With a Few Days Left in Session, Florida Still Has Unresolved Issues
By Steve Bousquet
Florida legislators on Monday begin the final week of their three-week special session that was required because they could not settle differences on health care and pass a budget in the regular session that ended April 30. This is the closest the Legislature has come to ending the fiscal year with no budget since 1992.
Here's a status report on eight major issues entering the last week:
AMENDMENT 1: Lawmakers have yet to reach an agreement on how to divvy up more than $700 million set aside by voters for buying and conserving land. Members of the House and Senate remain at odds over how much to spend on projects like springs restoration, the Everglades and buying new land. Still, there is one point of agreement: House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said this week that the state won't sell bonds to fund larger-scale land buys. UNRESOLVED.
BONDING: The House could not get the Senate to budge on its refusal to borrow money for college and university construction and water projects, despite the fact that low interest rates make this a good time to borrow and that capital improvements create a lot of jobs. As a result, scores of campus building and maintenance and water projects will get no money or less than they had hoped. RESOLVED.
BUDGET: After more than a week of negotiations between senators and House members that briefly broke down in chaos, the budget is almost done -- but not quite. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, will spend Monday in last-minute bargaining to get the budget printed in time for a hoped-for Friday adjournment. UNRESOLVED.
HOSPITALS: The issue that kept lawmakers tied up in knots for months can be distilled to three letters: LIP, for low income pool. The $2 billion program that reimburses hospitals for the costs of treating poor patients will be kept alive for one more year, thanks in part to the Legislature's decision to shore up the pool with $400 million in money from Florida taxpayers. The money compensates hospitals for patients without family doctors or health insurance who are forced to go to emergency rooms for care. RESOLVED.
JOBS: Gov. Rick Scott and his job-creation machine, Enterprise Florida, wanted $85 million to attract business relocations and expansions in Florida. The Legislature agreed to $35 million. Scott and Enterprise Florida also wanted $5 million for a new program to market Florida as a destination and they will get $1.5 million. RESOLVED.
PROJECTS: Pork-barrel spending is as old as the Legislature itself, and the budget will likely be stuffed with funding for local projects. Many projects get into the budget because of raw political power. The recurring question is why taxpayers all over Florida should pay for something that narrowly benefits one community. Until the budget is done, legislative leaders can -- and probably will -- add and subtract projects. UNRESOLVED.
SCHOOLS: Florida's 67 county school districts will divide $19.7 billion next year. That's $207 more per student, a 3 percent increase and about $50 less per student than Scott promised as a candidate for re-election last year. However, the state expects at least 32,000 new students next fall, so the new money won't go as far as it may seem. RESOLVED.
TAX CUTS: Legislators have informally agreed on a $400 million tax cut package for next year featuring a small reduction in the tax on cable and satellite TV service, a 10-day back-to-school sales tax holiday, a one-year sales tax break on college textbooks and a potpourri of other tax breaks, such as for gun clubs. The package now awaits floor votes in both chambers. UNRESOLVED
Herald/Times staff writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report.
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