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Weekly Roundup: Hitting the Home Stretch

April 19, 2013 - 6:00pm

In a head-spinning week for news around the country, starting with the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday and ending with that city being locked down for a manhunt on Friday, one could be forgiven for being a bit ambivalent about another week of legislating in Florida.

But from what appears likely to be one of the easiest budget deals in recent memory (lots of money will do that), to talk of compromise on expanding health care, to the lowest unemployment rate in more than four years, there was a lot of good news here this week to take the mind off the latest violence in Boston, a horrific industrial explosion in Texas and, depending on where you stand, a surprising gun vote in Washington.

And the Legislature, sometimes accused of spending lots of time doing very little of import, actually voted on a couple of items this week that could have a major impact on lots of people's lives.

Lawmakers sent to Gov. Rick Scott an overhaul of the alimony system that will affect, alas, nearly half of married people. And the Senate passed a bill that affects seemingly every young person with a driver's license in voting to make it illegal to text and drive, something that is probably even more common than divorce.

There was one other bill before lawmakers this week that would have broad impact -- but the Senate didn't appear to have to the votes to pass it and so put it on the back burner for now. That piece of legislation would force the premiums for Citizens Property Insurance, which covers the property of more than 1 million Florida customers, to go up in an effort to reduce the burden on the rest of Florida residents should Citizens not have enough to pay claims in a big storm.

That bill should return to the full Senate next week if backers have the votes. But as happened in the mid-2000s after the two big hurricane years, lawmakers in coastal areas are getting jitters about how much Citizens rates might go up if the bill passes, and whether they'll get blamed.


The alimony bill passed Thursday night by the House and sent to Scott is aimed at modernizing the system, which backers said was designed back during a "Mad Men" era when more women needed help after getting dumped because they didn't work.

The measure's most obvious change: eliminating permanent alimony in favor of a new standard based on the length of a marriage. For short marriages, those that lasted less than 11 years, the presumption would be that there'd be no alimony, though someone would have the chance to make a case for it. In contrast, a marriage that ends after 20 years would have a presumption that alimony would be awarded. The amount would also depend, generally, on the length of the marriage.

Some women in the House -- though not all of them -- said the bill favored men. Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, said she feared for women who put their own career on hold for the benefit of their husband. "When their hip size changed from 36 to 46, (the man) decided to change their spouse."

Other women, though, said the old law was patronizing to women, who now can go out and make their own way.

"Let's raise strong women," said Rep. Liz Porter, R-Lake City. "Let's not say someone needs to take care of us for the rest of our lives."

Scott hasn't said whether he'll sign it.


The deaths of three young people from a terrorist's bomb may have dominated our thinking this week -- but 11 teenagers die every day across the country because of texting while driving, by one estimate.

The Senate on Tuesday passed the texting while driving ban, which has exceptions for when the car is stopped -- so texting could still be legal at stoplights, for example. The bill goes next to the House.

A few other high profile bills passed this week, though arguably they wouldn't affect as many people.

A bill that limits police use of drones -- unmanned aircraft -- to monitor people passed the House and went to Scott, who said he will sign it. The bill was important to civil libertarians, but also included compromises that could allow police to still use the technology in some circumstances, such as to combat a legitimate terrorism threat, which is in fact an extremely rare event, but maybe didn't feel like it this week.


And if it is broad impact you're looking for, the health care debate in Tallahassee may interest you. There's more than 3 million uninsured adults in Florida -- nearly one-in-three. Since the federal health care law will eventually require them to be covered, Florida lawmakers this week intensified their discussions of how the state might expand the number of people with access to health coverage.

Pretty different plans have emerged from each side of the Capitol, with one being pushed by Sen. Joe Negron seeking to use about $50 billion in federal money over the next decade to extend coverage to more people, while another Senate plan and a House plan would reject any federal money for smaller-reach programs. The House next week could take up a plan approved Friday in the Appropriations Committee that would reject federal help and provide $2,000 state subsidies to help targeted groups of low-income people buy health coverage and services.

Negron, a Stuart Republican and the Senate's budget chairman, said this week he'd like to see a compromise, essentially approve both plans and let the uninsured choose which they'd like to take advantage of --a small subsidy through private companies, or a plan that Negron envisions being offered through Florida Healthy Kids, which runs the state's existing subsidized KidCare program.

That led one lawmaker to say the Legislature should choose one, likening doing both to taking two dates to the prom. But if they don't do both, choosing one might prove difficult with just two full weeks in the regular legislative session. Observers are waiting to see if Scott pushes one plan over another, and predicting there could be a special session.


Hard to argue against Gov. Rick Scott's boast that "it's working."

One might quibble about why it's working, but something clearly is. The jobless rate in Florida dropped in March to 7.5 percent. While if recent history is a guide that is likely to be revised upward next month, it's still an enormous improvement over where things were a couple of years ago.

It was October of 2008 the last time the jobless rate was this low in the state, and Florida quite clearly is continuing a recovery from a recession in which the jobless rate peaked at 12 percent in late 2010 (or 11.4 percent if you use the most recent adjustment) -- just after Scott got elected.

Scott is overtly blaming his predecessor, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, for the recession, though most economists would point out that the economy went into the tank nationally at the same time. For as much as they can't stand him, it's unlikely even many Florida Republicans would pin the global economic collapse on Crist. Well, maybe a few would, but not most.

And while Scott will get some credit for the decrease in the unemployment rate, economists would also likely point out that unemployment has been dropping in most places -- it went down in 26 states in March -- and 39 states have a jobless rate below where it was a year ago.

Still, just as he made "Let's Get to Work" a ubiquitous political phrase in the state three years ago, Scott is beginning to try to do the same for his claim that "it's working" as he prepares for his re-election bid.

And this week, he continued to get ammunition to be able to rightly claim that it -- or at least something -- is.


Meanwhile, all those people who have gotten to work are paying taxes (well, unless they're buying everything on -- more on that shortly).

And all those taxes coming in the door means that as lawmakers start the real work of negotiating a final state budget, there's a lot of people -- to borrow a phrase from Senate President Don Gaetz -- wanting to hold hands in the warm spring rain that was falling in Tallahassee on Friday.

It's been years (at least five) since lawmakers had such a relaxed attitude as they began the process of conference negotiations over the two competing budget plans.

Leaders were quick to pat themselves on the back. "We can show the people of Florida that we can be adults and we can do this the right way and be proud of the end result," said a smiling House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, as the two chambers prepared to start conference committees this week.

They may be more adult than previous leaders, but it doesn't hurt that they have some cash to hand out. Weatherford took note of that -- looking around at a full room of mostly relaxed lobbyists who poked their heads into the first conference committee meeting.

"What's abundantly clear is that there appears to be a budget surplus this year," Weatherford said. "That's a good thing. We haven't seen that in a long time."

With conference committees set to meet over the weekend, there will be more money on the table for education, including some sort of teacher raise, and pay hikes for state workers.

"We've negotiated a budget framework that allows the House and Senate to both pursue their budget priorities," Senate budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said on Thursday.

Back to, still in the mix is a possible big sales tax holiday. It's almost certain shoppers will get some sort of sales tax break -- but one possibility is making it longer or larger if legislators can agree on bringing in additional revenue by forcing and other online retailers to collect and remit state sales on purchases over the Internet.

STORY OF THE WEEK: In a week marred by terrorism scares in the Northeast, lawmakers in Florida plodded toward a budget and health care endgame.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "It's like trying to take two dates to the prom. Where I come from, you don't do that -- even though you might try." -- Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, on giving people a choice of health-care coverage expansion plans.

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