What to look for in the special session

I’m willing to bet that the majority of Floridians are not eagerly awaiting the upcoming 20-day special session of the Legislature. In fact, I’m pretty sure the vast majority of the state’s residents don’t even know it is occurring.

But it is, and it’s important. It’s too bad more voters aren’t paying attention.

During that brief time, beginning on June 1, the Florida lawmakers will craft the state budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year that begins on July 1. Because the Florida Constitution requires a balanced budget, the Legislature must account for $77 billion-$80 billion in revenue, depending on whether it accepts federal funding for healthcare expansion.

In their joint proclamation announcing the Special Session, Senate President Andy Gardiner and Speaker of the House Steve Crisafulli laid out the scope of the session.

Gardiner and Crisafulli listed 16 items primarily related to the budget. The first two, identified by bill number from the regular session, are the budget itself and the implementing bill. These are the two that must pass.

Next they listed a series of conforming bills — bills that change policy in order to conform to the monies appropriated in the budget. Over the years, these conforming bills have grown in number — exceeding both the original use and intent.

The issues included as conforming bills relate to state employees, the Florida Business Information Portal, Community-based Care Lead Agencies, the State Administered Retirement Systems, the Department of Transportation, the use of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, the implementation of Amendment 1 and the expansion and modification of Medicaid and the health insurance affordability exchange.

And, of course, there will be consideration of a tax-cut package after the major spending issues have been decided.

Much of the work of the Special Session has and will continue to take place prior to its official start. The plan outlined above limits and defines what can be considered.

Here’s what I’m hoping will come of the session that would, in my opinion, best serve Floridians:

▪ Funding education at levels that allow public-school students and teachers to excel.

▪ Properly funding our chronically shortchanged prison system to create a safer environment for prison staff, probation officers and inmates. Funds are needed for additional staff, equipment and training, facility repair and investigations. An investment into reentry programs, faith-based initiatives, mental-health services and substance-abuse programs would benefit inmates, their families and the community while decreasing costly recidivism.

▪ Honoring the voters’ directive to protect and preserve our water and lands by spending the $750 million constitutionally required by Amendment 1 on land acquisition, springs protection, Everglades restoration and land management. This is best done by fully funding the existing environmental programs like Florida Forever at $300 million, water sustainability at $100 million and Everglades restoration at $100 million.

▪ Expanding healthcare coverage to over 800,000 of Florida’s working poor by accepting the federal funding and passing an alternative form of Medicaid expansion. The Senate has already shown a willingness to modify its FHIX plan in an effort to compromise with the House leadership. The House has put forth some long-term healthcare fixes that won’t have an immediate effect but should be considered.

▪ Last, the Legislature should return some tax dollars to average Floridians through broad-based tax relief that benefit as many taxpayers as possible.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.