Florida Lawmakers Faced with Lengthy to-do List in Final Week

April 30, 2007

The Republicans who control the Florida Legislature swore they would solve the property tax imbroglio before the 2007 session ends May 4, but their competing bills remain unresolved along with several other bills of importance.

The state’s $70 billion budget is still undone. So are proposals to move up the presidential primary, encourage alternative fuel technology, accelerate non-embryonic stem cell research, revise auto insurance policies, expand physical education programs in the schools and build a Miami baseball stadium are all pending.

That’s not unusual because the Legislature often leaves the stickiest bills for the last minute, but it also means some may not be resolved before time runs out.

“I think we have plenty of time to do good things, and I’m still optimistic,” said Gov. Charlie Crist, who is experiencing his first session as chief executive.

The biggest fight – and greatest uncertainty – will center on the competing property tax plans.

The House leadership is still pushing a plan that would eliminate property taxes on primary homes and replace that money by raising the state sales tax from 6 percent to 8.5 percent – but their fellow Republicans in the Senate want no part of it.

Instead, they want to simply roll back and cap property taxes. Crist jumped into the squabble with a plan that’s closer to the Senate’s.

“You can’t always get what you want but if you try you might sometimes get what you need,” the governor said, mangling the lyrics of an old Rolling Stones hit.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, spent a lot of political capital on his attempt to eliminate the homeowners assessment, but his plan appears doomed.

“I don’t care whose idea it is,” Rubio said Thursday. “We’re interested in the outcome, not the method and not the sponsor. Our goal is savings, not any particular method.”

The budget is the only bill legislators must pass before the session ends and it covers the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Each chamber has passed its own version of the $70 billion-plus spending plan, and committees will resolve the differences.

The Senate has proposed spending about $1.5 billion more than the House mainly through more road building and other public works projects designed to boost the state’s sagging economy, mainly from a construction decline. The House, though, has kept $2 billion in reserve – about twice as much as the Senate – as a hedge against further economic slumps.

The two chambers also have different plans for moving up the state’s presidential preference primary from March to a date in January or February, before the Republican and Democratic nominations are decided.

The Senate bill ties a Jan. 29 vote with the replacement of touch-screen machines, which operate like automated teller machines, with optical scan machines that count paper ballots. The House proposal would move the primary date to a week behind the New Hampshire primary, which has yet to be scheduled.

Many states, including New York and California, are moving their presidential preference primaries to Feb. 5 – and that’s earliest the national Democratic and Republican leaderships want Florida to vote. They are threatening to take away the state’s nominating convention delegates if Florida goes earlier.

There’s also no decision yet on alternative energy, one of Crist’s pet environmental issues.

The House plan has incentives and sales tax breaks for the production of biofuels such as ethanol. It would also provide a property tax break for the installation of solar technology and a sales tax break for the purchase of hybrid or alternative fuel cars.

A pair of Senate energy proposals were combined to contain only a sales tax holiday for the purchase of energy efficient appliances similar to a provision in the House measure.

On stem cell research, Crist has proposed setting up a state grant program. He would spend $20 million during the program’s first year, but limit research to that using adult stem cells or others that don’t require the destruction of human embryos. The measure hasn’t passed in either chamber and, in a tight budget year, it looks like lawmakers may not put any money into it.

The Legislature snubbed another Crist health care priority. He wants to spend about $35 million to stockpile antiviral drugs to be used if there is a flu pandemic. The drugs could be bought through a federal government program at a discount. But as negotiators work through the budget, it looks as if Florida wouldn’t spend any money on the drug stockpile.

The governor also backs retaining some type of personal injury protection or PIP in automobile insurance.

The House wants to get rid of PIP and replace it with a system where people can use up to $15,000 of coverage for use only at emergency rooms and hospital-owned clinics to get care immediately following an accident.

The Senate plan extends PIP to 2012, and calls for a study in the meantime. PIP couldn’t be extended unless the state make reforms based on the study’s recommendations.

“I believe $10,000 in coverage is better than none,” Crist said. I hope we’re able to pass it.”

The governor also wants lawmakers to pass a bill requiring daily physical education classes for children between kindergarten and the fifth grade. He is also pushing a bill that would help the Florida Marlins build a new stadium – a proposal that died at the last-minute last year.

Those are just a handful of the scores of bills yet to be voted on in the final five days, but Crist isn’t worried.

“We can get decisions in a second,” Crist said.

Associated Press writers David Royse, Stephen Majors and Bill Kaczor contributed to his report.

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