Editorials

Tallahassee: The good, the bad and the ugly over the past three months while Senate, House and governor clashed

In the mad dash to complete the state budget ahead of this week's deadline for the Legislature's special session, lawmakers have been forced to come together. But the political meltdown and dysfunction in Tallahassee over the past three months truly represents "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" -- with a far greater emphasis on the last one.

The major-league failures overshadowed the minor-league accomplishments. The earlier bitter schism between Republicans controlling the Senate and House and the legislative disdain for Gov. Rick Scott's agenda earned the Capitol the dubious distinction for "the worst political breakdown in decades," as one Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau scribe put it.

Here are just a few of the highlights and lowlights to date:

The Good

The bill that allowed people with concealed firearms permits to carry guns onto college and university campuses -- sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota -- died. A measure allowing school employees with certain professional backgrounds to carry concealed firearms in K-12 public schools also failed. Cheers to the sanity displayed here.

Manatee County can now put a lien on properties whose owners fail to pay their water and sewage utility bills, joining most other counties with this hammer to better ensure payment. Thus, utility customers won't be liable for ultimately cover those costs through higher rates. Scofflaws are on notice.

Senate Bill 186 is now law thanks to Scott's signature, which, he said, eliminates "another burdensome regulation. The sale of 64-ounce growlers is finally legal after a years-long battle by craft brewers who only wanted to join an industry-wide standard in other states. Motorworks and Darwin's brewpubs are the winners in Bradenton.

Eligible citizens will be able to register to vote online. But SB 228 fails voters in one respect: Online applications won't be available until 2017 -- after the 2016 presidential election. The Legislature played politics here since Democrats might have swamped the voting rolls.

SB 264, dubbed the Waldo Bill for the infamous town's speed traps, prohibits a county or municipality from adopting traffic citation quotas for any law enforcement agencies. That doesn't mean speeders won't be ticketed.

In this age of sexting and web postings of intimate images, SB 538 adopts criminal penalties for anyone publishing sexually explicit images online of someone whose personal identification information can be seen. The perpetrator obviously intends to inflict emotional distress but now faces criminal charges. Young adults and teens, beware.

Since a high court ruled Florida's ban on gay adoptions was unconstitutional, lawmakers and the governor had little choice but to clarify that in law.

The new law requires officials to assess potential adoptive parents according to the best interests of the child without regard to the applicants' sexual orientation. Now more children can become family members instead of wards of the state.

The Bad

Of particular importance to Manatee and most other Florida counties, House and Senate budget writers agreed on a disproportionate funding formula for paying the costs of juvenile detention while those offenders wait for the resolution of their cases. The Legislature adopted the worst possible outcome on the table, mandating counties pay 57 percent to the state's 43 percent. Last year, a 50-50 split was advanced.

Manatee County expends Children's Services Tax revenue on this cost, thus denying allocations to valuable programs that serve to improve the lives of our youth. This is just another example of Tallahassee imposing unfunded mandates on local governments to free up money for lawmakers to spend elsewhere.

House and Senate bill to extend the gambling agreement with the Seminole tribe, thereby pumping $250 million in annual payments into the now ailing state budget, failed to gain traction. The tribe loses its exclusive right to operate blackjack and other card games on July 31.

By law, the governor holds the responsibility for negotiating the compact, though legislative ratification is required. But talks between the state and tribe broke down. This issue cannot be ignored.

The bills contained another worthy provision, ending the requirement that active greyhound tracks conduct live racing.

House Bill 1087 held the promise of making the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. more consumer-friendly while the insurer downsizes and pushed policy-holders into private enterprises. One provision allowed property owners to return to Citizens should their premiums rise more than 10 percent over the first three years with a private policy. But this month the governor vetoed the bill, which passed both chambers unanimously -- raising the specter of an override. That should occur.

The House-Senate political impasse killed a badly needed bill increasing oversight of the broken state prison system and imposing new penalties on corrections officers who harm inmates. The House's desertion of the regulation session three days early proved deadly for the bill.

Inmate deaths in the prison system totaled 109 last year, an unconscionable figure with several suspicious deaths.

The Ugly

Legislators continue to ignore the will of the people by refusing to follow the spirit of the overwhelming popular Amendment 1, aka the Water and Land Conservation Amendment. Lawmakers are only allocating a pittance for land acquisition instead of the hundreds of millions available, and then using some of that money to supplant ongoing state expenses. Tallahassee once again thumbs its nose at voters.

Neither the House nor Senate embraced the cornerstone of Scott's agenda, slashing his recommended tax cuts from $700 million to around $400 million. The governor's office has not taken a position on that development.

The spark that set off the political implosion occurred over the House's ideological and hypocritical rejection of federal money to provide health care to more than 800,000 working-poor Floridians. The Senate carefully crafted a uniquely Florida plan -- both reasonable and pragmatic -- with hopes of drawing down billions in federal Medicaid expansion money.

At impasse in the waning days of the regular session, the House abruptly adjourned three days early and ran away -- claiming the two chambers were too far apart to resolve differences. The Senate sued, and the state Supreme Court agreed the House's early dismissal violated the Constitution.

Since the Senate could not convince the House to accept Medicaid money, budget negotiators from both chambers agreed Friday to allocate $400 million to indigent health care in order to draw down $600 million in matching federal dollars in a program called the Low Income Pool. LIP helps reimburse hospitals for some uncompensated care to low-income patients.

The hypocrisy is this: The House rejects billions in federal Medicaid money (our tax dollars) over the connection to Obamacare, but wants to send hundreds of millions to Washington to draw down money for a program not directly linked to the Affordable Care Act.

But LIP actually is since ACA expected states to embrace Medicaid expansion and is thus phasing out LIP. Florida will be booted out of the program in two years, as Washington has indicated it would not grant another exemption after that. Plus, next year Florida can only count on a significantly lower federal LIP contribution.

So instead of receiving billions in federal funds without spending a dime for several years, the House intends to pay $400 million to get $600 million back in the coming year.

Then what about the future? The House has no plan; this is like putting a Band-Aid on a bleeding artery. The Senate proposal would have been a more permanent surgical operation.

The tortured logic in the House boggles the mind.

Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Braden

ton, defended the indefensible House decision to adjourn early, telling the Herald: "We felt we'd accomplished everything we needed to accomplish."

The Constitution only requires one accomplishment from the Legislature: passage of a budget. The House quit on the Senate and failed that task.

The special session ends this week. We'll see what transpires.

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