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Altaf Rahamatulla on May 13, 2010 - 12:45pm
Confronting a mid-year deficit of $147 million and a projected $4.7 billion FY2011 shortfall, revenue and economic issues were a major focus for Florida lawmakers. The state's right-wing dominated Legislature also passed a series of divisive bills, including an extremely controversial effort endangering womens' reproductive rights, that will only serve to harm the state's working families and vulnerable populations.
Tax and Budget: Florida was hit disproportionately hard by the recession. Predominantly as a result of the burst of the housing bubble, the state lost almost 150,000 jobs and revenue plummeted 11.5 percent over the past year. As of April 2010, the state's unemployment rate reached 12.3 percent, one of the highest in the nation. The state's population and economic activity are decreasing as well.
Unfortunately, the $70.4 billion budget the Legislature approved does little to address the daunting economic and fiscal outlook. Legislators balanced the budget mainly through regressive cuts, federal Recovery funding, and gambling revenue.
- Cuts: The Legislature approved a wide array of cuts that mainly hit programs that assist low and moderate income Floridians, including: a 7 percent reduction in reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes; the elimination of incentives to state workers to adopt foster children; cuts to funding for Health Start coalitions, which services at-risk infants and pregnant women, by $2.6 million; the reduction of the appropriation to Healthy Families, which aims to prevent child abuse, by $10 million; cuts of $10.5 million from state contributions to county health departments; a $5.6 million cut to development disabilities services; the reduction of public defender funding by 2.5 percent; the removal of almost $3 billion from the nonpartisan legislative office's budget; deep transportation trust fund cuts; and the reduction of state spending on a higher education scholarship program.
- Gambling: Gov. Charlie Crist signed SB 622, which allows the Seminole Tribe to operate card games in some of their facilities for the next 5 years and exclusive rights to operate slot machines outside of South Florida for the next 20 years. In return, the state will receive $435 million this year and approximately $1 billion over the next 5 years.
- Federal Funds: The budget relies on $2.3 billion in recovery funds and assumes $880 million in Medicaid assistance that the federal government has yet to enact. Ironically, while the Legislature seeks increased federal action on state fiscal relief, lawmakers advanced a resolution, SCR 10, that calls on Congress to amend the Constitution and add a requirement for a balanced federal budget.
- Corporate Tax Breaks: Conservative legislators successfully advanced SB 1752, dubiously entitled, "Jobs For Florida," which enacts $218.5 million in tax breaks and incentives to various industries over three years, including aerospace, biotechnology, entertainment, and boating. There are also credits in the legislation for companies that hire long-term unemployed state residents.
Health Care: In response to the exponential growth of unregulated pain management clinics and an effort to curb growing prescription drug abuse, lawmakers passed "anti-pill mill" legislation, HB373, to prohibit a person from owning a pain clinic unless he or she is a physician with a license to practice in Florida, require clinic inspections, ban advertising of specific drugs, and limit the number of medications a clinic can distribute. As part of the budget agreement, state employees will now be required to contribute to health care plans.
Having cut health care funding for Florida families, the Legislature engaged in additional political posturing by approving HJR 37, which proposes a state constitutional amendment to prohibit laws "from compelling any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in any health care system." Floridians will consider this issue on the ballot in November.
Education: Education issues dominated this legislative session. SB 6, a radical effort to largely abolish teacher tenure was one of the most hotly debated bills this session. While Gov. Crist initially supported the idea, he eventually vetoed the legislation after tens of thousands of phone calls, letters and emails flooded his office. Other bills that were enacted included:
- SB 4 changes high school graduation requirements, shifts focus from current standardized testing to end-of-course assessments, and places tougher math and science standards as pre-requisites for graduation.
- Legislators considered higher education initiatives as well. Students in state colleges will experience a 7 percent tuition increase. SB 2126 expands tax credits to companies that offer college scholarships to low-income students.
- SB 2 proposes a constitutional amendment to ease classroom size mandates that were enacted in 2002. Voters will consider the measure on the ballot this fall.
- SB 206 permits school districts to have scholarship signing ceremonies to honor students that excel academically which are similar to events that are held for athletes.
Endangering Reproductive Rights: In the waning days of the session, Florida conservatives followed the lead of other right-leaning states and passed severe restrictions to womens' reproductive rights. HB 1143 would force a woman to pay for and view an ultrasound before seeking an abortion, unless she signs a form that states that the decision not to review the ultrasound was made of her own free will, without "undue influence from any third party." The bill would also ban most private insurance companies from funding abortions. Sen. Nan Rich stated, "It is actually... the ultimate insult to women. It is saying that women can’t... use their own judgment as to what they want to do with their bodies.” Gov. Crist still has the opportunity to veto the bill.
Insurance: The Legislature additionally enacted legislation benefiting the commercial and property insurance industries. SB 2176 deregulates several insurance lines and excludes them from the rate filing and approval process. SB 2044 expedites the process in which property insurers apply for rate increases up to 10 percent and limits the time homeowners have to file a claim following a storm.
Traffic Safety: HB 325, a bill that sets guidelines for a network of red-light cameras to help enforce traffic laws, was the result of years of legislative attempts to address road safety.
Protecting Children: HB 119 places statewide restrictions on former sex offenders from loitering or prowling within 300 feet of a place where children congregate and approved controversial rules limiting where ex-offenders can live.
Protecting Seniors: The state's Chief Financial Officer, Alex Sink, has prioritized the financial security of Florida's seniors and created the Safeguard our Seniors (SOS) Task Force. The group recommended a bill that passed the Legislature this year. SB 2176 protects seniors against manipulative insurance practices and annuities fraud.
Campaign Finance: The Legislature approved a bill, HB 1207, to allow leaders in the House and Senate to operate campaign accounts to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash, but the bill was ultimately vetoed by the Governor.
- Ethics: Rep. Keith Fitzgerald remarked, "[t]he biggest problem we have in this state, after the economy, is the collapse of confidence... in the political system." After several political scandals in past years, Florida lawmakers considered a number of ethics bills, including HB 243, an effort to revamp legislative, lobbying, and consulting ethics rules, and HB 587, a bill that would have addressed certain conflict of interest issues, but the Legislature failed to act.
- Public Service Commission (PSC) Transparency: To add accountability to PSC operations and address close relationships that have developed between the commission and utilities that it is responsible for regulating, lawmakers introduced HB 565, but the bill died in committee.
Business Week - Florida Budget Compromise Hits Lawmakers Desks
The Miami Herald - Crist Signs $1 Billion Seminole Gambling Bill
The Pew Center on the States - Beyond California
The St. Petersburg Times - Education Legislation Runs Deeper than SB 6
The Sun-Sentinel - Legislature Wraps Up Session with Successes, Disappointments