News Service of Florida Release
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, January 4, 2013.......With the holidays over and the fiscal cliff problem put off for a few months, drivers of public policy are turning their attention toward the 2013 legislative session.
As advocacy groups prepare for a legislative cycle that for all intents and purposes begins a week from now, a handful of hot button issues has already re-emerged that will provide fodder for part-time lawmakers who will spend most of their time in the capital for the next several months.
Local pension benefits, fast-track foreclosures, taxes and health care reform are again expected to play prominently when lawmakers return for the 2013 session. With committee hearings gearing up a week from now, much of the process will happen before the official March start of the regular session.
Gov. Rick Scott was in the thick of working on his proposed budget this week. He must turn it in to lawmakers in a couple of weeks. While major growth in revenue isn't expected, neither is a big deficit.
"Hopefully, what we're doing is we're solving some problems," Scott said this week in an interview. "As we solve problems, hopefully we don't have to spend as much money in certain areas."
Scott said he'll suggest more money anything that creates jobs, and look to save elsewhere. For example, more money for Enterprise Florida, which recruits companies to come to Florida – and at least a little new money for education, he said Friday. Anything that doesn't give the state a return, might not make it.
While school funding may be safe, a number of education issues, from battles over charter schools and protecting schools from gunmen to the funding formula for early learning and how much tuition should be, will be on the table in the coming months.
Advocates were also looking ahead this week to a health care debate in the coming year.
Medicaid and the state's response to the Affordable Care Act have already drawn the attention of both Scott and Republican leaders. The state has been pressing to move more Medicaid patients into managed care plans, an effort that has drawn opposition from Democratic lawmakers and some patient advocates.
The state Agency for Health Care Administration has been seeking approval from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for more than a year and also has started the contracting process for managed-care plans that want to take part in the long-term care system.
The state also is seeking approval to require the broader Medicaid population, such as low-income women and children, to enroll in managed-care plans.
Lawmakers must also respond to the Affordable Care Act --- better known as Obamacare –which will remain the law of the land following the November elections. Both chambers have established committees to deal exclusively with the issue.
Also as the new year has begun, state officials have continued the look at what went wrong on Election Day and how the voting apparatus might need to be changed, if it does.
Scott said on national TV recently that early voting days need to be re-examined – hinting that he and other Republicans may have made a mistake in cutting the number of days during which people can vote. He said this week that he does want lawmakers to look at that, though he isn't ready to say how many days, exactly, is a good idea. Scott also repeated this week the assertion that the ballot may be too long – something that should be looked at, he said, as a way of reducing voting wait times.
PENSIONS, LOCAL REVENUE
Cities and counties this week outlined legislative agendas that focus on protecting longstanding revenue streams while seeking more flexibility in dealing with police and firefighter pensions.
Both groups are wary of changes to the state's communication services tax. Originally established in 2000 as a way to consolidate taxes on a growing list of communication services, the tax generated about $1.5 billion in revenue last year, according to Department of Revenue estimates. Of that, cities and countries receive about half.
Changes made last year were determined to have a year negative impact on local governments, but state economists couldn't determine what the long term economic impact would be on local collections.
For many cities, increasingly expensive pensions, especially for police and firefighters, are gobbling up larger portions of cash strapped budgets. The Florida League of Cities has made pension reform its top priority for the coming year.
While many cities have adequately funded pensions, some municipalities have seen their ability to fund pension benefits erode as the economy went south and tax collections dipped.
A study by the LeRoy Collins Institute, a Tallahassee-based think tank housed at Florida State University, reported in September that pensions for police, firefighters and other special category employees grew at a much steeper rate than that of other government workers. In seven years, contributions for public safety employees grew from 28 to 41 percent.
OTHER ISSUES IN THE HOPPER
A bill to speed up the foreclosure process was filed this week in the House by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. At first blush, the bill is a more limited version of a bill (HB 213) that passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate.
This time around, the proposal jettisons some of its more controversial items, including a provision dealing with abandoned property. The new bill (HB 87) Also maps out in more specificity the rights and obligations following a final foreclosure judgment.
A handful of House bills has also been filed dealing with tuition for Florida high school students who are American citizens but the children of undocumented immigrants.
STORY OF THE WEEK: With Congress barely averting a "fiscal cliff" by passing a last-minute deal to extend a series of tax breaks while postponing planned spending cuts, Gov. Rick Scott was working on his proposed spending plan for the state – which is required to have a balanced budget. Scott dropped a few hints, but mostly hasn't said much about what he'll suggest, other than additional tax relief for businesses and more money for education.