State Politics

Local lawmakers predict tough choices in 2011

MANATEE -- Encouraging jobs, expanding businesses and wrestling with a budget shortfall are among local lawmakers’ concerns as the Florida Legislature’s 2011 session approaches.

“The House is definitely focused on economic stimulation on jobs, and bringing businesses and keeping businesses in the state of Florida,” said state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Bradenton.

Manatee County’s state lawmakers met Friday with the Bradenton Herald for a wide-ranging roundtable discussion, outlining the key issues they intend to tackle in Tallahassee this year.

Employment initiatives and cutting the state’s budget topped everyone’s list.

One out of every 18 Floridians is unemployed, said state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice.

The unemployment trust fund is at a zero balance, and the state has borrowed almost $2 billion from the federal government to pay claims, she said.

As chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Tourism, she will have a key vote on changing the way unemployment compensation is provided.

“The main thing is to reform the entire system,” she said. “The system we currently have hurts businesses and hurts the unemployed.

“We’re going to try to get people back to work quicker.”

She also hopes to both recruit new businesses to Florida as well as help existing businesses expand into the profitable international area.

“We’re trying to work on strategies to take small businesses and help them to do business internationally. We’re in a global economy, and we think that will help,” she said.

Trimming business regulation and offering business incentives to keep jobs in Florida are hot topics, Steube said.

State Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, is hoping to halt duplication of efforts among needless layers of state departments, which he termed “bureaucratic regulatory oppression.”

His remedy: Pick the agency that best handles whatever it is, and let that one get the job done. And then eliminate the other layers.

Boyd, who operates an insurance agency, and state Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, both plan to work for property insurance reform during this year’s session, which starts March 8.

Boyd favors passage of a reform bill aimed at Citizens Property Insurance Corp., returning it to the insurer of last resort.

“There’s a growing, enormous liability that we continue to create as a state that, if we don’t get our arms around it, it’s going to be a big problem sooner rather than later, because we know we’re going to have storms,” Boyd said.

Boyd also will push to encourage private insurers to return to the state, “so we have a vibrant, competitive market,” he said. “In the big picture, competition fosters competitive pricing, regardless of what you do.”

Bennett also would like to see a competitive property insurance market.

“Let the consumer shop,” he said. “Create some free-market competition.”

Bennett discussed his controversial immigration bill, Senate Bill 136, which would require police who make a lawful stop, detention or arrest, or while enforcing another law, request information regarding citizenship if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an illegal alien. But Bennett said his bill does not call for racial profiling. In fact, he stressed, that’s something he opposes.

“I’m terrified of an Arizona bill, and I wanted to make sure that I had something in there that could make sure that we don’t end up with a racial profiling bill that would affect our tourism, affect our legal workers that are here,” he said.

“We should not have a racial profiling bill,” Bennett said. “If she’s a tourist from Bolivia, and she’s here on vacation, she shouldn’t be hassled on her way home from the beach.”

The legislators shared their concerns about plugging the estimated more than $3 billion shortfall in the budget for the coming fiscal year, and predicted a difficult struggle to make budget cuts.

Bennett predicted that Medicaid, education and prison reform would all be on the table this year when it comes to budget-cutting.

That thought was seconded by Rep. Darryl Rouson, the sole Democrat among the group of local lawmakers. He said he would be focusing on the “Big Three” of the Florida budget.

As one of only a handful of Democrats sitting on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, will have a say on every budgetary issue that comes up before the body.

“I’m very excited to sit on that,” said Rouson.

He said he has learned to work across the aisle, with the Republican majority, “and not be so partisan in my attitudes and solutions.

“I agree we have to get our fiscal house under control,” Rouson said. “We’ve got to cut spending.”

As a member of the re-apportionment committee, Detert also will have a say in how legislators comply with two new constitutional amendments passed by voters during the November election.

The amendments set guidelines for lawmakers to follow during redistricting. Supporters said they would correct years of gerrymandering -- drawing district boundaries to accomplish political aims.

Districts with erratic boundaries across the state, such as the crazily-shaped state House district represented by Rouson, should be fixed, she said.

“I think Rep. Rouson shouldn’t have to keep driving down here to service an area he probably has to Mapquest to get to,” said Detert. “You should know your community, and know your constituents, so I’m for fixing that one.”

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

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