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Florida jobs still focus as legislative session nears end

TALLAHASSEE — Expect the 60-day legislative session to end this week much in the same way it began: focused on the economy.

The top priority of the year — a massive bill loaded with job creation measures and tax breaks — remains unresolved, like a host of other hot topics, ranging from Medicaid and the state budget to property insurance and ethics reforms.

"Obviously, it's all an issue of time," Senate President Jeff Atwater said.

Defying expectations, lawmakers set an ambitious course this session, tackling a load of issues that appeared unlikely to make headway in a do-no-harm election year dominated by a $3.2 billion budget deficit.

As always, the bulk of the remaining "good bills," as lawmakers incessantly call them, likely won't make it to the governor's desk, especially with negotiations ongoing about so many big-ticket items. Caught in the cog are measures to make texting while driving illegal, set training standards for 911 dispatchers and create tougher restrictions on sex offenders.

Watch for some 59th-day surprises as the maneuvering reaches a fever pitch with time running short, such as state Sen. Durell Peaden's amendment filed late Friday that would expand the ability of gun owners to carry concealed firearms in vehicles. Similar language about guns at the workplace was the subject of a 2008 battle that pitted two lobbying powerhouses, the National Rifle Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, against each other.

Another unknown is the future of Gov. Charlie Crist. As the Republican weighs an independent bid for the U.S. Senate, his veto pen has become an intimidating force.

"Like it or not, we are defined by Crist," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

Crist must decide about his Senate race by noon Friday, hours before the expected session finish.

But on the policy front it's jobs — the buzz word of the session — that will dominate this final week.

"If you follow throughout the session, I think you will see there has been a consistent number of bills related to job creation and improving the economic climate in Florida," said House GOP leader Adam Hasner of Delray Beach.

Lawmakers made a concerted effort to start March 2 by delaying a steep unemployment compensation tax increase on businesses, which was portrayed as a job-saving measure in a state with record unemployment. And now an economic development package negotiated privately by top Republican lawmakers is expected to emerge Tuesday.

With a $70 million price tag, SB 1752 will feature a dozen measures such as tax breaks for businesses who hire unemployed Floridians and significant financial incentives for the space, film and defense industries.

The package initially passed the Senate with $193 million worth of incentives, but the state's tight budget forced lawmakers to cut back.

"It's a nice little goodie package, and hopefully it will have an impact," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican and House negotiator.

The final outstanding issues in the $69 billion budget are dwindling but one of the major topics casting a shadow is a planned overhaul of Medicaid, a growing health program for the poor that serves one in seven Floridians.

House and Senate leaders seek to expand the role of health management organizations in the program with the idea that for-profit HMOs do a better job of stopping wasteful spending because they have a financial incentive to do so.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said during budget negotiations Sunday that a House plan to expand the role of HMOs in managing Medicaid — a wholesale approach that would put nearly every major Medicaid service under managed care — would not pass this year.

Another divide between the House and Senate is property insurance. A plan to let insurance companies offer unregulated rates appears dead for the year, and the fate of a separate measure loaded with industry-friendly provisions is uncertain.

A watered-down Senate version (SB 2044) went to the House on Friday where a companion measure (HB 447) is stalled because of concerns about how insurers pay policyholders for damages and over limits on the time frame for claims, especially those made by public adjusters.

"I haven't heard somebody say, 'That's dead,' but I haven't heard people say, 'Oh, piece of cake, that's definitely moving,' or anything like that, either," said Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican.

With days waning, a package of ethics reforms is also gaining new life thanks to Atwater, the Senate leader. The West Palm Beach Republican is prioritizing a handful of reforms to the embattled Public Service Commission and State Board of Administration, as well as measures to crack down on public officials who use their offices for private gain and another that imposes new restrictions on no-bid contracts in state government.

Democratic lawmakers helped lead the charge on tougher ethics laws, but Rep. Ron Saunders, a leading House Democrat, said the GOP-led Legislature could have done more on the policy front.

He said lawmakers wasted time on resolutions and memorials about national issues.

"There will be some good bills — and we don't know which ones yet — that didn't get passed because we didn't have time," said Saunders of Key West. "In an election year you always expect a certain amount of demagoguery and we got it — probably a little more than usual."

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Lee Logan contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida jobs still focus as legislative session nears end 04/25/10 [Last modified: Sunday, April 25, 2010 10:42pm]
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