The annual session of the Legislature that begins on Tuesday will test whether Florida lawmakers learned anything from 2015’s disastrous performance. Can they pass a budget, finish other required work on time and avoid extra sessions? Given last year’s debacle, we’re skeptical.
Because 2015 was not an election year, the returning Capitol cast consists of the same members as the last time around, when the regular session ended in acrimony and finger-pointing by leaders of the House and Senate — and without a budget, the only mandated requirement.
That dispiriting episode was followed by three special sessions for which taxpayers were forced to shell out: two for redrawing electoral districts and one for the budget. All in all, it was a sorry year for the Legislature. This time, with a projected $635-million surplus and the redistricting issue behind them (except for pending lawsuits), lawmakers should make sure things go much more smoothly.
Sadly, Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t made it any easier.
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The governor’s unrealistic budget, calling for $1 billion in tax cuts, ensures a political collision in the Legislature even though all key players are Republicans. His budget has already drawn skepticism from Senate President Andy Gardiner, who said existing programs, largely in healthcare and education, will cost $1.6 billion more next year. He recommended a more modest — and more realistic — tax-cut target of $250 million to start out.
Mr. Scott’s fixation on budget cuts at the expense of the state’s broader and demonstrated needs extends to climate change, a phrase his administration has banned from official correspondence. Last year, he vetoed a relatively small $750,000 appropriation for water pumps for Miami Beach because the project “does not provide a clear return on investment.”
How about the citizens not drowning, governor? You think that might be a good return on investment?
Among the priorities of the upcoming session should be a thorough overhaul of the state prison system, which is crying out for more funds.
Department of Corrections chief Julie Jones has acknowledged that experienced, well-trained officers leave for better-paying jobs in local law enforcement, yet she included no pay increases in her own budget proposal to avoid crossing Gov. Scott, whose priorities are tax cuts. This makes little sense, coming after a Miami Herald investigative series that uncovered a disgusting pattern of inmate mistreatment by guards, as well as questionable deaths.
Another priority should be fully funding Amendment One as voters intended when they approved it by 72 percent, instead of once again diverting money from the documentary-stamp tax to other uses. Florida Forever and Everglades restoration also deserve full funding.
Other worthy objectives of the session include fully funding the state’s educational system, from public schools to colleges and universities, to accommodate growth and improve performance. Repair our crumbling infrastructure. Restore the tax incentive program for the film industry. Fully fund state parks without resorting to privatization. Raise the salary of state employees, most of whom haven’t had one for eight years. Overhaul, meaning fund and coordinate, programs to help counties treat mental illness appropriately. Jail is the wrong place.
There are more issues for lawmakers to tackle than can possibly be covered here, but expanding Medicaid tops the list of the state’s unfinished business. Legislators are unlikely to wrestle with this politically touchy topic in an election year. But that doesn’t mean the need to expand coverage to the working poor doesn’t exist. It’s more important than ever.
Casino gambling is another political hot potato lawmakers will be eager to avoid, but let’s be clear: The absence of any deal with the state’s native tribes means millions in lost revenue for the state.
We urge the Legislature to look at the state’s needs and what voters say they want, instead of nickel-and-diming state agencies and worthwhile projects. We’re all in favor of tax cuts — after the state’s basic needs are met.
And one more thing, folks: Please, no more special sessions.