Ethics and elections
The 2013 Legislature has the potential to reform Tallahassee's pay-to-play culture and restore voter confidence. But can the Republican leadership — including two Tampa Bay lawmakers — rise to the challenge?
New House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel has staked his speakership on ethics reform. Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater has been assigned by Senate President Don Gaetz to steer campaign and ethics legislation. Promising reform is easy, but reducing the influence of special interests by cracking down on secretive third-party committees or unethical colleagues will be difficult.
Even Gov. Rick Scott is acknowledging the voting law he signed in 2011 goes too far in reducing early voting days from 14 to eight. But the 2012 election problems went beyond that to include his nefarious voter purge effort and tricky new registration rules. Nothing short of a sincere attempt to ensure easy voter access to the polls will be acceptable.
The governor and state lawmakers talk a lot about keeping taxes low, but the most unreasonable costs taxing Tampa Bay consumers are electric bills and property insurance.
The Legislature should repeal the 2006 law allowing power companies to bill customers in advance for costs tied to proposed nuclear plants that may never be built. Progress Energy customers, who already pay much higher electricity rates than South Florida consumers, are on the hook for more than $1 billion in spending for a proposed Levy County nuclear plant whose cost has soared to $24 billion and counting. Progress Energy's new owner, Duke Energy, should pull the plug on the Levy fantasy and finally decide whether to shutter the broken Crystal River nuclear plant.
On property insurance, Gov. Rick Scott and other Republican leaders should stop gouging consumers. The state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has its highest cash reserves ever, but Citizens keeps looking for ways to raise rates outside the 10 percent annual cap in premium increases. The governor and state lawmakers still want to move more Citizens policies to the private market, but that will cost consumers far more money and can stick them with insurers that have little track record and relatively low reserves.
After 2012 was spent fighting over the fate of the Affordable Care Act, 2013 should be spent figuring out how to carry out the federal law and improve it.
The federal government and the states have to design the health insurance exchanges, which will enable millions of uninsured Americans to shop for affordable coverage starting in 2014. Florida and other states also have to decide whether to expand Medicaid — an expansion for low-income Americans that will be entirely paid for by the federal government for the first few years. There are about 4 million uninsured Floridians, and Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature should embrace the expansion.
At the same time, Attorney General Pam Bondi should increase efforts to combat Medicaid fraud. If she does not have enough money and fraud investigators to make a more significant impact in South Florida, she should ask the Legislature for more resources.
There are positive signs that the economy is on the rebound, from the lower unemployment rate to new construction projects popping up around Tampa Bay. State and local officials should resist the temptation over the next year to repeat the same mistakes from the last real estate bubble that have made the state less competitive.
Having gutted the state's growth management laws, the Legislature needs a new approach to attract quality, high-paying industry beyond big tax breaks. These jobs depend on having ready access to a talented labor pool, good transportation and other public infrastructure, from clean water to cultural amenities that offer a high quality of life.
Beyond investing in education and public works, state leaders and local communities need policies that encourage businesses to locate in the urban core. Cities are growing at the expense of the rural areas, as residents seek the convenience and lower cost of living close to work, attractions and major commercial centers. This reduces operating costs for companies and spares taxpayers the expense of extending roads and utilities into the suburbs. Governments should work with the private sector to build out established areas that need new housing and commercial growth. And land development codes should be changed to reward urban renewal and mass transit projects. The economy is coming back, and Florida should not make the same old mistakes that lead to clogged roads and urban sprawl.
Gov. Rick Scott already has done enough damage to transportation by killing a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando and embracing the foolish idea of new toll roads to crisscross the rural areas. This is the wrong approach in a coastal state where mass transit could save time, money and precious natural resources.
Legislators should put aside the Future Corridors concept and plans to expand toll-only highways until the state expands existing capacity on the non-tolled freeway system. The state also needs to support regional mass transit efforts. Toward that end, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties should merge their two separate transit agencies into one. A combined operation would be better suited to finance and manage a truly modern transportation system that connects the entire region. State and local officials also need to view mass transit as a more essential component of Florida's economic development strategy. Companies can hardly afford to move to places where their products and employees languish in traffic.