For lawmakers, ticktock time

With half a session to go, Florida legislators face property taxes, the budget, college tuition, stem cells and voting machines.

Published April 9, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Florida lawmakers return to work today with just four weeks left in the 2007 session and no clear consensus on how to give people relief from soaring property taxes.

House Republicans have signed off on their plan but Senate leaders will not outline their proposal until at least Thursday, propelling talk of a possible special session.

Also far from being resolved: the budget, fixes to the recent property insurance law, possible college tuition increases and hot-button issues such as stem cell research and a paper trail for electronic voting machines.

As the saying goes in Tallahassee, bills are dying. But legislative leaders say it's not time to panic.

The 60-day session is like an NBA game, said Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, the House minority leader. "Nothing happens until the last two minutes. The last two minutes will decide whether it's a win or a loss."

After five weeks, the Legislature has passed just two bills, a merit-based teacher pay plan and a crackdown on probation violators. Neither was controversial and both were seen as gifts to Gov. Charlie Crist.

Lawmakers have also nearly signed off on a priority of the state's other top Republican, Attorney General Bill McCollum - a measure to add more Internet sex crime investigators.

At this point last year, under a lame duck governor, the Legislature had resolved a major battle by sending then-Gov. Jeb Bush a bill that ended the way liability is divvied up in civil lawsuits.

The pace has been different in the two chambers this year.

The House has held committee meetings nearly every Friday during the session, and even met during two days of the Passover-Easter break out of concern that things were piling up.

The Senate, by contrast, has taken every Friday off, as well as the full fifth week of the session.

Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, said he's comfortable with the progress.

"I think we're in great shape."

He pointed out that the Legislature worked extraordinarily hard in January to pass the complex property insurance package that addressed the other great crisis affecting Floridians.

"The budget's ready to go, and, like we've said all along, we're going to have our rollout of property taxes and have it hit the floor during the seventh week," Webster said.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, offers a similarly confident outlook. And the governor, who promised voters significant property tax reform, has only kind words for the Legislature thus far.

"They have worked incredibly hard," Crist said.

At the halfway mark, House Republicans have rewritten their property tax plan several times, responding to strong objections from local governments and other critics.

The final part of the package was voted out of a key committee on March 23 and awaits a vote on the floor. It would roll back local government budgets by billions of dollars and give voters in each county the option of doing away with property taxes on primary homes and replacing the lost revenue with a 2.5 percent increase in sales taxes.

That provision has some Republicans wary, perhaps accounting for why House leaders have not yet put the package to a vote.

The Senate plan is expected to be more modest and avoid higher sales taxes. Sen. Mike Haridopolos, head of the Finance and Tax Committee, is expected to outline the plan Thursday.

"I find a realistic chance that the Senate Democrats and Republicans will be able to reach an agreement, because there is really one major dispute between us, and that's portability," said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach.

He was referring to proposals that would allow homeowners to take some portion of their Save Our Homes 3 percent annual assessment cap with them when they move to a different house.

Rubio, who has been called both bold and reckless for his plan, is confident something will get done.

"I don't think there's any new option that hasn't been discussed," he said. "It boils down to, how dramatic do we want to be? How big of a tax relief do we want to take on? From our perspective, it can't be big enough."

On Rubio's watch, the House has passed or is close to passing a slew of bills based on a book of suggestions generated at "idea raisers" across the state. The ideas range from replacing current school standards with a "world-class curriculum" to expanding DNA collection to everyone convicted of felony.

One of the more controversial so far is a plan to allow private developers to build and operate toll roads. Democrats say it would strip away accountability and would lead to higher tolls, but Republicans argue it would generate billions in new revenue. The plan passed and now awaits discussion in the Senate.

The intense focus on the 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future has prompted criticism from Democrats that it is dominating the debate, leaving their own thoughts in the cold.

"A lot of really good bills aren't moving as they ought to," Gelber said.

An example is legislation that would end the use of political accounts that allow lawmakers to evade the $500 contribution limit. Democrats are also worried about inaction on a bill that would expand the KidCare health care program for low-income families.

Though thousands of ideas are floated each year, the Legislature is only required by law to pass the budget. Lawmakers in both chambers say they're confident something can be worked out.

So far, under both budget plans, property owners would pay more in taxes for schools. But the plans are different by $1-billion.

The Senate would spend that much on construction projects in order to spur economic growth. The more conservative House would sock the money away.

"We think the next couple of years are going to be tough unless we can get this property tax thing fixed now," Rubio said, adding the savings could be used to balance future budgets.

Neither budget has money to replace touch screen voting machines with optical scanners, which give a paper record of each ballot, but lawmakers in both chambers have said they plan to work to deliver that Crist priority.

Both budgets include tuition increases for higher education, but Crist opposes them.

The House has already passed a bill to move up the presidential primary, a priority of Rubio's, and it appears likely to pass the Senate.

"I don't know what the day may be, but I do think it's going to be moved," Webster said.

The Senate also has passed bills that would put more money toward Everglades restoration and protect the St. Lucie River.

Lawmakers also passed an agriculture bill that would prevent local governments from banning fireworks while a commission studies the industry.

Webster said he expects legislation that pits one business against another - such as revising the auto insurance laws and allowing telephone companies to offer cable television - will likely not get resolved before the last week of session, if at all.

Crist's first 100 days

To read Sunday's story about Gov. Charlie Crist's first 100 days in office, visit politics.tampabay.com.

The session so far 

Property taxes

The House has written and rewritten a plan to eliminate property taxes on primary homes and raise the sales tax instead. But the idea is so bold, leaders have yet to test it with a vote by the whole chamber. The Senate will offer its proposal on Thursday.

Property insurance

A so-called glitch bill, which would resolve technical flaws in the insurance overhaul passed in January, has become a hot potato. Insurance industry lobbyists, and their advocates, want changes that would ease consumer protections. Also, a bill that would strengthen the ability of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to compete against private companies has been stalled. But the governor recently urged lawmakers to consider it.

Personal injury protection

The Senate is considering a bill that would give another year of life to the requirement that drivers purchase personal injury policies that offer some coverage no matter who is at fault in a crash. The House appears inclined to let the no-fault law disappear when it is scheduled to sunset in October.

The budget

The governor proposed a $71-billion spending plan, but a cooling housing market has shrunk the tax revenue the state has to work with. Meanwhile, the heads of the state's agencies want more money. This will be a tough budget to balance.

Teacher bonuses

Legislation replacing the state's merit pay program was signed into law by the governor March 29. The new program allows for bonuses ranging from 5 percent to 10 percent of the districtwide pay average.

The Anti-Murder Act

The outcome was never in doubt. On March 13 the governor signed into law a measure providing that violent felons who violate probation be jailed until a judge decides if they should return to prison.