Rick Scott's Priorities Center Stage as Session Comes to a Close

By: Jim Turner | Posted: March 10, 2012 12:59 AM

As the clock wound down on the 60-day session late Friday, legislators were able to get an auto insurance reform package to the governor, created a new state university and steered the state universities to attract more science, technology, engineering and math students.

Most importantly, senators and representatives were able to patch together a $70 billion fiscal plan, over the objections of Democrats, that meets Gov. Rick Scott’s call for a nearly $1 billion boost to Pre-K-12 education, as well as $120 million in tax credits to a wide range of businesses and consumers in Florida.

“I really focused on the billion (dollar hike) in education, the tax regulation and ... getting PIP done,” Scott said following the formal sine die ceremony in the Capitol rotunda to mark the end of the session just after its midnight close.

Scott added that the education spending increase and tax reductions could also be a boost for legislators when they go before voters in the fall.

The tax credit package would double, to $50,000, the state’s corporate-income tax exemption and offers credits or sales-tax exemptions to industries as varied as oil drillers and miners, aircraft-parts manufacturers, fruit and vegetable packers, alcohol distillers, and website creators.

Charlotte and Citrus counties can apply to the Department of Economic Opportunity for designated enterprise zones where businesses can be offered local tax credits.

Hendry County would be able to sell the Airglades airport to a private company.

The plan even includes a three-day “back-to-school” sales-tax holiday on certain items that would be scheduled for Aug. 3-5.

Despite setbacks over early-in-the-session prison privatization efforts and, on the final day, with the failure in the Senate of parent triggers for charter schools and the state Supreme Court declaring that some newly drawn Senate districts are unconstitutional and will require a special session starting Wednesday, the state’s top elected officials deemed the session a success.

“With the budget we passed tonight, more opportunities are here to come,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who focused on the bills that got through, rather than those that stalled or failed.

As expected, Democrats heartily denounced the budget as failing Florida families and small businesses and for cutting state university budgets collectively by $300 million, reducing Bright Futures scholarships by $350 million, and reducing funding for hospitals and clerks of court.

“The budget I rejected today is a far cry from the promises heard earlier this session about how the Legislature would focus on job creation,” stated Rep. Charles Chestnut, D-Gainesville. “The budget sets up a devastating triangle against students in working families through a combination of tuition hikes, cuts in university funding and reductions in student financial aid. The Legislature should have written a better budget.”

However, the session was hailed as a success by the Florida Chamber of Commerce as legislators backed 25 Chamber-supported bills, even with distractions from gambling and prison privatization.

But the business association noted there is still more to be done.

“During a year in which lawmakers faced many distractions, the Florida Legislature ended session without a single new tax, higher fee, new regulation or union-backed mandate,” Mark Wilson, president of the Chamber, stated in a release.

“While passing more issues than expected, there is still more work to be done. Unfortunately, the Florida Senate missed important opportunities to help Florida improve on its 42nd worst legal-climate ranking and refused to vote on lowering workers’ compensation rates by 2.5 percent on job creators.”

Another Scott priority, funding for restoration of the Florida Everglades, landed $30 million, $10 million less than requested by the governor. Meanwhile, the Florida Forever land-buying program is designated to receive $8.7 million, half of Scott’s requested total.

The budget for the state’s operations of Medicaid went unchanged from the current year, with $22.3 billion in funding. At the same time, funding for state hospitals is going to drop 5.6 percent.

Visit Florida, the state’s tourism arm highlighting Florida for the state’s 500th anniversary next year, Viva Florida, is in line to receive $54 million, up from $35 million.

But questions abound about what did get through, including a number of priorities from the business community that backs the majority in the Legislature.

The legislators were unable to close on bills that would place restrictions on medical-malpractice lawsuits, reduce workers’ compensation costs by capping the cost of prescription drugs dispensed from medical offices, require sales tax to be collected from out-of-state online firms that make sales to Floridians or allowing parents to seek wide-ranging changes at low-performing schools, including changing a traditional neighborhood school into a charter school.

Legislators also will be returning to Tallahassee shortly to revisit the redistricting maps that the Senate created.

Early in the session, a bill failed that would have established a statewide gaming commission and allow mega-casinos to go up in South Florida. The bill had a lukewarm reception in the House and strong opposition from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Disney.

A Republican uprising in the Senate also blocked an effort to privatize prisons, a measure approved a year earlier but halted by Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford.

A much-desired bill to reduce the number of policies in Citizens Property Insurance stalled in the House, while another bill that could reduce how much private insurers -- and in turn, their customers -- must immediately pay to cover costs that the dangerously large Citizens can’t handle after a storm, got last-minute passage by the Senate on Friday. This bill does not change Citizens’ liabilities to pay claims after a storm, it just spreads out the assessments to pay those liabilities.

Bills sent to Gov. Rick Scott include:

Energy (SB 2094): Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s “realistic” energy package that will expand renewable-energy production tax credits and allow local governments to use discretionary sales-tax revenue to assist homeowners who make energy-efficiency improvements.

State Employee Drug Testing (HB 1205): State employees would face the chance of being randomly drug tested once every three months. The bill would also remove provisions that currently prohibit a state agency from firing an employee for failing the test. Employees who fail a test and are required to participate in an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program would have to pay for their treatment.

Inspirational Messages Bill (SB 98): Students -- without guidance from school district employees – would be able to deliver undefined inspirational messages at public school events.

Tuition hike for UF, FSU (HB 7129): Florida State University and the University of Florida will be able to ask for more than the 15 percent cap now in place on tuition increases for science, technology, engineering and math programs.

William Dillon Compensation Bill: Already signed, awards $1.3 million to William Dillon, a Brevard County man who was wrongfully convicted of murder.

Caylee's Law (HB 37): The product of Senate workshops that were called after the emotional murder trial of Casey Anthony last summer in Orlando, the bill would require a caregiver to report if any child 16 or younger is missing. Failure to do so would be a third-degree felony, the penalty bumped up to a second-degree felony if the child is harmed while missing.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 215-9889.

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