Miami-Dade County

Once divided, Miami-Dade state lawmakers rally together for funding

Late last month, state lawmakers from across Miami-Dade County hunkered down and drew up a list of their collective priorities.

The exercise was about more than creating a road map for the upcoming session. It was about presenting a united front to the Florida Legislature.

“For first time in a long time, the Miami-Dade delegation is seen as a substantive delegation, rather than a bunch of crazy people who fight each other,” said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican and vice chair of the delegation.

That newfound cohesion may help the state’s largest delegation accomplish its goals in Tallahassee this year.

The priorities are as diverse as the delegation itself: Protect funding for Jackson Memorial Hospital; increase incentives to lure the film industry to Florida; step up the penalties for hit-and-run drivers; and extend in-state tuition college rates to undocumented students.

Miami-Dade lawmakers will also work together to secure state dollars for local projects, from the Skyrise Miami observation tower to the senior centers known as comedores.

Still, some high-profile — and high-impact — issues are likely to be divisive.

Miami-Dade lawmakers have already expressed conflicting opinions on subsidies for sports stadiums, destination casinos and a half-penny sales tax to support construction at Miami Dade College and Florida International University.

Broward lawmakers, nearly all of whom are Democrats in a Republican-majority Legislature, have a different mission this year.

The group will focus its collective energy on the proposed gaming overhaul, said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

Waldman said the delegation had not taken a formal position on gaming-related issues. “But Broward County is at the epicenter of gaming expansion,” he said. “We plan to be a big player in the discussion.”

Another delegation priority: a local bill that would require all Broward law enforcement agencies to have a civil citation program for young people who commit petty crimes.

The team also plans to push for Medicaid expansion, even though House Republicans killed the idea last year and many observers consider it already dead for 2014.

Waldman disagrees. “You can’t leave $50 billion on the table in an election year and think that people are not going to pay attention to it,” he said.

For Miami-Dade lawmakers, the path to success starts with the budget.

That entails fighting to repeal part of Florida’s 2011 Medicaid reform law, which seeks to spread federal Medicaid dollars more equitably around the state. The provision is expected to cost Jackson Memorial Hospital more than $140 million this year.

As in past sessions, the Miami-Dade delegation will seek funding for the Florida International University medical school, the University of Miami/Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, FarmShare, the League Against Cancer, senior centers, poison control centers, and various water projects.

They will also request new money to support Miami Marine Stadium, the Miami River Commission and a greenway trail that would connect Biscayne and Everglades national parks.

“We’ve become a little more audacious,” Diaz said. “We are asking for more than we have historically. The members believe in their projects.”

Miami-Dade lawmakers are also seeking to expand the tax incentives offered to the film industry. A proposal by Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. (HB 983) would boost the annual allocation of film industry tax credits from $42 million to $200 million.

That’s welcome news to Pieter Bockweg, who oversees the Omni-Midtown Community Redevelopment Agency.

The CRA has invested in a new state-of-the-art film and TV studio in Miami known as the Miami Entertainment Complex. Officials are hopeful incentives will draw industry professionals.

“State incentives are vital to attract the film industry,” Bockweg said. “Without them, they won’t come. It doesn’t mater how nice the beaches are.”

Two bills on the Miami-Dade list would provide support to immigrant communities.

One measure would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.

The Florida Legislature has rejected similar proposals in the past. But the House proposal by Miami Republican Jeanette Nuñez (HB 851) has the backing of Speaker Will Weatherford, and its companion in the Senate (SB 1400) is gaining traction.

A separate proposal (SB 282, HB 7) would help low-income immigrant children access the state’s subsidized healthcare insurance program more quickly by eliminating a required five-year waiting period.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Sen. Rene Garcia, the Hialeah Republican sponsoring the Florida KidCare measure in the Senate. “Plus, we are going to pay it, whether it is subsidizing insurance on the front end or paying emergency room costs on the back end.”

The bill would not apply to undocumented children, who (like undocumented adults) cannot receive Medicaid benefits.

The Miami-Dade delegation is also backing an effort by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, to create tougher penalties for drivers who leave the scene of an accident (SB 102). The proposal is called the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, in memory of the cyclist who was killed by a hit-and-run driver on the Rickenbacker Causeway.

Individual lawmakers have individual proposals.

Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, is working to ban controversial red-light cameras (HB 4009). He also is behind a push to prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors (HB 169).

Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, wants better oversight of economic development incentives. House Bill 1103 would ensure that companies receiving the incentives hold up their part of the bargain.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, have filed a proposal that would allow Miami-Dade County to levy a half-penny sales tax to support maintenance and construction at Miami Dade College and Florida International University (SB 66, HB 113).

Fresen points out that voters in Miami-Dade County would have to approve the tax, and that it would sunset after five years. But Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, has expressed concerns about giving the two institutions an estimated $1 billion in public funding without a spending plan.

Fresen has also filed a bill that would allow new Major League Soccer franchises to qualify for state subsidies for stadiums (HB 887). The move comes as retired footballer David Beckham seeks to bring an expansion team to Miami.

The subsidy would affect more than just Miami-Dade; Major League Soccer has already awarded a new team to Orlando that will begin playing next year.

Still, there seems to be little appetite to award coveted public dollars to stadium projects. Weatherford has said he opposes the idea this year, and expects the House to craft legislation redefining the application process for facilities dollars.

Miami Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.