LEGISLATURE 2014

Budget debate, long list of bills await lawmakers in Tallahassee

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Last year, state lawmakers in Tallahassee ended the 2013 session with 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 Tuesday, lawmakers return again for the annual 60-day session to debate a slew of legislation and find agreement on a budget for the new fiscal year, which begins on July 1. Some issues are familiar ones that have come up in previous sessions; others are not.

Here’s a look at some of the key topics of debate for the 2014 session, which begins Tuesday and is scheduled to end May 2.

TAX CUTS

Gov. Rick Scott’s top priority this election year is to pass at least $500 million in cuts in taxes and fees. Lawmakers have endorsed repealing some vehicle fees and conducting a back-to-school sales tax holiday, but there is no agreement on a handful of other issues.

GAMING

The Senate has proposed a massive rewrite of the state’s gaming laws to allow for the creation of two “destination resort” casinos, one each in Miami-Dade and Broward. It also would create a new gaming control board to regulate all gambling. Questions remain on whether the governor and reluctant House will support it.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

Proposals are moving in both chambers to decriminalize a non-euphoric strain of marijuana that is known to reduce seizures in children with severe epilepsy. Lawmakers are emphasizing that the strain, known as Charlotte’s Web after a young girl whose family discovered it, is not an endorsement of the constitutional amendment to legalize pot for medical use.

PENSIONS

A House plan to overhaul the state's retirement system has emerged this year with a compromise aimed at winning Senate passage. The House wants to close the pension system to new hires and require them to enroll in 401-k-style investment plans or cash-balance plans but exempt law enforcement and firefighters. The new proposal, opposed by teachers, doesn’t appear to have the support of Senate holdouts and the governor.

SCHOOL GRADES

This year, lawmakers must approve a new formula for calculating school grades. Lawmakers could make dramatic changes to the formula, which critics say is overly complex and has become meaningless to parents. Parent groups have called for a moratorium on the A-F grading system.

SCHOOL VOUCHERS

Legislators are proposing a massive expansion of the state’s private-school voucher program by allowing companies to divert state sales tax payments from the state to be sent directly to scholarship organizations that serve low-income kids.Senate leaders are proposing for the first time that scholarship recipients take THE STATE standardized tests.

CHARTER SCHOOLS

School districts would have less power to set guidelines for charter schools under measures that would create a uniform contract to help for-profit charter school companies to expand and come to Florida, and limit individual districts’ ability to negotiate with them.

IMMIGRANT TUITION

A proposal to allow some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates if they are Florida residents is moving in the House but faces opposition in the Senate.

ALF/NURSING HOMES

A measure to tighten the reporting requirements of abuse and neglect at Assisted Living Facilities and increase fines for violators has the support of House and Senate leaders. The bills, which the industry has resisted for three years, would also require the state to set up a rating system for the elder care homesA measure to further shield nursing homes from lawsuits also has broad support from legislative leaders.

TRAUMA

A Senate plan to overhaul the way Florida approves trauma centers is moving, with the backing of the powerful hospital industry. It would end a legal dispute that has raised doubts about whether three disputed trauma centers should remain open, but the revamp faces opposition from the not-for-profit safety-net hospitals which believe the current system works fine.

NURSES

In the face of a looming doctor shortage, House Republicans are pushing a bill to allow highly trained nurses open independent practices but the measure, allowed in nearly every other state, is opposed by Senate leaders who are closely aligned with doctor groups, who are strongly opposed.

SEX PREDATORS

Bills are moving quickly to impose longer prison terms for sexually violent predators who have been prosecuted, released and re-offended.

CHARITIES

After leaders of a fake charity were convicted of an internet gambling ring, legislators are working to tighten the state’s charity laws. The effort, pushed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, would require more transparency and disclosures to root out bad performers who spend more on fundraising than actual outreach.

FLOOD INSURANCE

Legislation to encourage the sale of private flood insurance in Florida has emerged as a response to rate increases from the National Flood Insurance Program. The bills would give consumers more options for how much insurance they need to have on their property and would allow insurance companies to offer policyholders more flexible plans.

RED LIGHT CAMERAS

With data that shows fatalities are down but crashes are up, bills have been filed to repeal red light camera programs. Cities are pushing back and more regulations of the camera programs could be the compromise.

ETHICS

On the first day of session, legislators will approve a new rule that defines residency for lawmakers in the wake of redistricting which raised questions about whether several legislators were no longer living in their districts.

GROWTH

As the economy improves and home building revs up, legislators are proposing to limit the few remaining growth rules left in Florida in an effort to encourage more development. One plan would exempt counties with populations of more than 300,000 from a layer of state oversight. Other bills address water rights, road projects, conservation easements and local growth rules.

SPRINGS

A Senate plan to require local governments in the state’s most prominent springs zones to enact restrictions on fertilizer, wastewater and agriculture to reduce pollutants into the protected springs. But the measure is opposed by farmers and ranchers could face a tough fight.

Herald/Times reporters Kathleen McGrory, Tia Mitchell and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

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