Miami-Dade gained more than they lost in legislative session

05/07/2014 3:29 PM

05/07/2014 5:55 PM

The 2014 legislative session was not the easiest environment for passing legislation.

The reason: Nearly every decision was made with an eye toward the November election.

Still, state lawmakers from Miami-Dade County were able to deliver several key victories on issues affecting South Florida.

They helped shield Jackson Health System from a $140 million cut, and ensured that the Miami-Dade County Commission could continue to oversee contracts between Jackson and its labor unions.

They also gave the Miami-Dade school system the ability to offset a potential $60 million budget gap by using some of its debt service money for day-to-day expenses.

They were not, however, able to pass a bill that would have paved the way for Miami Dade College to collect more than $1 billion for maintenance and construction through a voter-approved half-penny sales tax.

The Senate gave its blessing to the proposal. But a similar bill stalled in the House, and became even more of a long shot after Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón blasted several Miami-Dade lawmakers for allegedly blocking it.

That wasn’t the only high-profile education effort that involved Miami-Dade lawmakers.

Rep. Jeanette Núñez, R-Miami, sponsored the House bill to let undocumented immigrants pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities. Members of the Miami-Dade delegation, along with Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former Miami-Dade property appraiser and state representative, helped pushed the bill over the finish line in both chambers.

The delegation also tried to eliminate a state requirement that immigrant children wait five years before receiving subsidized health insurance.

The bill met resistance, largely because the Agency for Health Care Administration initially estimated it would cost $27.5 million. The figure was later revised to $15 million, but it was too late for the proposal to move through the legislative process.

Rep. José Félix Díaz, the Miami Republican who spearheaded the effort, said he would try again next year.

“We’re at a better starting point to have the conversation,” he said.

An effort to establish a needle exchange pilot program in Miami-Dade County fell short, too.

Programs that let intravenous drug users exchange used needles for clean needles are banned under Florida law. But a coalition of doctors and public health experts were hoping to get approval for a pilot program in Miami-Dade, saying it would save lives and money.

Rep. Mark Pafford, the West Palm Beach Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House, called it “a casualty of the last day of session.” The bill won approval in both the House and Senate, but died because the Senate ran out of time to take a final vote late Friday.

Miami-Dade lawmakers also tried to change state transportation laws.

Núñez and Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, filed a bill that would have changed the structure of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and required the Miami-Dade County Commission to sign off on toll hikes. Even though the proposal died, Núñez was able to add some new ethics regulations into a separate bill.

Núñez was also successful in eliminating a rental car surcharge that was hurting some car-sharing companies in Miami-Dade. Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, passed the bill in the upper chamber.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, delivered another key victory for Miami-Dade: a bill increasing the criminal penalties for drivers who leave the scene of a crash involving a pedestrian.

The proposal was named the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, in memory of a cyclist who was fatally struck on the Rickenbacker Causeway in 2012.

Economic development bills with potential regional impact had mixed fates.

Some Miami-Dade lawmakers, including Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, supported a plan creating a process for doling out tax breaks for stadium facilities projects.

The bill passed — despite strong opposition from Reps. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, and José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami.

The entire delegation backed a bill that would have expanded the state’s entertainment industry tax incentive program. The proposal was a top priority for Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami, which recently built an entertainment complex in downtown Miami.

The Senate considered adding $300 million in tax credits over the next six years. The House plan, by Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., of Hialeah, would have added more than $1 billion in tax credits.

But by the end of session, the two chambers were only considering a program $20 million loan program. And even that was axed.

Leah Sokolowsky, president of the industry group Film Florida, said the fight was far from over.

“We will bring our message from the Panhandle to Key West that for every $1 the state invests in the entertainment industry, $5.60 is returned and infused back into our state’s economy,” she said.

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