2013 session skipped some things, accomplished others
Florida lawmakers didn’t raise taxes, end alimony, make it easier for parents to pull kids from failing schools, change regulation of high school sports or make drivers turn down their booming car stereos.
But they did ban Internet sweepstakes cafes after the lieutenant governor resigned amid a scandal involving these so-called “drive-by casinos.”
And they passed a university tuition hike, though Gov. Rick Scott may veto it. They mandated more accountability for charter schools, gave state employees their first pay raises in six years, tried to clean up political ethics and fix an election system that put Florida back into late-night TV monologues.
And after five years of trying, they passed a law against texting and driving.
The 2013 session of the Legislature made changes many Floridians will see in their daily lives, but it will also be remembered for big ideas that went nowhere: expansion of Medicaid eligibility for about 1.2 million poor people, backed in a turnabout by Scott, and the move to close the state retirement system to new employees, championed by House Speaker and Wesley Chapel Republican Will Weatherford.
Before the House and Senate made the traditional sine die handkerchief drop at 7:16 p.m. Friday, lawmakers adopted a record $74.5 billion state budget — more than $4 billion above this year’s spending — and included Scott’s two top priorities: They are teacher pay raises and repeal of the sales tax on manufacturing equipment.
Both moves, said the business-minded governor, will produce jobs by giving Florida a better-educated workforce and lower operating costs for employers.
“This is a great day for Florida families,” Scott told a throng that jammed the Capitol rotunda for the closing ceremonies Friday.
Scott has a few weeks to decide whether the standoff over Medicaid expansion, a piece of President Barack Obama’s national health care plan, warrants a special session.
Here are highlights from the two-month session:
Teacher raises The budget includes raises of $1,400 for state workers making less than $40,000 and $1,000 for those earning more. Teachers rated “effective” will get $2,500 pay hikes and the most highly rated can qualify for $3,500 raises.
“Don’t let people tell you we went on a spending spree,” Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the budget chairman, told the Senate. “We didn’t.”
University funding Scott has said he does not want a tuition increase, but legislators put 3 percent in the budget. He can use his line-item veto to take it out, but remains officially non-committal, saying he will listen to as many people as possible on both sides of the issue.
The budget provides $151 million in new university funding on top of a $300 million repayment of money taken out last year to meet needs in other areas of the budget.
Local projects There’s the usual array of pork in the 2013-14 budget, such as $1 million each for the Bay of Pigs Museum in Miami and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
But lawmakers did not fund expansion of the Miami Dolphins football stadium despite personal visits from team owners down to the final minutes of the session.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, put $190,000 in the budget for the University of South Florida to search for grave sites where the infamous Dozier School for Boys once operated in Jackson County.
Dozens of graves have been discovered, but no one knows how many poor, forgotten — mostly black — youths died at the now-closed juvenile prison.
Said Stargel, “Hopefully, they’ll be able to locate all the graves on the property. We can get a little closure on what really happened there.”
Parent trigger Perhaps the biggest surprise of the session was rejection of the so-called parent trigger bill in a 20-20 vote — the second straight year the Senate has deadlocked over the idea.
It would have allowed parents in failing schools to petition their school boards to come up with a turnaround plan, under threat of removing children to other schools. Opponents said it was an attempt to drum up business for corporate-run charter schools.
Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, said he was pleased by the success of a bill to bring more accountability to charter schools.
Legg, who shepherded the measure through the Senate as education chairman, said it cracks down on nepotism in school management, forbids large expenditures after a school declares its intention to shut down and requires uniform monthly accountings to be posted on a school’s website.
“For education, this has been one of the best years for both funding and policy,” Legg said in an interview. “We’ve acted on flexibility in instructional materials, violence and bullying in the schools, teacher evaluation, charter school accountability and making our schools more relevant to what employers need.
“There’s been real policy, while everybody was focused on the parent trigger,” Legg said.
Driving offenses Texting while driving becomes a secondary offense in Florida, meaning law enforcement officers can write the $30 ticket so long as they have pulled over a motorist for some other infraction.
Driving slowly in the left lane will also be illegal, though the new law is expected to be rarely enforced.
“We put a 10 mph buffer in that one,” said Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. If you’re driving slower than 60 mph in a 70 mph left lane, you could be ticketed, although it’s likely a trooper would just flash the blue lights for you to move over.
“It’s my prediction that exactly zero tickets are going to be written for this offense,” Brandes said.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Republican from Pasco County, tried to override a 2012 Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down a $73 fine for driving with a stereo that can be heard 25 feet away. The Senate killed the bill on a 19-19 vote.
Parasailing safety A bill to impose state safety regulations on commercial parasailing, popular on beaches in Pinellas and across coastal Florida, was doomed by assignment to four committees. It passed only one.
Introduced following the deaths of two young women, the bill would require parasailing boats to stay a safe distance from shore and have an observer aboard.
Drone aircraft Negron succeeded in curbing police use of drones. His bill, signed into law by Scott, requires search warrants for routine drone surveillance.
Police could still fly them in emergencies — to search for a missing child or a fugitive, or to measure the boundaries of a wildfire or hurricane damage — but they could not be used to spy on people unless authorized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Public meetings Negron won passage of a right-to-be-heard law, which went to Scott in the final week.
It countermands a pair of court rulings that while people have a right to attend meetings of public agencies, they have no right to speak there. Negron’s bill requires public bodies to make reasonable accommodation for public comment.
Internet cafes Moves to slow the spread of Internet sweepstakes cafes got little traction for several years until a state-federal investigation netted 57 arrests on money laundering and racketeering charges.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, whose public-relations firm did work for the cafe operator at the center of the case, resigned after being questioned by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Carroll has not been accused of any crime.
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who had been trying for a moratorium on new cafes, saw his bill catch fire. Quickly, it became a total ban and Scott, who will select a new lieutenant governor after the session, signed it into law just as quickly.
“It was not the lieutenant governor so much, it was the broad-based investigation and indictments of a lot of people that got people’s attention here,” said Thrasher.
“There had been people who thought we ought to regulate and tax those entities. But I just think having drive-by casinos on every street corner and shopping center is not a good thing for the state of Florida,” he said.
Alimony Scott vetoed a bill by Stargel and Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, that would have ended permanent alimony in Florida. Scott said he was concerned about retroactivity, with long-divorced men going back to court to reduce or to eliminate payments their ex-wives depended upon.
Campaigning, ethics At the same time, Scott signed a major package of ethics and campaign-finance changes.
One new law allows the Commission on Ethics to enforce fines, which have long gone uncollected from errant officials, and permits the governor, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and prosecutors to refer cases to the nine-member commission.
Another new law raises the $500 limit on individual campaign contributions to $1,000 in legislative races and $3,000 in statewide campaigns while abolishing shadowy “committees of continuous existence” that many politicians set up to take unlimited contributions for political slush funds.
“I think the ethics bill is the most significant improvement we’ve made since 1976, when they did the Sunshine Amendment,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.
The House and Senate sent Scott a bill restoring up to 14 days of early voting and permitting counties to designate additional sites for voting in the two weeks before the election.
The plan also applies a 75-word limit to constitutional amendments put on the ballot by the Legislature, not just those submitted by public petition initiatives. The goal is to make them easier to understand.
Shortening early voting to eight days, and placing 11 long amendments on the ballot, were seen as reasons for long lines at some urban polling places last November.
Another provision puts Florida in line with Republican and Democratic party rules on the presidential primary elections date as urged by potential presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican. Florida had set the primary earlier to maximize impact on the parties’ choice in nominees but was punished by a reduction in its convention delegates.