State Politics

Legislative session kicks off Tuesday

MANATEE — It may be another year of scrounging for money, but local lawmakers also hope to create jobs, jump-start alternative energy proposals, and tinker with the class-size amendment as the Florida Legislature prepares to convene Tuesday.

Local members of the legislative delegation predicted a $2- or $3-billion shortfall in the governor’s $69.2 billion spending plan, which could translate into cuts to education and health care — areas mostly spared in the past, they said.

“It would be nice if the governor’s budget were real,” growled state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, adding, “We think we’ve got a $3 billion hickey; he thinks we’ve got a $3 billion kiss.”

Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, who as the state House speaker pro tempore is among its top leaders, noted that government coffers have been seriously decimated as a result of the long recession.

And with a lucrative gambling compact — it could potentially produce hundreds of millions of dollars per year — still in limbo, making ends meet is an even more difficult proposition.

He noted that most of the general revenue is spent on education and health care, adding, “In fact, as we speak, we’re looking at some areas in education and health care where we would be able to save some money.”

Legislators interviewed last week discussed political corruption and whether there’s enough “sunshine” in the budget process, as a criminal case involving former House Speaker Ray Sansom continues.

And they pondered whether proposals to allow oil drilling closer to shore would have any chance of passage.

Bennett flatly predicted that the state senate would not hear any oil drilling proposals.

He thought about oil drilling in conjunction with alternative energy devices, like solar panels or windmills.

“I oppose drilling,” he noted. “I feel the longer we delay renewable energy, the more kids will die in Iraq.”

A way to address the state’s dearth of jobs might be to encourage alternative energy manufacturers, said state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.

“Alternative energy is a natural thing for us,” he noted.

Last year, Fitzgerald filed a bill that would have created the first statewide system in the United States providing a way for those who generate energy via alternative means, such as solar photovoltaic cells, to sell any excess to utility companies. The New College associate professor argued that the economics of renewable energy were “very difficult” because there were no financial incentives to spur it on the open market.

Maybe partly because Fitzgerald is a Democrat in a heavily-Republican body, the bill died in committee.

But it triggered plenty of discussion in Tallahassee.

This year, Fitzgerald hopes his ideas have finally gained political traction.

He and Bennett have been teaming up on bills to encourage development of alternative energy projects, he said.

Also filing bills on the same subject is another local senator, Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, who serves as the Senate majority whip and chair of the Education pre-K–12 Committee.

Under provisions in one of her bills, homeowners and building owners would get paid the same rate that Florida Power and Light, or any other utility, gets paid for its solar projects, according to her legislative priority list.

“This bill would level the playing field for those who wish to generate their own solar power,” she wrote.

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, chairman of the House Rules and Calendar Council, predicted the top priority in Tallahassee this year would be job creation.

“The No. 1 priority will be to create jobs, and that’s how we’ll kick off the session,” he said.

“There’s a jobs bill, an unemployment piece of legislation that will come up early in the session, as early as the first day, week one, and it’s bipartisan; I can’t predict how everyone will ultimately vote, but we all understand that, as much as we can do to create jobs.”

Galvano also supports an effort to overhaul the state’s constitutional limit on class sizes.

He favors a proposed constitutional amendment that would scale back the class-size rules approved by voters in 2002.

“I will be supporting the Weatherford legislation to let the voters make the decision again, if they want to, one way or another,” Galvano said.

“I’ve heard from our school board and administration that that flexibility would be very important to them,” he added.

One bill that won the unanimous support last year of all local lawmakers, but failed in the Senate, will reappear this year: Reagan’s bill setting parameters for the use of high-tech cameras to catch those who run red lights.

It is named in honor of Mark Wandall, a Manatee County resident who perished in a 2004 crash at Tara Boulevard and State Road 70.

Reagan said he feels “confident” the bill will pass this year, and that the governor will sign it into law.

“I believe I’ll get it through,” he added.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.

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