Budget-cutting knives clatter

By Steve Bousquet, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published March 3, 2008

Spring is in the air, and that means another legislative session is about to get under way in Tallahassee. The 2008 session starts at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

What's the biggest issue this year?

Money, or the lack of it. The weak economy, and its impact on Florida's sales tax collections, will force lawmakers to make further spending cuts. Plans call for lopping $542-million off the current budget and reducing the budget for 2008-09 by $2-billion. Depending on tax revenue, even that may not be sufficient.

Will they raise taxes?

No. Both houses of the Legislature are dominated by Republicans, who oppose higher taxes. But some fees may go up. For example, Gov. Charlie Crist proposes increasing fines for overweight trucks.

Will they lower my property taxes?

It's not likely because there's no clear consensus. House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami is eager to pass a bill cutting property taxes, but Senate leaders are more cautious and want to let Amendment 1, which voters passed on Jan. 29, take effect. Crist claims lawmakers have already cut property taxes nearly $25-billion over five years, counting the amendment and last year's law requiring local governments to roll back rates.

Will they take up property insurance?

Yes. Like taxes, this issue just won't go away, but again, a consensus is lacking. A select Senate committee has been questioning insurance executives on why rates haven't gone down as much as hoped. The House wants to lower the state's risk as the financial backstop for insurance companies. Some clarity should emerge by mid April.

Who has the real power in the Legislature?

A handful of people, all of them Republicans. They are Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie; the two budget committee chairmen, Sen. Lisa Carlton of Osprey and Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin; and the incoming presiding officers, Sen. Jeff Atwater of Palm Beach Gardens and Sansom. Experience also equals influence. Republican Sen. Dan Webster, a 28-year veteran from Winter Garden, is respected by lawmakers in both parties for his knowledge.

Do lobbyists outnumber legislators?

Yes, by a mile. At last count there were 1,755 registered lobbyists, or more than 10 for each of the 160 legislators.

How long will the session last?

Sixty days, maybe less. It is an election year, and lawmakers could finish their business early to go home to campaign. The final day is scheduled for May 2.

Sources: Times research; The Florida Handbook