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 that 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 viewers’ 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.
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.
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 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.
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-Rep. Chris Dorworth, who lost a 2012 reelection bid.
FIVE 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.
Shadow lobbying: Lawmakers want lobbyists who influence special taxing districts to register and disclose fees as lobbyists in Tallahassee must do, and ban them from giving gifts or meals to board members. The focus is on boards with taxing power that oversee water management, hospitals and children’s services.
Campaign season: It’s an election year. All 120 House members and 20 of 40 senators face voters in the fall, and they will try to stay out of trouble while passing feel-good laws voters will like.
FIVE KEY DATES
Monday: The day before session begins is the last day legislators can solicit and accept campaign contributions until after session ends.
Tuesday: The opening day of the session is traditionally dominated by the governor’s State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature. Scott is scheduled to speak at 11 a.m.
March 31: An actuarial firm hired by Scott’s administration will deliver its findings on fiscal implications of proposed pension fund changes to the Legislature.
April 10: The deadline for legislators to disclose contributions for March will show who raised the most money and which interests gave the most in the days just before session began.
May 2: The scheduled final day of session.