As an independent candidate for U.S. Senate, Gov. Charlie Crist is liberated. He does not have to embrace the Republican Party's agenda or please the Republicans who control the Legislature. He is free to act in the best interests of all Floridians. The governor has an opportunity to demonstrate his independence by vetoing bad legislation and calling a special session of the Legislature to tackle unfinished business.
Five bills Crist should veto
Abortion restrictions (HB 1143)
This bill imposes government between a woman's constitutional right to choose an abortion and her doctor. The bill requires every woman seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound — even if the doctor concludes it is not medically necessary. It also requires most of those women to hear an oral description of the fetus as the ultrasound is occurring. This is a transparent attempt to intimidate women already under tremendous stress, and the state has no business dictating the terms of the discussion between a woman and her doctor.
The bill also seeks to limit abortions by barring employers who receive new federal tax credits for health insurance from offering policies to their workers that cover abortion services. This is an attempt to derail health care reform and insults 4 million Floridians who have no coverage.
Property insurance (SB 2044) This bill is a mixture of bad and good, the latter being that it would require insurers to have more capital. But it broadens the ability of insurers to get expedited review for rate increases of up to 10 percent to cover reinsurance and inflation costs. The window for these types of increases, which are routinely approved, is plenty wide enough now.
The legislation also unfairly tinkers with mitigation discounts. It penalizes both those homeowners who invested in storm shutters and other improvements and homeowners who did not — lessening the cost of mitigation discounts to insurers and allowing them to transfer some of the remaining costs to other homeowners.
Tax break (HB 981) This is another sweet deal for huge landowners and developers under the guise of protecting agriculture. Landowners already get big property tax exemptions if their property is used to raise cattle or grow crops. But if the land sells for more than three times its agricultural value, the law rightly presumes the land is sold for development purposes. The tax break is automatically repealed, although a land owner can appeal.
This bill makes it easier for large tracts of land to be sold for far above their agricultural value without losing the tax break. It is aimed at helping the owners of North Florida timber land who lost the tax break after selling to a company development subsidiary for 12 times the assessed value. These are the sorts of greenbelt scams that prostitute the original intention of the tax break for agricultural lands. And they could rob state and local governments of tens of millions of dollars.
Rulemaking (HB 1565) This bad bill is the epitome of special interest legislation. It would prohibit state agencies from passing any rule to implement a law if its impact on the private sector would be more than $1 million over five years. Instead, the Legislature would have to ratify the proposed rule, a process that would delay implementation but, more likely, would scuttle the rule for good. It's far easier to kill a measure in the Legislature than pass one. The bill is clearly an attempt to stall environmental regulation, including the state's need to update stormwater standards to comply with federal clean water laws. But it would also neuter many other state agencies charged with carrying out the law. Crist needs to veto this special interest end-run that may well run afoul of the state's constitutional separation of powers.
Children Services Councils (SB 2014) An amendment added to this bill in the final days of session is a classic example of state government bigfooting local control — this time at children's expense. It would require local voters every 12 years to reauthorize children services councils, elections that would ultimately distract these apolitical groups from their core mission of providing early education and child welfare programs. Voters in eight counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, have authorized the agencies to collect a small amount of property tax. But one lawmaker, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, apparently irked that his local council was planning to build a new headquarters, abused his power to force regular referendums. State law already allows county commissions at any time to ask voters if they wish the local groups to continue. That's the appropriate oversight, not the Legislature. This bad amendment poisons the rest of the bill, which provides some technical changes that can be addressed later.
Three issues Crist should push to bring to special session
Public corruption. Former House Speaker Ray Sansom has been indicted on grand theft charges for steering $6 million in tax money to build an airport hangar disguised as a college building that a friend wanted for private use. A statewide grand jury is investigating public corruption, and federal officials are investigating the state Republican Party's finances. Yet the Legislature failed to pass any changes in public corruption laws.
A good place to start would be with two bills by Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. One (SB 1076) would make it easier to prosecute elected officials who use their public offices for private gain. Another bill (SB 734) would set tougher penalties for officials who use their position to engage in a criminal act.
Public Service Commission. Despite the clear examples of PSC staffers and commissioners being too close to utilities they regulate, lawmakers failed to agree on any reforms. And the Senate refused to confirm two new PSC members who voted against exorbitant rate increases for Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light. The least lawmakers should do is pass a bill (SB 1034) sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, that would ban ex parte communication between the PSC and utilities and put new limits on how quickly PSC officials could jump to higher-paying jobs at the utilities.
Open government. Crist's Commission on Open Government Reform spent months holding hearings and writing recommendations to improve citizens' access to government meetings and public records. Yet lawmakers failed to approve the Sunshine in Government Act (SB 1598 and HB 1211). It would improve transparency and access to government with sensible changes such as merging public records and open meetings laws, encouraging electronic records systems that automatically redact exempt information, and clarifying government charges for complying with public records requests. This good effort toward better government should not be ignored.