Now that the hankies have dropped signifying the end of Florida’s legislative session, the political pundits are out in force. They scramble to identify the winners and losers of the session.
While 160 legislators are returning home from what seems like a three-month sequestration in the state capital, they travel their districts telling constituents what happened to the nearly 2,000 bills filed, the 200+ bills that passed and the multibillion-dollar annual budget they helped craft.
But most voters don’t understand how the Legislature works and are primarily interested only in those issues that directly affect them and their families. With that in mind, I offer the following recap of the good, the bad and the unfinished business for the 2014 legislative session as I see it from outside the Tallahassee bubble.
Let’s start with the good.
The Legislature had a record high budget of $77 billion to work with and cautiously set $3 billion aside in reserves, a kind of savings account for emergencies or unexpected needs. Additionally, over $500 million was returned to Floridians in tax and fee cuts and sales tax holidays.
School funding received a pretty good bump in funding but fell short of the historic high in per pupil funding of 2007. The Department of Children and Families was given additional funds to hire and train much-needed child protection caseworkers. And dollars were invested in restoration efforts for the Indian River Lagoon in response to troubling fish kills and estuary and ecosystem damage.
Outside the budgetary arena, two interesting and somewhat surprising policy decisions were made by a Republican Legislature. Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign both of these measures: in-state tuition rates for undocumented Florida students and legalization of a certain non-euphoric strain of medical marijuana known as Charlotte’s web.
While these appear to be election-year conversions, nonetheless, good public policy is the result.
But while some very good decisions were made in spending the state’s revenues, some questionable ones were made as well.
On the bad side was the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in member projects, earmarks and nonessential government spending. The budget grew from $69.7 billion when Gov. Scott assumed office in 2011 to a record-breaking $77 billion now. Scott has plenty of opportunity to trim the budget and it will be interesting to see how fiscally conservative he is with his powerful veto pen.
Another lowlight — more Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) funding from a tax on utilities was spent on construction, remodeling and maintenance for charter schools than on traditional public school buildings, whose needs greatly exceed the charters.
While several controversial bills were killed during session, a few made their way through. One was the expansion of school vouchers that passed without the corresponding testing accountability that the Senate had originally insisted on.
This session might be remembered more for what the Legislature didn’t do. In what was regarded as a “do no harm” strategy, many important issues were left as unfinished business.
The expansion of Medicaid to be funded completely with federal funds for the first few years would have provided health-care coverage to nearly 1 million of Florida’s working poor. Few legislative actions could have had as much positive impact on Floridians and the economy than this missed opportunity.
A comprehensive bill on our fragile springs, providing policy and funding for protecting and restoring our water resources, passed the Senate but was ignored if not rejected by the House. What could be more important than ensuring a safe and adequate water supply that is vital to our survival?
And despite record revenue to invest in state needs, Florida Forever, the state’s land conservation program, continues to be drastically underfunded and state employees are going yet another year without a raise.
Oh well, there’s always next year. Oh yeah, and another election.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.