Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

FL House GOP Ready to Reject Some Stimulus Money

Their decision places them at odds with Gov. Crist and the GOP-dominated Senate, but they appear unwilling to compromise at this point:

House Republican leaders say they’re willing to accept most of the $2.9 billion in economic stimulus money Congress made available to Florida to help laid-off workers.

“Most” means everything but the $444 million in unemployment compensation money Gov. Charlie Crist and Senate Republicans want to spend to expand the number of people who would qualify for the checks in Florida.

Taking the money would require the state to pay roughly $70 million through the end of 2009 as its contribution to the program, but also potentially carries greater costs because the federal money only pays for the extra checks for two months, House staff said. It could also hasten the depletion of the state’s unemployment compensation trust fund – likely triggering an increase in unemployment taxes paid by businesses. The fund is scheduled to run dry by the end of June, but expanding the pool of potential applicants for unemployment checks could drain it sooner, staff said.

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School Prayer NOT Coming to a Classroom Near You

Sen. Ronda Storms (R-Valrico), one of the upper chambers most controversial members, seems to have abandoned her campaign pledge to pass legislation that would allow prayer in public schools.

A proposal to allow prayer and other “inspirational messages” at school events, including student assemblies and sporting events, might be over before it started, after sponsor Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, postponed the proposal’s first Senate committee consideration and later told reporters there is likely not enough time to get it to the floor.

SB1360 gives school districts authority to allow the delivery of an “inspirational message,” including prayer or invocation, at noncompulsory high school events as long as a majority of students participating request the message and select a student to deliver it.

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Legislature Looks to Limit Teens Tanning

They can’t balance a budget, but they do want to assume the role of parents in Florida’s teenagers lives.  

[Eleanor] Sobel said making it tougher to use tanning beds — which emit UV rays much stronger than the real thing — will cut down on skin cancer.

“You would not sell cigarettes to a 16-year-old,” Sobel said. “Why would you allow a 16-year-old to use a tanning bed?”

The Senate Health Regulation Committee signed off on the proposal Wednesday, but other lawmakers say attempting to regulate tanning in Florida simply isn’t realistic.

“How do you regulate a kid from going in the sun?” asked Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican. “Are we going to keep them from going to the beach? How do you regulate people wanting to get a tan?”

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FL Senate Looking To Limit Union Organizing

In preparation for a widely expected move by the US Senate to make it easier for unions to organize, the Florida Senate is moving to limit their ability to do so in Florida.

Business and labor squared off Wednesday on a bill that would prohibit open or “card check” union-organizing drives in Florida. As expected, business groups prevailed, as the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved the bill on a 6-3 party-line vote.

The Republican-sponsored Florida bill is inspired by an effort by the Democratic-controlled Congress to force employers to recognize unions if a majority of workers organize through an open signup process. All future union elections in Florida would have to be by secret ballot only.

The supporters of the limitation hope to have it on the ballot in November 2010.

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Legislature agrees on budget cuts

The House and Senate conference committees came to an agreement on the $2.4 billion budget cuts this morning. From the St. Pete Times:

The House and Senate agreed this morning on the how to raid trust funds and savings accounts to close the state’s $2.4 billion budget deficit, sparing the State Transportation Trust Fund and shielding housing trust fund money from the deepest cuts.

That means the budget will be printed today, laid on members desks and be ready for final approval Wednesday.

The agreement appears to leave a $400m cushion in the budget in case the economy and state tax collections continue to nosedive. At a glance, here’s what the $2.8b plug/Sunday agreement looks like:

*$1.2b in total spending cuts, plus the following raids, sweeps and trims:

* $400m from the Budget Stabilization Fund

* 700m from the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund

$190m from the Housing Trust Fund

$381m from other trust funds (we’ll find out which ones later)

$1.5m cut from the governor’s office (insted of just $1m)

$100,000 by getting rid of a state aircraft.

Next up, closing a $4-5 billion dollar budget hole during the regular legislative session that begins in March.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , ,

Special Session priorities?

Our legislators have such an interesting set of priorities considering the huge budget hole they are staring down. 

One of the first things House members did today was to vote down 70-42 (along party lines), Rep. Waldman’s bid to get his bill to increase cigarette taxes heard.  Rep. Waldman’s proposal would have raised up to $700 million.   According to the Tallahassee Democrat,

House Majority Leader Adam Hasner of Delray Beach said the Democratic attempt was misguided and poorly timed in a statement he issued immediately after the vote.  “There are too many unknowns right now about an increased cigarette sales tax, such as how much it would collect and when we would start to realize the new revenue, to add this issue to the condensed agenda of the Special Session at this time,” Hasner said in the statement.

I wonder why that same logic didn’t apply to raising fines for speeders. 

As for the Senate, one of the first thing its members did today was vote on a resolution expressing their solidarity with Israel. 

Who elected these people?

Both the House and Senate refused to take a look at Florida’s current sales tax structure with it numerous exemptions during the Special Session.  However, to his credit, Senate President Jeff Atwater promised it would be a subject of the Senate’s when it begins meeting in regular session in March.  I hope he has more success in getting rid of the sales tax exemptions than one of his predecessors – former Senator (and former Senate President) John McKay.

BTW, the House approved its budget on a 73-40 vote; the Senate, 27-13. The House-Senate conference committees will work over the weekend to reconcile differences.

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The Special Session today

Today’s special session saw the House and Senate finally closing their hearings on the budget and getting ready to vote on their respective proposals tomorrow according to an AP report

While they are fairly in agreement on cutting nearly $1 billion in spending and raising traffic fines, two main questions divided the House and Senate: Whether to cut spending for road building and other transportation projects and how much money to borrow from the state’s tobacco settlement endowment.  The House wants to take $235 million out of the State’s transportation trust fund and use that money to offset shortfalls in the general fund.  The House plan would take $400 million from the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, while the Senate’s package would remove $700 million.

The House and Senate versions also differ in other areas:

Affordable Housing:  The Senate would remove $140 million from the affordable housing trust fund compared to $283 million under the House plan.

Budget Stabilization Fund:  The House would nearly drain the budget stabilization fund by removing $600 million while the Senate would take out $200 million.

Education:  Both packages would require pay cuts for school employees in financial troubled districts, but they differ on the details.  The House amended its version during floor debate to exempt teachers. It would go into effect if a district’s cash balance falls under 2 percent of its general fund budget. Under the Senate plan, salaries for all district employees including teachers, administrators, school board members and non-teacher employees would be cut only if a district is unable to pay its bills or make payroll.

Conservation:  The Senate proposal would cut the state’s Florida Forever environmental land-buying program by $4 million for the rest of the current budget year and $20 million annually, while the House proposal would leave the program untouched.  BTW, the Senate cuts in this program would affect projects here in Jacksonville:  Ft. George State Park, the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rails to Trails expansion, Ocean Hammock Park, and  Town Center Park. 

Once the House and Senate vote on their proposals, they will have to conference to resolve the differences between the two proposals.  Then Florida law requires that they wait for a three day cooling off period before they take a final vote on the budget.

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Legislative update for Wednesday, January 7th

The various House and Senate committees met today continuing to go over the budget cuts.  House bills have been placed on the Special Order calendar for that big discussion (the House Session) that Speaker “Criminole” Sansom has scheduled to run from 3pm to 6pm tomorrow and reconvene if necessary on Friday.  The Senate bills are still under discussion at the committee level tomorrow, with the full Senate set to meet in Session at 9:3o am Friday morning.

House Dems issued calls to slow down on the budget cuts and wait for the federal stimulus package from Washington, DC.  While the Senate Dem caucus voted today to vote against the budget bills tomorrow in committee hearings and again at Session on Friday morning.

You can view the filed House appropriations bills and proposed Council bills, and the Senate’s proposed Committee bills here.

Footnote:  Not to be outdone, Rep. Waldman filed another cigarette tax bill today (HB15A).  Let’s see if the House refuses to introduce it again or if the bill is just left to wither on the vine.  Waldman is nothing, if not persistent.

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Senate President open to fees discussion during special session

With the budget crunch looming larger than life for Florida, we’re hearing more and more Republicans saying the T-word and the F-word – taxes and fees.  The latest announcement to that effect came from Senate President Jeff Atwater late Thursday.  According to the  St. Pete Times, Atwater is willing to discuss fee increases in the upcoming special session of the Legislature that will be held in January.  He is willing to discuss increasing cigarette taxes and revamping the sales tax exemptions in the regular session that starts in March.

Atwater and Ray Sansom, Speaker of the House, will be releasing the agenda for the special session in the next few days.

Filed under: Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , , ,

Jacksonville’s Senators snag some good posts

Senate President Jeff Atwater restructured the Senate to look more like the House structure – creating broad policy and steering committees to house the various legislative standing committees.  The 5 new policy and steering committees are:  1) Commerce and Industry, 2) Energy, Environment and Land Use, 3) Governmental Operations, 4) Social Responsibility, and 5) Ways and Means.  Our senators received some good assignments that could very well help Jacksonville during the upcoming legislative session – one that promises to be tough for finding money for pet projects.

Senator Tony Hill was appointed to the following:

Senator Jim King was appointed to the following:

and Senator Steve Wise was appointed to the following:

 The House committee assignments have not been released on the Legislature’s website as of this posting.

Filed under: Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, Jacksonville, , , , , , ,

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