With Florida's resurgent economy pumping an additional $4.5 billion into state coffers, the Legislature could finally enjoy a session without heavy spending cuts. The record-setting $74.5 billion budget spreads the wealth across the state with hundreds of millions for hometown projects and other spending.
In evaluating the just concluded session, letter grades seem appropriate given the abundance that education won from lawmakers eager to placate teachers, school districts and universities.
Gov. Rick Scott is grading the success on his only two priorities this legislative session on a steep curve, claiming sweeping victories when partial is the definitive description.The Legislature agreed to his demand for $480 million for teacher pay raises but refused to go along with an across-the-board $2,500 increase, instead issuing checks via merit pay based on student achievement. Each district is left to design its own performance evaluation system, a recipe for disparity across the state. Legislation that bans districts from evaluating teachers based on students who did not set foot in their classrooms eliminates fears of some inequities, however.
Emboldened by the passage of this legislation, the governor is out conducting what is being dubbed as his Teacher Pay Raise Pep Rally Tour. The money for raises is part of the additional $1 billion for public schools.
Grade: A for raises, C for methodology, D for Scott's fuzzy claim and celebratory tour. (SB 1664)
The governor's other signature issue -- a sales tax exemption for manufacturers on the purchase of new equipment -- also came incomplete. Scott wanted a permanent tax break but the Legislature placed a three-year sunset on the 6 percent tax cut.
Grade: A. B for Scott. (SB 406, HB 7007)
Making up for past
The state university system celebrated the restoration of a $300 million cut last year and another $70 million for construction projects. On the downside, tuition is poised to increase another 3 percent for both colleges and universities, although the governor opposes this and could veto it. (SB 1500)
State workers will receive their first across-the-board pay increase in seven years, either $1,400 or $1,000. No worries about merit pay here, although performance bonuses of $600 are in the offing in addition to the automatic pay hike. (SB 1500)
Big three reforms
While lawmakers attempted to fix the state's misguided 2011 elections law, the result falls a bit short. The expansion of early voting sites could be a game-changer in elections.
Allowing elections supervisors to expand the number of hours and days to the early balloting schedule are both welcome changes, but the discretionary power casts a cloud over this. Supervisors could decide on the minimum days and hours, which would not be as helpful to voters as the more expansive options. (HB 7013)
Ethics reform clamps down on all manner of elected officials and gives the ethics commission greater leeway to conduct investigations and enforce penalties. (SB 2)
Campaign finance reform makes strong inroads on abuses, strengthens contribution reporting and increased the contribution limit to $3,000.
That higher cap puts Scott in the uncomfortable position of ignoring his opposition to raising the limit. But the governor signed the bill into law soon after its arrival on his desk in an obvious quid pro quo to secure a last-minute victory on the manufacturing equipment tax break. (HB 569)
Grade: B overall, D for Scott's flip flop,
In outlawing Internet cafes that operated casino-style slot machines, the Legislature applied a sledgehammer to loopholes in state law.
Harmless amusement and senior arcades appear to have fallen prey to this swift overreaction to an illegal gambling, money laundering and racketeering operation uncovered in a federal and state investigation. Still, despite the collateral damage, this is long overdue. (HB 155)
Sarasota Republicans Sen. Nancy Detert and Reps. Doug Holder and Ray Pilon united to push through a ban on texting while driving after years of trying. Kudos to all three. While only a secondary offense, this advances the cause of safe driving and should serve as a warning to irresponsible drivers.
At the 11th hour, an amendment watered down enforcement by prohibiting authorities from checking cell phone records unless a crash resulted in death or injuries. But the bill survived. ( SB 52, HB 13)
The critical component in the fight against prescription drug abuse almost succumbed to inaction, but on the final day of the session lawmakers came to their senses and allocated $500,000 for the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. If used properly, the database prevents addicts and dealers from obtaining copious amounts of narcotic pills. (SB 1500)
An overall view
While the rejection of Medicaid expansion by the House mars the overall success of the session, there have been some remarkable accomplishments this year. Keep that spirit alive next year.