tampabay.com

It's over, but incomplete

By ALEX LEARY and JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published May 5, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The Legislature ended its regular session in odd fashion Friday, taking a leisurely pace through final votes to kill measures on abortion and auto insurance while approving an expansion of Citizens Property Insurance that also freezes premiums until 2009.

The Citizens bill was a priority of Gov. Charlie Crist and topped the agenda on a final day that ended not at a frenzied midnight, as it did last year, but instead a low-key 4:12 p.m.

Seeking to amplify the day's modest events, Crist celebrated passage of the Citizens bill with campaign flair.

"You put the nail in the coffin this afternoon on the industry that was hurting our people, " he said. "I hear some groans from insurance lobbyists. Tough! We work for the people. It's a new day in this place."

Unspoken by lawmakers throughout the day was that the civilized ending to the 60-day session could not have happened without a capitulation to disagreement over property taxes. Early in the week, lawmakers concluded they could not agree on the best way to cut property taxes.

The result was a session missing the big-issue finish. Faced with wildly divergent tax relief plans, House and Senate negotiators will try to work out a deal before a special session begins June 12.

"We're not going to take the next six weeks off, " said House Speaker Marco Rubio, who steadfastly held to his plan to trade property taxes on primary homes for higher sales taxes.

But the self-consciousness over failing to curb property taxes was obvious. A sign attached to a lectern that was set up after the session ended read: "Lower property taxes are on the way."

Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, handed Crist a rock inscribed with the word "patience" - "Let me commit to you governor ... we're going to make taxes drop like a rock in June."

The Legislature did pass a $72-billion budget, which includes a 6.5 percent increase in education spending and teacher merit-based raises. But legislators were forced to reduce services for the developmentally disabled to cover a large deficit in a state agency.

The budget also increased by $545-million the amount of property taxes raised locally to operate public schools.

"We came up here to reduce taxes and we ended up increasing local property taxes unfairly, " said Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat.

In the final hour Friday, the Legislature froze rates of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. until 2009 and made it easier for people to switch to Citizens. Now they can go if their private insurers charge 15 percent more than Citizens' rates.

As part of the deal, the Legislature agreed to weaken a consumer protection, deleting from current law an allowance for policyholders to sue insurers that don't pay claims within 90 days.

Once signed into law by Crist, such penalties for nonpayment will remain with the Office of Insurance Regulation. The bill also spends $600, 000 on a commission to study how to make Citizens smaller.

Also Friday, the Legislature failed to come to an agreement on so-called no-fault auto insurance. That means that on Oct.1, drivers will no longer be required to buy $10, 000 worth of personal injury protection policies, unless the Legislature decides to deal with the issue during the special session.

The last day of the session saw an unsuccessful attempt to increase the dollar amount of private school vouchers for low-income middle and high school students. That effort died bouncing between chambers.

Lawmakers also defeated a bill that gives judges guidelines on how they consider special exceptions from the parental notice law. Parental notice requires parents to be notified when their teenager daughter (under 16) gets an abortion, with exceptions for special cases.

A different session

With the marquee issue - property taxes - off the table, an underwhelming mood filled the Capitol on Friday.

Few lobbyists walked the fourth floor hoping to offer a last-minute amendment.

Few lawmakers carried the cups that are often filled with alcoholic beverages on the last day. Few visitors sat on the wooden benches in the galleries above the House and Senate chambers, showing how few controversial items remained.

Even the traditional dropping of the hankie - held eight hours earlier than last year - did not provide the usual collective exhale.

"As soon as they said 'special session, ' the adrenaline was sucked out of me, " said Sarah Bleakley, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Counties, who had been frantically following the property tax debate.

Much of the day was devoted to ceremonial diversions. The House gave away mountain bikes to Reps. Debbie Boyd and Nick Thompson, winners of the inaugural weight loss contest (together, they shed 36 pounds). Four members donned sombreros to honor Cinco de Mayo. The Senate spent more than an hour thanking staff members, before adjourning for a two-hour lunch.

Few bills passed

A few bills were approved Friday, including one to allow private companies to lease Florida's toll roads for a period of 50 to 75 years. The legislation also allows companies to regularly increase tolls with inflation.

As one provision in a wide-ranging transportation plan sponsored by Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, the stated idea is to infuse state coffers with the dollars needed to rapidly complete otherwise lagging transportation projects.

But opponents argued vigorously against it, saying it sets a dangerous precedent that could lead to steep toll increases, the creation of unneeded roads, and might even open the state up to conducting business with terrorist interests.

Lawmakers also passed a bevy of bills that will affect students from kindergarten to college - from a daily physical education requirement for elementary school students to a tiered tuition system for the state's three top research institutions.

They approved legislation that ties education curriculum to local and state economic needs, including a requirement for industry-certified career education programs in high schools.

They approved a one-year pilot for random steroid testing of private and public high school athletes in baseball, football and weightlifting.

For Florida's public universities, they approved a controversial new tuition plan that allows the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida to charge undergraduates between 30 and 40 percent more than the base tuition. The revenues would be used to improve bachelor's degree programs, but the governor has made clear his opposition to tuition increases and could veto it.

Lawmakers also established a grant program to help state universities commercialize and market their research.

"We set out to change the direction of our economy from a service economy to a high-tech, research economy, " said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.

A quiet ending

Despite mixed success, lawmakers described the session as one of the least acrimonious in years. And they said the leisurely ending was positive, not a sign of failure.

"Now you are seeing the session the way it ought to be done, " said Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden. "Success is not based upon how many laws you pass. It's on how you do them."

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Rebecca Catalanello and Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this report.