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  1. Florida Politics

The Florida Legislature's 2016 Session: 5 issues to watch and 5 people to watch

Florida Gov., Rick Scott, shown addressing a joint session of the Florida Legislature, March 3, 2015 during his State of the State, is one of the people to watch this session. He outlines his priorities in his final State of the State address Tuesday. [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES]

Published Jan. 12, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — After a rough-and-tumble year of disagreement, the Florida Legislature returns to the Capitol today for its annual two-month legislative session.

With the state budget and a long list of policy issues on the agenda, here's what and who to keep an eye on:

Issues to watch

Tax cuts: There is little doubt that the Republican-led Legislature will pass new tax cuts in an election year. The question is: How far will they go? Gov. Rick Scott has proposed more than $1 billion in cuts that target businesses, but lawmakers are already suggesting they cannot afford that much and are looking for more broad-based cuts that more voters would feel directly. Tax breaks on back-to-school shopping and on college textbooks are two popular cuts that could be part of a final package.

Health care: Lawmakers are likely to spar over hospital licensing and the expansion of surgery centers, key priorities for House Republicans that Senate President Andy Gardiner has made clear aren't on his chamber's agenda. Medicaid expansion won't be on anyone's agenda, but the pot of Medicaid money at the center of last year's budget breakdown — the Low Income Pool — will make an encore appearance as the Legislature grapples with how to help fund hospitals that could lose a $400 million source of funding.

Seminole gambling compact: While it is unlikely the Legislature will wholly endorse a new $3 billion gaming agreement Scott signed with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, lawmakers should begin creating the framework for a deal. Specifically, lawmakers will explore whether to allow craps and roulette to be offered at Seminole-run casinos for the first time, whether new slots casinos should be allowed in South Florida and what, if anything, should be done to help horse racing, dog racing and other parimutuel businesses that could be at a competitive disadvantage if gambling options expand.

Education: School choice will continue to be a dominant theme in education policy. Charter schools remain controversial, particularly when it comes to how much funding they receive — versus traditional public schools — for capital projects. Scott wants to give equal funding to both charter schools and traditional public schools, which charter school proponents are advocating for. But teachers and school board representatives argue that traditional public schools ought to get a boost in funding to make up for recent years when they received very little, if anything, compared to charter schools.

The environment: One of the first bills being addressed this session was a casualty of legislative infighting last year. A wide-ranging bill to establish new standards to protect springs and water quality is expected to get approval by both chambers. Environmentalists and lawmakers continue to clash over whether the state should purchase more land to protect water resources, but there is apparent agreement to set aside $32 million to clean-up the Everglades.

People to watch

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, has been expanding his influence in the chamber since being named the next speaker of the House. As his November takeover of the chamber approaches, expect his role to keep growing.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, begins the first session since he locked down the next Senate presidency. With the reins of the chamber for the next two years and the keys to the state GOP campaign account, he wields a lot of power this year.

Gov. Rick Scott has laid out an aggressive agenda of $1 billion in tax cuts and $250 million for Enterprise Florida. Lawmakers, who build the budget around state needs and special projects for their home districts, likely won't endorse that high price tag.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, is the next leader of the 14 Senate Democrats. Divisions between Republicans in a battle over the Senate presidency and policy areas like gambling and guns could give the minority party outsized influence.

Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, will look for Republicans to get along ahead of a year in which all 160 legislative seats are up for re-election. The party's financial woes could be lessened if Ingoglia, who doubles as state party chairman, can bring members together to raise money.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporters Mary Ellen Klas and Kristen M. Clark contributed to this story. Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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