A viewer's guide to the Florida Legislature's 2014 session

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 4, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- The 2014 session of the Florida Legislature opens Tuesday with the usual upbeat tone, but it won't last.

It can't in an election year. Gov. Rick Scott wants to win a second term, Republicans want to help him and Democrats want to undermine the GOP's agenda at every turn on education spending, school vouchers, Medicaid reform, a proposed pension plan overhaul and other issues.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, have proposed a bolder agenda than Scott, whose top priority is a package of tax and fee cuts totaling $500 million.

"Usually with an election-year Legislature, it's do no harm," said Screven Watson, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former state Democratic Party official. "The second premise is, don't give our opponents bats to hit us over the head with. But I'm not sure that's what we're seeing with this Legislature."

All of the most powerful players are Republicans, and they want to get along.

Gaetz said he expects many private talks throughout the session, so Scott is not forced to take an unpopular position that could alienate voters during the campaign. "You check to find out: How does the governor feel about this issue?" Gaetz said.

To gauge Scott's stand on an issue, lawmakers will lean heavily on two people: Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Scott's chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth.

To get ready for Tuesday, here's a guide to the 2014 legislative session.

FIVE BILLS TO WATCH

Concealed weapons (SB 544, HB 523): Floridians could apply for concealed weapons permits at county tax collectors' offices where they renew their vehicle tags to ease the growing backlog of applications, but it would cost more. Likely to pass.

Flood insurance (SB 542, HB 581): To address the crisis in flood insurance, private insurers would be encouraged to market policies to homeowners, but costs have not been fully addressed. Passage uncertain.

Inmate IDs (SB 274, HB 53): Every inmate released from a state prison would be given a state-issued ID to help them re-enter society and seek a job. Likely to pass.

Speed limits (SB 392): Motorists on rural interstate highways where the speed limit is now 70 mph could go 75 mph. Passage uncertain.

Tanning salons (SB 572, HB 499): Minors would be prohibited from using tanning salons because of skin cancer risks. Unlikely to pass.

FIVE LAWMAKERS TO WATCH

Senate President Don Gaetz: The loquacious lawmaker from Niceville will talk up his agenda that includes more closely linking the college system to jobs and increasing prison terms for sex offenders.

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel: A proud Broward County liberal, Sobel is a rarity in Tallahassee -- a partisan Democrat who's part of Republican Senate President Gaetz's leadership team. As chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families & Elder Affairs Committee, she will play a leading role in legislation to strengthen state oversight of assisted living facilities. Sobel also has been tenacious in pushing for reforms in the state child welfare agency following a sharp increase in abuse and neglect cases that led to child deaths.

State Sen. Joe Negron: One of Florida's best-prepared lawmakers will juggle his duties as Senate budget writer and chairman of a legislative committee on water pollution while competing with state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater to be Senate president in 2016.

House Speaker Will Weatherford: The term-limited speaker from Pasco County hopes to finish strong on two hot-button issues: retooling the pension fund and offering in-state tuition to children of undocumented immigrants.

State Rep. Steve Crisafulli: A soft-spoken Republican from Merritt Island, he's still learning the ropes as he prepares to be speaker this fall in place of the previously anointed ex-state Rep. Chris Dorworth, who lost a 2012 re-election bid.

OTHER STORYLINES TO WATCH

Scott successes: Gov. Scott needs victories to brag about on the campaign trail such as cutting car tag fees and spending more on schools. But he may be forced to take sides on divisive issues that can cost votes such as expanding a statewide program that offers private-school vouchers to low-income students.

Work plan: Gaetz and Weatherford have a "work plan" listing common goals, but they don't agree on everything. Gaetz has a military constituency not fond of tuition breaks for undocumented immigrants, and Weatherford again will face resistance from pro-worker senators to a pension plan overhaul.

Gaming expansion: As a major campaign donor, gaming is always at the table. This session's proposals include two new South Florida casinos and slot machines at horse and dog tracks.

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