Florida Legislature poised for swift, positive opening

March 2, 2014 

The Florida Legislature. FILE PHOTO / MIAMI HERALD PHOTO.

Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature begins the 2014 regular session on Tuesday with an ambitious opening agenda set by Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Just like last year, their first as chamber leaders, they plan to dispatch with the customary pomp and ceremony during the first few days and get right down to work on major legislation. This voter-friendly approach should become the new tradition.

Expect swift movement on these estimable measures:

Sex crimes

A major crackdown on sexual predators comes via four bills. One requires the state to notify the victims and county sheriffs when certain offenders are released, surprisingly not already a law.

Another orders colleges and universities to alert students when a predator is on campus. In the third, sentences for adult-on-minor sex crimes will be increased. The fourth ramps up registration requirements for sex offenders.

Assisted living centers

Thanks to the Miami Herald's exhaustive investigation of assisted living centers in a series of reports, the state finally took notice of a broken system.

Legislation clarifies state rules governing ALFs, gives the state additional authority to revoke licenses and sets fines for various violations -- a doubling in some cases.

However, a Senate bill that shields nursing home investors from abuse and neglect lawsuits should be scuttled. Those investors should be held accountable for lax oversight of their facilities and not receive a free pass on gross violations by staff.

Military veterans

In action designed to make the state more military friendly, the Florida GI Bill waives out-of-state tuition and professional licensing fees for veterans.

It also funds scholarships for Florida National Guard members, who are ineligible for that aid under the federal GI Bill. The state measure thus expands the employment opportunities for veterans.

More ethics reform

Like last year, both chambers are poised to pass bills on ethics reforms quickly. The legislation raises ethics standards statewide, extending anti-nepotism rules, voting conflict benchmarks and post-employment lobbying limitations to quasi-governmental entities.

Standards set for elected state officials will also apply to local ones, who will also be required to complete ethics training annually. The Florida Commission on Ethics will be given new investigative powers and the authority to recommend an official be removed from office.

Jobs and education

A host of bills are designed to expand economic opportunity via education.

The Manatee County school district, in vital need of new technology, will appreciate the bill that increases funding for technology purchases in order to enhance classroom teaching and learning -- and improve student performance.

The measure directs the Department of Education to set digital classroom protocols and parameters, and school districts would be required to develop and submit plans annually to demonstrate compliance. This is designed to increase student skills to better compete in the global marketplace.

One that students and families will applaud eliminates the state's automatic annual increase in resident undergraduate tuition, cuts the tuition differential and curtails the rising cost of the Florida Prepaid Program, the latter in a bill sponsored by Bradenton Sen. Bill Galvano.

As usual, there will be a bevy of bills to criticize as legislators wrangle over policies and spending priorities for the $74.2 billion state budget. Gambling expansion, medical marijuana and state pension reform are among the.

But as lawmakers rush out of the starting gate this week, the immediate political outlook appears positive.

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