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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Getting Serious in the Capitol

March 22, 2013 - 7:00pm

Forget the pomp and niceties that start every legislative session. This week meant business.

The House and Senate, in their third week of the annual 60-day session, quickly moved forward with bills aimed at shutting down Internet cafes across the state. Also, compromises resolved a dispute about an Everglades bill and a years-long battle between optometrists and ophthalmologists.

But as legislation developed, it also became clear that the House and Senate have significant differences about issues such as revamping the state retirement system, changing campaign-finance laws and coming up with an alternative to expanding Medicaid.

The House on Friday approved its retirement system bill (HB 7011), which is a top priority of Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. The key part of the bill would close off the traditional "defined benefit" pension system to new employees, requiring them to enroll in a 401(k)-type "defined contribution" plan.

Weatherford and his Republican allies argue that the traditional system is antiquated, as private companies have shifted en masse to 401(k) plans. Supporters of the bill also were careful to note that the changes would only affect future employees, not those already in the state retirement system.

"The time has come for pension reform,'' Weatherford said in a prepared statement after the vote. "I am proud of the House's passage of this reasonable proposal that will provide savings for Florida's taxpayers and financial certainty for our state, while most importantly offering future employees a meaningful retirement benefit they control."

The plan, however, met fierce opposition from Democrats, who argued that it would take away long-term security from state employees. They said, in part, that those employees often work for lower salaries than people in the private sector.

"Go pick someone else's pocket, leave our public servants alone,'' said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton.

But while Democrats couldn't block the bill, Weatherford's push to overhaul the system could run into bigger problems in the Senate. Republican senators said this week they don't want to go as far as the House, instead backing a bill by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, that would give workers incentives to enter an existing 401(k)-style plan but would still allow them to choose the pension system.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said of the House bill, "I think it's wrong, it's ill-conceived."

Weatherford has also sought to make changes in the campaign-finance system, getting rid of a type of fundraising vehicle known as "committees of continuous existence" and increasing contribution limits to candidates. The House approved the measure (HB 569) on Friday.

But the House will still have to bridge differences with the Senate. As an example, the House bill would raise a contribution limit for legislative candidates from the current $500 to $3,000; the Senate campaign-finance bill would keep the limit at $500.

Resolving those campaign-finance differences, however, might pale compared to the House and Senate trying to reach agreement on a plan to offer health coverage to low-income Floridians. Republicans in both chambers have said they don't want to expand the Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act, but they also say they want to come up with an alternative.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday started moving forward with a proposal, dubbed Healthy Florida, that would offer private health insurance to hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise be eligible for the Medicaid expansion. The proposal would rely on federal funding, but Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, tried to draw a distinction between Medicaid and Healthy Florida, which he described as "premium assistance for people who go to work every day."

While House Republican leaders say they want to find a way to offer more coverage, they also have repeatedly expressed skepticism about relying on billions of dollars in federal money. That likely will be the key issue as the House and Senate try to reach agreement in the coming weeks.

"The biggest difference is certainly funding,'' said Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Land O' Lakes Republican who is chairman of a House select committee on the Affordable Care Act.

BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH FOR INTERNET CAFES?

The House and Senate, however, don't seem to have any problems agreeing to shut down Internet cafes.

Less than two weeks after raids and arrests rocked the industry -- and Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned because of her ties to the prime target of the investigation -- the House voted 108-7 on Friday to approve a bill that would ban the electronic games used in Internet cafes and adult arcades. A ban also started moving in the Senate this week.

Critics have repeatedly argued that Internet cafes offer illegal games that are akin to slot machines. Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said the investigation showed how the businesses have exploited state laws.

"This is a loophole that cries out to be closed," Thrasher said.

But opponents of a ban said it would close legitimate businesses and put people out of work. Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, also said many seniors enjoy adult arcades and that regulation would be a better option than a ban.

"There's no reason it should be a criminal activity,'' Schwartz said.

SINGING KUMB-EYE-YAH:

Optometrists and ophthalmologists have been fighting in Tallahassee for years. And farmers and environmentalists don't exactly always agree about Everglades issues.

But this week, the groups held hands -- well, figuratively -- and reached compromises that defused two potential legislative fights.

The House on Friday approved a bill (HB 239) that would allow optometrists to start prescribing oral medications, an idea that ophthalmologists have repeatedly blocked in the past. The bill includes limits on optometrists, but it apparently did enough to satisfy both sides of the debate.

"Let this be proof that ophthalmology and optometry can work together for the benefit of Florida patients,'' Charles Slonim, president of the Florida Society of Ophthalmology, told a Senate committee, which also approved the compromise.

The full House also approved a compromise that is the latest version of a plan to restore the Everglades. The bill (HB 7065), which got the backing of sugar farmers and Audubon of Florida, short-circuited a potential battle about who pays for the Everglades project and how much responsibility agricultural permit holders bear.

"While it's not exactly everything everyone wanted to get, it is something everyone can agree to," said Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Lehigh Acres Republican who shepherded the bill through the House.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The House approved a series of high-profile bills, including measures that would revamp the state retirement system, change campaign-finance laws and seek to shut down Internet cafes.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I would think it would be a cold day before we would change our position on this bill." -- Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, when asked about assurances that the Senate would not accept the House's proposal for changing the retirement system.

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