A round up of pre-session editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers

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A round up of pre-legislative editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:

Tampa Bay Times — A viewers’ guide to the 2014 Florida Legislature session by Steve Bousquet

The 2014 session of the Florida Legislature opens Tuesday with the usual upbeat tone, but it won’t last.

It can’t in an election year. Gov. Rick Scott wants to win a second term, Republicans want to help him, and Democrats want to undermine the GOP’s agenda at every turn on education spending, school vouchers, Medicaid reform, a proposed pension plan overhaul and other issues.

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have proposed a bolder agenda than Scott, whose top priority is a package of tax and fee cuts totaling $500 million.

“Usually with an election-year Legislature, it’s do no harm,” said Screven Watson, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former state Democratic Party official. “The second premise is, don’t give our opponents bats to hit us over the head with. But I’m not sure that’s what we’re seeing with this Legislature.”

The Bradenton Herald — Florida Legislature poised for swift, positive opening

Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature begins the 2014 regular session on Tuesday with an ambitious opening agenda set by Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Just like last year, their first as chamber leaders, they plan to dispatch with the customary pomp and ceremony during the first few days and get right down to work on major legislation. This voter-friendly approach should become the new tradition.

Expect swift movement on these estimable measures:

Sex crimes

A major crackdown on sexual predators comes via four bills. One requires the state to notify the victims and county sheriffs when certain offenders are released, surprisingly not already a law.

Assisted living centers

Thanks to the Miami Herald’s exhaustive investigation of assisted living centers in a series of reports, the state finally took notice of a broken system.

The Bradenton Times — 2014 Florida Legislative Session Preview

Florida’s 2014 Regular Legislative Session will convene at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday in Tallahassee. As a “part-time” legislature, Florida’s lawmakers convene for only one 60-day session each year, barring a governor-called special session. This makes for two months of Wild West-like fury as lawmakers scramble to get pet projects and favored bills to the floor, knowing that the vast majority will die before ever coming to a vote. Here are a few key issues expected to get attention.

 

Expanding gambling has been on the minds of many lobbyists and lawmakers in recent years, but despite much money passing through hands on the hill, nothing much has come of it. Expect the issue to suck up a lot of the air again in this year’s session, as there is likely to be a lot of action on both sides, but passing meaningful legislation isn’t a safe bet, even though gambling interests have shelled out the most money for 2014.

Despite more bad press for the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground Law, don’t expect reform. In fact, the early noise suggests that the NRA’s attempt to expand the law to include legislation that would make clear the right to fire a “warning shot” will come to the floor, because … well, when the NRA talks, Republicans listen and Republicans control both chambers.

House Speaker Will Weatherford will almost definitely resume his failed bid to dismantle Florida’s highly-successful state pension system, despite no sound argument to do so and plenty of reasons not to. Weatherford made progress last year, nearly upending the FRS until some last-minute support came to the rescue, and he does not seem inclined to yield in his efforts to deny state workers any sort of dignity in retirement.

Of course, Floridians can also expect the annual assault on public education, as all sorts of special interests angle to redirect public school funds toward for-profit charters through various school choice and voucher programs. This year, an effort to expand charter vouchers is expected to get plenty of attention.

While the 2013 legislative session contained plenty of debate regarding Florida’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, Medicaid expansion seems dead in the water in 2014. A House bill that would allow nurse practitioners to provide care without the supervision of physicians is the hot health care issue du jour. 

Florida’s embarrassing performance in child protection services may have finally shamed the state into taking meaningful steps toward reforming both funding and policy to ensure that children who enter the system are better protected. A number of bills would seek to address reforms and several lawmakers have pledged to make the issue a top priority. 

The Daytona Beach News-Journal —Florida’s economic boost means a brighter future by Dorothy Hukill

Florida’s 2014 legislative session begins on Tuesday. After the ceremony and speeches, we get back to work. Our economy is showing signs of improvement and we can feel that here in Volusia County and throughout our state. An improving economy means that additional funds are available. As legislators review and prepare the 2014-2015 budget and consider bills, the overriding consideration will be, what can the Legislature do to continue this recovery and help Florida’s families, children, seniors, veterans and businesses?

Many of us believe that after reducing our debt, securing our reserves, and funding appropriate state services, putting money back in the pockets of Floridians helps them the most. Reinvestment in families and businesses can improve the economy as a whole and provide a brighter economic future for each of us. As Florida’s economy continues to improve, we can all benefit from the growth in jobs, a vibrant economy and an increased quality of life.

Several tax items are being considered this session which would provide a benefit to many Floridians and a boost to the economy. Reversing the 2009 vehicle registration fee hike is strongly supported and would be an immediate benefit. The back-to-school sales tax holiday, which would allow parents and students to purchase items as they prepare for the new school year, and the hurricane preparedness sales tax holiday, are popular and provide an immediate boost.

Additionally, I have filed legislation for the 2014 legislative session to reduce the commercial lease sales tax (SB 176), increase the exemption on the corporate income tax (SB 134), and reduce the communications services tax (SB 266). These bills provide immediate benefits for a great number of Floridians and can boost the economy.

The Lakeland Ledger — State Legislature, Voters at Odds by Lloyd Dunkelberger

As Florida lawmakers start their annual legislative session Tuesday, a new poll shows some of the priorities of 2014 Legislature are at odds with Florida voters.

Like last year, the Legislature is expected to again reject the call to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for poor and disabled people. Florida has that expansion option under the federal health care law — known as the Affordable Care Act.

Yet a new poll from the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida shows nearly 7 out of 10 registered Florida voters support the expansion of Medicaid, which would offer health care coverage to a projected 800,000 Floridians.

Some 67 percent of Florida voters support Medicaid expansion, with 28 percent in opposition, the poll showed.

At the same time, though, a majority of Florida voters, 57 percent, want the Affordable Care Act to be repealed or changed in major ways, as opposed to 39 percent of the voters who support minor changes or leaving the ACA as is.

“These apparently contradictory findings are understandable,” Paul Duncan, an associate dean and a professor in UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions, said in a statement. “The Affordable Care Act is large and complicated — just like our health care system — so when an unprecedented level of partisan political noise is added, inconsistency in public opinion is almost certain.”

The Miami Herald — Fingers crossed

The recent report by the LeRoy Collins Institute on Florida’s future minced no words: The Sunshine State is near the bottom of the barrel on a wide range of issues affecting Floridians’ daily lives. Whether it’s public transit, housing, education, the tax and pension systems, employment, access to healthcare — chances are Florida is doing badly.

A better future for Florida’s 19 million people depends on how well lawmakers, who begin their session this week, can grapple with the issues. Some issues — gambling and medical marijuana — call for a choice. With others — affordable housing, for instance — all we ask is, do no harm.

Sadowski Trust Fund

There always seems to be a reason — and not necessarily a good one — for lawmakers to swipe funds from the Sadowski housing trust fund and add them to general revenue. These funds are supposed to be dedicated to create affordable housing throughout the state. The money rehabilitates vacant homes in disrepair, provides down-payment and closing-cost assistance and renovates existing apartments to give the elderly and people with disabilities a place to call home.

This year, there is no budget deficit and, therefore, no good reason to raid the Sadowski funds. The Sadowski Coalition estimates that, fully funded, the money can create more than 27,000 jobs and make a $3.4-billion impact statewide. Lawmakers should keep their hands out of this cookie jar and fully fund this successful initiative.

Medicaid

Classic Flori-duh. The state left $51 billion in federal funding on the table last year when the House refused to take part in a Medicaid expansion program because it was linked to Obamacare. That money could provide coverage for almost 1 million Floridians. The House’s irresponsible decision puts politics above the welfare of Floridians. Republican Sen. Rene Garcia, of Hialeah, has a bill to change that. If the Legislature does nothing else this year, it should pass this bill.

Tuition

Lots of tough issues on higher education, but here’s one that should be easy: Some students who have lived here virtually all their lives are denied in-state tuition rates because of their uncertain immigration status. House Speaker Will Weatherford has indicated that’s not fair and wants to level the playing field for them. Make it so, Mr. Speaker.

Ethics Reform

Mr. Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have indicated they want to pursue efforts to clean up Tallahassee. Specific proposals include residency requirements for lawmakers and disclosure for special taxing district lobbyists. Another good idea.

Taxes And Revenue

Gov. Rick Scott’s budget includes includes $500 million in proposed tax cuts, including a rollback of license-tag fees. That breaks down to about $25 per driver. Given the state’s many needs, is this the best way to handle revenue? We’re not persuaded.

DCF

The good news: In January, Gov. Scott said he wants to add $31 million to the Department of Children & Families’ budget. Actually, that’s great news. The money will let DCF add more than 400 new investigators. After a year of horrendous deaths of children in DCF’s care, even the governor couldn’t ignore the need.

The bad news: The governor has this annoying habit of professing his support for things that will make life better for the state’s more-vulnerable residents, then failing to get out there and push for them. After he refused to consider Medicaid expansion, he switched and said he was open to Medicaid expansion — then let the whole thing fall into a black hole, with hardly a word to the Legislature.

The other good news: It’s an election year.

Freedom of Information

The names, addresses, party affiliations and birth dates of voters have been public information for decades, but a bill by Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, would keep voters’ birth dates confidential. That’s a bad idea. The information is used by election supervisors and the news media to verify identities. Let’s keep the sunshine in Sunshine State.

The opening bell will ring soon. Pray for Florida.

The Orlando Sentinel — Guide to issues in Florida Legislature’s 2014 session via Aaron Deslatte

Gov. Rick Scott and Florida legislators will be in a giving mood when they start their annual 60-day lawmaking session Tuesday.

With an election in November and a projected $1.3 billion budget surplus, Republican leaders in the House and Senate have laid out a pricey to-do list, from cutting taxes and fees to expanding school vouchers.

Lawmakers also will dive into some thorny social questions, such as whether to authorize “destination” casinos in South Florida.

The issue: The governor and GOP lawmakers want to cut taxes as deeply and widely as possible, pitching a total of $1 billion in breaks for motorists; companies; shoppers; and Internet and cellphone users.

What’s at stake: A small piece of your wallet. Motorists could get a break on auto-tag fees averaging $12 to $25. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is pushing a bill (SB 156) to cut those fees by $237 million, while Scott wants to reduce them by $401 million.

Phone, Internet and cable bills could go down a bit under a proposal (SB 266) sponsored by Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-DeLand, to cut the communications services tax on cable, satellite and telecommunications companies by 2 percent, or $242 million. Telecom companies argue that consumers would benefit from the cut, though they wouldn’t be required to pass along the savings.

Lawmakers also are reviving the hurricane and back-to-school sales-tax holidays this year — and this time proposing to make them longer. Scott wants a 10-day back-to-school tax holiday in August and a 15-day hurricane tax holiday when the stormy season starts in June.

Education

The issue: House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, wants to see a “massive expansion” of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to low-income students to attend private and religious schools. The Florida Education Association and other education groups are expected to oppose it.

Lawmakers also want to prohibit tuition increases at universities this year and revamp the state’s prepaid-tuition program to help it keep up with increasing higher-education costs.

What’s at stake: The lives of thousands of students. More children in subpar public schools could get taxpayer-financed tickets to private schools, and lawmakers could require that these students take the same standardized tests as those in public schools.

The college-bound could get a one-year break on tuition hikes. Families trying to pay for tuition in advance could get a slightly better deal.

Marijuana

The issue: Republican and Democratic lawmakers are rushing to advance bills legalizing some forms of marijuana for medicinal use.

Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, are pushing a bill (HB 843) that legalizes a noneuphoric type of weed. Democrats are pushing a broader medical-marijuana bill that is unlikely to pass.

What’s at stake: The timing of medical marijuana’s arrival. Florida voters will have the final say on medical-marijuana legalization this November, when the question appears as Amendment 2 on the statewide ballot. Polls show it will pass overwhelmingly. These bills would just get the drug into patients’ hands a little faster.

Beer

The issue: The 64-ounce beer “growlers” that you can fill with craft brews at a bar and take home might get legalized in Florida. The containers are already allowed in 47 other states but are hung up in Florida because of the state’s complicated regulation of beer manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

The Panama City News-Herald — Low-drama Legislature

The Florida Legislature opens its 2014 session Tuesday with a budget surplus and a full slate of issues. The biggest question is whether lawmakers — and an incumbent governor — have the will to make waves in an election year.

After sluggish revenues in a bad economy forced several years of belt-tightening in Tallahassee to balance the budget, legislators for the second consecutive year are facing excess dollars — about $1 billion — to spend or return to the taxpayers. The emphasis should be on the latter.

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed using $600 billion of the surplus to cut taxes and fees. The biggest chunk of that would come from rolling back the 54 percent increase in vehicle registration fees the state imposed in 2009 to help cover a budget deficit. Lawmakers have said they are amenable to at least some kind of cut, although they have yet to embrace Scott’s full rollback.

This should be a no-brainer. Even Charlie Crist, who signed the fee hike as governor and who is challenging Scott for re-election in November, supports repealing the increase.

Among the other items on this year’s legislative agenda:

Gambling. A few months ago this was gearing up to be THE issue that dominates the session, as lawmakers talked of crafting comprehensive legislation that would open up significant new gaming opportunities. However, those passions have cooled, and the legislative effect may not be as sweeping as originally thought.

The Senate Gaming Committee last week unveiled a massive, 453-page bill that would create a gaming commission, permit resort-style “destination casinos” in Dade and Broward Counties and give greyhound tracks with other poker rooms the freedom to run fewer races. It also would allow Las Vegas-style slot machines at the six counties that have approved them, which include Washington County, home of Ebro Greyhound Park.

However, Senate President Don Gaetz recently threw cold water on the issue when he told Sunshine State News that expanding gambling “is not a priority” for him or House Speaker Will Weatherford. Without their support to muscle legislation through, passage of such a complex and controversial matter is unlikely. Furthermore, Gov. Scott doesn’t seem eager to make it part of his campaign.   

If the Senate approach is too much for the Legislature to digest, it should take smaller bites. Pass decoupling, which will end the state-mandated minimum number of races tracks must run each year, and let voters in Washington County and elsewhere get what they asked for, but were denied in a ruling by Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Water. This session initially was being billed as the “Year of Water,” aiming to strengthen state protection of Florida’s 700-plus natural springs. But like gambling, it appears there will be mostly talk and little action. Weatherford has indicated that the Legislature may increase funding for clean water, but that the heavy lifting of policy reform will be left for his successor next year, Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who the speaker says has more expertise on the issue.

Medical marijuana. Voters in November will decide a referendum that would allow physicians to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, Republican lawmakers who oppose such a broad legalization, and/or fear the ballot initiative is designed in part to boost Democratic turnout, are seeking a narrower compromise: allowing a form of cannabis to be prescribed for certain seizures. Even if it passes, though, it likely will be trampled by the referendum, for which opinion polls show strong public support.

Medicaid expansion. A leftover issue from last year, when the House and Senate rejected the federal Obamacare approach but couldn’t agree on an alternative. The powerful hospital lobby will push for something to get done to offset their costs, but the hangup appears to be with Washington. Florida leaders have complained that Health and Human Services as been unwilling to approve the state’s proposals.

Don’t expect much drama this year, as most lawmakers want to hit the campaign trail without a lot of baggage from the session.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune — For campaigning Gov. Scott, a balancing act via Jeremy Wallace

Florida Gov. Rick Scott heads into his fourth legislative session in a precarious spot.

Scott has floundered in public opinion polls and he faces a potential re-election campaign against former Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat.

To overcome that double-dose of trouble, Scott needs help from the Republican Legislature in crafting the perfect agenda to help the self-proclaimed jobs governor save the one job that is most critical to him: his own.

Though Scott and the majorities in the Florida House and Senate are Republican, that does not mean they move in lockstep. In his first years, Scott upstaged GOP lawmakers at Tea Party rallies, vetoed key projects in lawmakers’ home districts and rubbed many House and Senate leaders the wrong way with his inattentiveness to their political goals.

The good news for Scott is that, despite those missteps, House and Senate Republicans have their own incentives to help the governor.

They know if Crist becomes the state’s first Democratic governor in 16 years, turning their goals into law will becomes exponentially more complicated for at least four years.

For Scott, the session boils down to two key areas — what he needs to happen, and what he needs to avoid.

In the first category, he needs bills to sign that can help win over the general public in a way that his CEO approach to governance failed to accomplish during his first three years.

In the second, he needs lawmakers to block or water down bills that could further alienate him from important voter groups.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Welcome, lawmakers, now get to really know us via Bob Gabrordi

The Legislature opens this week with the governor’s State of the State speech before at joint session of the House and Senate at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

This being an election year, much of whatever happens – including proposed tax cuts and education spending increases – will be aimed at helping those in the majority party staying in power and those in the minority party trying to prevent that.

That this is happening in our backyard is merely incidental. The Capitol building and Governor’s Mansion are merely stages, backdrops if you will, for the theater that is modern politics.

The truth is many – if not most – lawmakers and state leaders, regardless of party or philosophy, rarely take the time to learn much about the place they inhabit for the session, the place we call home.

Further, they make it their business to politic against Tallahassee while seeking election in their home district, as if it were a house of evil doers whose inhabitants look to get rich on the hard work and taxes of the rest of the state.

Except for what can be seen and gleaned from our bars and restaurants, lawmakers know little about us. And probably care even less.

And that’s a darn shame.

Tallahassee and the Big Bend is a beautiful and wonderful place, and its majesty is never more on display than this time of the year.

Some 130 or so of us took a 3-mile-plus tour of our downtown public art on Saturday and rediscovered just how wondrous this place really is. The walk was sponsored by Move.Tallahassee.com and the Council on Culture and Arts. Here is a link to our route if any of you want to try it on your own.

We started and ended at Kleman Plaza and passed murals, monuments and statues and sculpture that cross many eras of local and state history, things that sit right outside the windows of the Capitol that I would bet many lawmakers never take the time to see.

I doubt it, but I do wonder if it might make a difference in their next campaign speeches if once a week they collectively took an hour – that’s one hour per week – and got out into our community and spent some time getting to know the people and the city that serve as the capital of our great state.

I wonder if they did – just once – what the local Move.Tallahassee.com group does regularly and got out into the community to walk and talk and get to know our neighbors, whether it might make some difference in how their perceive our community. For a video and text story about the Move.Tallahassee.com and COCA walk go to this link.

If nothing else, I wonder if doing so might cause them to stop saying so many bad things about this place we call home when they are back in their districts.

Sure I know they don’t really mean the people or the city of Tallahassee when they campaign against Tallahassee, but with another election coming up, it is sure to seem that way once again. You would think that, if they would spend even a little time outside the cocoon of the Legislature, it might do us all some good.

They might even discover this is a real place with real people working real hard, just like the people back in their own hometowns.              

The Tampa Tribune — Don’t gamble with Florida’s future

Florida lawmakers know an election year is no time to agitate voters — or at least agitate them to the degree they still would be upset in November.

That is why the Florida Legislature, which starts its annual session Tuesday, is expected to be relatively tame — with one major exception.

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford both are intent on adopting pension reform, which will anger state workers. But the task, which sadly eluded lawmakers last year, needs to be done to protect taxpayers, the state’s finances and future retirees.

Florida’s plan is funded at 86 percent, a reasonably healthy level. But sooner or later promising to pay a defined lifetime retirement benefit will get the state in trouble, as it has in many other states and municipalities, with bankrupt Detroit being a prime example. Or consider Illinois, which ran up a pension bill equal to 241 percent of its revenue.

Moreover, a key reason the Florida Retirement System is in decent shape is that the Legislature allocates $500 million to it each year.

That is money that would otherwise go to education, transportation, environmental protection, family services and a host of other state needs.

The state should move to a defined contribution plan such as those used in the private sector, where the employer matches to a certain level the employee’s retirement contribution and the money is invested. This 401(k)-type plan gives workers control of their retirement investments and enables them to leave for another job without penalty. It is reassuring that Weatherford and Gaetz stress that any changes would affect only new state workers, not retirees or current state employees.

It would take many years to complete the transition, but the reform would treat workers fairly while defusing a financial time bomb.

Lawmakers should support the reform effort.

NorthEscambia.com — 10 Issues To Watch During The 2014 Florida Legislative Session

Florida lawmakers will start the 2014 session Tuesday with a budget surplus and an eye on the November elections. But they still will have to address some tough questions before the session ends May 2. Among the questions: How can Florida better protect vulnerable children? Is it time to overhaul the state pension system? And should the state allow resort casinos to set up shop? Among the 10 issues to watch during the next two months:

Brighter Budget: Tallahassee is always a happier place when the state has a budget surplus. And lawmakers will go into the session with a roughly $1 billion cushion. Gov. Rick Scott proposed a $74.2 billion budget plan that includes tax cuts and increased spending on education and child welfare. Lawmakers don’t have to follow Scott’s recommendations, but cutting taxes and spending money on kids could be popular ideas in an election year.

Child Protection: The state has faced scrutiny during the past year because of highly publicized incidents of children dying of abuse and neglect. Also, it has been stung by reports of sexual predators being free to commit new crimes. While the details of the issues are different, both come back to the state Department of Children and Families. Lawmakers will try to take steps during the session to improve child protection, while also cracking down on sexually violent predators.

No Safe Bets In Gambling Issue: The Senate has spent months gathering information about whether to revamp gambling laws, including whether to allow high-end resort casinos in South Florida. But as the session starts, it is unclear whether lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott will agree on a plan. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is calling for gambling expansions to go before voters. Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders want to know how Scott will handle a critical gambling deal that runs out in 2015 with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Gun Bills Have Good Shot: When National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer speaks, Republican lawmakers listen. And Hammer looks like she will be successful again this session with proposals such as a bill that would make clear people can fire warning shots in self defense. Democrats, meanwhile, want to repeal or substantially change the controversial “stand your ground” law, but the chances of that happening in the Republican-controlled Legislature are slim — or maybe none.

 

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.