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Amid tight budget, Tampa Bay legislators keep goals focused

TALLAHASSEE — Call it sausage lite.

There is a lot less pork — money earmarked for local projects — expected to make its way to the Tampa Bay area this year as state lawmakers prepare to wrestle with a $3.2 billion budget shortfall.

"When you have the kind of budget we have, everything is going to be tough," said Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg.

With many long-funded services in doubt, the focus will stay on protecting as many statewide education and public safety dollars as possible, local legislators said. New efforts with costs have largely been shelved.

"There are no resources available," said Rep. Betty Reid, D-Tampa.

But don't expect government to come to a full stop. Tampa Bay area legislators are still hoping to make a difference once the session opens Tuesday.

A sampling of their priorities this year:

Class-size limits: Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is taking a stab at relaxing a constitutional amendment to keep class sizes small in grades K-12 (HJR 7039). A handful of Tampa Bay area lawmakers are working on an identical measure in the Senate (SJR 2). The 2002 amendment requires counts be done at the class level this fall. Weatherford wants to ask voters to keep the counts at the school level. Under his amendment, individual classes would still have to stay within three students of the maximum allowed. If the Legislature approves Weatherford's plan, 60 percent of voters would have to agree at the polls in November. "We have to go get it in there this year to provide the relief that our districts and our superintendents need," he said.

Education requirements: Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, wants to replace the high school FCAT exams with standardized, end of year finals (HB 7053). "The end of course exams are the logical next step," he said. "It goes from skill based to knowledge based. End of year exams test knowledge."

Personal health: Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, an orthopedic surgeon, is supporting legislation that would require chain restaurants to post nutrition facts (HB 783). Homan also wants to require liquor vendors to post a sign that warns pregnant women of the dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome (HB 555).

Property assessment: Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, have proposed identical bills (HB 151 and SB 1164) that would exempt the value of wind protection or renewable energy home improvements from property assessments. Upgrades that would be protected include new storm shutters, hurricane-resistant shingles or doors, wind turbines and solar energy collectors.

Indoor tanning: Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, has declared war on underage fake bakes. His bill (HB 205) would require parents to sign off on indoor tanning before a salon can provide the service to a minor. It also seeks to push back the legal tanning age from 14 to 16 years old.

Sexual offenders: Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, are sponsoring bills (HB 119 and SB 1284) to prohibit sexual offenders from loitering within 300 feet of locations where children are regularly present. The measure would establish a "circle of safety'' to protect children instead of strong residency restrictions on sexual offenders. "We have to reduce their opportunity to attack kids," said Glorioso.

University of South Florida: Fasano, Heller, Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, are working on a measure (HB 101 and SB 838) to establish a new pharmacy school at the University of South Florida in Tampa. If approved, USF would become the sixth school in Florida to offer a pharmacy program. USF plans to enroll the first class of 50 students in fall 2011. The program is slated to reach full capacity with 400 students in 2016. "It is a very high-skilled, high-wage occupation," said McKeel. "It is exactly the kind of job we are trying to attract in our region."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or csilva@sptimes.com.

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Amid tight budget, Tampa Bay legislators keep goals focused 02/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 8:39pm]
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