State Politics

With budget, elections, lawmakers tread lightly

TALLAHASSEE — To pinch pennies and get out of town in time to hit the campaign trail, Florida’s 160 legislators will reduce, reuse and recycle.

They are rummaging through the legislative salvage yard for proposals that won’t cost money because the annual session that opens Tuesday will be dominated by a $3.2 billion budget gap in an unusually busy election year.

Lawmakers will consider anti-corruption measures, shifting tax breaks from one group to another and attaching the “jobs” label to anything that has a prospect of saving money or attracting new employment.

New conversations

With nearly two dozen members of the House and Senate, the governor, lieutenant governor and three of the four Cabinet members seeking higher office, everyone is treading lightly. Few politicians want to be identified with anything that’s remotely controversial, so initiatives on oil drilling, property insurance and health insurance reform will likely be delayed until next year.

“The first thing you do: Do no harm,” said Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican designated to become House speaker in November.

But, he says, the state’s grim budget, a growing Medicaid deficit, double-digit unemployment and the prospect of little revenue growth has shifted legislative thinking. Cannon, for example, is leading the push for offshore oil and gas drilling off Florida’s shores.

“Things that we never would have considered years ago are possible,” he said. “I’m not going to say that any of these things are going to pass, but the dialogue for consideration ... the spectrum of issues that might have been considered two or three years ago, has gotten a lot wider.”

Entering his final session, Gov. Charlie Crist said he will emphasize “the four E’s: the economy, ethics, education and the environment.”

But as a lame duck who’s trailing former House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican U.S. Senate primary campaign, Crist may struggle to demand the attention of lawmakers. They already have given Crist’s budget recommendations a cold shoulder, saying he relies on money from gambling and the federal government that the state may never receive and keeps too little money on hand for emergencies.

Prospect of politics

The impact of the election year will be most evident in the Senate, where President Jeff Atwater, of North Palm Beach, is seeking the Republican nomination for chief financial officer and Sen. Paula Dockery, of Lakeland, is running for the Republican nomination for governor. Sens. Dave Aronberg, of Greenacres, and Dan Gelber, of Miami Beach, are running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, and four senators are running for Congress: Ted Deutch, of Boca Raton; Charlie Justice, of St. Petersburg; Al Lawson, of Tallahasssee; and Frederica Wilson, of Miami.

Toss in the decision by Republicans to end one of the most blistering internal divides in party history by electing a sitting senator, John Thrasher, of St. Augustine, to rebuild the party, and the prospect of politics permeating the session is high.

“This year is going to be challenging because it’s not a normal election year,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat who faces a re-election challenger. “It seems like everyone is running for something and, with the depressing fiscal situation, it’s not going to be easy to do much.”

Dozens of legislators spent the weeks leading up to the session preoccupied with campaign fundraising events across the state. Although legislative committees were scheduled to meet, there were many no-shows.

“People act differently in an election year,” said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican running for state Senate. Lawmakers are constantly aware that what they do or don’t do can be used against them in a campaign, she said: “It’s not the headlines. It’s what your opponent does with the headlines.”

Lawmakers’ biggest challenge will be crafting a budget despite little new revenue and a base that has been sheared to the bone by two years of deep budget cuts. Budget leaders say there will be targeted cuts — hundreds of them — and no one expects them to close the budget gap without taking millions more in federal stimulus money.

Budget situation grave

As they seek re-election, lawmakers don’t have the stomach for the same solutions they attempted last year when they patched together a budget with $1 billion in new fees and $5.5 billion in federal funds.

The grave budget situation is spawning some creative thinking, however. Legislators are considering charging themselves and many high-level government employees for part of their own health insurance premiums for the first time. And policy ideas that were either rejected or ignored by previous legislatures are getting a second look.

Among the attractive retreads: expanding former Gov. Jeb Bush’s initiative to operate Medicaid-like HMOs in 19 additional counties, deregulating property insurance to make prices more competitive, adopting a 1992 proposal to tighten ethics rules at the utility-regulating Public Service Commission, expanding school vouchers and reforming the FCAT.

In addition to pushing oil drilling, House leaders are revisiting gambling. The chamber, which has been reluctant to allow the Seminole Tribe of Florida to have a monopoly over the parimutuels outside of South Florida, has returned to the bargaining table on a gambling compact. And both the House and Senate are prepared to put a measure on the November ballot that asks voters to revamp the class-size amendment and allow school districts to have flexibility in student-teacher ratios.

The list of bills that don’t cost state money is the longest. Legislation aimed at graft and corruption will get prominence. Bills to tighten the crackdown on Medicaid and insurance fraud are also getting traction.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Lawmakers hope voters will pay most attention to their proposals to create new jobs.

Gov. Crist, for example, has recommended $293.7 million in business tax credits designed to spur jobs and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is promoting a wide-ranging package that could cost more than $100 million.

But many of the proposals that offer tax incentives tied to job creation are going to be a heavy lift even in the tax-averse Legislature, so those that pass are expected to have far-off effective dates to put off the price tag.

For example, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, a Melbourne Republican who is designated to be the Senate president next fall, is pushing a measure to provide tax credits to filmmakers and digital media companies who move to Florida. The companies wouldn’t get the tax credit until 2012.

“It’s not ‘Build it and they will come.’ It is ‘If you give us jobs, we will give you tax credits,’ ” Haridopolos said.

Avoiding pain and postponing controversy are the survivor’s mantra this legislative session. Cannon sums up the dilemma this way: “It’s a challenging time to be in public service right now.”