The Florida Legislature is expected to shut down its annual session today and leave only the state budget and a gambling compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe to be negotiated in a weeklong extension. For that, Floridians should be thankful.
The 2009 Legislature has little to be proud of and much to be ashamed of. In a time of crisis, it has allowed partisanship and rhetoric to substitute for leadership and solutions. For the most part, Florida is no better off 60 days after the Legislature convened — and in some ways it's worse off.
At least, in shutting down most everything today, some of the session's most ridiculous ideas will die for now — from opening the door to offshore drilling to making it harder for Floridians to vote. But there is still the chance, in this final day, that the Legislature could inflict serious damage, such as gutting the state's growth management laws under the guise of economic development. Should those measures go too far, Gov. Charlie Crist should ready his veto pen.
There have been a few, brief bright spots. Seat belt enforcement will become a primary offense, which will save lives. Public universities will have the right to increase tuition up to 15 percent, moving a bit closer to the national average. A new tracking system should curb prescription drug abuse. And lawmakers, before day's end, should approve gradual rate increases for Citizens Property Insurance, whose rates are actuarily unsound after several years of rate freezes. Hopefully, lawmakers also will curb double-dipping by limiting when public employees collect both a pension and a paycheck.
But for the most part, legislators serving in an extraordinary time did not perform extraordinarily well. Chief among their failures was an unwillingness to address an inadequate and inequitable tax system, perhaps because $5 billion in federal stimulus funds — though initially ridiculed by some Republicans — allowed them to offset a $6 billion budget shortfall.
A House review of sales tax exemptions was superficial and went nowhere. A bid to make it easier to collect taxes on Internet sales faded away. And the few property tax proposals still floating around would only increase the current inequities between like-situated property owners. While lawmakers are poised to close one loophole to prevent wealthy property owners from avoiding real estate taxes, they are expected to ignore another loophole that allows out-of-state companies to pay less corporate income tax than Florida companies.
The Legislature also may finish most of its business without adopting the governor's renewable energy plan even as the rest of the country is starting to take climate change seriously.
Most unexplainable is the rejection by Republicans of $444 million in federal money that would have expanded unemployment benefits for 40,000 Floridians. They also declined to make it easier to apply for KidCare, the state's low-cost child health insurance, or to expand the program's eligibility even though the federal government would pick up the majority of the cost.
This legislative session will be remembered more for its failures than its successes. The few victories for Floridians have involved killing of bad ideas rather than approving good ones. At this point, the less lawmakers do today — and the sooner they go home — the better.