Key issues in 2013 Legislature's second half


Published: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 5:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 5:40 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — With a new $74 billion-plus state budget taking shape, the 2013 Legislature will pass the halfway point of its annual 60-day session on Wednesday.

The budget bill is the only legislation lawmakers must pass before the session’s scheduled end on May 3.

But with more than 1,700 bills and resolutions pending, Floridians still have a lot at stake in the outcome of the legislative session.

By the time lawmakers head home in early May, Floridians could see many changes in their everyday lives, ranging from a ban on texting while driving and lower vehicle registration fees to taxes on Internet purchases and changes in pension plans for public workers.

On Friday, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, likened the nine-week session — which heads into its fifth week on Monday — to a baseball game.

“It’s a nine-inning session,” Weatherford said. “This is the fourth inning. There is a lot of session to go.”

Here are some of the key issues that could impact Florida consumers:

INTERNET SALES: In one of the more intriguing developments of the session, lawmakers could make Internet sales taxable. Non-Florida companies can now avoid imposing the tax on sales to Floridians, while Florida-based companies, including those using the Internet, must charge a sales tax.

The problem has been trying to find a way to make the Internet tax bill “revenue neutral.”

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has been involved in a plan to swap the higher Internet taxes with a reduction in the communication services tax that Floridians pay on their phone and cable bills. Floridians pay one of the highest communication services levies in the country.

Negotiations on the bill have been largely behind the scenes. If a deal emerges, it will be one of the surprises of the session.

MOTORIST FEES: In another surprise, Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, wants to cut vehicle registration fees that lawmakers raised during the Great Recession. His committee has already endorsed a bill that would cut the fees by $225 million per year — about $12 on an annual tag renewal.

He would make up the revenue loss by eliminating a $220 million tax credit that insurance companies have enjoyed since 1987.

Insurers are fighting to retain their tax credit, but with support from Senate leaders and a receptive House, Floridians may likely get a break on their registration fees.

HEALTH CARE: If you’re among the roughly one-fifth of Florida’s population without health insurance, you may be part of one of the biggest unresolved battles in the 2013 session.

Lawmakers have essentially rejected the Obama administration’s plan to expand Medicaid coverage to include nearly 1 million low-income Floridians who are now uninsured.

Lawmakers are working on an alternate plan to use the federal promise of additional Medicaid funding to buy private insurance coverage for the low-income Floridians. It would have to win federal approval.

While open to the idea of another approach, Democrats have been critical of the Republican leadership’s decision to turn down the Medicaid expansion.

Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said his Democratic caucus is prepared to vote against the House budget bill if it does not address the health care issue.

PROPERTY INSURANCE: Floridians, particularly the 1.3 million homeowners who rely on the government-backed Citizens Property Insurance, could see higher property insurance rates as a result of the session.

A large package of property insurance reforms has steadily advanced through the Legislature despite concerns from some lawmakers that it would increase rates.

Property insurance bills tend to live or die in the Senate, where the legislation has cleared two committees and has one more to go before making it to the floor for a vote.

The bill drew bipartisan criticism in a recent hearing because it would raise the cap on annual rate increases at Citizens from 10 percent to 13 percent, force new Citizens customers to pay much higher rates and allow private insurers to raise rates without public hearings, among numerous other provisions.

Supporters of the legislation say it will help shrink the state-run insurer and stabilize Florida’s volatile property insurance market.

But many lawmakers are leery of anything that will raise rates in a state with some of the nation’s highest property insurance premiums.

As in the past, the legislation’s fate likely won’t be known until the session’s final days.

FAST-TRACK FORECLOSURES: Lawmakers came very close to revamping Florida’s foreclosure process last year. The legislation is back this year and has been moving rapidly through the House, where it cleared a final committee last Thursday and now heads to the full chamber for a vote.

The issue continues to be a tougher sell in the Senate, where lawmakers have been more receptive to complaints that the bill makes it too difficult for homeowners to contest a foreclosure.

The legislation has cleared one Senate committee but still has three more to go before making it to the Senate floor.

Homeowners say it limits their due process rights. Supporters of the legislation point to a backlog of 371,199 foreclosures working their way through Florida’s legal system and argue that speeding up the process would help the real estate industry.

TUITION: Despite opposition from Gov. Rick Scott, who has likened a tuition increase to a tax on Florida students and their families, the House is advancing a 6 percent increase for university and state college students.

Weatherford, the House leader, said the increase is justified given that Florida ranks among the lowest tier of states in its tuition and fees, saying many students spend more on their cellphones than their tuition bills.

Weatherford said the House position is “negotiable.” With Scott’s opposition and no tuition increase in the Senate budget, the 6 percent increase is not likely to happen in the last half of the session, although lawmakers could settle on a lower number.

PENSIONS: If you are a public worker, including state employees, school workers and county employees, you could see some fundamental changes in the state pension plan.

The changes would not impact workers in the current pension system but would be aimed at new workers.

Weatherford has made changing the pension system one of his top priorities, with the House backing a bill that would end the traditional pension plan for new public workers hired after this year.

Beginning Jan. 1, the new workers would be covered by a 401(k)-type retirement plan, with the idea to phase out the traditional pension over a number of years.

The Senate has countered with a measure that would retain the traditional pension plan but offer incentives to new workers to opt for the 401(k)-type retirement coverage.

Upper-level state employees as well as elected officials would have to take the 401(k)-type plans.

Some compromise on those two positions will likely emerge by the time lawmakers leave Tallahassee.

TEXTING: If you text and drive, you may be doing something that is finally illegal in Florida.

Since 2008, Rep. Doug Holder, R-Venice, has been trying to get lawmakers to ban the practice, saying it’s a safety hazard on the roads and an activity that some 39 have banned. But the legislation has faltered in recent years in the House.

This year, the ban is moving but it still faces two critical committee hearings — one in the House and one in the Senate — before it can reach either chamber’s floor. But this appears to be the best chance proponents have had for passing the measure.

It would make texting while driving a secondary violation, meaning motorists would have to be stopped for some other reason before they would face the $30 fine for the violation.

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