TALLAHASSEE -- Florida will take another step into an era of declining expectations from its cash-strapped state government this week when the most austere in a series of tight annual budgets goes into effect.
It’s one of about 160 statutes that will go on the books Friday, the beginning of a new fiscal year.
Many of those laws, including the budget, carry out the conservative governing philosophies of Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-majority Legislature.
Among them are a hotly debated law that will effectively cut the pay of 655,000 public employees -- if it survives a legal challenge -- and a pair of landmark measures privatizing health care for poor and disabled Floridians that also are under fire.
Also going on the books are laws to require welfare applicants be drug tested, curtail abortion rights, crack down on “pill mills” that supply prescription painkillers to drug dealers and addicts and ban a designer drug often marketed as “bath salts.”
Three new laws will help usher out a technological era by deregulating landline telephone service, television picture tubes and access to outdoor theaters, all fading icons of 20th century modernity.
The $69.1 billion annual appropriations bill (SB 2000) and related laws comply with recommendations from Scott and orders from legislative leaders to cut spending rather than increase taxes to balance the budget.
“In these tough economic times, the people of Florida are forced to do more with less,” Scott wrote in his budget signing letter that also included dozens of line-item vetoes totaling a record $615 million.
Scott, a former hospital chain CEO, campaigned last year on a platform of spending cuts as well as reducing the regulation and taxation of businesses, which he believes will foster private-sector job creation.
If that happens it will come at least partly at the expense of public-sector jobs.
The budget eliminates about 4,500 state jobs, most of them filled. Agencies already have begun sending out pink slips. It also cuts $1.35 billion in education spending. That’s expected to result in more layoffs and unpaid leaves for teachers and other school district employees.
The new budget includes about $300 million in tax cuts and raises college and university tuition by 8 percent. The Board of Governors has added another 7 percent increase for the state’s 11 public universities for a 15 percent total.
It’s the fifth budget in a row without an across-the-board raise for state workers. Instead, they will see their paychecks shrink because of the new pension law (SB 2100) that drew a legal challenge even before going into effect.
The Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers union, sued on June 20 to challenge the law that would require its members and other state and local employees to fork over 3 percent of their wages to the Florida Retirement System.
The pension plan has been fully supported by taxpayers since the 1970s. The employee contributions are expected to save the state and local governments $2 billion in the first year.
“It’s unfair and it breaks promises made to these employees when they chose to work to improve our state,” FEA President Andy Ford said.
Scott says it’s a matter of fairness because most private-sector pensions require employee contributions.
The final verdict also is not in on a pair of new laws (HB 7107 and 7109) designed to cut spending by turning Florida’s Medicaid system over to for-profit companies and hospital networks. That plan will require approval by the federal government. It would build on an existing managed care pilot program in five Florida counties and be phased in over several years beginning in October 2013.
Dealing with drugs
Another top priority of Scott’s -- and a lawsuit waiting to happen -- is the new law (HB 353) requiring welfare applicants to take drug tests at their own expense. If they pass, they’ll get reimbursed. If they fail they can’t get benefits for at least a year and could face child abuse charges.
The drug testing law has been targeted for possible legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU already has sued Scott over his executive order to screen applicants for state jobs and conduct random drug testing of existing employees.
Two other new laws dealing with drug abuse, both top priorities of Attorney General Pam Bondi, also are going into effect.
After unsuccessfully trying to kill Florida’s prescription drug-tracking program before it even got started, Scott signed a new law that will keep the database going and make other changes to crack down on pill mills.
Law enforcement officials say the lack of a monitoring system until this year and inadequate laws have made Florida the nation’s leading source of illicit prescription drugs. Many if not most of those drugs are taken back to other states with stronger laws.
The new Florida law (HB 7095) includes penalties for doctors who over-prescribe painkillers and tightens rules for operating pharmacies.
While it keeps the prescription monitoring system alive, the Legislature again refused to pay for it. Lawmakers also threw up a new barrier to private funding by prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from making contributions.
Another measure (HB 1039) sought by Bondi will outlaw a designer drug known as MDPV sold as bath salts. Bondi earlier issued an emergency order temporarily prohibiting its sale or possession until lawmakers could make the ban permanent.
Law enforcement officials say the drug, which has been compared to LSD, was sold at malls and other retail outlets. The new law provides for up to five years in prison for possession.
Two bills aimed at making it more difficult to get abortions also set to go into effect Friday.
The first (HB 97) will exclude abortion from policies obtained through insurance exchanges that states will be required to set up under the federal health care overhaul. The other (HB 1127) will require women in most cases to undergo ultrasound exams before getting an abortion.
Florida will join about 20 other states in deregulating landline telephone service. The AARP opposed the deregulation law (HB 1231), arguing it would result in higher rates for the elderly and other customers who can least afford phone service. But it passed easily.
Many people are relying solely on cell phones. A Florida Public Service Commission report says the number of landlines in the state dropped 38 percent from 12 million to 7.5 million from 2001 through 2009.
Other new laws will deregulate television picture tubes that are going the way of the horse and buggy as the result of flat- screen technology (HB 4013) and repeal access and exit requirements for six outdoor theaters believed to be still operating in Dade City, Fort Lauderdale, Lake Worth, Lakeland, Ruskin and Tampa (HB 4009).
A couple other new laws will exempt photos, videos and audio recordings of deaths from the state’s public records law (HB 411) and create a new Department of Economic Opportunity while dismantling the Department of Community Affairs (SB 2156).
Several new laws designed to advance alternatives to traditional public schools also will go into effect.
One (HB 7107) directs the Department of Education to expand online learning options and require students who enter high school this fall to take at least one virtual course before they graduate.
Another (HB 1329) expands an existing voucher program that lets disabled students attend private schools at taxpayer expense to children with lesser afflictions such as allergies, asthma and diabetes.
A third (SB 1546) offers more training and technical assistance to charter schools and longer contracts and other benefits to those with high performance ratings.
Another education-related law (SB 228) is designed to prohibit students from wearing “droopy drawers” but requiring school districts to pass dress codes that prohibit the wearing of clothing in a revealing or disruptive way.