Takeaways from Tallahassee: Analysis of the week in state government and politics

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State lawmakers kicked off an election-year, budget-cutting, once-a-decade-political- remapping session this week as Gov. Rick Scott called for further tax cuts and $1 billion more for education while assuring Floridians that good times are returning.

Ushered into a January session in a constitutionally mandated effort to draw new political boundaries in time for the 2012 elections, legislative leaders took little time to caution voters of potentially painful cuts as they work to craft a budget that may fall up to $2 billon short.

Meanwhile, proposals to make significant changes to the state’s no-fault automobile insurance, and a controversial piece of gambling legislation began their separate treks through the chambers, which both cranked back into action.

A round-up via The News Service of Florida.

SCOTT TALKS DONUTS, JOBS AND EDUCATION:

Visibly more at ease than he was a year ago, Gov. Rick Scott delivered his second State of the State speech to a joint session of the Legislature, saying the signs of economic recovery are in the air and his plans to bring 700,000 new jobs to the state are on track.

Scott kept his message limited by focusing on public education, auto insurance reform and his mantra of more jobs.

“The decisions we make in the next few months will determine whether we continue to create a business climate that will provide new jobs and opportunities for Floridians; whether we fully recapture that spirit of human potential that is at the core of what it means to be a Floridian,” Scott said. “I’m absolutely convinced that we will.”

Otherwise short on specifics, the governor called on lawmakers to find at least a $1 billion more for public education while holding the line or reducing taxes, and warned lawmakers he “cannot budge” on that number.

CLAIMS BILLS:

Taking a cue from Scott’s 2010 campaign, the Senate got right to work, passing a pair of claims bills that have caught the attention of Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

Hours after the session started Tuesday, the chamber approved (SB 4), which calls for Eric Brody to receive $15.575 million as compensation for debilitating injuries he suffered in a 1998 car crash with a Broward County sheriff’s deputy. It then passed the other bill (SB 2) to provide $1.35 million to William Dillon, who spent 27 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a murder in Brevard County.

“Today’s simply about justice,” Haridopolos said in presenting the Dillon bill, which passed 39-1.

PIP MY RIDE:

With Scott calling for swift action, both chambers released proposals this week backers say are needed to curb costs that have crippled the state’s no-fault system set up 40 years ago to pay medical costs up to $10,000 for victims of automobile accidents.

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation in April estimates that the number of personal injury protection claims grew by 28 percent between 2006 and 2010 despite no significant increase in the number of drivers on the road. Between 2008 and 2010, estimated claims payments jumped 70 percent to $2.37 billion.

The Senate plan, SB 1860, places tighter restrictions on clinics and makes sure hospitals get paid first. Unlike the House plan, HB 119, the Senate version does not place caps on attorney fees.

The House version, which passed the Insurance and Banking Subcommittee on a 10-5 vote Wednesday, caps overall legal fees and prevents plaintiffs’ attorneys from using multipliers to boost their fees. The House plan also funnels accident victims to hospital emergency rooms or satellite urgent care facilities associated with ERs in an effort to curb costs.

DESTINATION UNKNOWN

Debate over expanding gambling in Florida continued as neither side of the controversial issue was ready to fold. A Senate proposal to allow three mega-resort gambling venues in Florida was amended to allow for expanded gaming in more pari-mutuels around the state. The measure, SB 710, also backed away from earlier promises to shut down Internet cafes.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee approved the bill in a 7-3 vote to allow developments of at least $2 billion to spring up in Florida. Supporters face long odds getting it through the full Senate and House.

The House Business & Consumer Affairs Subcommittee, meanwhile, held a workshop later in the week, on its proposal, but committee chairman Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota said he has not made up his mind about whether he would support the House bill, HB 487, a more limited proposal that would also allow up to three destination resort casinos.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Pam Bondi issued an advisory opinion rejecting proposals for slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The opinion came less than three weeks before Gadsden and Washington counties are scheduled to hold referenda about whether to allow slot machines.

ECONOMIC FORECAST

As lawmakers eye gambling as a way to produce revenue several years from now, state economists left their revenue estimate for the next year and a half all but unchanged, prompting renewed calls from the House for lawmakers to finish their budget on time despite the Senate leaders’ hesitance to move too quickly.The new estimate issued Thursday changes the overall projection by $26.1 million — about 1 percent of the projected $2 billion budget shortfall and an increase of 0.05 percent in projected revenue. It includes an increase of $46 million in the estimate for the current year and a drop of $19.9 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.”You don’t hardly get any closer to the current estimate than that,” said Amy Baker, coordinator of the Office of Economic & Demographic Research.

Earlier in the week Haridopolos said lawmakers should consider postponing budget action until after revenue data from December and January was available. The idea gained momentum as the week progressed.

By Friday, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said a majority of members were in favor of taking a break on budget items until another round of revenue estimates is calculated, if that’s the approach the Senate president wants to follow.

So far, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, has said he is confident the session will end in 60 days.

PRISONS

Scott’s push to get the state out of the prison business took a step forward this week as his prison chief announced plans to close seven prisons and four work camps as part of a consolidation plan that’s possible because of declining numbers of prisoners.

The largest facility slated to close is New River Correctional Institute in Raiford, a part of the so-called Iron Triangle of prison facilities that surround Florida State Prison in northeast Florida.

Later in the week, bills to privatize prisons, work camps and other facilities in South Florida were introduced. The fast tracked measures are scheduled to be taken up next week by the Senate Rules Committee, a sure sign the push to get the state out of the corrections business remains in play.

BROWNING, WALLACE TO STEP DOWN.

Two veteran administrators announced this week they would step down. Two-time Secretary of State Kurt Browning said Wednesday he would step away from the position again. Browning, first hired by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2006 and then brought back by Scott in 2010, said he will return to Pasco County and would at least consider taking a run at school superintendent. Browning will remain in office until Feb. 17, allowing him to oversee the Jan. 31 presidential primary.

Another veteran to hit the road is Scott Wallace, who will step down this spring as CEO of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. the state-backed company that is now the largest property insurer in the state. Wallace, who has spent six years at Citizens’ helm, gave no reason for his decision to quit effective April 6.

STORY OF THE WEEK: With an election looming and an expected $2 billion budget hole facing it, the Legislature convened this week for a 60-day(?) session that will include redrawing all the political boundaries.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “My fellow Floridians, I’m here today to tell you that promise and opportunity will return; in fact ARE returning even as we meet here today. While we have many miles to go, and some of them will be painful, our higher journey is already under way. This year and today we see the rebirth of an even greater Florida.” Rick Scott, during his state of the state speech.

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.