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  1. Florida Politics

Florida Legislature wrapping up 2012 session

Gov. Rick Scott, left, greets Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, incoming Senate president, Friday night after the Senate approved the PIP reform bill.
Published Mar. 10, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature approved a budget late Friday in a final burst of chaos as the Supreme Court rejected a map of Senate districts and maverick senators killed a controversial education bill.

In a 15-hour day, lawmakers sent Gov. Rick Scott a $70 billion budget that creates a 12th state university in Lakeland, closes six prisons and eliminates another 4,400 jobs, nearly 4 percent of the state's work force.

The Republican-controlled Legislature also reduced Medicaid payments to hospitals, repealed an unpopular septic tank inspection program, approved random drug testing of state workers and measures aimed at reducing the rampant fraud in the state's personal injury protection (PIP) car insurance program.

The House passed the budget 80-37; the Senate voted 32-8.

"Auto insurance fraud reform, my job creation agenda and $1 billion for K-12 education — this session has been a victory for all Floridians," Scott said.

Counties will be forced to repay about $300 million in disputed Medicaid bills or risk losing revenue sharing money over a five-year period. The provision was in a bill (HB 5301) that was a priority to Democrats to allow state workers to enroll their children in the KidCare health insurance program.

One of the last bills that passed is a potential bounty for banks: Lawmakers will allow insurers to obtain tax credits for up-front payments of premium taxes, with the revenue used to shore up a shortfall in the state's hurricane catastrophe fund. The plan requires approval by the governor and Cabinet.

Senators and representatives will head home this weekend, but they won't be there long. Scott is calling them back to the Capitol Wednesday to enact a new map of Senate districts after the state Supreme Court ruled their first attempt invalid earlier Friday.

"We're going to follow the Constitution, and we're going to try to get it done as fast as we can," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

A session marked by power struggles and factionalism in the 40-member Senate ended fittingly. On the final day, senators cast a 20-20 vote on a bill to allow parents to convert failing public schools into charter schools. Without a procedure to break a tie vote, the legislation failed.

The outcome of the so-called parent trigger bill was reminiscent of what happened last month, when the Senate voted 21-19 to block privatization of state prisons in 18 South Florida counties.

A band of renegade senators argued that public education, like public safety, is a core mission of government that shouldn't be outsourced to private vendors. Five Republicans voted no on both issues, including four from Tampa Bay: Sens. Charlie Dean, Paula Dockery, Mike Fasano and Dennis Jones.

Late Friday, the Senate narrowly avoided another deadlock as it voted 21-19 on a key procedural vote on the House version of a no-fault insurance reform package. The final bill then passed, 22-17.

The Senate was badly hobbled by a mid-session internal fight as several GOP senators sought to wrest control of the chamber beginning in 2014, but it backfired.

One of those involved, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, admitted an error in judgment, as incoming Senate president, to have personally gotten involved in a battle for power.

"If there was an error of judgment, it was an error on my part in inviting myself into the room and in fact insisting on being in the room because I wanted to make sure it was a straightforward and honest conversation," Gaetz said.

A Democratic lawmaker whose experience spans four decades said he could not recall the Senate in so much disarray.

"An attempted coup, the Supreme Court rejecting their redistricting map and major bills dying on tie votes or by one or two votes. To see all of that at the same time is unusual," said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, the House Democratic leader, who was first elected in 1986.

The budget was not as contentious as in recent years, as lawmakers cut programs and jobs and closed prisons to save $1.4 billion. Final passage followed several days of negotiations between two key lawmakers: Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and his House counterpart, Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring.

But one of their last-minute deals infuriated even some Republicans: cutting budgets of county court clerks by $31 million statewide and eliminating 900 jobs, to plug holes elsewhere in the budget.

The budget, effective July 1, does not raise any new taxes or fees and it meets Scott's demand for more public school spending with an additional $1.1 billion, or about $150 per student.

It also allows for a 15 percent increase in state university tuition, and allows the University of Florida and Florida State to raise tuition even more. UF and FSU can set "market rates" for tuition if they meet certain criteria.

Scott strongly opposes tuition increases. He also may again use his veto pen to eliminate dozens of individual lawmaker-sponsored projects sprinkled throughout the budget that are always popular in an election year.

The projects include $5 million for emergency power improvements for Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach; $5 million for a world class regatta center in Sarasota; $5 million for an emergency operations center in Glades County; $4 million for neighborhood projects in Orlando and $270,000 for road maintenance equipment for Hialeah.

Scott vetoed a record $615 million in line-item legislative pork barrel spending last year.

While Republicans called it a fair and responsible budget, Democrats criticized the GOP majority for cutting $260 million more from higher education and allowing universities to raise tuition by 15 percent.

"You can't create jobs and have real economic development without quality higher education," said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg. "And you can't have quality higher education when you continue to cut funding to our colleges and universities, and increase the burden on the middle class by raising tuition."

Democrats said cuts could have been avoided if Republicans were willing to close existing sales tax loopholes, apply the sales tax to Internet purchases and require online travel companies to pay taxes on their transactions. They also voiced frustration that leaders did not fund $438 million in various health care initiatives that would have been funded through President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

The bill allowing random drug tests of state workers (HB 1205) is certain to be challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union. But without such tests, said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, state government could become "a haven for abusers."

Among the scores of other bills that passed Friday was one (HB 1223) that creates a new specialty license tag for retired Florida legislators and members of Congress at a cost of $500.

"You have to be able to leave the Legislature and still have $500 in your pocket," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. "But it's a very nice plate."

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Toluse Olorunnipa and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.

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