From the Editor: Legislative session’s over, but The Herald’s vigilance isn’t

More than 1,800 bills were filed during this year’s state legislative session, ranging from teacher pay raises to the contentious debate over Medicaid expansion.

The enormous task of tracking those key issues and hundreds more falls to our tenacious Tallahassee staff, whose marathon coverage of the 60-day session reached its crescendo last week. Our strength lies in the combined forces of The Miami Herald’s and Tampa Bay Times’ Tallahassee bureau, the largest in the state.

“It’s a humongous state with huge issues,” said Mary Ellen Klas, The Herald’s bureau chief. “We are the watchdogs.”

It is a tall order as legislators and lobbyists jockey for position in the final frenzied stretch of the session, rewriting bills and tacking on amendments during the waning, caffeine-fueled hours of the session.

“Things get very hectic, especially at the end,” said Politics Editor Sergio Bustos. “They have a deadline and they have to get things done.”

Our reporting dexterity can make a big difference on key issues that have lasting impact here at home.

Kathleen McGrory tracked important educational issues, from a sweeping education bill to revamp the state’s high school graduation requirements to the controversial parent trigger bill, legislation aimed at giving parents a voice in charting a turnaround plan for failing public schools. When a mysterious video appeared in the capitol, showcasing South Florida moms praising the bill, McGrory’s reporting revealed that the video was produced by a California-based advocacy group and not a local grass-roots movement. Three days later, the parent trigger bill died in the Senate.

Toluse Olorunnipa kept close watch on a property insurance reform bill which, he reported, would have implemented double-digit rate increases for tens of thousands of new Citizens Property Insurance customers. After an outcry from homeowners, the bill was modified and stripped of the rate increase.

When a state and federal strike force arrested dozens of Internet gambling café owners who pocketed millions of dollars intended for veterans’ charities, Klas reported that the Internet café industry had made more than $1.4 million in campaign contributions to Florida legislators and congressional members over three years. Legislators scrambled to return the money — and approved a bill outlawing the electronic gaming machines.

These were just a few of the key high-impact issues during this session, which also included a sweeping education bill to revamp the state’s high school graduation requirements; campaign finance and ethics reform to make campaign contributions more transparent; the Miami Dolphins’ bid to get public dollars for a stadium makeover; and a bill to end permanent alimony that was passed by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Though the formal session has ended, there is more work to be done as our team examines what lawmakers and lobbyists slipped into law in the final crush of legislation. That’s always an eye-opener, and we’ll be there to report it.