The 2015 session of the Florida Legislature begins Tuesday here with new leaders facing fresh challenges and competing demands for a projected $1 billion budget surplus.
Gov. Rick Scott ceremonially starts the session Tuesday when he delivers the annual State of the State speech to lawmakers. The 60-day session is scheduled to end May 1.
Republicans outnumber Democrats 26 to 14 in the Senate and 80 to 39 in the House, with one House seat in Tampa vacant.
Tampa Bay is in an enviable position because both chairmen of the Senate and House appropriations committees — a role with unmatched power to direct state dollars to local projects — are from the region.
Miami-Dade’s team of state lawmakers return with something they’ve been lacking in recent years: clout. That could help the state’s largest legislative delegation accomplish its goals in 2015.
Here are five legislators and five issues to watch this spring in Florida’s capital.
FIVE PEOPLE TO WATCH
ANDY GARDINER: The new Senate president is an easy-going leader known for a quiet persistence on behalf of families with special needs children. Gardiner, 46, a Republican from Orlando, has been a lawmaker since 2000, the year term limits took hold. He’s a hospital community relations executive, a supporter of Medicaid expansion, a sports enthusiast who champions an expansion of bike trails and the father of three children, including an 11-year-old son who has Down syndrome. He’s also one of the Capitol’s most ardent critics of gambling -- even of the state lottery voters approved in 1986. But he concedes that on a floor vote, he’d likely be overrun by pro-gaming senators.
STEVE CRISAFULLI: He’s been called the “accidental speaker” of the House because of his unexpected path to power. Colleagues crowned him after another speaker-to-be lost a re-election bid. Crisafulli, 43, of Merritt Island, is in real estate and agribusiness and is seen as a likely contender for agriculture commissioner in 2018. His top priority is an overhaul of water policy, making him a pivotal figure in implementation of the voter-approved Amendment 1, which sets aside billions of dollars for water and land protections.
TOM LEE: This Tampa Bay Republican, who represents east Hillsborough, is in his second senatorial tour of duty and is the influential chairman of the Appropriations Committee, making him chiefly responsible for assembling the Senate’s $77 billion budget, balancing competing demands for dollars and negotiating with his House counterpart. Lee was a senator from 1996 to 2006. As Senate president from 2004 to 2006, he was known for an aggressive style and willingness to tangle with lobbyists, fellow Republicans and Gov. Jeb Bush. Lee, 53, a Brandon home builder, returned to the Senate in 2012.
RICHARD CORCORAN: He has the soothing manner of a Catholic priest, but don’t let that fool you. The 49-year-old Pasco County lawyer might be the most talked-about politician in Tallahassee these days because of his tactical skill at using power, and he keeps acquiring more of it as both chief House budget-writer and speaker-in-waiting for 2016. A protege and former top aide to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio when he was speaker, Corcoran last week used his muscle to block a plan to award millions in tax money to pro sports stadium projects, calling it a “reversed, perverse Robin Hood.” It was vintage Corcoran: He knows how much senators want that money. It won’t be easy to get in to see the guy in Room 418 of the Capitol for the next two months.
ARTHENIA JOYNER: A lifelong trailblazer, she grew up in a segregated Lakeland, marched for civil rights as a teenager and opened her own law practice in Tampa when no law firm would give her a job. Joyner, 71, has long been a liberal voice on such issues as affordable health care, voting rights and raising up the underclass. Now she’s the leader of a 14-member Democratic caucus in the Senate, where the minority party still matters, but she’ll need patience and political skill to influence the Republican-controlled agenda. Respected by her colleagues, Joyner is the first African-American woman to serve as Senate minority leader in Tallahassee.
FIVE ISSUES TO WATCH:
AMENDMENT 1: When Florida voters speak with one voice, that gets Tallahassee’s attention, and last November, 75 percent of them passed a constitutional amendment setting aside a huge pot of money for water and land protections, nearly $800 million next year alone. Lawmakers must decide which programs and projects get the money, making this the major “food fight” of the session.
BUDGET: Passing a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is the only bill the Legislature is required to pass every year. A stronger economy will produce a projected surplus of $1 billion, but lawmakers say they still don’t have enough money to pay for all of Scott’s campaign promises, including record per-pupil spending in public schools and nearly $700 million in tax cuts.
MEDICAID: In a state where nearly a fourth of the population has no health insurance, the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act still looks like it’s going nowhere in Florida. A supportive Gov. Rick Scott and Senate can’t get a resistant House to budge, but the issue may get attention because the Senate president works for a hospital that wants Medicaid expansion and the state faces a $1 billion hole from the possible loss of federal money that subsidizes hospitals for treating poor patients.
PRISONS: Rocked by revelations of inmate deaths, abusive and corrupt guards and dangerously low prison staffing levels, legislators seem more determined than in past years to overhaul the long-troubled Department of Corrections. Senators are considering putting the nation’s third-largest prison system under the watchful eye of an oversight board -- a tacit admission that the state can’t do the job on its own.
TESTING: High-stakes testing of students was a hallmark of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s “A-plus” plan, but many conservatives now concede that “teaching to the test” has gone too far. For GOP lawmakers, the challenge could be placating test-weary parents in a way that doesn’t look like a trashing of Bush’s legacy in his home state as the two-term governor prepares to run for president.
POLTIFACT FLORIDA TRACKS TALLAHASSEE’S OPENING DAY
PolitiFact Florida will be fact-checking Gov. Rick Scott’s State of the State address as the session opens Tuesday. PolitiFact Florida also will annotate the text of Scott’s speech with deeper context and fact-checks, posting the annotation at PolitiFact.com/florida.
PolitiFact Florida is on Twitter at @PolitiFactFL. PolitiFact Florida has fact-checked Gov. Scott more than 125 times on the Truth-O-Meter. We’re also tracking 95 of his campaign promises on our Truth-O-Meter.