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For a Better Florida: The Times' annual preview of the upcoming legislative session

The adage says that to get the job you want, be sure to excel at the job you've got. It's an election year, and with Tallahassee politicians of all stripes seeking other offices, they would do well to remember that. Florida's unemployment is at 11.8 percent — a near record — which means hundreds of thousands of Floridians who want to work don't have jobs at all. And it's not just the economy. Florida is facing key issues that deserve answers now, not after the November elections. With that in mind, we bring you "For a Better Florida," the St. Petersburg Times' preview of the annual legislative session that begins March 2. Published every year since 1951, it presents news articles and opinions intended to stimulate debate over some of the most important issues facing our state.

Top issues and priorities

The budget

The state budget could face a $3 billion shortfall. The revenue isn't there to meet the state's needs, so tax-averse legislators face some tough choices. And it will get worse when federal stimulus money evaporates.

The Times editorial view: Florida cannot cut its way to prosperity. It has to invest in education and job creation. That means raising revenue along with targeted spending reductions to cover a $3 billion deficit and turn the state in the right direction.

Education

Jeb Bush may not be in Tallahassee much anymore, but his spirit still roams the capital. During the coming legislative session, the Republican majority is poised to advance some of the most far-reaching policy changes in years to K-12, including phasing out the high school FCAT (in favor of end-of-course exams) and overhauling how teachers are evaluated, paid and tenured. They'll also take one last, desperate stab at making the multibillion-dollar class-size amendment more flexible (read: cheaper). There will be a push to make higher education an economic engine for the state.

The Times editorial view: Teacher pay should be tied to student performance, not pay scales based on seniority. Explore end-of-course exams in high school to replace to FCAT, but don't expand vouchers.

Health care

Long the subject of national discourse, health care takes the stage in Tallahassee this year. With Medicaid costs eating up 28 percent of the state's budget, Republican lawmakers are exploring putting more of the program's patients into HMOs. But critics say HMOs skimp on care to increase profits. And some would rather see an expansion of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Medicaid Reform plan.

The Times editorial view: Don't turn more of the Medicaid program over to private HMOs, which are often more about making profits than providing quality care to the poor. Explore making doctors' offices "medical homes.''

Offshore drilling

As the oil industry gears up for another try at winning permission to drill near Florida's beaches, the fight has pitted coastal communities against inland ones.

The Times editorial view: Florida risks damaging tourism, its No. 1 industry, by gambling on a big oil payoff. Backers' claims are highly suspect that drilling could net $2 billion a year for the state. And even that won't cover the cost of a spill that damages the beaches and tourism. Just say no.

Jobs

Talk about Mission Impossible. How can the Florida Legislature find ways to generate lots of jobs, quickly, while slashing the state budget deficit? It would be laughable if the state unemployment rate was not already sky-high and heading toward 12 percent. Still, look for more economic tax incentives ahead. But above all, Florida businesses tell lawmakers: Do no harm.

The Times editorial view: Focus more on job training and less on tax credits. Find money for small businesses to borrow. Invest in infrastructure. Preserve aerospace jobs. In the short term, enhance unemployment benefits with federal money.

Florida Forever

Last year the Legislature pulled the plug on new funding for the popular environmental land-buying program. Now Gov. Charlie Crist wants to revive it. Some distinguished photographers take a look at what's hanging in the balance.

The Times editorial view: It's one thing to suspend the program for a year. It's another to do it again and effectively kill it. Lawmakers need to find the money and get Florida Forever back on track.

For a Better Florida: The Times' annual preview of the upcoming legislative session 02/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 4:34pm]
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