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Legislators go home: no budget, no class size cuts

What's in store for Bush? Measures dealing with phone rates, fish permits, hospital programs and ethics codes.

Published May 3, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers failed to pass a budget, lower insurance rates or reduce class sizes in one of the most unproductive regular sessions in memory. But that doesn't mean they left Friday completely empty-handed.

Legislators gave Gov. Jeb Bush a bill he's wanted for several years: the Citizens' Right to Honest Government Act. A code of ethics for public officials, the bill is aimed at giving prosecutors more ammunition to fight corruption.

The bill would increase the penalty for bribery to up to 15 years in prison instead of five, and make it a felony for public officials to falsify public documents, tamper with bids, obstruct a criminal investigation or to criminally misuse their offices.

"This is an issue of great public importance," said Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj.

"The governor believes the citizens of this state have the right and deserve to hold their public officials accountable," she said.

Legislators also passed a bill allowing a big-money Republican Party donor to sidestep costly state regulation and expand the hospital that serves his booming retirement development in Central Florida. The donor, developer Gary Morse, was given an exemption to cumbersome state rules that govern when hospitals can expand or add services. The sponsors were two Pinellas County Republicans, Sen. Dennis Jones of Treasure Island and Rep. Frank Farkas of St. Petersburg.

Legislators also passed a bill allowing certain hospitals in Palm Beach, Polk, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties to start open-heart surgery programs without the normal state review.

One bill sent to the governor says students enrolled in the Bright Futures program would no longer have to take a test that allows them to avoid certain core classes. It was supposed to save money - the fewer classes students take the less the state has to pay - but not enough students were passing the tests to make the program worth the cost.

Legislators also passed a bill that could lead to the biggest local phone rate increase in the state's history. It was a measure Bush vetoed last year, but phone company lobbyists wrote a new version following the governor's own guidelines and worked hard to get it passed. Bush is expected to sign it into law.

"We did accomplish a great deal," Senate President Jim King said, though he noted many of the bills the Senate passed didn't make it in the House.

Other bills sent to the governor include:

Legislation sought by Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher to eliminate the "death spiral" on increasing premiums on sick people by out-of-state insurance companies.

Out-of-staters would pay $25 for a weeklong freshwater fishing permit - up from $15 - and $45 for an annual permit instead of $30. Saltwater permits wouldn't change.

Legislation that would help Florida authorities crack down on the distribution of bogus prescription drugs.

Vision tests for elder drivers age 80 and above who want to renew their licenses.

A repeal of a law that required women who give up their babies for adoption to advertise their name and physical description, and a list of possible fathers of their baby, in newspapers in every city where the baby could have been conceived. The law had already been struck down by a judge.

Myriad new license plate tags, including one that adds the Columbia space shuttle to the tag that memorializes the Challenger. The Rilya Wilson act, named after a Miami girl who disappeared more than a year ago, requiring preschoolers under state care to attend a care program and state caseworkers to notify police if a child is missing.

Barred family members from blocking a person's decision to donate organs at death.

- Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

[Last modified May 3, 2003, 02:06:29]

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