Some good, some bad out of Legislature so far

April 9, 2014 

This year the Legislature is enjoying a far easier session with budgets barreling through both the House and Senate with broad bipartisan support and few battles -- mostly thanks to a surplus of $1.2 billion.

The House's $75.3 billion budget and the Senate's $74.9 billion, both passed last week, outline now must be reconciled, which is expected to be as easy task.

Here are just several of the highs and lows of this legislative session, which just passed the halfway mark.

Tax, fee cuts

Both chambers cut taxes and fees by $500 million. The reduction in auto registration fees, amounting to an average annual savings of $25 per vehicle, corrects a desperation measure the Legislature adopted during the recession.

Gov. Rick Scott already signed the bill into law.

Education spending

Both Senate and House budgets beef up education spending, the most promising development. Public school spending will increase about 3 percent per student under the lower chamber's plan, slightly higher than the upper chamber's 2.58 percent.

The small percentage difference, though, equals $210 per student from the House and $175 from the Senate. Many school districts continue to struggle with budgets, including Manatee County's, and the House commitment would provide more relief.

But once again, the Legislature and governor steer far more money to charter schools for construction and maintenance.

Tallahassee continues to favor privately managed but publicly funded charters over public schools, a travesty especially considering charter facilities are not public assets but get tax dollars.

That political preference extends to private schools that benefit from student scholarships paid with what is essentially tax money.

A bill greatly expands the cap on dollar-for-dollar tax credits to private businesses to pay for those school vouchers.

Under the guise of school choice, the privatization of public education via tax dollars continues -- with great support from political heavyweights. Campaign contributions are playing a major role.

Raiding trust funds

Floridians cannot trust the Legislature with trust funds anymore. Even in good times like now, lawmakers sweep money dedicated to specific program into the general fund -- thus feeding pet projects.

The Sadowski Fund creates jobs by building affordable housing through a partnership between nonprofits and businesses. The money comes from documentary stamp fees dedicated to this community improvement goal.

Florida's transportation trust fund also creates jobs and improves our road infrastructure -- both goals a boon to road contractors and shippers.

Both funds have been raided for years, somewhat understandable during lean times but not now.

Over the past six years, lawmakers have taken more than $3.4 billion from trust funds, and this year the aim is another $174 million.

How the supposedly business-friendly Republican Legislature can rob the state of jobs is inexplicable.

These decisions should be reversed.

Sparing greyhounds

Legislation addressing a major gambling overhaul and expansion has been abandoned, thus protecting Florida's family-friendly image.

But one good piece remains in play -- a measure to allow pari-mutuels to quit greyhound racing but retain card rooms and slots. This "coupling" was forced on track operators in a misguided 1997 mandate.

The new legislation lets track operators abandon money-losing dog races, a proposition strongly supported by animal-rights activists. This will spare greyhounds from abuse.

The Legislature should pass this humane measure.

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