As Usual, Much Work Remains in Final Weeks of Fla. Legislature

April 17, 2006

Lawmakers return to Tallahassee, Fla. today after Passover and Easter break still facing some high profile priorities in the final three weeks of the annual legislative session.

Bills that would save Gov. Jeb Bush’s school voucher program, change the way students approach high school and use tax dollars to reduce the cost of homeowner’s insurance are still being debated, as is the budget.

But that’s the way it almost always works. With committee meetings taking up most of the first half of the session and negotiating, tweaking and consensus-building to be done, many of the important bills are taken up in the last couple weeks.

Some particularly high profile measures for the party in power, in this case the Republicans, and on which there’s general consensus in the majority, may be passed early as a symbol of their importance. This year lawmakers gave Bush one such piece of legislation.

That bill, a measure to give businesses some extra protection from liability in some lawsuits where there are multiple defendants, was a top priority of a key GOP constituency, the business community, and at the top of the agenda for House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City.

The measure was passed by the House in mid-March and the Senate passed it at the end of the month and sent it to Bush. Under the bill, which the governor has said he’ll sign, lawsuit defendants will be insulated from having to pay the damages of co-defendants who can’t pay.

But other important bills usually remain until the end as lawmakers work toward compromises and wade through attempts by various constituencies to include their priorities or to scuttle a bill.

Still undone are measures dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes, including changes to the property insurance law and an effort to make it less likely that storm-hit communities will be crippled by power outages at gas stations and other critical places.

The Senate also has not finished top priorities for Bush: an effort to save the state’s court-rejected voucher program that pays for children to leave failing public schools for private schools, and an amendment to weaken limits on public school class sizes. Also still undone is a wide-ranging education proposal intended to improve the rigor and relevance of high school and middle school.

Legislative leaders aren’t worried, noting that big issues sometimes don’t get decided until the last couple days of the two-month session. Sometimes, it goes down to the final minutes.

“As usual, half the session’s over and maybe 25 percent of the work is done, or less,” Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, said. “That’s just the way it always seems to go.”

Bense said he isn’t worried either.

“I think that we can achieve the goals that we’ve set forth in a reasonable fashion,” he said. “It’ll be the typical last two weeks of crunch time, but we’re human beings and we all tend to wait until the last minute.”

When lawmakers return from their break, their first task will be to resume work on the only thing they are required to do: craft a budget for the coming fiscal year.

The Senate and House have each passed a budget plan, but must now work out differences between their $70 billion proposals. They also will be able to add in an extra $960 million, thanks to a new estimate economists reached during the break week on the amount of incoming tax dollars available.

Among the other issues still remaining is a fix to the insurance crisis facing Florida homeowners.

“All of us are hearing from our constituents back home about insurance costs,” Bense said.

Every Florida homeowner is paying for a shortfall at one of the biggest insurers, state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which came up short of what it needed to pay its claims from the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.

Other insurance companies say they won’t write any more policies here, and those remaining are proposing large rate increases.
In the short-term, there’s broad support for using some tax money to help offset Citizens’ deficit.

“Minimizing these assessments must be a goal,” said Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, who as chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee is charged with shepherding a bill to address the situation.

But there’s no fix on the horizon for spiraling rates of Citizens or other companies. Lawmakers are looking for a long-term fix, but there remain major differences between Senate and House approaches.

The proposal to weaken class-size limits and force public school districts to spend 65 percent of their operating budgets in the classroom may be one of the last things to be decided.

The school issue is important to Bush, who campaigned unsuccessfully against a 2002 amendment putting the limits in place and argues it will cost the state too much. It’s also important to Republican leaders in both chambers.

The proposal needs a three-fifths majority to pass because it is a proposal to ask the voters to change the constitution. The Senate last year defeated a similar idea that received only 19 votes, five less than required.

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