TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott and Florida's legislative leaders will open the annual legislative session today and lay out a bare bones agenda focused primarily on the budget and redistricting.
With the exception of a proposed casino expansion and an attempt to cut down on fraud in the state's auto insurance laws, legislators plan to steer clear of as much controversy this year as possible as every incumbent prepares to run in newly drawn legislative districts.
The agenda, however, belies the worst economic crisis facing Floridians in decades. Democrats say legislators want to avoid tackling the toughest issues in an election year. But Republican leaders say they accomplished so many reforms last year — from reforming Medicaid to limiting teacher tenure, cutting state employee benefits, privatizing prisons and balancing the budget that legislators are weary.
"Most of the goals I had when I came here I met,'' said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, noting that his focus was to help his successor. "My goal now is to have Don Gaetz have an early start in the Senate presidency."
House Speaker Dean Cannon said that with yearly budget cuts, "there's almost a fatigue factor,'' for lawmakers. "We're continuing to do what we believe in — which is making smart budget cuts, but they're difficult."
Haridopolos last week said the agenda could be completed by mid February and recommended that lawmakers adjourn early and come back to complete the budget later in the spring when projections for tax revenue are more clear.
But on Monday the liberal-leaning Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy released what it calls "the reality in Florida" and questioned whether the speeches by Hardiopolos, Cannon and Scott will address them.
Among the issues:
Unemployment: There are 926,000 Floridians out of work and the state's unemployment rate of 10 percent remains above the national average of 8.6 percent, and is the sixth-highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Homelessness: Nearly 60,000 adults and more than 50,000 children live on the streets in Florida, the third-highest rate in the nation, according to the state Council on Homelessness.
Foreclosure: Home foreclosure rates in Florida continue to exceed the national average with 12 percent statewide, the second-highest in the nation, compared to the national average of 3.5 percent in October. Statistics show that of 25 metropolitan areas with the highest foreclosure rates, 17 are in Florida. Miami Dade has the highest average.
Health insurance: 21 percent of Floridians and 13 percent of all children have no health care coverage, the fourth highest in the nation according to state officials.
Karen Woodall, acting director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, said there will be bills to address many of these issues, but they are proposed by Democrats, who comprise a minority so small in each chamber that they can barely stop even a procedural vote.
"It may not be in the leadership's agenda, but there will be bills filed,'' Woodall said.
Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, for example, has proposed a bill that would repeal state tax exemptions and force the Legislature to justify them again.
"Florida's tax structure is antiquated and is not going to bring the type of revenue the state needs with a growing population,'' he said. "The majority has tremendous power and they can do what they want. So if they want to tell people that taxes are the big issue and jobs are the big issue but do nothing about it, then they can do that.''
Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich said that this should be the year legislators are more open to Democrat bills that attempt to close tax loopholes for companies that use their parent corporations to shield them from paying corporate income tax.
"We have an education system that we have cut to the bone and now the legislative leadership is saying in order to balance the budget this year we need to cut again,'' said Rich, from Weston. "I'm not saying we should raise taxes, but we should look at our tax structure and make it more equitable and fair. Leadership is not willing to look at new solutions.''
Cannon said any discussion of raising revenues is a nonstarter and attempts to expand the online sales tax to apply to companies that don't have a physical presence in Florida is a heavy lift.
Added Haridopolos: "We're all in survival mode. We've been in survival mode for about five sessions in a row. We're just trying to get through this very difficult patch."