Big issues teed up for second half of legislative session

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Florida is safe again for Canadian snowbirds. But halfway through the annual legislative session, most other issues are unresolved.

That probably sounds like a bigger deal than it actually is. Legislative sessions move by a time-honored rhythm that culminates in a flurry of deals and bills passing during the final week or two.

What’s more, a brighter economy has given a boost to tax collections. That likely will help the House and Senate agree on the only legislation they are legally required to pass before going home — the state budget.

“The bottom line is, there’s nothing like having some money,” Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher said Wednesday, the 30th day of the 60-day regular session.

The House and Senate, however, will have to grapple with difficult issues during the next month, including trying to find an alternative to expanding Medicaid, revamping the state retirement program and making changes in the education, property insurance and elections systems.

Also, some issues that have drawn huge amounts of attention appear to be on the road to legislative nowhere. As an example, remember the furor about the “Stand Your Ground” law after the shooting death of teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford? Don’t expect any changes to scale back the law.

Legislative sessions start with a burst of attention and then are filled with weeks of bills grinding through committees before the sometimes-frantic end game. One exception this spring was a bill to repeal a 2012 law that called for foreign visitors to get special driving permits in their home countries before hitting the roads in Florida.

The requirement created confusion and consternation, particularly among Canadians who head south for the winter. Lawmakers quickly pushed through the repeal bill, and Gov. Rick Scott signed it this week.

“We want everybody to come to our state, both from the other 49 states and from around the world,” Scott said. “We love international visitors.”

Another issue that appears on a fast track to Scott is an effort to shut down Internet cafes, which critics have long argued are “storefront casinos” that offer computerized games similar to slot machines. That issue was not a priority early in the session but quickly jumped to the front of the line after raids of Internet cafes across the state — and the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll because of her past consulting work for one of the industry’s biggest players.

But many issues aren’t as easy to resolve as getting Canadian drivers back on the road or shuttering Internet cafes. Republican leaders, for instance, have decided against expanding Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act and say they want to come up with an alternative to offer health services to low-income people.

The question is, how? And will Republicans agree to rely on federal money to help pay the tab? The Senate is mulling two possible approaches, but House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said Tuesday that House leaders are not ready to release a proposal.

“It’s a grown-up conversation that we’re all having about what our alternative should look like,” Weatherford said.

Many Democrats, meanwhile, are outraged that Republicans would forgo tens of billions of dollars in federal money that would flow to the state during the next decade for expanding Medicaid eligibility. Like with most issues in Tallahassee, Democrats don’t have the political muscle to get their way without Republican help.

As another example of a tricky issue to resolve, Weatherford is pushing for major changes in the state retirement system. He wants to put new employees in a 401(k)-type plan instead of in the traditional pension program, but the Senate doesn’t want to go that far.

Thrasher, who as rules chairman plays a key role in the flow of legislation, said he thinks the retirement-system changes will be one of the biggest issues to resolve. But he said he is confident the House and Senate can ultimately reach agreement.

Another issue that will be closely watched during the final weeks will be a battle about a bill that would give parents more power to decide the fate of failing schools. The proposal — known widely as the “parent trigger” bill — likely will pass the House easily, but the test will come in the Senate, where the idea failed last year.

Despite such questions, Thrasher, a longtime legislative figure who also served as House speaker and worked as a lobbyist, expressed optimism that the major issues will be resolved by the end of the session.

“All in all, things are falling into place,” he said.

Via Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.