Economic development, insurance, education reform, renewable energy and health issues are just some of the priorities Gulf Coast legislators are focused on this legislative session in Tallahassee.
Then there's the little matter of the state budget with a $3.2 billion gap to fill that has House and Senate appropriations committees combing through the budget line by line to eek out savings.
“It's not pretty; it's painful, very painful,” House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, told a Florida hospitals group visiting the capital March 8. Cretul has instructed committees to set aside non-mandated line items temporarily, to prioritize the top 10-15 items, and identify 10-15 other line items to put “at the bottom of the silo.”
As Cretul spoke to the hospitals group, a hearing about Medicaid was being held at the Capitol. If there's an elephant in the budget committee room, it has to be Medicaid.
Currently, due to the economy, Medicaid expenses have risen to 28% of the state budget, according to Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, who serves on three health care-related committees including health care appropriations. “We have an enormous challenge with that program. After the economic downturn, and a million more [eligible recipients], it's getting worse,” says Hudson.
It's projected that in 10 years, 36% of the budget could be consumed by Medicaid. “That kind of growth rate could bankrupt the state of Florida,” says Cretul.
Then there's the matter of the federal stimulus “flameout,” meaning fewer dollars coming down from Washington. “A billion of Medicaid funding could disappear in the middle of the budget year,” says Cretul. He adds that it's become unaffordable at the state level and that the federal government is looking to increase eligibility for Medicaid and pass on more of the costs to states.
It's in this ever constricting budget and economic environment that legislators are working.
We asked a select group of Gulf Coast legislators to first reveal legislation that they are sponsoring that will most help businesses or create jobs. Secondly, we asked them what other bills are important to them to see passed.
Sen. Mike Bennett
It's not an easy to ask a state Senator and businessman who's sponsoring 82 bills — at last count — what his top two bills are for helping businesses or creating jobs.
But Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, chairman of the community affairs committee, was quick to name his “renewable energy bill” as he describes it.
Senate Bill 2644, titled “Energy Economic Zones,” allows tax credits and other incentives for pilot energy economic zones. The bill exempts clean transportation and energy technologies and manufacturing products used in energy economic zones from property and sales taxes. An identical bill in the House is sponsored by Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.
Bennett says the bill would allow consumers to install, for example, solar panels on a house or business and pay back the loan through property taxes amortized over a period of time.
He says, “It would also allow a lot of green energy to be installed, create jobs and clean up the environment.” They'll be a lot of debate; it has five committee stops before reaching the Senate floor.
Another key bill for Bennett, who sits on the banking and insurance committee, is the “Consumer Choice Act,” his property insurance bill designed to increase insurance market competition and reduce rates over the long run.
But Gov. Charlie Crist has already hinted he won't support it after vetoing it last year despite strong support in the House and Senate. Now, another insurance bill Bennett supports is working its way through committees and just passed the banking and insurance committee. It aims to lower costs by reducing insurer's risks.
Sen. Victor Crist
He may be running for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission, but Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, remains focused on his legislative work, wanting much to get done in his final session.
He was elected to the House in 1992, serving eight years before being elected to the Senate in 2000.
For someone whose bills center more around justice issues — he's chairman of the criminal and civil justice appropriations committee and sits on the criminal justice committee — the advertising executive also pays attention to business, tax and health care matters.
Crist says he's pleased that the unemployment compensation tax increase, previously scheduled to kick-in next month, has been deferred for two years to give businesses more time to regroup — and keep more employees on the payroll.
“We worked through the process quickly to provide the relief that businesses need. That would be at the top of the list,” he says about his priorities this session.
Crist, whose day job is president of Metropolitan Communications in Tampa, is sensitive to tax matters for their impact on businesses bottom lines. He worked to turnaround the services tax after it had been adopted in 1997 and was costing his company business. Ultimately, voters repealed the tax following a firestorm of statewide protest.
“We're trying to create a viable workforce with education allowing for the retooling of people so they can evolve as the jobs and needs evolve. We're going to put sizable investment in infrastructure while cost of investment is down —roads, utilities, stormwater — things we can do now to keep businesses operational.”
Credit card fraud is another focus of Crist. He's sponsoring Senate Bill 1106. “We're enhancing the penalties on an individual who possesses and uses a stolen credit card. It's a growing epidemic.”
Mental health parody, that is, requiring insurance carriers to provide the comparable coverage for mental health as physical health, is another concern of his. Crist says its one of those things that gets more expensive to treat later.
His Medicaid buy-in bill for the developmentally disabled allows the employee to go to work, not lose their benefits, but also provides for reimbursing the state. Crist says, “It's win-win.” The employee doesn't lose the Medicaid benefit if they lose the job. Instead, the worker keeps the benefit, but pays the state 100% for it over time.
Sen. Nancy Detert
If there's truly an intersection where education and business meet, it can't be too far from the third-floor Senate office of Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice.
A former Sarasota County School Board member who also served eight years in the House, Detert was elected to the Senate in 2008 and chairs the education pre-K-12 committee. But she's also on the Enterprise Florida board of directors and an ex-officio member of the Florida Commission on Tourism.
Detert wants to see a much better qualified and trained workforce, which prompted her to sponsor what's labeled an education accountability bill.
The legislation increases high school graduation requirements, but also provides for middle school career counseling and career academies. “It will increase rigor and raise standards,” she says.
At the same time, the bill also provides for discontinuing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) for math in grades 9 and 10, and science in grade 11, as end-of-curriculum assessments are implemented.
To graduate, high school students would need to complete Algebra II as well as chemistry or physics. A Tallahassee high school principal testifying at the hearing told the committee that it would drop his schools' 87% graduation rate to 70%. Detert, was undeterred, saying, “We can't afford to dumb down the whole curriculum.”
Senate Bill 4 got through her committee on a 6-2 vote March 10. Two Democrats opposed her bill, but Detert held fast, saying, “We can't hold all the race horses back while we wait for the rest to catch up.”
Also on Detert's agenda is her renewable energy bill, Senate Bill 1086. She says, “We're trying to develop an industry with manufacturing and jobs. The renewable energy bill is a job creator because it creates a whole new industry, it creates jobs, and moves us into the future.”
Rep. Matt Hudson
No one can match Bennett for the number of bills sponsored or number of committees he serves on. But if anyone comes close in the House it's Hudson.
The Naples Republican sits on seven committees. One of the three health committees he serves on is the health and family services policy council, for which he's vice chair.
Hudson also sits on the economic development policy committee and the select policy council on strategic and economic planning. One of Hudson's top priority bills sailed through the economic development policy committee March 10 by a vote of 11-0.
The Florida research commercialization matching grant program, House Bill 983, is matched by an identical bill Detert is sponsoring in the Senate, where its been referred to three committees.
The bill aims to take research and inventions coming out of Florida research institutions and bring products to manufacturing in the state, thus creating jobs. Hudson says in the past, other states have ended up manufacturing products developed in Florida.
“This program really steps it up a notch. There's no real risk to the state,” Hudson says, because it leverages federal Small Business Administration Innovative Research grants, so-called SBIR funds.
Other bills Hudson's working to get passed include bills to remove requirements to retrofit condominium buildings with expensive sprinkler systems, and a bill that would regulate real estate appraisal management companies and help maintain the integrity of the housing market.
He's also sponsoring a bill with bipartisan support that calls for a cost-benefit analysis of proposed legislation, rather than just looking at the costs. A committee substitute, House Bill 121, passed through the finance and tax council March 11 on a 16-0 vote. “When we do this I firmly believe we'll make much better spending decisions,” Hudson says.