THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 2, 2011.....It wouldn’t be the last couple weeks of the legislative session without incessant speculation over whether lawmakers will leave on time, and this week the speculation was loud that there’d be no way of finishing by May 6.
But with the announcement on the broad outline of the budget in allocations announced early in the week, the doubting died down a bit, and most observers thought lawmakers soon will have done something previously thought at least very difficult – balancing a budget that erases a nearly $4 billion shortfall in just a couple months and ending the session on time.
The planned massive Medicaid overhaul remains to be done, but even on that, lawmakers are close to an agreement, House Speaker Dan Cannon said late Friday night. That proposal is one of the most far-reaching to be undertaken by the Legislature in recent years, envisioning a dramatic statewide change in the way health care services are delivered to the poor. The federal government sent the state notice this week that it won’t just rubber stamp whatever Florida does, either.
But much of the talk around the Capitol this week revolved around whether the sudden interest in the Senate of making changes to the Supreme Court, particularly adding three justices and then splitting the court into two divisions, one civil and one criminal, should get the credit for making everything seem to flow a little more smoothly.
Members quietly at first, and then more publicly, said that Cannon wanted the court overhaul as a going home present and not much would come to a conclusion without it. When the Senate Budget Committee brought up that Supreme Court measure early in the week, suddenly everything started to fall into place. The Supreme Court overhaul, still needs a Senate vote, but for now, anyway, it’s at least in play.
Only hours before it came up in the Senate Budget Committee, lawmakers had been openly saying that it looked nigh impossible to reach a budget deal. The buzz was a low, grim drone with repeated mentions of the words “special session” and “long summer.”
But just a short time after Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander pushed Cannon’s court measure through the Budget Committee, there was Cannon, R-Winter Park, along with Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, saying they’d agreed on budget allocations and everything else was moving along quite nicely.
The budget remained not quite complete heading into this weekend, although several major issues were either off the table or left to leaders to decide. Late Friday, lawmakers said they’d gotten over a key hurdle, figuring out what the state’s pension plan changes will look like. Government workers in the retirement system will begin paying 3 percent of their salary into their retirement plan starting July 1. The retirement age will go up, but the popular DROP program to encourage early retirement will remain. Backers claimed $1.1 billion in savings from the plan.
Another area that defied the suddenly friendly atmosphere was the immigration debate. The House has been more sure of itself all along in wanting to make it easier for local cops to do what lawmakers say the federal government won’t do – try to enforce the federal immigration law.
Haridopolos said late this week that the Senate is having a tougher time getting everyone on the same page, and the broad outline of the coming immigration bill in the Senate sounded softer. The Senate mainly is focused on a narrow increase in the use of the federal E-verify system for checking some workers’ immigration status, but seems less sure about whether police should have additional immigration power.
And there is still a ticking clock on the budget, with an agreement between the two chambers needed by late Tuesday to have the required waiting period before a Friday vote on the at least $66 billion budget.
SOCIAL ISSUES, PERSONAL FREEDOM, A BIG FOCUS
One of the big surprises of this legislative session – and in full evidence this week – has been the degree to which, despite pleas from the governor and legislative leaders to focus almost entirely on the economy and jobs, the Republican-controlled Legislature has wanted instead to delve into contentious social issues involving religion, abortion, and gun rights.
Of course Republicans have a bigger majority than they’ve ever had in the modern Legislature and so perhaps it’s no surprise that they’d want to press that advantage on issues that split the parties so starkly.
This week lawmakers in the House voted to tighten the state’s abortion controls, requiring more ultrasounds before abortions and, in the eyes of Democrats, otherwise reducing women’s freedom to consider ending a pregnancy. The ultrasound measure wasn’t new – it passed last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist. But the abortion bills, and several bills meant to give Florida residents more freedom when it comes to their guns, were a bit of a snub to those, including the governor, who said the focus of lawmakers should be entirely on getting the state back to work.
In fact several times during debate this week Democrats raised sharp questions – to the point of annoyance of nearly everyone in the chamber and those watching – about how many jobs each bill would create. Aside from possibly a few new ultrasound technicians, the measures aren’t likely to, and so Republicans, needing no help from Democrats on anything anyway, finally resorted to simply not answering the question.
Regardless of what the abortion bills actually do – GOP lawmakers argued that some of them actually don’t change much; most women seeking abortion already get an ultrasound anyway, for example –they opened up the legislative floor to several hours this week of emotional, and at times highly personal debate about issues that many thought would remain in the background until the economy recovers. And, as Democrats, pointed out, it was hours spent not debating what might be done to get the economy on track and Florida residents back to work.
Republicans also sent to Scott this week two gun rights bills, one a measure that tries to make the point to doctors that they shouldn’t delve too deeply into whether their patients own guns. While there was some agreement in the end that when a patient’s medical condition warrants it – if the patient is suicidal for example – doctors should still be able to ask whether there’s a gun in a patient’s home. But routinely, they won’t be able to anymore under the bill (HB 155), which Scott is expected to sign. Another bill puts penalties on local government officials who enact local laws on gun control that are more stringent than the state’s gun laws, such as trigger lock requirements.
SCOTT – HEY ‘CONSERVATIVES,’ HOW ABOUT SOME TAX CUTS?
Meanwhile, Gov. Scott continued to press lawmakers to build tax cuts, preferably a cut in the corporate income tax, into the budget. He had their attention, with both Haridopolos (in a Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat) and Cannon saying they were trying to accommodate the governor. Haridopolos actually said for the first time that there will be tax cuts in the budget, about $30 million worth, but he said that didn’t count any corporate income tax cut, which isn’t terribly high on his priority list.
Haridopolos said lawmakers will almost certainly return to taxpayers some money in the form of a school tax holiday, and some research and development tax breaks, and will also reduce some fees.
Scott said he couldn’t imagine that “conservative legislators” like Haridopolos and Cannon wouldn’t want to cut taxes.
As talks neared completion in Tallahassee on how to complete the revamp of the Medicaid system, officials in Washington warned that the federal government will fully review whatever lawmakers come up with. The feds pay for more than half the program’s costs.
State officials had sought an automatic waiver to be able to put in place whatever they come up with, but Washington said late this week that Uncle Sam won’t sign off until officials in D.C. know exactly what it is Florida is planning to do. Washington also said it will require that the state set out certain requirements for HMOs that will be treating most Medicaid patients under the new plan spelling out how much money must be spent directly on health care, versus going to the bottom line of the private companies.
ALSO THIS WEEK
Another measure that went to Scott this week (HB 1231) would deregulate land-line telephone service. The bill flew mostly below the radar screen this year and saw little of the controversy of previous efforts at deregulation in telecomm. The AARP was against it, saying it could lead to higher basic phone rates, but for many people the question about the bill was ‘what’s a land-line?’ Scott has until next Thursday to act on the bill.
BITNER HAS FIGHT AHEAD
In news unrelated to the legislative session, those who toil in Florida politics learned this week that former legislator and current Republican Party of Florida Chairman Dave Bitner has been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. An upbeat Bitner told reporters he plans to keep on working.