TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature concluded its 2013 session Friday in a burst of bipartisanship, taking advantage of a resurgent economy to overwhelmingly pass the biggest budget in history and giving pay raises to state workers for the first time in seven years.
On the final day, lawmakers also expanded early voting sites, carved out a nursing home for the influential developer of The Villages retirement community and gave families a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday in August. They also rejected a heavily lobbied effort by the Miami Dolphins to seek voter-approved tax subsidies for Sun Life Stadium.
As the session adjourned Sine Die at 7:16 p.m., House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, heartily hugged in a crowded Capitol rotunda and noted how much more smoothly the session ended than in the past couple of years.
“The age of acrimony between the House and the Senate is over,” Gaetz proclaimed to loud applause.
Weatherford and Gaetz celebrated passage of higher ethical standards for public officials, including limits on lobbying by former lawmakers and on patronage jobs they can take while in office. They championed changes to campaign laws, including higher contribution limits for candidates, but Weatherford fell short of his goal of moving public employees from the state’s traditional pension plan to 401(k)-style retirement accounts.
Gov. Rick Scott praised lawmakers at the brief post-session ceremony for passing his two priorities of a teacher pay raise and a sales tax cut for manufacturing equipment. “This is a great day for Florida families,” he said.
The final day was smooth and deliberate in contrast to the partisan rancor of recent days when the House used a rapid-fire automated female voice to recite thousands of pages of legislative jargon after Democrats demanded that bills be read in full.
Like so much of the 2013 session, that clash of wills was about Medicaid. From start to finish, the dominant theme was the stalemate between the Senate and House over $51 billion in federal money to insure one million or more Floridians under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Scott endorsed Medicaid expansion in February but largely stayed on the sidelines as legislators battled the issue to a draw, with the Senate supporting taking the federal money and the House refusing. The governor reiterated Friday that because Florida taxpayers pay into the Medicaid program, the state should take the federal money.
“You had a Senate that’s open to accepting federal dollars, a governor open to it and a House that wasn’t,” said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Winter Park. “We’re passing a $74 billion budget, and over $30 billion of it is federal dollars. If there’s an overarching theme, we need to work on being consistent.”
AARP, the nation’s largest advocacy group for people 50 and older, called the session “disappointing” because of the failure of lawmakers to expand Medicaid.
The session’s other noteworthy events were a prohibition on storefront gambling dens known as Internet cafés; making it illegal to text while driving, and spending billions of dollars more on programs and projects after five years of cuts due to a weak economy.
The Internet café ban was prompted by a criminal investigation that hastened the March 12 resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll after she was interviewed by law enforcement agents because her firm did marketing work for the veterans’ group at the center of the investigation.