The Capitol fell largely silent this week, as lawmakers, lobbyists and some reporters took time to relax after the opening month and a half of the legislative session. The sniping between Gov. Rick Scott and his chief Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, continued to generate emails and tweets.
But for the most part, it was time to reflect on where the session's major bills stand and where they could be going. Here are some top issues to watch as the final two weeks approach.
TOP PRIORITY: BUDGET NEGOTIATIONS BEGIN:
Outside of once-a-decade redistricting sessions, lawmakers are fond of saying they have one constitutional duty every year: passing a balanced budget. This year, with the week of Passover and Easter falling just two weeks before the end of the session, hammering out a spending plan is going to be a sprint.
That's because House and Senate budget writers have a nine-day window to hammer out whatever differences might be left behind after leaders agree on "allocations" for different areas of the budget. There could be a few side deals (announced or not) that would take some of the big-ticket issues off the table. But the budget has to be done by sometime April 29 in order for lawmakers to wait the required 72 hours and approve the spending plan on May 2, the last day of session.
The plan is likely to settle in around $75 billion and make room for Scott's election-year promise of $500 million in tax and fee cuts. The Legislature has already decided to cut nearly $400 million in vehicle-registration fees, and the House and Senate are now arguing over how to divvy up another $100 million or so in tax cuts, with potential breaks on everything from back-to-school supplies to cement mixers.
Leaders on both sides say the differences are small, with the Senate being more generous to higher education, while the House gives more to K-12 schools and education-construction projects. The two also differ about how much to spend on water projects and what kind of projects to fund. And there are items that account for slivers of the budget but have drawn public attention, like $13 million set aside in the Senate to allow Florida State University to start its own engineering college, independent of the program it now shares with Florida A&M University.
One thing that's unlikely to happen: the House and Senate conference committees agreeing to find a way to draw down federal funds intended to expand Medicaid, as House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, asked them to do in a letter Thursday.
"In my view, what plainly will not be acceptable to most Floridians is the current legislative stance of 'no thank you' to an estimated $51 billion of available federal money over 10 years to address Floridas health coverage crisis," Thurston wrote. "Floridians expect and deserve that their federal tax dollars be put to work in our state."
GOP leaders say the federal government has proven to be an unreliable partner in funding for joint programs like Medicaid, and they've ruled out any Medicaid expansion.
EDUCATION DEBATES: IMMIGRATION AND CHOICE:
One of the most closely watched nonbudget bills of the session has been a measure that would grant in-state tuition rates to some illegal immigrants (SB 1400) and potentially help the Republican Party get a toehold in the rapidly growing bloc of Hispanic voters.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has led the charge to pass the bill after the House overwhelmingly approved a similar measure (HB 851). Just before the Legislature began its break for Passover and Easter, Latvala said enough senators had signed on to give him a majority that would support the bill.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, sent a letter Thursday to supporters reiterating that he would not vote for the bill. Gaetz had suggested he would not block the bill if it would pass the Senate.
"Though I am likely in the minority in the Legislature on this matter, I cannot support taxpayer subsidies in the form of tuition discounts for undocumented or illegal students," Gaetz said.
The prospects for the bill took a nose-dive later Thursday, when Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, announced that he would not put the measure on the committee's agenda. The bill was scheduled to make a final stop before that panel and then head to the floor.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is still trying to push through a bill that would expand eligibility for the state's de facto school-voucher system. But Gaetz sounded skeptical about the measure (HB 7167).
"There is no accountability provision in the House bill, and I think I still want to be faithful to the understanding that Speaker Weatherford and I had, when we articulated our work plan, that we would try to expand school choice with accountability," Gaetz said.
SHOTS FIRED IN CULTURE WAR: GUNS AND ABORTION:
With the November elections only a few months away, Republicans are also looking for measures that will fire up socially conservative voters -- such as restrictions on abortion and bills advancing Florida's reputation as a gun-friendly state.
The main flashpoint on abortion is a measure (HB 1047) that would largely bar the procedures if doctors determine that fetuses have reached viability. The bill passed the House and is scheduled to be heard Monday by the Senate Rules Committee.
Under current law, abortions in most cases are barred during the third trimester of pregnancy. But the bills would require that physicians conduct examinations before performing abortions to determine if fetuses are viable. If viability is reached, abortions would generally not be allowed -- a change that the bills' supporters say could prevent abortions around the 20th week of pregnancy.
It's not clear whether the Senate companion (SB 918) can pass the full Senate, where moderate Republicans sometimes team with Democrats to try to block abortion restrictions.
The culture wars could also emerge over legislation that would allow Floridians to carry concealed weapons without licenses during evacuations ordered by the governor. The House version (HB 209) has passed that chamber, and a counterpart (SB 296) could soon go to the floor.
Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, said the "last thing you need to worry about is being charged with a crime because you're taking maybe one of your most valuable possession with you" when your house is damaged, the power lines are down and communications are out.
But Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, argued against the bill by noting that part of the intent of the state's concealed weapons licenses is so individuals are trained to carry.
"Perhaps we can help encourage people that part of hurricane preparedness is that if you feel the need to carry a weapon on your person, if there is an emergency, get a conceal carry permit," Rodriguez said.
A PLETHORA OF OTHER ISSUES:
Lawmakers will grapple with dozens of other bills as they look to get out of Tallahassee in early May and start campaigning for the November elections. The issues range from industry fights, such as hospitals battling about new trauma centers, to quirky bills, such as creating the position of state poet laureate.
But while the Capitol gets filled with political intrigue and lobbying battles at the end of each session, it's important to remember that some legislation can have far-reaching effects.
As an example, the House and Senate are still working on bills that would address gaps in Florida's child-protection system after revelations in The Miami Herald about the deaths of children who had previously come to the attention of the state Department of Children and Families.
And in an issue that affects state employees and other government workers, such as teachers, both chambers appear to be headed toward overhauling the state's pension system. Broadly, the effort seeks to encourage more workers to join a 401(k)-style investment plan instead of the traditional pension system. While employee unions have objected to changes, Weatherford and other lawmakers say an overhaul is needed to ensure the long-term financial stability of the retirement system.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Internet giant Amazon.com announced it will start collecting sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians as of May 1.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Indeed, the capacity to become pregnant is one of the most significant and obvious distinctions between the female and male sexes." -- Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente, writing for the majority in a case regarding whether pregnancy is covered under Florida's Civil Rights Act.