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Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Unfinished business for the Legislature

Even in a session as relatively tame as this one has been, the last week of the Florida Legislature is chaotic. Here are few key chores we hope aren’t neglected in the closing frenzy.

Support Gov. Scott’s request to spend an additional $39 million on child-abuse investigators.

The Department of Children and Families is not adequately protecting at-risk children. A Miami Herald investigation found that since 2008, at least 477 children who had prior contact with DCF had died — far more than DCF had reported. Scott’s proposal would allow the hiring of 400 more child-abuse workers and allow more scrutiny of high-risk cases. The Legislature so far is providing only about $21 million for investigators.

In-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.

The proposal, supported by Govs. Rick Scott, Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez, would simply make higher education more affordable for students who have grown up in Florida. They are not going to be deported. It is in the state’s best interest that they pursue their education and be prepared for productive careers. If Senate President Don Gaetz continues his mean-spirited opposition to this sensible measure, his legacy will be considerably tarnished.

Reform the state pension plan.

Although Florida’s public pension is relatively healthy, with the ability to cover about 86 percent of its obligations, things can go south in a hurry with devastating financial consequences, as numerous other states have discovered. The Florida pension plan relies on a return of 7.75 percent, which could be difficult to maintain during turbulent economic times.

The Senate isn’t going to go along with Speaker Will Weatherford’s call for sweeping reform, but lawmakers should agree on meaningful steps to reduce Florida’s pension obligation and steer more workers to a defined contribution plan.

Fund springs restoration.

Lawmakers seem to have given up on a sweeping $380 million plan to nurse Florida’s many polluted springs back to health — at least until next year. But lawmakers should back Scott’s plan to spend $50 million repairing the state’s most threatened springs. Continued degradation of these wonderful natural gifts is a disgrace.

Support land conservation.

Last year lawmakers made a mess of environmental land acquisition, trying to generate funds by selling “surplus” conservation land. Turns out, there were hardly any, and officials ended up proposing the sale of ecologically valuable parcels before pulling the plug on the debacle.

This year lawmakers are trying a similar but superior approach, authorizing up to $40 million to be raised for conservation lands by selling unneeded state properties, such as former prison or hospital sites. This strategy is likely to actually raise funds and get rid of genuine surplus lands. In addition, Weatherford’s House would allocate an additional $30 million to save important natural lands. The Senate needs to follow the House’s lead and also provide funds.

Expand Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

The effort to make more poor families eligible for this program’s private school vouchers appeared virtually dead in the Senate — until last week when a bill was revived. It is far more modest than the superior House version, but it allows more foster children to take advantage of the vouchers and eliminates the requirement that children attend public school before applying for the scholarship. It also establishes a system to conduct annual reports on how students in the program are faring and their year-to-year learning gains. There is already oversight of the program, but the provision provides additional accountability, a frequent source of criticism. The House version, in contrast, would raise the maximum family income for eligibility, enabling many more children to participate.

Under the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the state provides tax credits to companies that fund private school vouchers.

We hope when the House and Senate measures are reconciled, lawmakers focus on what children need, not education politics. The program gives poor families the same chance to select schools that best meet their children’s needs that families with higher incomes already enjoy.

Support microbreweries.

Florida’s burgeoning craft beer industry wants the Legislature to scrap outdated laws that prevent microbrewers from selling their products in half-gallon containers called growlers. Rather than grant that reasonable request, lawmakers led by Lakeland Sen. Kelli Stargel are bending to the will of powerful brewers such as Anheuser-Busch and pushing legislation that would harm microbrewers by severely limiting the number of kegs they could brew and still sell beer directly to their customers. The ploy is an outrageous affront to small businesses and the free market and should be rejected. The microbrewers are creating jobs as they expand and grow market share. Tallahassee should be encouraging these entrepreneurs, not tying them up in regulatory knots for the benefit of the major brewers.

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