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Julie Schwartz on July 30, 2009 - 10:47am
Florida’s 2009 legislative session was dominated by extreme fiscal stress and a leadership crisis. While May 1st marked the official end of the 60-day legislative session, lawmakers had to extend the regular session by a week in order to reach an agreement on the budget.
Budget: Despite an earlier pledge against raising taxes, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist recognized the extremity of the fiscal crisis and signed Florida's $66.5 billion budget, including more than $5.6 billion in stimulus dollars — including money for one-time expenditures, like road construction -- and approximately $2 billion in higher taxes and fees. Much of the new revenue comes from a $1-a-pack cigarette tax and higher fees on driving licenses and motor vehicle tags.
Stimulus: Unlike some other Governors, Gov. Crist expressed no reluctance to accept stimulus money. However, he faced significant opposition from the state's Republican-controlled legislature. For example, while Gov. Crist supported accepting the unemployment insurance funds provided by the Recovery Act, the House and Senate failed to pass S.B.516 and H.B. 1333, the proposed unemployment insurance modernization legislation. As a result, Florida will reject approximately $443 million that could have been added to the state's diminishing unemployment insurance trust fund, although the legislature did agree to SB 810, among other provisions, which creates temporary state extended benefits and will extend unemployment benefits for 250,000 Floridians.
On July 15th, Gov. Crist received an update from his stimulus working group. According to the group:
- Florida’s share of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act is $15.3 billion. $11 billion will flow through the state budget, $3.1 billion will go through state agencies, and $2.1 billion will be spent directly by cities and counties.
- Transportation: Florida ranks 2nd out of 16 states reviewed by the feds for the percentage of highway dollars from the stimulus package that have been allocated.
- Education: 26,000 school jobs in Florida were saved due to stimulus spending. According to Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, over 18,000 of those jobs were teaching positions, including 6,200 special education teachers and another 2,700 K-12 jobs were created.
Election: Civic engagement groups spent much of the session trying to fight off attacks on voting rights and the state campaign finance reform system:
- Numerous nonpartisan public interest groups joined others in successfully fighting SB 956, a bill designed to put barriers in the way of registering and voting on election day. Among other provisions the bill would have, removed retirement center and neighborhood association identifications from the list of acceptable voter IDs, which would have had a devastating impact on elderly and disabled voters; required first-time voters to prove their identity before election day; imposed even more rules on voter registration drives, including stringent deadlines for when registration forms must be submitted to elections officials; and forced voters who move within a month of election day to vote by provisional ballot.
- Unfortunately, HJR 81, which would eliminate language in the Constitution requiring that Florida have a public campaign finance system, passed both houses. Florida's system of small donor matching for governor and other statewide races helps reduce special interest domination of elections. In a small way, the Florida Election Campaign Financing Act increases democracy by providing a voice for middle class and poor voters. Since the legislation would amend the constitution, the bill must be approved by at least 60% of the electors voting on the question in the 2010 general election.
- S.B. 216, which was enacted, prohibits local governments from spending money on electioneering communications that support or oppose a ballot measure.
Health Care: A number of reforms made moderate gains in access to health care in the state:
- S.B. 918 makes many changes to the Florida KidCare Program aimed at providing better access to those children and families in need. One such change was the deletion of a provision that a child be previously uninsured in order to be eligible for the program. The bill will also remove certain administrative barriers to the program, such as decreasing the period of time that a child remains dropped from the program for nonpayment and reducing the waiting period for families that have voluntarily cancelled their employer-sponsored or private health insurance. H.B. 807 requires Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability to study the effectiveness of the outreach efforts of the Florida Kidcare program for uninsured children.
- H.B. 675 the “Alonzo Mourning Access to Care Act,” places certain requirements on companies that offer Medicare supplement policies in Florida. It provides that insurers that offer Medicare supplement coverage must make coverage available on a guaranteed-issue basis to an individual younger than age 65 who is eligible for Medicare by reason of disability or end-stage renal disease.
- H.B. 1269 establishes a breast cancer early detection and treatment referral program within the Department of Health to promote referrals for the screening, detection, and treatment of breast cancer among unserved or underserved populations.
- S.B. 162 creates the "Florida Electronic Health Records Exchange Act." The Agency for Health Care Administration is required to develop a universal patient authorization form to document patient authorization for the use or release of an identifiable health record.
Labor: HJR 1013 which would have amended the constitution to oppose majority sign-up in union elections and to maintain the secret ballot for elections for public office or ballot measures, only passed the House. The legislation was introduced in opposition to the federal Employee Free Choice Act legislation.
Education: Florida students suffered both setbacks and a few minor gains this session:
- S.B. 762 allows individual Florida universities to raise tuition by up to 15% until the national average is reached, based on the needs of the university. To ensure the affordability of higher education, at least 30 percent of the differential tuition must be used for need-based student financial aid, or universities can waive the differential for financially needy students. It is estimated that the total cost of attending a Florida university will increase an average of $400.
- S.B. 2682 implements some of the recommendations of the Florida College System Task Force and the State College Pilot Project. The biggest change requires Community College graduates to get priority over out-of-state applicants for transfer into an institution in the Florida College System for upper division programs.
- H.B. 281 allows purchasers of prepaid tuition to be refunded the unused portion of the contract if the refund is used to purchase more prepaid scholarships.
- H.B. 7121 establishes Florida Distance Learning Consortium to facilitate collaboration among public postsecondary educational institutions in the use of distance learning
- There were attempts by Florida legislators to enact measures to increase educational standards and promote teacher quality in the state. H.B. 1293 would have, among other provisions, boost the requirements for math and science courses needed for graduation and added new levels of high school diplomas, such as college prep and career prep to ensure Florida’s students are prepared to enter the increasingly competitive global economic community. The bill passed the House, but eventually died in the Senate. SB 602 and HB 487, if enacted, would have required one teacher in every pre-K classroom to hold a bachelor's degree or higher in the field of early childhood education or development, by the 2013-14 school year.
Energy: Much to the relief of environmentalist , H.B.1219 which was approved by the House, was not taken up by the Senate. If enacted the bill would have lifted Florida's ban on off-shore drilling and given the governor and Cabinet authority to issue leases for drilling between 3 and 10.5 miles off the coast. Lawmakers did enact H.B. 167 which enables the Florida Energy and Climate Commission (FECC) to develop and manage the Energy-efficient Appliance Rebate Program. The FECC estimates Florida will be eligible to receive at least $18 million in federal funds to implement the rebate program. The Florida Legislature also allocated $150,000 for Fiscal Year 2009-10 to the FECC for the purpose of administering the rebate program.
Broadband: Lawmakers enacted S.B. 2626 which, among other things, authorizes the Florida Department of Management Services to engage in activities related to assessing the need for broadband Internet service in the state, planning for such service, and encouraging the statewide deployment of such service. In a related note, Governor Crist vetoed H.B. 7093 which would have provided exemption from public records requirements for proprietary business information obtained from a telecommunications company or broadband company by the Department of Management Services.
Veteran Benefits: Florida lawmakers enacted a handful of bills that benefit the states' veterans, including:
- H.B. 509 which waives several building and permitting fees for veterans who became disabled while serving and want to make safety and accessibility renovations to their home.
- H.B. 685 which expands the Education Dollars for Duty Program to cover vocational-technical programs, master’s degree programs, college preparatory courses and nonpublic postsecondary institutions.
- H.B. 635 which strengthens legal protections for Florida’s National Guard members in the workplace.
- S.B. 2276 provides a phase-in schedule whereby anyone arrested for specified felony offenses will be required to provide DNA samples to the Department of Law Enforcement. The department is to develop and administer a statewide database. According to Howard Simon, ACLU of Florida Executive Director, who opposed H.B. 2276, “[t]he government is going to expand Florida’s DNA database to include everyone arrested for a felony, even if they are innocent. This includes people for whom charges are never filed, for whom charges are dismissed or who are found not guilty."
- One of the most controversial pieces of legislation in Florida this year was S.B. 360, which makes sweeping changes in growth-management laws. In a letter to Gov. Crist, Charles Pattison, president of the environmental group, 1000 Friends of Florida, argued the legislation would promote urban sprawl, cause traffic congestion and contribute to climate change. A coalition of eight cities and counties led by the City of Weston filed a lawsuit July 8 against Gov. Charlie Crist and others, asking that S.B. 360 be declared unconstitutional.
- H.B. 903 removes the word “reasonable” from a provision in Florida’ Workers Compensation Act that was designed to allow attorneys representing injured workers to be paid a “reasonable fee” for securing benefits and instead places a cap on the fees an insurance company may have to pay to the injured workers attorney for wrongfully withholding benefits. Many opponents of the legislation fear that the bill will prevent injured workers in Florid from finding an attorney willing to represent them in court.
- H.B. 483 adds protections for Securities investors. The legislation gives additional power to the Office of Financial Regulation for prosecution of violations of the Florida Securities and Investor Protection Act.