MANATEE -- Manatee lawmakers assured local leaders Friday morning the drama of the 2015 state legislative session was behind them, and the Senate and House are ready for a productive and cooperative 2016 session.
Lawmakers head to Tallahassee earlier this year, with session beginning Monday rather than its typical start time in March. The quicker start follows a year of near-constant disagreements between the two chambers, resulting in a failed budget agreement during regular session -- largely over Medicaid expansion -- and two special sessions on redistricting when the chambers couldn't agree on either a Congressional or Senate district map.
"We've been in Tallahassee more in the last year than we've been home," state Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, told a group of about 200 who gathered at the IMG Academy Golf Club to hear a preview of the session, hosted by the Manatee Chamber of
But Boyd, state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, said they're ready to put the mess of last year behind them, emphasizing the House and Senate want to quickly pass legislation on water policy and opportunities for the disabled, in addition to including tax cuts for businesses and historic levels of per student education funding in this year's budget.
Gov. Rick Scott has proposed $1 billion in tax cuts for businesses in this year's budget, most of that recurring, but the Legislature hasn't voiced support for cuts that large.
"We're anticipating a fairly aggressive tax cut package," Boyd said. "I can't tell you we're going to do exactly what you've been reading about, perhaps in the papers, but there is agreement I believe, both in the House and the Senate, to try to do something to incent businesses to be here."
A question on how to fix health-care costs didn't yield any answers on Medicaid expansion, but legislators instead pointed a finger at the federal government. Boyd, who works in insurance, said the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, had driven up costs and limited access, but said the Legislature could look into more cost transparency at hospitals.
Steube said he has hopes for an alternative health care plan from U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan. Galvano, part of the Senate leadership that supported Medicaid expansion for Florida but ultimately agreed to go without it in 2015 due to resistance from the House and Scott, stayed silent on the issue.
"I think there's a lot of things we should do and we can do," Boyd said. "It's a complicated issue, because of interaction with the federal government."
Mental health-care funding drew a united front from the three, all agreeing to put in requests for more money for Centerstone Florida, a local mental health and addiction funding treatment center. Mary Ruiz, CEO of Centerstone, said after recession-era cuts, and continued lack of restored funding, Florida was 49th out of 50 states in per capita mental health funding.
Galvano tied that into President Barack Obama's recent actions on increased gun regulation, saying the government needed to focus funding on providing mental health-care to cut down on mass shootings, not necessarily gun regulation. "Mental health is a giant part of that equation," Galvano said. "And it's unfortunate for those incidents to have occurred, but perhaps it will awaken all of us, including some of our colleagues, to the necessity of focusing on mental health funding."
Less controversial questions leveled at the legislators ran the gamut: from traffic on State Road 70, to withholding voter addresses for domestic violence victims, to public-private partnerships to affordable housing.
Mike Bennett, supervisor of elections in Manatee County and a former senator, said he knows some women are afraid of registering to vote because their physical addresses and email addresses would become publicly available, allowing past abusers to track them down.
"We're denying victims of domestic violence the opportunity to vote," Bennett said.
He asked legislators to support an existing Senate bill to change that, and for House members to check for a matching bill in their chamber.
There was a groan of agreement as one person stood up and asked what could be done about traffic on State Road 70. Steube, who chairs the Highway and Waterway Safety Subcommittee, said he would look into a traffic study of the area, agreeing just based on the drive to IMG that something should be done.
"I saw the light at Caruso (Road and State Road 70) change four times before I got through," Steube said. "So it's a big issue."
It's unclear how budget talks will go in the 2016 session, especially considering healthcare controversy, probable tax cut disagreements and a record amount of line-item vetoes from Scott in 2015. Galvano said while he believed the session would be cooperative and productive, people would have to check back on budget talks toward the end of session.
"While we're all going to say, 'Yes, we support these initiatives, and yes, we support the tax cuts,' come see us in mid-February," Galvano said. "When we make the choice of how far we reduce the commercial lease tax in order not to impact mental health programs, or the affordable housing program, or to clean up State Road 70, or to entice a business into Florida, or to be a real partner with a private entity."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby