Florida lawmakers will start the 2014 session Tuesday with a budget surplus and an eye on the November elections. But they still will have to address some tough questions before the session ends May 2. Among the questions: How can Florida better protect vulnerable children? Is it time to overhaul the state pension system? And should the state allow resort casinos to set up shop? Here are 10 issues to watch during the next two months:
Tallahassee is always a happier place when the state has a budget surplus. And lawmakers will go into the session with a roughly $1 billion cushion. Gov. Rick Scott proposed a $74.2 billion budget plan that includes tax cuts and increased spending on education and child welfare. Lawmakers don’t have to follow Scott’s recommendations, but cutting taxes and spending money on kids could be popular ideas in an election year.
The state has faced scrutiny during the past year because of highly publicized incidents of children dying of abuse and neglect. Also, it has been stung by reports of sexual predators being free to commit new crimes. While the details of the issues are different, both come back to the state Department of Children and Families. Lawmakers will try to take steps during the session to improve child protection, while also cracking down on sexually violent predators.
NO SAFE BETS IN GAMBLING ISSUE
The Senate has spent months gathering information about whether to revamp gambling laws, including whether to allow high-end resort casinos in South Florida. But as the session starts, it is unclear whether lawmakers and Scott will agree on a plan. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is calling for gambling expansions to go before voters. Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders want to know how Scott will handle a critical gambling deal that runs out in 2015 with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
GUN BILLS HAVE GOOD SHOT
When National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer speaks, Republican lawmakers listen. And Hammer looks like she will be successful again this session with proposals such as a bill that would make clear people can fire warning shots in self-defense. Democrats, meanwhile, want to repeal or substantially change the controversial “stand your ground” law, but the chances of that happening in the Republican-controlled Legislature are slim — or maybe none.
HEALTH CARE FIGHTS
The 2013 legislative session was filled with debate about whether Florida should expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. While Democrats will try to resurrect the issue this year, a Medicaid expansion is all but dead. But the health-care world could see a couple of major lobbying fights, including a hospital-industry battle about state approvals of new trauma centers. Also, a debate has been raging about a House proposal to allow nurse practitioners to provide care without the supervision of physicians.
Weatherford has made a top priority of trying to move the state away from a traditional pension system for future government workers. A group of Republican senators banded together with Democrats last year to kill a proposed shift into 401(k)-style plans. But Weatherford and his allies are back this year with other alternatives. This could become one of the most-intriguing political issues of the session.
This year’s legislative session, like all others, will include myriad bills and budget issues that affect the public-education system. But one issue that could become controversial is a proposal to expand a voucher-like program that helps pay for low-income students to go to private schools. Weatherford has promised a “massive expansion” of what is known as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. But groups such as the Florida Education Association teachers union have long opposed voucher-like ideas.
TAX CUTS ON TAP
As Republicans have dominated Florida politics since the late 1990s, one of their go-to issues has been cutting taxes. Scott hopes to tap into that as he runs for re-election this year. Scott is pitching $500 million in tax and fee cuts, including the rollback of a vehicle-registration fee increase approved in 2009. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Weatherford have already committed to making $500 million in cuts, though details remain to be worked out.
Taking a cue from the governor, lawmakers appear poised to take steps to hold down tuition in state colleges and universities. Among other things, legislative leaders have expressed support for changing a law that allows universities to raise tuition as much as 15 percent a year. Also, they say they want to make the Florida Prepaid College Program more affordable. Questions remain, however, about whether lawmakers will approve extending in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is one of the most-powerful people in the Legislature. He also happens to live in part of Southeast Florida where residents are riled about pollution being discharged from Lake Okeechobee into nearby waterways. Negron is leading efforts to get money for a collection of projects aimed at addressing the pollution issue. Meanwhile, lawmakers also are looking at a series of other water-related issues, such as trying to better protect the state’s natural springs.