Florida Legislature misses deadline, will meet next week to wrap up budget

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature lurched to a temporary halt Friday with work on the budget still unfinished, its most controversial ideas largely cast aside and much of Gov. Charlie Crist's agenda in tatters.

Lawmakers rejected bills to open the gulf to offshore drilling, rewrite election laws, encourage renewable energy uses and buy a rail line for a Central Florida commuter train.

Next week, lawmakers will return for a brief extended session to vote on taxes and spending and to consider expanding casino gambling to support a $65 billion budget. To plug historic budget deficits, Republicans have been forced to abandon their long-held opposition to taxes and will raise taxes on cigarettes by $1 a pack.

They also will collect nearly $1 billion in new fees, largely from motorists, hunters and fishermen, while college students will pay higher tuition.

On the last day of the regular session, legislators voted to let Citizens Property Insurance premiums rise by up to 10 percent a year, setting a "glide path" of gradual, annual rate hikes aimed at restoring Florida's financial footing in the event of a hurricane.

One of the last bills that passed aims to curb the costly practice of "double-dipping," in which public employees, including sheriffs and judges, briefly "retire" to start drawing big pensions, only to return to the same jobs at their old salaries.

Business lobbies overcame trial lawyers Friday as senators voted 22-16 to accept a House bill on workers' compensation rates. The bill restores limits on attorneys' fees put in place in 2003 but overturned last fall by the state Supreme Court.

Telecommunications giants, including AT&T and its army of lobbyists, scored a victory Friday when the Legislature voted to deregulate all but basic landline phone service.

The bill had drawn the ire of the AARP and other consumer groups, and Crist's expressed doubts resulted in more consumer-friendly provisions, such as expanded eligibility for Lifeline, the phone subsidy for low-income residents.

The session concluded with passage of a growth management bill that seeks to steer growth to urban areas by relaxing transportation requirements. Earlier versions of the legislation had proposed sweeping changes in development controls that drew the ire of environmentalists. The compromise approved Friday is scaled way back and includes a measure that will increase affordable housing units.

Major education policy legislation fizzled, including the push to loosen the state's class-size mandate with a 2010 ballot measure. The idea passed the House last month but stalled to its death in the Senate, with Senate President Jeff Atwater saying it didn't have the votes. Lawmakers can approve the plan next year and still make the 2010 ballot.

Florida's crippled economy hovered over the Capitol for the duration of the session. With no money for programs or hometown projects, lawmakers shifted to policy ideas, but many of them went nowhere.

The session was marked by the unprecedented removal of a House speaker, Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin, and his subsequent indictment.

The Capitol's most popular pastime was speculating about whether Crist will forgo a 2010 re-election bid and run for an open U.S. Senate seat instead.

Crist faced criticism for not pushing his agenda more aggressively, but when he did use the power of his office, it had an effect. He criticized a phone-deregulation bill, and soon after lawmakers watered it down. He threatened to veto the elections bill as unfair to voters, and it quickly disappeared.

"When he got engaged, it mattered," said lobbyist Brian Ballard, a Crist ally.

Crist struggled to jump-start his agenda after largely staying out of the arena, but he scored one solid victory in the final hours. Reviving a proposal that had seemed dead just days ago, the House and the Senate approved a plan that would reduce the non-homestead property assessment cap to 5 percent from 10 percent and carve out a new exemption for new homebuyers.

The plan, a Crist priority, would go before voters in November 2010.

But another of his top goals was rejected at almost the same time. Late Friday, the Senate blocked the Sunrail project on a 23-16 vote.

In addition, legislators did not fund the Florida Forever land-buying program that Crist had boasted of saving in January. And Crist's deal to allow more Seminole gambling is in trouble, too.

Despite his high popularity with the public, Crist lost sway in the Capitol — partly because of rumors of his departure and partly because few pieces of legislation or spending projects in this session were subject to a veto, which meant he had little advantage in dealing with lawmakers.

"The rank-and-file all the way up the ladder believe, whether true or not, that he's running for Senate, and he's gone. That permeates all the stuff that's down here," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

"There's really no leverage that he has if they think he's gone. There are no member projects. There's not much legislation. So the leadership and governor can't corral members as easily by saying, 'Hey, remember that senior center you wanted? Well, I need your help on something.' ''

Now, Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul and their budget chiefs will spend the weekend resolving a number of budget issues. Among those still to be resolved is state funding for the University of South Florida's medical school and Moffitt Cancer Center, and whether to limit stem cell research at universities and research-related travel to Cuba.

Another Crist priority fizzled Friday when the House refused to debate a significant new policy encouraging use of more clean and renewable energy by 2020.

The Senate-approved bill would have required 20 percent of the state's energy to come from renewable and clean or nuclear sources by 2020. At midday, two Crist aides left House leaders' offices looking disappointed.

As the Senate approved a one-week extension, Atwater emphasized to senators that the leftover issues will be restricted to the budget, gambling and tobacco, and he seemed to capture the prevailing mood that it has been an unpleasant two months.

"Everything else, mercifully, will end," Atwater said.

Times/Herald staff writers Shannon Colavecchio and Amy Hollyfield contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Session highlights

•Rejected a proposal to allow oil and gas drilling near coast

•Added a $1-per-pack tax to cigarettes

• Rejected an overhaul of elections law

• Raised Citizens insurance rates 10 percent per year

• Rejected a plan to buy a CSX rail line for commuter rail

• Agreed to ask voters in 2010 to reduce the assessment cap on non-homesteaded property from 10 percent to 5 percent

• Rejected a plan to ask voters to ease class size requirements

School spending

The education budget is not as skimpy as feared. Story, 1B

Florida Legislature misses deadline, will meet next week to wrap up budget 05/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 3:43pm]

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