Miami-Dade’s team of state lawmakers will return to Tallahassee next week with something they’ve been lacking in recent years: clout.
That could help the state’s largest legislative delegation accomplish its goals in 2015.
The delegation’s top priorities include shielding Jackson Health System from crippling budget cuts, helping the Miami-Dade school district avoid a $40 million tax collection shortfall, and securing funding for Florida International University and Miami Dade College.
Democrats and Republicans will also team up to increase funding for child welfare providers, and to eliminate a five-year waiting period that applies to lawfully residing immigrant children seeking subsidized health insurance (HB 829/SB 294).
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“We’re focusing on issues like funding our institutions and ensuring our residents have affordable property insurance,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who serves as delegation chair. “Those are not partisan issues. Those are South Florida issues.”
The 60-day legislative session starts Tuesday.
Recent legislative sessions have yielded mixed results for Miami-Dade. The delegation has overcome internal divisions to win funding for local projects. But the 24-member group has struggled to pass some of its priority bills, in part because it has lacked members in leadership roles.
This year could be different, particularly in the Florida Senate.
Flores and Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, lead the Senate Fiscal Policy and Judiciary committees, respectively. Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, is in charge of the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee. And Sen. Oscar Braynon, II, D-Miami Gardens, has been tapped to be the next Senate Democratic Leader.
Flores said the team has a strong relationship with Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
“His door is always open to us,” she said. “He understands the issues that are important to South Florida.”
In the House, several Miami-Dade members are close with Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.
Miami-Dade representatives in key positions include Economic Affairs Committee Chairman José Oliva, Regulatory Affairs Committee Chairman José Félix Díaz, Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Erik Fresen, and Government Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanette Núñez.
The delegation has drawn up a list of issues it will tackle as a group.
The overall goal, Democratic State Rep. José Javier Rodríguez said, is to set the agenda in Tallahassee rather than just “play defense” against bad legislation.
“If we are a sixth of the entire legislature, we’ve got a lot of muscle,” Rodríguez said.
A chief concern is Jackson Health System, which stands to lose $167 million if Florida loses access to a pot of federal money known as the “Low Income Pool.”
“We are going to make sure that Jackson has the funding they need to continue to be a strong safety net,” Flores said.
García has said he is working on a contingency plan in the event Florida health officials are unable to make a deal with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to keep the funding in place. He has not yet released the details.
Miami-Dade lawmakers are also supporting a proposal that would put new regulations on Value Adjustment Boards (HB 695/SB 972).
The legislation would help ease a backlog of property tax appeals, which the Miami-Dade school district says has translated into $40 million budget shortfalls.
“There is hope,” schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said of the proposal.
Another top priority: extending the state Enterprise Zone program, which provides incentives to businesses that invest in certain blighted neighorboods.
Fresen acknowledged that lawmakers might have to “tighten up” the program to address concerns about its efficacy. But the concept works, he said.
“Wynwood is a perfect example,” Fresen said, referencing the trendy Miami art district. “I do believe [in the absence of] the Enterprise Zone, Wynwood would not have redeveloped as quickly as it did.”
Miami-Dade lawmakers won’t speak with a unified voice on all issues. A number of hot-button proposals divide the delegation, including Medicaid expansion, funding for sports stadium upgrades and tax incentives for the film industry.
They are also split on a proposal that would allow ride-share companies Uber and Lyft to operate legally in Miami-Dade and other counties (HB 817/SB 1326).
What’s more, Miami-Dade lawmakers will be pursuing their own priorities as the session gets underway.
One proposal is already generating buzz: a bill by Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, that would limit the use of single-sex restrooms to people of the specificed gender (HB 583).
Artiles says the bill — filed in response to a Miami-Dade County ordiance that bans discrimination on gender identity — is about public safety. But LGBT advocates say it targets transgender Floridians.
Miami Herald staff writer Christina Veiga contributed to this report.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.