State Politics

Fla. lawmakers dining on warmed over issues

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature this year will be rewarming a plate full of leftovers from past sessions.

The main course will be another in a series of lean budgets that will have lawmakers tightening their belts another notch, but they’ll also have some meaty side dishes to sink their teeth into when the 2010 session opens March 2.

Those include offshore drilling, property insurance, Seminole Indian gaming, class-size limits, renewable energy and proposals to ban texting and cell phone use while driving.

“A lot of this is repeat, not necessarily doing the same thing over and over but different things have popped up in those particular issues,” said House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala. “Obviously, the budget is deja vu all over again.”

Gov. Charlie Crist’s relatively rosy recommendation for a $69.2 billion budget — including a $2.7 billion, or 4 percent, increase — has drawn negative reviews in the Legislature controlled by his fellow Republicans.

“The good news is that for the first time I’ve been governor we actually have more revenue coming into the state treasury rather than less,” said Crist, who took office in 2007.

The bad news is the costs of sustaining critical services including Medicaid and schools are expected to rise even more during the budget year beginning July 1.

Lawmakers say Crist’s proposal doesn’t keep enough money in reserve and relies on proposed Indian gambling and federal Medicaid money the state may never see. Crist also sets aside nothing for a future “stimulus flameout” — a multibillion-dollar hole the state will face next year after the federal stimulus program ends.

Two issues closely related to the budget are Indian gaming and class size.

Crist in 2007 negotiated a compact with the Seminoles to add Las Vegas-style slot machines and banked card games such as blackjack at the tribe’s seven casinos in exchange for annual payments to the state, but it remains an unresolved issue.

The Florida Supreme Court set aside the original deal, ruling any agreement needs legislative approval. The Legislature then set guidelines allowing banked card games at only four casinos. Crist, though, came back with another deal that included all seven casinos.

It was rejected by a special House committee late last year.

Many lawmakers are worried the Seminoles will take business away from pari-mutuel gambling at horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons that already pour millions into the state’s coffers.

Crist, lawmakers and the tribe, though, plan to keep talking.

“We still believe there is a place to make this work and it’s going to be very close to what we’ve developed in the past,” said Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.

Cretul said he’s not counting on Seminole money but if a deal is struck it would go into reserves, not education as Crist has proposed, at least for the coming budget year.

Florida already has spent $16 billion to phase in class-size limits required by a state constitutional amendment voters approved in 2002 with the final step to be taken this fall. That’s when each kindergarten through third grade classrooms will be capped at 18 students, fourth through eighth grade at 22 and high school at 25.

Most Republican politicians have been saying for years that the limits are too costly and disruptive.

Past attempts to loosen the limits through a new constitutional amendment have won approval in the House but failed in the Senate, where all Democrats and a few moderate Republicans stood in the way.

The chances for a new amendment look better this year as two Senate Democrats are co-sponsoring a proposal (SJR 2) that would keep the limits at the present school average level with individual classes capped at three or five additional students. It cleared its first Senate committee with just one negative vote.

Near the end of last year’s session the House passed a hastily drafted bill that would have allowed drilling for oil and natural gas as close as three miles off Florida’s beaches, but the Senate balked.

Atwater, who’s running statewide for chief financial officer, was skeptical then and remains so. He’s ordered a comprehensive analysis before the chamber takes any action.

It’s an issue once considered taboo by Florida politicians who feared a spill or other drilling-related pollution might ruin the state’s beaches and the tourism industry they support. Many, though, now agree with Crist who says he’s open to offshore drilling as long as it’s “far enough, safe enough and clean enough.”

One issue that’s been taken off the House’s plate is an ethics complaint against against former Speaker Ray Sansom filed before last year’s session. It alleged the Destin Republican violated House rules on public trust and integrity by funneling millions to Northwest Florida State College and then accepting a $110,000 job at the school.

It became moot, though, when Sansom resigned nine days before the session’s opening day. Sansom, also facing criminal charges, resigned the college job and stepped down as speaker, but remained a House member.

Property insurance is a perennial issue in the buckle of the hurricane belt.

Sponsors are bringing back a revised version of a bill Crist vetoed last June. It would have deregulated some homeowner premiums. Crist says he’s keeping an open mind but skeptical of anything that would raise rates.

Sponsors say current rates are too low and worry major insurers will leave Florida if they cannot charge more. State Farm Florida had announced it would exit but then agreed to stay in exchange for being allowed to drop customers in higher risk areas.

Several bills were filed last year to ban the use of cell phones and/or texting while driving but none got out of committee. The issue has since gained momentum and Crist says he would sign a ban if it’s sent to his desk.

“Since data now proves that texting and cell phone use by motorists is as hazardous as drinking and driving, perhaps we need to place the phones down and concentrate on arriving alive,” said one sponsor, Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami.

Legislation to require that electric utilities generate 20 percent of their power from renewable sources including nuclear by 2020 is another measure reintroduced after failing to gain traction last year.

Setting such a goal is one of Crist’s top priorities but some utilities are resisting. Crist says he’s going to push hard for it again because renewable energy would help diversify Florida’s economy and create new job opportunities.

The first piece of legislation expected to pass this year is designed to put the brakes on an unemployment compensation tax increase lawmakers contributed to last year.

Florida’s rising unemployment rate triggered an automatic increase, but the Legislature jacked it up by raising the amount of wages taxed from $7,000 to $8,500 per employee. Many employers, who pay the tax, had asked for that change to more quickly replenish the trust fund that compensates laid-off workers.

The fund dropped to zero last year and the state has been borrowing about $300 million a month from the federal government.

The tax increase turned out to be much bigger than expected, so business interests now want the Legislature to put it on hold. Crist already has ordered a delay until lawmakers can act, and legislative leaders have made it a top priority.