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PSN on May 8, 2008 - 8:32am
With the voters enacting a $9.3 billion property tax cut in January and a projected $7 billion dollar state revenue shortfall, the largest one year drop in revenue in the state’s history, Florida’s recent legislative session was marked by hard budget choices. With legislative leaders committed to raising no taxes to fill a huge budget shortfall, draconian cuts were implemented in state services.
With an economy and real estate market in crisis, serious environmental concerns, continuing election problems, and the fourth highest rate of any state in residents’ lacking health insurance, legislators either made things worse, failed to act, or merely nibbled around the edges of reform.
Budget Cuts for Children/New Spending for Prisons: Legislative leaders decided to cut services to those most in need and cut spending that will help ensure Florida’s next generation has a prosperous future. At the same time they were taking funding from schools, they decided to spend almost the same amount on prisons.
- Hundreds of millions dollars were cut from reimbursements to hospitals for care given to the poor, and support for nursing homes.
- K-12 Education spending was cut by $332 million dollars statewide as college tuition at state schools was increased 6 percent. But, despite these cuts and tuition increases, lawmakers decided to increase spending on school vouchers by over $20 million.
- Prison spending is one area that did see a large funding increase of over $300 million dedicated to building new prisons.
Expressing the impact of the budget choices on Florida’s residents, Rep. Kelly Skidmore noted, “The healthcare and education cuts cost us money, they cost us lives, they cost us jobs, and they cost us our future.”?
Healthcare Expansion in Name Only: While the legislature passed a budget that dramatically decreased healthcare spending on those least able to afford care, and removed the safety net for people suffering from catastrophic illnesses including transplant patients, they also passed a minimum benefits health insurance program that will emphasize primary care but leave little coverage for specialists and lengthy hospital stays. The plan also exempts insurers who provide the plan from the state's 50 coverage mandates, potentially leaving consumers vulnerable and without needed care in the event of a medical crisis. With all of the otherwise mandated procedures and specialist care and prolonged hospital stays exempted from coverage, the new minimum benefits insurance may not be worth the lower price it will cost.
Debating Hot-Button Social Issues: Without much to spend, many lawmakers spent considerable time and brought emotionally charged floor debates on politically potent issues that did not address the true needs of Floridians.
Evolution: Both houses of the Legislature passed bills forcing schools to include critical attacks on evolution in biology curricula. Fortunately, the two houses couldn’t reconcile their two bills and neither became law.
Pre-Abortion Ultrasounds: A bill to require women seeking abortions in the first trimester to have ultrasounds and view the results passed the House but died in the Senate on a 20-20 tie. The only exceptions for the bill were for rape, incest and human trafficking victims, but they would have had to present documentary evidence that they were the victims of such a crime to get the exemption.
Guns at Work: A law was passed that allows gun owners with a concealed weapons permit to have their guns locked in their car at work. The bill split the usual conservative coalition in the state with the NRA in strong support, but business groups fighting just as forcefully against the measure.
Voter ID Requirements:Florida already has one of the strictest voter ID requirements in the country, yet the state decided to further limit the ID that citizens can use when they go to the polls, removing buyers club and employee ID cards from the list of acceptable ID.
Environmental measures were the one Session Highlight: The legislature made progress on a few key environmental bills, but many were compromised or their implementation delayed.
Clean Energy: HB 7135, the governors top environmental bill, implements a host ofinitiatives including increased energy efficiency standards for new buildings and homes, and an incentive for reducing power generation by allowing utilities to meet demand for new power by increasing efficiency and charging rate payers for the investment. Many more contentious issues, such as requiring a percentage of power be generated by renewable sources, were not laid out in the law and will be addressed by future legislatures. The bill was not without controversial elements, such as subsidized construction of power lines from nuclear power plants and a prohibition on municipalities restricting plastic bag use.
Everglades Restoration: The state will spend $50 million dollars on everglades restoration, half of what it usually spends but up from the zero funding included in the budget earlier in the session.
Sewage Outflows: SB 1302, prohibiting the dumping of treated sewage into the ocean was passed into law, but it won’t take effect until 2025. Currently 300 million gallons of sewage a day is released into the sea through pipelines from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.
Energy Efficient Vehicles: Energy efficient and hybrid vehicles will now be able to travel in high occupancy vehicle lanes no matter how many passengers are riding in them.
Some Issues See Minor Reform or Partial Victories: While there were a host of missed opportunities, minor reforms were achieved on a few issues. Lamentably, some of these reforms were very limited in scope and these partial victories were no where near what is needed to meet the many challenges facing the state.
Foreclosure Rescue Service Regulation: HB 643 will require written agreements when a foreclosure rescue company purchases a home and these agreements will have to contain certain consumer protection disclosures.
School and Student Assessment: The assessments of high schools in the state will no longer be solely determined by student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), but will also be determined by such things as graduation rates, college entrance tests, and participation in advanced placement classes. FCAT testing will also be delayed, standards will be made more explicit and grade appropriate, and “FCAT Frenzy”? activities such as in-school rallies will be banned.
Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation: SB 756, Provides that people who have been wrongfully jailed for crimes will now be compensated with an automatic payment of $50,000. However, a “clean hands”? provision will bar compensation for anyone with a previous felony conviction. These are, of course, the people most likely to be imprisoned unjustly.
Faced with a precipitous falloff in
revenue, lawmakers decided to fund prisons over schools and waste
considerable time on issues that will not improve the lives of
Floridians. On almost every issue, lawmakers failed to take the bold
steps necessary to deal with mounting challenges.