In substance and style, the Florida Legislature scored few points in the session that mercifully ended Friday. Lawmakers failed to meet virtually any of the state's challenges as Republican leaders focused on polishing conservative credentials and settling political scores. Fortunately, their power plays and insistence on ideological purity worked only some of the time.
Misguided efforts to transform Medicaid, overhaul property insurance and establish a renewable energy policy collapsed under their own weight. Republicans rammed through poorly executed education and campaign finance reforms, and Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed them. Sometimes, failure is the best outcome in Tallahassee.
There were a few bright spots. Lawmakers finally approved a gambling deal with the Seminole Indians that will bring in millions. Standards for high schools were raised, and so were requirements for Bright Futures scholarships. Legislators embraced better systems for vetting those who work with the state's most vulnerable citizens and for regulating the pill mills that contribute to prescription drug abuse.
But too many good ideas died, including banning drivers from text- ing behind the wheel, tighter ethics standards for the Public Service Commission, stiffer criminal penalties for corrupt public officials, and updating public records laws to address technological advances.
Instead, Republicans wasted time railing against the Obama administration. They put a measure on the November ballot asking voters to reject federal health care reform. They took time to formally criticize the federal deficit — even as they took $2.6 billion in stimulus money to balance next year's $70.4 billion budget without raising taxes or cutting more services. They also approved a self-serving November ballot measure that would override a pair of citizen petitions aimed at finally making legislative and congressional districts more competitive.
In the final days, Republicans shoved through a social conservative agenda that tramples on constitutional rights. In just 48 hours in the final days of session, they passed a bill (HB 1143) that would all but end insurance coverage for abortions and force any woman seeking an abortion to pay for an ultrasound. They approved a school prayer bill (HB 31) disguised as First Amendment protection for teachers that could subject schoolchildren of other faiths to their teacher's religious beliefs.
But the greatest failure of this Legislature was its unwillingness — even in the face of crisis — to plan in any significant way for the future. Lawmakers passed more special interest tax breaks and misnamed it a job creation package. They largely ignored ideas to make the state's tax base broader and fairer, such as taxing Internet sales and forcing online travel services, such as Travelocity, to collect hotel bed taxes.
It was only due to federal stimulus money that lawmakers were able to maintain funding for public schools, state universities and community colleges — and to cover Medicaid costs for a rising number of low-income Floridians. There wasn't enough money to fully fund mental health, substance abuse and at-risk family services. That decision is expected to ultimately cost tax payers more in jail and hospital beds, and foster care.
This Legislature's greatest achievement may simply be that it finished in the prescribed 60 days. Otherwise, there's very little for lawmakers to brag about on the campaign trail.