The session: A big failure, but many accomplishments
The unsatisfactory outcome on Medicaid aside, this year’s legislative session produced a number of worthy outcomes on issues affecting insurance rates, teacher pay raises, the glut of foreclosures, legislative ethics, long lines at the polls, the environment, and highway safety. Lawmakers, under the leadership of House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, largely shed the animus that marked previous sessions and worked to find common ground, a refreshing development. Of course, it helps to have money. For the first time in several years, lawmakers had a budget surplus to work with. So the record $74.5 billion budget will give raises to teachers and the support personnel in our public schools for the first time in six years. State employees will also get a boost. Everglades restoration will be funded. Lawmakers on many issues demonstrated an admirable willingness to compromise, including the debate over Citizens Insurance rates. Lawmakers listened to consumer concerns and eliminated the potential for steep rate hikes from a proposed bill while keeping needed accountability provisions.Lawmakers also listened to voters frustrated over long voting lines in 2012. The governor and Republican lawmakers who supported a 2011 election law overhaul recognized its shortcomings and rightfully reversed course, expanding early-voting opportunities. They also passed the state’s first ban on texting while driving. While the bill isn’t as strong as it should be, it’s a start for a state that found itself among the few in the nation without a ban. The elimination of sales taxes on manufacturing equipment, a priority of Gov. Rick Scott, is a sensible attempt to stimulate the state’s economy. It’s too bad the rush to pass it in the closing days was reminiscent of previous sessions where leadership rammed through bills without regard for procedural niceties. It might leave this worthy accomplishment exposed to legal challenges. Ethics reform made a refreshing appearance this session. There will be new financial disclosure rules and limits on lobbying by ex-lawmakers. And the foreclosure backlog that has vexed the judicial system and homeowners’ associations alike might shrink under a measure lawmakers passed. The Career and Professional Education Act, or CAPE, will integrate real-world technology skills and knowledge into K-12 classrooms and higher education programs, and should help more graduates find jobs. Not every compromise ended with a good result and there were the characteristic schemes to benefit select special interests. Don’t be surprised if a few dubious measures were quietly slipped into law. But there were also sensible votes to reject some extreme measures, and a justifiable gubernatorial veto. The so-called parent trigger bill, which would have unnecessarily changed the dynamics for fixing broken schools, was narrowly defeated. An alimony bill contained reasonable changes to archaic laws but went too far by allowing previous alimony agreements to be changed. The governor rightfully vetoed it. And efforts to possibly eliminate the state’s governing body over high school athletics failed to gain passage. In the end, though, the discord over Medicaid leaves a dark cloud over a fairly smooth session. Speaker Weatherford refused to adopt a well-crafted Senate plan to accept $51 billion in federal money to help insure the state’s poor, dooming any hope for a meaningful agreement. It was a harmful and ill-advised power play in an otherwise tidy session.