Too often, they fell short

Published May 6, 2007

The Florida Legislature's annual session that coasted to a quiet end Friday afternoon felt more bipartisan, less confrontational and more orderly than usual. Its accomplishments did not rise to a similar level. For every significant step forward, there seemed to be a missed opportunity for greater achievement. And far too often, the balance tilted toward special interests instead of everyday Floridians.

At times, legislators demonstrated they are entirely capable of planning for the future and tackling issues that often have been neglected or avoided. For example, they boldly allowed the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida to charge higher tuition. That would generate millions in badly needed revenue for these top research institutions and finally recognize the folly of treating all of the state's public universities the same.

That wasn't the only evidence of forward thinking. In public education, there was a smart overhaul of a failed merit pay plan for teachers. Florida's ports, whose importance to the state's economy is often unrecognized, received millions in additional money for improvements. And a new Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority was created to develop an overall transportation plan that should include express buses and a rail system.

In too many other ways, the Legislature fell disappointingly short. There was no agreement on property tax relief, and a special session already is scheduled for next month. They failed to extend or replace no-fault auto insurance, a situation that will hurt hospitals and trigger more lawsuits after accidents if something isn't done before October. And most appalling, the Senate refused to follow the House's lead and award Alan Crotzer $1.25-million - just $50, 000 a year for each of the 24 years he spent in prison for a crime DNA results prove he never committed. How the Senate can do the right thing by agreeing to award $5-million to the family of Martin Lee Anderson, the teen who died after he was beaten by guards at a boot camp, and deny Crotzer is inexplicable.

Even when they agreed on the approach to big issues, they were too short-sighted. They met Gov. Charlie Crist's demand to replace touch screen voting machines with little regard to the problems that will cause voters and county elections supervisors. Among the last bills sent to the governor Friday was one regarding Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which would generate even more business for the state-run insurer and freeze rates until 2009. That is awfully irresponsible when Citizens' rates already are actuarily unsound and its ability to respond after a major hurricane is questionable.

Many of the Legislature's spending decisions are inconsistent at best and cynical at worst. Lawmakers savaged local officials for relying on soaring property values to increase spending. Then they hypocritically did the same thing by counting on nearly $550-million in additional revenue from local property taxes for public schools. They once again did not pay for all of the projected enrollment increases at colleges and universities even as they raised tuition by 5 percent. They did not give doctors serving Medicaid patients a pay increase, but they quietly increased the money paid to Medicaid health maintenance organizations even as they repealed requirements for how much those Medicaid HMOs must spend to treat mental health issues. Where is the logic?

Lawmakers point out that state revenues rose less than expected as the economy slowed, creating a tighter financial situation. But they also elected not to spend more than $1.5-billion and save it for next year. That makes it even harder to understand why there will be no money for pay raises for state workers and new limits on services for thousands of developmentally disabled Floridians.

The state budget wasn't the only place where ordinary residents lost ground. Legislators made it harder to gather signatures for constitutional amendments. They failed to make it any easier for poor families to sign their children up for subsidized health insurance, which will cost Florida millions in federal matching money. They caved in to the powerful telephone and cable lobbyists, letting those industries cherry pick neighborhoods for pay-TV service, strangle local access channels and enjoy unfettered access to the public rights of way in your yard.

The Florida Legislature did a few good things this session. But too many times they failed to act responsibly.