With their Senate colleagues taking the week off to observe Passover and Easter, House members this week did some heavy lifting as the Republican-led chamber pushed through controversial measures on growth management and elections over a cacophony of dissent from Democrats who could do little but pound their chests, reports Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.
Championing it as an anti-fraud measure, House leadership placed tighter restrictions on get-out-the vote groups and made it tougher for voters who have moved to cast ballots that count. Democrats said the elections bill was a thinly veiled attempt to say ?o You Can??to the re-election of President Barack Obama.
While clamping down on the elections process, the chamber also voted along party lines to ease growth restrictions on local governments by allowing city and county officials more flexibility in determining what their communities will look and rolling back state oversight that has come under fire.
But despite their considerable clout, legislative leaders have been unable to come to agreement on the dimensions of the budget playing field, a disconnect that has stalled negotiations again and prompted even the most optimistic leader to warn lawmakers not to make too many plans for the month of May.
Gov. Rick Scott, Florida? marketer in chief, brought his message of hope to the Panhandle this week, dining on seafood, slathering on sunscreen and strolling on sugar sand beaches all the while urging tourists to return a year after a fire, explosion and 87-day spill from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig shut down the region at a cost of more than $1 billion in tourism related revenue alone.
The 157-page election bill (HB 1355) cleared the House on a 79-37 vote after hours of questions and spirited debate over two days. It still needs Senate approval.
Republican backers say the measure is a continuation of efforts dating back a decade to improve the state? election process and guarantee registered voters- and only registered voters ?can cast their ballots and have them count.
?on? you understand the damage you?e done to everybody? vote when you don? guard the system??asked Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who sponsored the measure.
But Democrats continued to slam the bill as little more than an attempt to undermine Obama? re-election effort in 2012 by making it more difficult for the demographic that elected him ?particularly young people in college ?to cast their ballots in what is expected to again be a crucial swing state.
?t is my sincere hope that my former colleagues in the Senate reject this assault on Florida? democratic process and defeat this effort to suppress the voting rights of all Floridians,?Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said.
The House passed a bill Thursday on a largely party-line vote that overhauls the state? 25-year-old growth management laws. Republicans have complained for several years that that has slowed growth in the state. A similar growth bill passed in 2009 but has been tied up in court.
Under the bill (HB 7129), which still needs Senate approval, growth issues are largely left up to counties and cities, including whether to require developers to pay for roads, schools, parks and other infrastructure improvements. Backers say the current state oversight is ?nnecessary and burdensome?at a time when the state? economy is sputtering.
The bill also eliminates a state-mandated review of all changes to comprehensive plans. The Senate version (SB 1122) which makes similar changes, is now awaiting action in the Senate Budget Committee.
Many House Democrats fear the bill will spawn congestion and postpone needed public services by reducing state oversight of growth planning decisions. They argue that growth hasn? been slowed by the state, but by the economy.
?e?e never had a lot of complaints until the last couple of years when, because of the economy, all of the developments stopped,?said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West. ?ere we are, overreacting to the economy by trying to wipe out state oversight for growth management.?
BUDGET TALKS STALL
The House may have made short work of some controversial issues this week but not all sledding was good. House and Senate negotiators still have no agreement on funding allocations for specific parts of the budget.
The House has made an offer to the Senate on how much each part of the budget ?education, health and human services and so on ?should get. But so far, they?e not in agreement on those broad category amounts, with two weeks and two weekends to go before the scheduled end of the session.
?oday, I think we’re still where we were yesterday, which is we’re making some progress, but progress is sort of in the eye of the beholder,?a usually optimistic House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, told reporters on Thursday. ? still am confident that we’ll get done on time, but I’m not guaranteeing that we’ll get done on time.?
Among the biggest bones of contention between the two spending plans is how deeply to cut Medicaid spending. The Senate has taken deeper cuts and proposes changes to Medically Needy, an optional program, by cutting hospital and pharmaceutical benefits. The Senate is also proposing deeper cuts to hospital rates.
Waiting in the wings is Gov. Rick Scott, who said repeatedly this week that he still expects some type of corporate income tax cut to emerge from budget talks. Legislative leaders have said such cuts may not be in the cards, but this week an amendment emerged that would cut the corporate tax rate. The proposal, part of a tax bill (SB 1236) slated to be heard in two committees this week, could provide the governor the tax break he wants.
In other action, the Florida House overwhelmingly approved a plan Thursday to curb prescription-drug abuse, after offering a glimpse of how the “epidemic” is hitting their communities and families.
Reps. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, and Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, told House colleagues they have family members who have abused prescription drugs.
“I will tell you it’s devastating on everyone who comes in contact with it,” said Glorioso.
The House voted 116-1 to approve HB 7095, with only Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne, opposing it. The full Senate is ready to take up a bill (SB 818) that includes significant differences, and both chambers will have to agree on a final version.
UNIONS PUSHES BACK ON BARGAINING VOTE
Stung by a series of bills on employee pensions and the collection of union dues, a coalition of unions representing 20,000 employees pushed back this week. Union leaders representing workings in Orange, Volusia and Seminole Counties said they will withdraw union funds from banks that have aligned themselves with the Florida Chamber of Commerce in the fight to limit or prevent unions from being able to automatically deduct dues from public employee paychecks.
The Chamber aired television ads this week calling for passage of the measures (SB 830 and HB 1021.) The unions have targeted Bank of America, PNC Bank, Regions Bank, SunTrust and Wachovia, whose executives sit on the Chamber? board of directors. They have urged their members to do the same with their personal accounts.
?e are all under attack and will respond by choosing to take our business elsewhere,?said Chris Sherburne, president of the Orange County firefighters union.
The Florida Chamber shrugged off the threat.
?hile the latest union stunt may grab headlines, it fundamentally demonstrates the union leadership? lack of understanding of how the economy works and how private sector jobs are created,?said Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber.
?HE FISH TASTE GOOD?
Putting on his barker hat, Gov. Rick Scott spent two days in the Florida Panhandle this week, marking the first anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster by eating seafood and walking along Florida? Panhandle beaches in the hopes of luring visitors back to the region that relies on tourists and lost more than $1 billion in tourism business alone following the disaster.
Signs of life are returning to the region, which should benefit from an infusion of an additional $30 million in marketing money released by BP last week to bring new visitors and coax back the faithful who last summer went somewhere else and liked what they saw.
?he positive is, if you talked to people, bookings are up and our beaches are spotless. The fishing is good and the seafood tastes great,?Scott said Wednesday during a stop in Destin. ?e were on a trajectory last year before the oil spill. We want to get back to that point.?
State officials also announced an additional $1 billion BP-backed effort to restore beaches, wetlands and other coastal ecosystems in all five Gulf states damaged or destroyed by the spill. Florida will get $100 million up front and be eligible for millions more under the agreement reached between the company and environmental officials from the states and the federal government.
But not all is rosy along the sun-backed coastline. Businesses and individuals are still awaiting payment from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which was set up to pay benefits to folks who lost businesses and their livelihoods due to the spill. Claims administrator Ken Feinberg has paid out nearly $4 billion in claims from the $20 billion fund, but many business owners say they?e yet to see a check.