Florida lawmakers will gather March 3 in the Capitol for the pomp-filled start of the 2015 legislative session. Then the real work begins. For 60 days, the House and Senate will grapple with hot-button issues ranging from standardized testing in public schools to reforming the troubled prison system. And that doesn’t even touch on the one must-pass bill of the session: a roughly $77 billion state budget.
Here are 10 big issues to watch during the upcoming session:
BUDGET: Banking on a nearly $1 billion surplus, Gov. Rick Scott offered a budget proposal in January that included record per-student spending in public schools and $673 million in tax cuts. But a major question looms for the Republican-dominated Legislature as it prepares to negotiate a final spending plan this spring. A program that has funneled about $1 billion a year to hospitals and other health providers is set to expire June 30, and it is unclear whether state and federal officials can agree on an extension. If they can’t agree, that would leave a huge hole in the budget. The program, known as the Low Income Pool, helps subsidize care for low-income and uninsured Floridians.
CHILD WELFARE: After a series of child deaths, lawmakers last year passed a wide-ranging law to try to reform the Florida Department of Children and Families. But lawmakers and the agency are struggling with renewed questions heading into this year’s session, in part because of the high-profile death of a 5-year-old girl who was dropped off a bridge into Tampa Bay. A 50-page report issued in late January by a new institute at Florida State University called for state leaders to go far beyond their previous efforts to fix the child-welfare system.
GAMBLING: Lawmakers have toyed the past few years with revamping the state’s gambling laws, but they have ended up scuttling proposals such as allowing resort casinos in South Florida. This spring, however, Scott and the Legislature are confronted with a decision about whether to extend part of a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that brings in more than $100 million a year for the state. If the Seminole deal goes before the Legislature, odds are that lobbyists will use it as a springboard to seek other changes in the gambling industry.
GUNS: When Florida State University graduate Myron May opened fire at the campus library in November, he wounded three people before he was shot to death by police. The incident stunned the university. But it also reopened a debate about whether the Legislature should start allowing people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on college campuses. Supporters of the change say it would help students and other people on campus defend themselves. But critics contend that the proposal could make campuses more dangerous.
HEALTH CARE: The noisiest health-care issue during the upcoming session likely will focus on whether the state should accept tens of billions of dollars in federal money to expand Medicaid or to provide coverage through a similar private health-insurance program. But like the past two years, the idea appears dead on arrival in the Florida House. Health-care lobbyists, however, are working on a variety of other issues, including proposals to bolster the use of telemedicine in the state. The House and Senate could not reach agreement on a telemedicine bill last year but appear to be close to a compromise heading into this spring’s session.
LAND AND WATER: Voters sent a strong message in November when they overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment requiring the state to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars a year for land and water projects. But one of the most closely watched issues of the session will be how the Legislature carries that out. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, have made clear that water issues will be a priority of their two years leading the Legislature. But at least part of the debate will focus on how to divvy up money between proposed water projects, which range from cleaning up natural springs and the Everglades to helping with local-government stormwater systems.
PRISONS: The Florida Department of Corrections is getting hit from all sides. Among other things, it faces investigations into inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, complaints about low staffing levels and questions about health care provided to prisoners. Senators have started moving aggressively to try to make changes in the agency, which has long had problems. Among the proposals under discussion: creating new penalties for guards who abuse prisoners and establishing a new commission to oversee the prison system.
STADIUMS: Lawmakers last year approved a plan to try to bring some order to lobbying scrums about whether the state should spend sales-tax dollars to help pay for building or renovating sports stadiums. The plan led to four stadium projects — involving EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Daytona International Speedway, Sun Life Stadium in Miami-Dade County and an Orlando soccer stadium — submitting voluminous applications and undergoing reviews. But then the process became messy, at least in part because the state Department of Economic Opportunity did not rank the projects. And now, lawmakers find themselves once again getting lobbied heavily as they try to decide whether the state should subsidize stadium projects.
TAX CUTS: The question isn’t whether lawmakers will approve tax cuts. The question is how big the number will be and which taxes will get cut. Scott’s proposed $673 million in tax cuts focus heavily on what is known as the communications-services tax, which is collected on such things as cell-phone bills and cable television. The governor wants to cut that tax by about $470 million, arguing such a cut would directly help families. It is unclear whether lawmakers will go along with such a large cut in that tax. But they are looking at several additional possibilities, including cutting a tax on real-estate leases, increasing deductions on corporate-income taxes and offering sales-tax holidays.
TESTING: Democrats and teachers unions howled for years about Florida high-stakes testing system, which was largely ushered in by former Gov. Jeb Bush and backed by Republican legislative leaders. But with many conservative voters now also objecting to the system, Scott and the Legislature appear to be looking for ways to scale back the focus on standardized testing. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, with the support of Scott, has already called for eliminating at least one statewide test. A key for Republican lawmakers could be trying to find a balance between reduced testing and still having accountability measures for schools.
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida
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take the medicaid..millions of people need the health care it would provide..PERIOD..