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Politicians tread lightly as election year, legislative session coincide

TALLAHASSEE — To pinch pennies and get out of town in time to hit the campaign trail, Florida's 160 legislators will reduce, reuse and recycle.

They are rummaging through the legislative salvage yard for proposals that won't cost money because the annual session that opens Tuesday will be dominated by a $3.2 billion budget gap in an unusually busy election year.

Lawmakers will consider anti-corruption measures, shifting tax breaks from one group to another, and attaching the "jobs" label to anything that has a prospect of saving money or attracting new employment.

With nearly two dozen members of the House and Senate, the governor, lieutenant governor and three of the four Cabinet members seeking higher office, everyone is treading lightly. Few politicians want to be identified with anything that's remotely controversial, so initiatives on oil drilling, property insurance and health insurance reform will likely be delayed until next year.

"The first thing you do: Do no harm," said Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican designated to become House speaker in November.

But, he says, the state's grim budget, a growing Medicaid deficit, double-digit unemployment, and the prospect of little revenue growth has shifted legislative thinking. Cannon, for example, is leading the push for offshore oil and gas drilling off Florida's shores.

"Things that we never would have considered years ago are possible," he said. "I'm not going to say that any of these things are going to pass, but the dialogue for consideration … the spectrum of issues that might have been considered two or three years ago, has gotten a lot wider."

• • •

Entering his final session, Gov. Charlie Crist said he will emphasize "the four E's: the economy, ethics, education and the environment."

But as a lame duck who's trailing former House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican U.S. Senate primary campaign, Crist may struggle to demand the attention of lawmakers. They already have given Crist's budget recommendations a cold shoulder, saying he relies on money from gambling and the federal government that the state may never receive and keeps too little money on hand for emergencies.

The impact of the election year will be most evident in the Senate, where President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach is seeking the Republican nomination for chief financial officer and Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland is running for the Republican nomination for governor. Sens. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres and Dan Gelber of Miami Beach are running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, and four senators are running for Congress: Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg, Al Lawson of Tallahasssee and Frederica Wilson of Miami.

Toss in the decision by Republicans to end one of the most blistering internal divides in party history by electing a sitting senator, John Thrasher of St. Augustine, to rebuild the party, and the prospect of politics permeating the session is high.

"This year is going to be challenging because it's not a normal election year," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat who faces a re-election challenger. "It seems like everyone is running for something and, with the depressing fiscal situation, it's not going to be easy to do much."

Dozens of legislators spent the weeks leading up to the session preoccupied with campaign fundraising events across the state. Although legislative committees were scheduled to meet, there were many no-shows.

"People act differently in an election year," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican running for state Senate. Lawmakers are constantly aware that what they do or don't do can be used against them in a campaign, she said: "It's not the headlines. It's what your opponent does with the headlines."

• • •

Lawmakers' biggest challenge will be crafting a budget despite little new revenue and a base that has been sheared to the bone by two years of deep budget cuts. Budget leaders say there will be targeted cuts — hundreds of them — and no one expects them to close the budget gap without taking millions more in federal stimulus money.

As they seek re-election, lawmakers don't have the stomach for the same solutions they attempted last year when they patched together a budget with $1 billion in new fees and $5.5 billion in federal funds.

The grave budget situation is spawning some creative thinking, however. Legislators are considering charging themselves and many high-level government employees for part of their own health insurance premiums for the first time. And policy ideas that were either rejected or ignored by previous legislatures are getting a second look.

Among the attractive retreads: expanding former Gov. Jeb Bush's initiative to operate Medicaid-like HMOs in 19 additional counties, deregulating property insurance to make prices more competitive, adopting a 1992 proposal to tighten ethics rules at the utility-regulating Public Service Commission, expanding school vouchers and reforming the FCAT.

In addition to pushing oil drilling, House leaders are revisiting gambling. The chamber, which has been reluctant to allow the Seminole Tribe of Florida to have a monopoly over the parimutuels outside of South Florida, has returned to the bargaining table on a gambling compact. And both the House and Senate are prepared to put a measure on the November ballot that asks voters to revamp the class-size amendment and allow school districts to have flexibility in student-teacher ratios.

The list of bills that don't cost state money is the longest. Legislation aimed at graft and corruption will get prominence. Bills to tighten the crackdown on Medicaid and insurance fraud are also getting traction.

• • •

Lawmakers hope voters will pay most attention to proposals to create new jobs.

Gov. Crist, for example, has recommended $293.7 million in business tax credits designed to spur jobs and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is promoting a wide-ranging package that could cost more than $100 million.

But many of the proposals that offer tax incentives tied to job creation are going to be a heavy lift even in the tax-averse Legislature, so those that pass are expected to have far-off effective dates to put off the price tag.

For example, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, a Melbourne Republican who is designated to be the Senate president next fall, is pushing a measure to provide tax credits to filmmakers and digital media companies who move to Florida. The companies wouldn't get the tax credit until 2012.

"It's not 'Build it and they will come.' It is 'If you give us jobs, we will give you tax credits,' " Hardiopolos said.

Both the House and Senate are promoting measures to cut red tape for employers seeking new licenses and permits. In the first week of session, lawmakers will pass a bill to suspend any increase in unemployment taxes for the next two years and forestall what employers say would amount to a $90 increase per employee.

"Thousands (of jobs) probably will be saved," predicted Cannon.

Avoiding pain and postponing controversy are the survivor's mantra this legislative session. Cannon sums up the dilemma this way: "It's a challenging time to be in public service right now."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Five key issues for the 2010 session

Budget: With a shortfall of $3.2 billion, the budget promises to be the session's overarching issue. Gov. Charlie Crist's $69.2 billion proposal has been marked dead on arrival by lawmakers, who say it relies on imaginary money from gambling and the federal government and leaves too little money for emergencies. Still, they'll likely shave the corporate tax rate and revive a back-to-school tax "holiday."

Jobs: While lawmakers will consider measures to lift regulations and ease access to loans for small businesses, they're eyeing ways of reviving the construction industry, whose crash helped the state get into the current economic mess in the first place.

Education: Eight years and $16 billion after Gov. Jeb Bush warned that the class-size amendment would "block out the sun," lawmakers appear poised to loosen the 18-students-per-classroom limit and maintain school averages instead. Voters would have to say yes in November.

Health: The Republican Legislature is ready to try to counteract national health care reform by state legislation or even the ballot box. Some want to change Medicaid, the program for the poor, by giving HMOs more control.

Gambling: Crist's budget proposal relies on $434 million from a star-crossed gambling compact that gives the Seminole Tribe of Florida a limited monopoly on blackjack and other table games. The original compact was struck down by the Supreme Court and a revised version was rejected by legislators.

Five key players

Jeff Atwater

As Senate president, he controls the agenda, which is why offshore drilling likely won't fly again this year. A 51-year-old banker from North Palm Beach, he's also a candidate to become Florida's next chief financial officer.

JD Alexander

The only legislator known simply by his first two initials, this 50-year-old citrus grower from Lake Wales has a laser-like focus on all budgetary matters, an impressive work ethic in the Senate and more experience on the subject than his colleagues.

Mike Haridopolos

A 39-year-old political science professor from Melbourne, he's in line to become the next Senate president and chairs the Senate Reapportionment Committee, charged with redrawing lawmakers' districts following the census.

Dean Cannon

Poised to become House speaker in the fall, this 41-year-old Winter Park lawyer chairs the House Reapportionment Committee and is point man on the hot-button issue of offshore drilling.

David Rivera

A Miami lawmaker who controls the budget purse strings in the House, he's an ambitious 44-year-old with his eye on a Congressional seat in the fall.

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Politicians tread lightly as election year, legislative session coincide 02/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 11:24pm]
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