Local lawmakers stake out positions
TALLAHASSEE - The Tribune spoke with selected Tampa Bay area lawmakers about what they hope to see accomplished in the 2013 legislative session that opens this week. Here are excerpts from the discussions. Rep. Janet Cruz, Tampa Democrat Fixing the polling problems that caused long lines at Florida precincts tops Cruz's to-do list. As the Democratic point person on election-law changes, the Tampa optician and health care executive is trying to get the Republican leadership of the House and Senate to do more than restoring 14 days of early voting and giving county elections supervisors discretion to use civic centers, fairgrounds and other large public areas during those days.She wants to allow Election Day address changes at the polls and have counties post on their websites the names of voters whose signatures are illegible on mailed ballots, so volunteer groups can alert those people to clear up discrepancies before the polls close. "Although it's not a perfect bill, what we've got is certainly better than what was passed in 2011," Cruz said. She said Democrats are glad Gov. Rick Scott changed his mind and now supports a three-year expansion of Medicaid eligibility, which will reach about 1 million more low-income people. Republican leaders in the House are skeptical, but she said the change should pass. Rep. Mike Fasano, New Port Richey Republican Expanding Medicaid eligibility for poor people and "playing defense" against increased premiums and reduced coverage by Citizens Property Insurance are among Fasano's top priorities. "We have to address insurance property crisis and come up with something that will stop what the private companies and Citizens are doing to our homeowners, especially in the Tampa Bay area," Fasano said. Fasano also expects to be involved in changing the cost-recovery rules that let power companies bill consumers now for plants not yet built: "What we have now is no different than a tax that people pay for nuclear power plants that will never be built." He voiced support for Gov. Scott's proposed $2,500 pay raise for teachers, but said it looks politically motivated. Scott is up for re-election next year. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, Tampa Democrat Expanding Florida's Medicaid program, increasing state support of public schools and getting Florida elections out of the monologues of late-night TV comedians are top priorities for Joyner. And "while I hate to be circumspect," it doesn't surprise her that Gov. Scott recently signed on for the substance of those positions. Joyner, a Tampa lawyer and former educator, said teachers deserve the $2,500 pay raise the governor has budgeted and that education needs the $1 billion-plus increase he has proposed for K-12 and more than $300 million in added funding Scott requested for higher education. But she noted in an interview that Republican lawmakers cut $1.3 billion from education in 2011 and put back about $1 billion last year, and that Scott made his political career fighting President Obama's national health care plan. "My concern is to provide adequate funding for education of children and expansion of Medicaid for the poor people who need help," she said. Sen. Tom Lee, Brandon Republican As a former Senate president returning to the Legislature from an eight-year hiatus, Lee brings a unique perspective to "the role of government in people's lives." His top priorities for 2013 will be education policy, the expansion of Medicaid under the national health care act, and revamping Florida's economic-development incentives. Although Gov. Scott's decision to support Medicaid expansion sent shock waves through the Republican Party of Florida, Lee takes a long-range view of the topic. "There is a really fair argument to be made that Florida is already paying for the health care of all those individuals out of a different pocket — but it's the same pair of pants," he said. Lee dealt with revisions in Citizens Property Insurance a decade ago. "Trying to extract ourselves from that, without creating tremendous rate shock throughout Florida is going to be a very difficult question." Sen. John Legg, Lutz Republican The chairman of the Senate Education Policy Committee has filed a "career and professional education" bill, aimed at giving universities and public schools incentives for producing young graduates with job skills needed in Florida's new kind of workforce. "If we're trying to get back the jobs of 2003, we've already failed," Legg said. "We have to prepare our kids for the jobs of 2013 and 2023 and beyond." His bill (SB 1076) also would allow high schools to substitute some "industry certification" of skills for existing graduation requirements. Another major issue sure to land in Legg's committee is a "parent trigger" plan that Democratic lawmakers and teacher unions see as a step toward privatization of public education and promotion of profit-making charter schools. The proposal would let parents petition school boards to establish turnaround plans for schools that post failing scores on assessment tests. "I'm supportive of the concept but I want to make sure it works," said Legg. Rep. Betty Reed, Tampa Democrat Would you spare a buck to help the homeless? Reed hopes so. The first bill she filed this year would allow drivers to voluntarily pay an extra $1 on their license and registration fees, to go into a Department of Children & Families grant fund to provide public education about homelessness and help with counseling efforts for people seeking help. "There are a lot of homeless families, children living on the street and in cars," she said. Reed, a retired educator, said she is pleased that Gov. Scott added more than $1 billion to his budget for public schools. But she said teachers she talks to don't think the Legislature will pass the $2,500 teacher pay raise Scott has proposed. Many Republican legislative leaders have said they favor some form of performance-based pay and accountability measures, rather than across-the-board raises. Reed also opposes the "parent trigger" bill that would let parents of children in failing schools petition school boards to devise improvement plans, with the possibility of state intervention. "Parents don't always know exactly how the system works so it takes a lot of time and work to get to the point of being prepared to do what the trigger bill will do." Sen. Bill Galvano, Bradenton Republican Slightly more than half of Florida's general-revenue budget goes through the education appropriations committees, and that will be Galvano's biggest responsibility in the 2013 session. Galvano, whose district includes the southern edge of Hillsborough County, is not sure the state can afford the $458 million Gov. Scott has proposed for $2,500 teacher pay raises. But he wants to spend more on public schools, allowing for labor negotiations and possibly spreading raises among non-teaching professionals. "I'd rather create a pay increase system based on merit, rather than across the board," Galvano said. "We'll be working with the governor's office on some edges that need to be beveled." Another high priority will be streamlining the regulatory process for new manufacturing companies coming to Florida. He also wants to cut the communications services tax, which he said can reach 17 percent for buyers of pre-paid phones. "For those people who are out looking for work and need a mobile system, and buy a prepaid phone, I want to make sure they're taxed at the sales-tax rate," he said.