Smooth sailing as Legislature adjourns on time
Published: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 7:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 11:17 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers ended their annual session Friday, passing a record $74.5 billion budget and revamping an election process that brought national ridicule, but failing to agree on a plan to expand health care coverage to some 1 million Floridians.
The on-time conclusion of the 60-day session was another sign of the unusually cooperative alliance between Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, allowing lawmakers to achieve nearly all the major goals they set out.
“The age of acrimony is over between the House and Senate,” Gaetz declared shortly after the session ended.
In addition to election reform, Gaetz and Weatherford jointly backed legislation to strengthen the state’s ethics laws, revise campaign finance laws and overhaul Florida’s education system, ranging from changing high school graduation standards to designating pre-eminent state universities.
A proposal to shift new public employees out of the traditional state pension plan into 401(k)-type plans failed.
“We went four for five; that’s pretty doggone good,” Weatherford said.
Gov. Rick Scott also declared the session a success, citing the Legislature’s approval of a budget that should yield a $2,500 pay raise for teachers, a raise for state workers and a tax cut for manufacturers.
“This Legislature cut taxes so we will have more jobs in this state,” Scott said. “We dramatically increased funding for education, and we are going to give classroom teachers a pay raise.”
“Those are great victories for Florida’s families,” he added.
However, lawmakers failed to deliver on Scott’s call for expanding Medicaid coverage to Floridians under the federal Affordable Care Act.
“They said no. I said yes,” Scott said, deflecting any questions about a special session on Medicaid expansion. “I’ve let the House and Senate know exactly where I am.”
Weatherford and Gaetz said lawmakers would continue to explore ways to expand health care in the state. “The health care debate is going to come back. It’s not going to go away,” said Weatherford, who took the strongest position against expanding the current Medicaid system.
Democrats said the rejection of Medicaid expansion outweighed the other session achievements.
“That was the big issue this year,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. “We left $51 billion on the table.”
Democratic leaders said they want Scott either to veto the state budget or call a special session to deal with Medicaid. House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said some low-income Floridians are not benefiting from the budget.
Waldman voted against the budget along with Thurston and nine other House Democrats to protest the inaction on Medicaid.
Democrats faulted Scott’s tepid advocacy for the Medicaid stalemate. “I think he gave it lip service,” Waldman said. “He made it sound like he was in favor of it, but he didn’t put anything behind it.”
Despite the differences over Medicaid, the 60-day session’s atmosphere was buoyed by expanding state revenues that allowed lawmakers on Friday to approve the largest state budget in Florida history — a $74.5 billion spending plan that takes effect on July 1.
The Senate unanimously passed the budget (SB 1500), while the House backed it in a 106-11 vote.
The budget will boost public school spending by $1 billion and provide enough funding for the potential of a $2,500 pay raise for K-12 teachers, with some higher-performing teachers receiving more.
State workers will be in line for their first general pay raise in nearly seven years. Workers earning less than $40,000 will receive a $1,400 increase, while those making more will get a $1,000 boost. Workers could also qualify for a $600 bonus.
Funding was boosted for state universities and colleges, with lawmakers making up for the $300 million cut from universities last year. Tuition will rise by 3 percent for university and college students.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, defended the $4 billion expansion of the new budget over this year’s $70 billion budget.
“Don’t let people tell you we went on a spending spree,” Negron said, pointing to more than $2 billion that was shifted into reserves, the $300 million repayment of the university cut and the $500 million that was used to bolster the state pension fund.
Scott, who has the ability to veto all or portions of the budget, said he would go over the expenditures “line by line,” making sure “we spend the money wisely.”
More than 1,800 bills and resolutions were filed for the annual session, but fewer than 300 won approval by the session’s end.
A chaotic election process that led to Florida being the last state to count its votes in the presidential election — a fact that became fodder for late-night comedians — prompted approval Friday of a major elections reform package (HB 7013). It rolled back some of the controversial changes lawmakers made in 2011 that led to problems in the 2012 elections.
Under the bill, local supervisors of elections can increase early voting from eight days up to 14 and keep polls open up to 12 hours a day. Elections officials will also be able expand early voting sites. Limits were placed on the length of ballot initiatives.
Before the House backed the measure in a 115-1 vote, Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said the passage of the bill “sends a message to voters that we heard their concerns and that we are making changes to voting in Florida for the better.”
The Senate voted 27-13 for the bill.
The 2013 session saw other major legislation, including a ban on Internet cafes and other similar gaming centers that came shortly after authorities outlined a major illegal gambling investigation in the state that led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had worked as a consultant for one of the targets of the probe but was not implicated in the wrongdoing.
But as usual in the annual session, many bills failed. Among the casualties were bills allowing local governments to ban smoking on beaches and other public places, a law regulating noisy car stereos, a tax on Internet sales and a measure giving parents the authority to turn failing public schools over to charter companies.
Most gun control legislation failed to even garner a committee hearing, although lawmakers backed a measure to limit the ability of mentally ill Floridians from acquiring weapons.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.