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Legislature opens to new faces, old woes

In addition to a growing budget crisis, lawmakers have plenty of problems awaiting them Tuesday.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- The state's nursing homes are in a crisis, health care costs are skyrocketing, budgets need cutting, elections must be repaired, power companies and telephone companies are fighting, and some people want to gut the laws that control the state's growth.

Enter the Florida Legislature -- 160 citizen lawmakers who are expected to walk into the State Capitol and pass laws that fix all these problems and dozens more.

Legislators convene Tuesday for the beginning of a 60-day legislative session that is expected to be like no other. Indeed, the lawmakers themselves are different this year. Sixty-three new members of the House and 11 new senators are finding their way around the Capitol in the wake of a term limits law that threw out dozens of veterans.

So many of the legislators are new that the House Majority Office has produced baseball cards for each member with names and pictures on the front and basic biographical details on the back. A red border identifies new members, blue borders are for the old ones.

Veteran lobbyists and legislators cannot recall a year when so many serious issues were at play and so many budget problems were apparent.

Overall, the state expects about $2-billion less new revenue than it collected a year ago and at least $600-million more in Medicaid costs.

With the growing budget crisis, lawmakers will have to find a way to fix a badly broken election process, help keep nursing homes solvent while ensuring quality care, ensure future electric resources, fix workers' compensation insurance and juggle dozens of other problems.

In addition, some want to hack away at the state's growth management regulations, continue tax reductions, reshape the way the state governs education and drastically change the state's judicial system. Lawmakers also face the need to reorganize state Cabinet offices to comply with a Constitutional amendment eliminating two members of the elected Cabinet and combining the duties of comptroller and insurance commissioner.

Others also want to bring back a business friendly bill that would make it harder to file suit for damages. A court recently invalidated a 1999 version of the lawsuit limits.

One of the first things to go may well be the tax cuts Gov. Jeb Bush and legislative leaders have promised to pass. The governor wants to continue a series of tax reductions -- a sales tax holiday and a further phase out of the intangibles tax -- and legislators have promised to eliminate the remaining alcoholic beverage tax.

"Some of the things we are committed to may have to be rethought," says Senate Majority Leader Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican. "The question is: Are you fiscally responsible if you are giving tax breaks without being able to meet basic needs?"

Few legislators are willing to withstand the heat from a move to continue lowering an alcoholic drink tax for the third year in a row while cutting health care services to the needy and shortchanging teachers and school children.

The biggest single problem the state faces is a huge Medicaid shortfall in the costs of medical care for the state's poorest and frailest citizens, many of them elderly.

"And in a state that is graying, that number will keep going up," says King. "You can't print money fast enough to handle it."

Although elderly residents make up less than 30 percent of the total population served by Medicaid, the elderly consume 85 percent of the expenditures, primarily for nursing home care and prescription drugs.

Legislators are wary of the political price that would come from cuts because they will have to go home and face constituents who are upset over the loss of programs dear to hometown hearts.

"Everyone will have to go home and say, "I did the best I could,' " King says. "We just don't have the money."

The budget shortfalls hit particularly hard after several flush years. Most lawmakers were not in office the last time such an extreme budget crunch hit the state, back in 1991.

Lobbyist Jim Krog, then chief of staff for Gov. Lawton Chiles, remembers the unhappiness when they had to cut more than $1-billion.

"It was not a happy time," Krog said last week. "I don't think the numbers are that big this year, but any time you have to go into existing programs and make adjustments you create problems and people get upset."

Gov. Bush becomes the arbiter of the disputes.

"You don't make any friends, you only make enemies," Krog says. "Even those you help aren't getting help at the level they really like and those that get cut are really mad."

Bush cannot afford to make any more enemies. State employees are bristling over his plan to cut the overall number of state employees and change career service rules that give them job security. Black lawmakers are angry over his plan to end affirmative action. Bitterness lingers from problems that developed at predominantly black precincts during the November election.

Bush has moved to reconnect with black lawmakers and voters, but Democrats are eying the 2002 elections and have little interest in making peace.

One of the budget problems that has surfaced involves the need to spend millions of dollars on new election equipment. Florida officials want to be sure that the international embarrassment that occurred after the Nov. 7 election never happens again, but finding the money and deciding how to split the tab is bound to generate controversy.

A task force appointed by the governor has recommended spending about $20-million to lease equipment for the 2002 election and even more to buy new state of the art technology in time for the next presidential election in 2004.

Aside from the budget issues, legislators must also resolve a fight between the state's trial lawyers and its nursing homes. Each side attributes the current financial crisis facing the industry to the other's greed.

Nursing home owners say liability insurance and health care costs are spiraling out of control because of multimillion dollar lawsuits filed by greedy lawyers.

The Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers rejects that notion and lays the blame on greedy nursing home owners who are reaping profits while failing to give proper care to patients.

No one is sure where the fight will end, but legislators are being asked to put caps on civil damages and limit the fees attorneys can collect. They also face requests for increased Medicaid funding to keep some nursing homes with high percentages of poor patients in business.

Another problem lies in the way the state's employers pay workers' compensation expenses, which have also been hard hit by rising medical costs. Business owners want to reduce attorney fees which are sometimes many times higher than the actual compensation paid for worker injuries. A task force has recommended sweeping changes in the system.

Legislators must also resolve a fight between the state's investor owned utilities and out of state power plant owners who want to build generating facilities in Florida.

The state wants to be sure it has enough electricity to service a fast growing population and keep the price at an affordable level lest they be caught up in the kind of crisis that exists in California.

Lawmakers must also be the arbiters of a feud between the state's telephone companies. AT&T wants to cut the long distance access charges consumers pay to local companies. Sprint, Southern Bell and Verizon are fighting it. Close to 70 lobbyists have already registered for the battle.

Other issues that are likely to generate controversy and take up a lot of time include the fight to determine how the state's universities are governed and a growing dispute between legislators and the state's judges.

The state is in the midst of jettisoning the Board of Regents and establishing local governing boards at each of the 10 universities.

The debate over how to do it is highly emotional and at times quite partisan.

House Speaker Tom Feeney wants to dramatically change the way the state's judiciary operates by returning to a system where Supreme Court justices and appellate judges have to be elected and can only serve for a limited time.

The House also wants Judicial Nominating Commissions to merely pass along the names of all applicants to the governor instead of selecting two or three applicants.

Some legislators want to take the regulation of lawyers out of the hands of the Florida Bar and put it into the hands of a state agency, the same way doctors are regulated. Others want to limit the jurisdiction of appellate courts and the Florida Supreme Court.

Much of the animosity toward the courts stems from Florida Supreme Court decisions overturning legislative efforts to speed up the death penalty and rewrite election laws.

Feeney suggests he is considering a move to remake the court before he returns to redoing the law.

"Somehow we have to get the respect of the court system for not only the legislative process, but for the role of the legislature in our democracy," says Feeney.

Florida's courts have overstepped their bounds, he suggests.

"When you replace (the legislative process) with the will of four unelected justices, you no longer have a republic or a representative democracy, you have something else," Feeney argues.

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