State Politics

Big unknowns mark session’s final week

TALLAHASSEE — Expect the 60-day legislative session to end this week in much the same way it began: focused on the economy.

The top priority of the year — a massive bill loaded with job-creation measures and tax breaks — remains unresolved, like a host of other hot topics ranging from Medicaid and the state budget to property insurance and ethics reforms.

“Obviously, it’s all an issue of time,” said Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.

Defying expectations, lawmakers set an ambitious course this session, tackling a load of issues that appeared unlikely to make headway in a do-no-harm election year dominated by a $3.2 billion budget deficit.

As always, the bulk of the remaining “good bills,” as lawmakers incessantly call them, probably won’t make it to the governor’s desk, especially with negotiations ongoing about so many big-ticket items. Caught in the cogs are measures to make texting-while-driving illegal, set training standards for 911 dispatchers and create tougher restrictions on sex offenders.

Watch for some 59th-day surprises as the maneuvering reaches a fever pitch with time running short, like the amendment filed late Friday by state Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, that would expand the right of gun owners to carry concealed firearms in vehicles. Attached to an agriculture bill, similar language about guns at the workplace was the subject of a 2008 battle that pitted two lobbying powerhouses, the National Rifle Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, against each other.

Another unknown is the future of Gov. Charlie Crist. As the Republican weighs an independent bid for the U.S. Senate, his veto pen has become an intimidating force.

“Like it or not, we are defined by Crist,” said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

Crist must decide about his Senate race by noon Friday, hours before the expected session finish.

But on the policy front it’s jobs — the buzz word of the session — that will dominate this final week.

“If you follow throughout the session, I think you will see there has been a consistent number of bills related to job creation and improving the economic climate in Florida,” said House GOP leader Adam Hasner, of Delray Beach.

Lawmakers made a concerted effort to start March 2 by delaying a steep unemployment-compensation tax increase on businesses, which was portrayed as a job-saving measure in a state with record unemployment.

And now an economic development package negotiated privately by top Republican lawmakers is expected to emerge Tuesday.

With a $70 million price tag, the measure would feature a dozen measures such as tax breaks for businesses that hire unemployed Floridians and significant financial incentives to the space, film and defense industries.

The package initially passed the Senate with $193 million worth of incentives, but the state’s tight budget forced lawmakers to cut back.

“It’s a nice little goodie package, and hopefully it will have an impact,” said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale.

The final outstanding issues in the $69 billion budget are dwindling, but one of the major topics casting a shadow is a planned overhaul of Medicaid, a growing health program for the poor that serves one in seven Floridians.

House and Senate leaders are trying to expand the role of health management organizations in the program with the idea that for-profit HMOs do a better job than government of stopping wasteful spending and managing money because they have a financial incentive to do so.

But the two chambers take different tacks, with the Senate wanting to expand former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Medicaid Reform pilot program, and the House passing a wholesale approach that would put almost every major Medicaid service under managed care.

Another divide between the House and Senate is property insurance. A plan to let insurance companies offer unregulated rates appears dead for the year, and the fate of a separate measure loaded with industry-friendly provisions is uncertain.

A watered-down Senate version went to the House on Friday, where a companion measure is stalled because of concerns about how insurers pay policyholders for damages and about limits on the time frame for claims.

“I haven’t heard somebody say, ‘That’s dead,’ but I haven’t heard people say, ‘Oh, piece of cake, that’s definitely moving,’ or anything like that, either,” said speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

With days waning, a package of ethics reforms is also gaining new life thanks to Atwater, the Senate leader. He has made a priority of a handful of reforms to the embattled Public Service Commission and State Board of Administration, as well as measures to crack down on public officials who use their offices for private gain and another that imposes new restrictions on no-bid contracts in state government.

Democratic lawmakers helped lead the charge on tougher ethics laws, but Rep. Ron Saunders, of Key West, a leading House Democrat, said the GOP-led Legislature could have done more on the policy front.

He said lawmakers wasted time on resolutions about national issues.

“There will be some good bills — and we don’t know which ones yet — that didn’t get passed because we didn’t have time,” Saunders said. “In an election year you always expect a certain amount of demagoguery and we got it — probably a little more than usual.”

Herald/Times staff writers Marc Caputo and Lee Logan contributed to this report.