TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature convenes Tuesday for an unusual and unpredictable 60-day session that will be dominated by two highly partisan subjects: the redrawing of political districts and yet another round of budget-cutting.
As lawmakers pack their bags for the next two months, they are adding sweaters and heavy coats to ward off the biting chill of a January in North Florida. The Constitution requires that a reapportionment session must begin in January, not in March as it usually does.
Beyond redistricting and the budget, legislators are expected to search anew for a way to curb rampant fraud in the state’s no-fault car insurance system; debate the creation of three new casino gambling resorts; and consider applying the sales tax to online consumer purchases of books, clothing and other items.
Gov. Rick Scott wants legislators to find another $1 billion for public schools, even in a year when they must close a projected budget shortfall of up to $2 billion.
“That we need to do,” Scott said in a Times/Herald interview of the school money. He has threatened to veto a budget that doesn’t include that money -- a risky tactic because senators in particular don’t like receiving ultimatums of any kind.
Scott’s path to that $1 billion for schools hinges on big cuts in Medicaid payments to hospitals, which would have a major impact in urban hospitals in Tampa Bay and South Florida that treat large numbers of Medicaid recipients.
Democrats are angry with Scott’s approach, which they describe as pitting school children and teachers against pregnant women and sick kids, two groups most dependent on Medicaid.
But the re-mapping of districts to reflect population growth and demographic shifts will be the central theme of the 2012 session from the outset.
It is a tense and exhausting work, made more complicated and unpredictable this year because of two voter-approved constitutional amendments that prevent the Legislature from drawing districts to help or hurt a political party or incumbents.
Republicans, aided by emerging technology, have posted extensive amounts of redistricting data online, and the hard-edged, me-first machinations of previous
decades have not surfaced.
Not yet, anyway.
“I think personally that it’s coming together smoother than the session of 10 years ago,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who in 2002 was in charge of re-mapping congressional districts in the Senate. “The redistricting process in the Senate has been very well-managed.”
Latvala said he agrees with lawmakers who say they should delay action on the new budget until the middle of March or later when a new estimate of projected -- and hopefully for lawmakers, more -- tax revenue will be available.
Democrats have a more jaded view of reapportionment.
“It’s a free-for-all,” said Rep. Jeff Clemens, a first-term Democrat from Palm Beach County. “The weight of redistricting is going to put a strain on everybody.” Clemens is already troubled by House maps that chop his hometown of Lake Worth into four different districts.
The Legislature is controlled overwhelmingly by Republicans, who hold majorities of 28-12 in the Senate and 81-39 in the House. The GOP’s principal goals are to draw redistricting plans that can quickly gain approval by state and federal courts and to pass a state budget without raising any taxes.
“No new taxes. No new fees. A balanced budget,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, succinctly stating his overarching goals.
History suggests a session long on rhetoric and short on results. One reason is that it’s an election year, when legislators typically avoid taking controversial positions that will alienate voters back home.
One influential lawmaker said redistricting and the budget are the only must-pass issues.
“I, for one, would be satisfied if little else occurred,” said Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, the lead budget-writer in the House.
Another unique twist to reapportionment is that all 160 legislative seats will be up for election next fall, all of them in newly drawn districts with new constituents. Many lawmakers will be eager to get home to start campaigning and raise money, which they can’t do when they are in the capital.
If the early maps as drawn are approved, it will pit some incumbents against each other or force some of them to move to new communities -- a jarringly uncomfortable prospect.
-- Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
n REDISTRICTING -- After dozens of hearings statewide, legislators must redraw the lines for all 160 legislative and 27 congressional seats. They must adhere to federal and state legal standards and protect minority power, not to mention the selfish re-election interests of lawmakers themselves.
n BUDGET -- A year after lawmakers cut state spending by $4 billion, they’re sharpening the budget-cutting knives again to cover a projected shortfall of up to $2 billion because of slack tax collections. The math is made even more difficult because Gov. Rick Scott is demanding a $1 billion increase in spending for public schools.
n GAMBLING -- Here’s a way to create lots of jobs and revenue for the state: Build three new $2 billion “destination resort” gambling casinos in Florida, and limit future expansion of gambling. But opponents say more casino gambling is a dangerous roll of the dice that would harm the state’s family friendly tourism image.
n INSURANCE FRAUD -- Tampa and Miami are two hubs for staged car accidents, overused procedures such as massages and other types of fraud in the no-fault car insurance system. With fraud pegged at $900 million a year, lawmakers are under pressure to find a fix. But they don’t have an obvious one; the last legislative repair job, in 2007, only made things worse.
n ONLINE SALES -- For years, retailers have complained of an unfair double standard: Florida stores collect the 6 percent statewide sales tax on purchases but out-of-state retailers don’t. Business support is growing to tax online sales, but Gov. Rick Scott insists the tax must be “revenue neutral,” meaning no additional money for government. The tax’s timing isn’t good: In an election year for all lawmakers, opponents could easily portray support as a vote to raise taxes.
JD ALEXANDER -- The Senate budget chairman controls the purse strings, and most colleagues respect or fear him too much to challenge him. A Republican citrus grower from Lake Wales, the senator universally known only by his initials is in his last year in the Legislature.
n DEAN CANNON -- The House speaker, a Republican from Winter Park in his final session, exerted strong control over his highly partisan GOP caucus last year, and he likely will again, even if it antagonizes his Capitol counterpart, Senate President Mike Haridopolos. Watch his role in the emerging casino gambling debate in which he, like much of greater Orlando, views casinos as detrimental to Disney’s family friendly image.
n DON GAETZ -- Poised to preside over the 40-member Senate next fall, his power would be on the rise anyway. But the retired health care executive from Niceville also directs legislative and congressional mapmaking as chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee.
n JOHN THRASHER -- A former House speaker turned lobbyist, Thrasher earned millions as head of the powerhouse lobbying firm Southern Strategy Group, then re-entered the Capitol’s revolving door as a senator from a St. Augustine-area district and now has his eyes on a possible future Senate presidency.
n WILL WEATHERFORD -- The always-upbeat Pasco County lawmaker, at 32, is on track to become one of Florida’s youngest House speakers next fall. As chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, he, like Gaetz in the Senate, will shape the political composition of his chamber for the next decade.