Lawmakers seek larger share of state budget, caps on property insurance rate hikes


South Florida lawmakers will have to stick together — and cozy up to the people in power — to win state money for local interests.


State lawmakers from South Florida are taking a cue from P. Diddy as they head to Tallahassee for the upcoming legislative session.

This year, it’s all about the Benjamins.

“The most important thing we’re going to fight for in Tallahassee is money,” said state Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, a Hialeah Republican and chair of Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation. “We want to protect everything we’ve gotten in the past and, if possible, bring back a little more.”

Broward lawmakers will focus attention on a trio of issues: school safety, elections reform and creating a special tax district in Broward County to fund senior services.

State Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, the Senate Democratic leader, is optimistic. “The tone is a little different this year,’’ he said. “I think this is a good year to try and get things done.”

There will, as usual, be some high-profile bills that thrust South Florida into the spotlight, including a proposal drafted by the Miami Dolphins that would enable sports teams to receive state money for stadium renovations. Local lawmakers are split on the issue, signaling an uphill battle for sponsors Gonzalez and Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat.

Other bills, like a proposal from Miami-Dade delegation Vice Chairman Jose Felix Diaz to limit rate hikes by Citizens Property Insurance, will have the full support of the Miami-Dade delegation.

But by and large, when session starts Tuesday, Miami-Dade and Broward lawmakers will focus their energy on taking home the largest possible share of Florida’s $70-plus billion budget.

Their success will depend partly on their ability to cozy up to the people in power. There are no Miami-Dade lawmakers in top leadership roles, meaning the delegation won’t carry much clout early on. In Broward, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, is among a few Democratic committee chairs in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, named her to lead the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, where she’s the moving spirit on a bill that would tighten protections for the residents of assisted living facilities. Sobel is also vice chair of Senate panels on Ethics and Elections, Health Policy and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“[Gaetz] is trying to be different than the federal government,” Sobel told the News Service of Florida. “[He’s] trying to come up with solutions to very, very difficult problems and getting input from both sides of the aisle.”

Some individual Miami-Dade lawmakers will yield influence, including Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican, who chairs the House subcommittee on education spending. Rep. Jose Oliva should also see his star rise in the coming year; the Miami Lakes Republican has been tapped by his colleagues to serve as speaker of the house in 2018.

Gonzalez said that he will sit on a small leadership team convened by current House Speaker Will Weatherford.

“I don’t think we necessarily need someone with a leadership title to deliver,” Gonzalez said. “We just need someone at the table.”

The delegation must also stick together — a challenge, given its history of in-fighting among Republican members.

“We never utilize our power and strength from a numbers standpoint,” said Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat, who has served in the Legislature since 2008. “There’s always a contentious issue.”

For Broward, Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Broward delegation, has filed a bill that would allow each county to create a special taxing district to fund school resource officers and mental health services for students. The Broward delegation will also pursue a local bill that would allow only Broward County to carry out the plan.

“Bills like that typically get heard,” Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, said of the local bill.

This year, the Miami-Dade delegation compiled its list of priorities in a way that would not isolate any members. “If one member had an issue with a bill, we didn’t include it in the legislative priorities,” Gonzalez said.

That may explain why the list is so short. The priorities include requiring an inspector general to oversee the scandal-plagued Citizens Property Insurance, and extending the existing caps on Citizens’ rate hikes to new policy holders.

“We need to see a true 10 percent rate cap,” said Diaz, the vice chairman, noting that new policy holders can be hit with far larger rate increases because of a loophole in existing law.

A less flashy proposal would make it easier for Miami-Dade County to comply with new regulations for waste-water disposal. County officials have said the measure could save $1 billion over the next three to five years.

And then there are the budget items.

The delegation has cobbled together an ambitious appropriations agenda that includes funding for the UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, the League Against Cancer, Jackson Health System, the Miami-Dade public schools, Farm Share and the Florida International University Medical School.

Miami-Dade lawmakers also hope to win $900,000 to build a new library and museum in Hialeah Gardens honoring Brigade 2506, the band of exiles who attempted to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

But some bills have already proved divisive.

The Dolphins Stadium proposal, for example, has failed to win universal support among Miami-Dade lawmakers, even though the football team has agreed to hold a countywide referendum on the matter. The bill would enable Miami-Dade County to increase the bed tax paid by mainland hotels to help fund $400 million in renovations at Sun Life Stadium, and provide a sales-tax subsidy for the Dolphins.

Observers are split on the bill’s chances of becoming law, especially in light of public backlash against a 2009 deal that allowed public money to be spent on the new Marlins Ballpark. Moreover, the proposal has the potential to burn some of Miami-Dade’s political capital early in the session, the way the destination resort casino bill did last year.

Fresen, who is a co-sponsor on the Dolphins bill, said he isn’t worried.

“I’m confident that with our collective power in the House and Senate, we’ll be able to accomplish most of our goals,” he said.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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