakers allowed local school districts to ban smoking on their property. The only potential roadblock has come from Florida restaurants that have questioned the impact on their establishments if they are on or near public property.
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