Highlights, lowlights midway through Florida's legislative session

April 4, 2013 

This week marks the midpoint of the nine-week regular session of the Legislature. Last week, both the House and Senate unveiled budget outlines very close in spending -- $74.3 billion in the upper chamber and $74.4 in the lower. Gov. Rick Scott's proposal is a shade lower, at $74.2 billion.

The days of deep spending cuts over, Florida can now some of the damage from the past four years thanks to $4 billion in new revenue fueled by the state's economic rebound.

Here are snapshots of some major highlights and lowlights so far this session.

Highlights

Tourism: Only one bill has been sent to the governor's desk to date and signed into law.

Our Canadian friends will rejoice that last year's misguided law requiring foreign visitors acquire special international driving permits in order to drive in Florida has been quickly repealed, though enforcement had been roundly ignored.

Public schools: The House boosts funding for the K-12 system by more than $1 billion while the Senate tops that with $1.2 billion. That will translate into millions more for the cash-strapped Manatee County school district.

Teachers: The governor's top priority this session is a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for classroom instructional personnel at a cost of $480 million. The Senate, however, links salary increases in the same amount to student achievement. The House offers a third option -- $676 million for teachers but "strongly encourages" half be linked to performance. However this turns out, teachers will benefit.

Higher education: Both chambers restore last year's draconian $300 million reduction to state universities and add another $100 million, positive steps toward building stronger programs and graduates.

Some of that extra money will depend on institutional performance. Even though the House proposes a 6 percent increase in college and university tuition next year, passage appears doubtful with Scott's opposition -- a victory for debt-laden students.

Voters: Legislators and the governor got the message about Florida's overly tight restrictions on voting with the lengthy lines and chaos in November. While this year's elections reform measures fall short of mandating 14 days of early voting, including the Sunday before Election Day, elections supervisors would have some leeway on days and hours. Both chambers expand the options for polling places, a vital change that will shorten lines and voter angst.

Local projects: The Senate allocates $2.5 million to boost construction of the $45 million world-class aquatic center at Nathan Benderson Park, but the House has yet to act. IMG Academy, about to break ground on a massive expansion of its already sprawling Bradenton campus, is in line for $3 million.

Lowlights

Public school trigger law: Once again, the House is pushing a measure that gives parents the ability to convert a failing public school into a charter school, including those run by for-profit companies that move our tax dollars out of state.

Or, after collecting enough signatures on petitions and holding an election, parents could force the school to adopt a "plan of correction," allow students to transfer, or completely shutter the failing school.

A companion bill is moving through the Senate, which killed the measure last year on a deadlocked vote. The upper chamber should once again kill this attack on public schools and giveaway to charters.

Medicaid expansion: One of the biggest and most contentious issues this session revolves around the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Both the House and Senate adopted political positions rather than pragmatic ones in rejecting billions of federal aid to provide health insurance to around 1 million Floridians. Those residents cannot afford traditional health coverage but earn too much to currently qualify for Medicaid.

The popular excuse among politicians is that Congress might not fund Medicaid expansion after contributing 100 percent the first three years. The governor, in supporting expansion, proposed an opt-out provision at that time to make this more palatable -- a reasonable way out should fears prove accurate.

But Medicaid will bail out hospitals that write off indigent care, create health care jobs, and even save businesses with low-wage workers money. The Legislature, though, remains blind to the positives.

Should the Legislature change course on these two hotly debated issues, this session will be highly beneficial to most Floridians.

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