Playing Expectations Game
Will session benefit business, public sector?
Around the State
Butt out. No, fix it. Spend. No, cut!
Business and public-sector groups around Florida are sending loud -- and conflicting -- signals to state lawmakers this session. And, depending on who's talking, the Legislature is a savior or a devil swathed in potentially dangerous details. Expectations vary accordingly.
Down in Southwest Florida's Lehigh Acres, epicenter of the real-estate collapse, Ed Weiner is unabashed in calling for help.
"How about pooling all that pork and sending it to the counties most severely impacted by job losses?" asks Weiner, chairman of Lehigh Acres' Economic Development Commission. "Divvying up $50 million to the 10 hardest-hit counties for job creation could make a difference."
In this economy, Weiner says, "It's just like college. Send money!"
Tallahassee Mayor John Marks takes a more jaded view of legislative intervention.
"Many costly initiatives coming from state government allow state politicians to take credit for what may be good ideas. But, those same politicians do so with no risk, because they force local governments to find a way to pay for them," says Marks, who also serves as president of the Florida League of Cities.
Apparently subscribing to the axiom that no man, woman or child is safe as long as the Legislature is in session, Marks declares, "We will actively seek to decrease the involvement or interference of state government in municipal affairs."
The insurance industry knows that any solutions to its financial challenges must come through the Legislature.
"Citizens Insurance (the state-run insurer of last resort) and the state Catastrophe Fund don't have enough capital to cover potential claims," says Guy Marvin III, president of the Florida Insurance Council. But, lawmakers began bolstering those entities through rate hikes. Now private insurers want some of that tonic.
"(Private insurers) need modest rate increases and 'speed-to-market' rules that can implement those increases in less than a year."
Economically and politically, insurers know they're in a bind, and they need the Legislature to take the initial steps to capitalize the market and armor the industry for the next round of hurricanes. "We are not looking for anything big, just something the customers can afford," Marvin says.
The Florida Home Builders Association, meantime, just expects lawmakers to do what they said they would do. In a new policy brief, the FHBA states this:
"In 1992, the Florida Legislature, supported by the Florida Home Builders Association and others, increased the document stamp paid on real estate transactions with the agreement that these funds would be applied toward affordable housing programs. Recent years have seen the trust fund arbitrarily capped at $243 million, and hundreds of millions of dollars swept into General Revenue to balance the budget.
"At a time when our real estate and construction markets are still reeling from excess inventory, there is no better use for these trust fund dollars than to be spent on their intended purpose -- helping low income families and seniors with down payment assistance so they may have their chance at the American Dream of homeownership and reducing the state’s housing inventory at the same time."
The Florida Retail Federation shares FHBA's call to lift the cap on the Sadowski housing trust fund, noting that renters, too, are suffering from rising housing costs.
"Lawmakers will have the opportunity to put the brakes on Florida’s decline, improve Florida’s economic climate and create a more hospitable environment for private sector job growth," FHBA states. "Positive legislative actions will send strong signals to Florida businesses that our state can be competitive."
John Sebree of the Florida Association of Realtors says, "I actually have high expectations for the Legislature this session. Many will say little may get accomplished because it's an election year, but there is so much they have to do, and I believe they'll make progress.
"Many of our issues get bipartisan support, and making our property tax system more fair remains at the top of the list. Also, at a time when the public is so focused on jobs, one of the best ways to create those jobs is through fully funding the Sadowski housing trust fund. Housing equals jobs," Sebree said.
Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida says it will try to fend off geographic-preference legislation that would give an edge to local companies bidding for public-works projects.
"That just raises costs and cuts competition," says Rick Watson, general counsel for ABC Florida. As an alternative, ABC is promoting an in-state preference program designed to keep business in Florida while maintaining expertise in complex construction jobs.
Like the League of Cities, Florida's 67 county school districts have limited expectations at the capital, since previous legislatures have shifted an increasing share of the K-12 funding load to property tax rolls ("required local effort"). This year doesn't appear any different.
The biggest threat St. Lucie County schools superintendent Mike Lannon sees is the ongoing, corrosive cost of class-size reduction.
"The only way to pay for the more than 230 teachers (needed to comply with tightening teacher-to-pupil ratios) is to disassemble the current professional staff, reassign them and cost-shift. Most of these teachers will not be experienced or qualified for these positions and the curriculum losses that will occur will destroy the arts, technologies, PE, career/technical and vocational programs, etc.," Lannon says.
The Legislature has the authority to compensate for those additional costs, or place a measure on the statewide ballot to modify or rescind the tighter class-size formulas. Republican leaders, headed by state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, are promoting a referendum effort that is gaining Democratic support.
As lawmakers begin their 2-month-long talk-a-thon, the Florida City and County Managers Association wants the 2010 session to revoke at least one action from last year.
The so-called "Zip It" law prohibits local officials from using government time or resources to advocate for or against various ballot measures. The issue came to a head last year when some city officials distributed materials opposing Florida Hometown Democracy (Amendment 4 on the November 2010 ballot).
"The Legislature needs to revisit that one," says Joseph Gallegos, city manager of Wilton Manors and president of the City and County Managers Association. "It's all about trying to educate people."
Gallegos also said his organization wants to snuff out any talk of a Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) that could cap tax collections and spending.
"TABOR isn't dead yet," he says.
The National Federation of Independent Business-Florida is lobbying lawmakers to keep the TABOR referendum concept alive.
NFIB, which advertises itself as the "voice of small business," says it is "working to limit state and local government revenue growth to inflation plus population growth, requiring approval by a simple-majority of voters to exceed the limitation.
"We are seeking to do so either through a legislative resolution or through the petition campaign, 'Your Dollar, Your Decision' (www.YourDollarYourDecision.com)."