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  1. Opinion

Editorial: The fallout from the House Republican quitters

Published Apr. 29, 2015

The Republican-led Florida Legislature has failed this state. When House Republicans abruptly adjourned three days early, they guaranteed the state's most pressing public policy concerns will remain unresolved. Some issues, like energy and medical marijuana, probably will be addressed by voter-initiated constitutional amendments. Others, like health care and gambling, face summer deadlines. The Do-Nothing Legislature will hold a special session to write a state budget, but Florida will suffer the consequences of this petulant behavior by Republican lawmakers who quit on us.

No health care policy

This is one stalemate that absolutely has to be resolved. This summer, the federal government is expected to quit sending $1.3 billion a year to the Low Income Pool that helps cover the hospital costs of treating the uninsured. The potential loss to Tampa General Hospital is $86 million, and it cannot afford the hit. The state and the federal government are negotiating, and lawmakers will have to approve any changes.

Of course, this issue is tied to accepting billions in federal Medicaid expansion money to cover more than 800,000 Floridians. The Senate has a solid bipartisan approach for dealing with LIP and accepting the Medicaid money to help pay for private coverage for low-income residents. The Obama administration has been encouraging. Yet House Republicans stubbornly refuse to accept the expansion money and shamefully adjourned Tuesday, three days early.

The medical community, prominent business groups and a broad bipartisan coalition support the Senate's approach. They should use this legislative timeout to build pressure in the districts of House Republicans and demand that House Speaker Steve Crisafulli allow lawmakers to vote their conscience.

No energy policy

Lawmakers again failed to create a modern energy policy for Florida, despite rapid changes within the industry as the federal government finalizes new clean air regulations to combat the impacts of climate change. This adds more confusion and turbulence at an uncertain time.

By refusing to act, Florida is poorly prepared to meet new emissions targets for greenhouse gases. There is no regulatory certainty as the industry looks to diversify the energy mix and make billion-dollar investments in the electrical grid. A lack of direction on clean energy has sapped Florida's ability to attract private venture capital, even as other states draw new interest from the renewable sector. By failing to capitalize on emerging technologies and manufacturing opportunities, Florida has lost jobs and left consumers to pay artificially high rates because of the lack of competition. And by refusing to loosen the grip that the investor-owned electric monopolies have over the sale of power, lawmakers have only fed a citizens' petition to open up the solar energy market through a constitutional amendment in 2016.

No environmental policy

Lawmakers found no common ground on comprehensive water policy and failed to establish a framework for spending billions of dollars on the environment.

The session's collapse spared a compromise between a bad water bill in the House and a weak alternative in the Senate. Neither bill was worthwhile, but now the state is back to square one on developing a statewide water policy. This means no new protections for the Everglades, no strategy for cleaning up leaky septic tanks, no conservation plans for fast-growing Central Florida and no broad approach for water development projects. Lawmakers also failed to craft a framework for spending billions under Amendment 1, a land-buying measure that won 75 percent of the vote in November. That opens the door for lawmakers to fritter away the money on salaries, overhead and pork-barrel projects. Legislators also probably squandered an opportunity to set aside the money needed to buy U.S. Sugar land in South Florida for the Everglades cleanup. And there is no serious strategy for rehabilitating Florida's springs, improving water quality across the state or helping metro regions grow by developing alternative sources of water.

No prison reform

The Department of Corrections has been rocked by scandal amid allegations of inmate abuse, suspicious inmate deaths and corruption among prison staff. Lawmakers committed this session to significant prison reforms that ranged from requiring more training on dealing with mentally ill inmates to creating a body camera program for guards. Legislators butted heads on the creation of an independent oversight board for the beleaguered department, with the House passing its bill earlier this month without an external oversight component. The Senate, which had continued to push for outside examination, was poised to compromise when House members walked away. Wisely, the Senate refused the House's weaker version on Wednesday.

Now the good bipartisan effort put forth by legislators has evaporated, and prison reform remains unrealized. Senate leaders say they will still work for change by rule or by the order of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones. The senators are right to try to salvage reform efforts, but House Republicans' reckless action shifts too much responsibility for instituting change to the Corrections Department, which has a sorry track record of protecting its inmates or policing its employees.

No marijuana relief

Senate Regulated Industries Committee Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, had hoped to unsnarl a regulatory tangle caused by last year's Charlotte's Web bill so that children with severe seizures finally could get relief with a non-euphoric marijuana extract. To win votes from factions who want a more comprehensive medical marijuana system, Bradley agreed to allow higher concentrations of THC, the component that fights nausea and anxiety while also making users mellow or high.

It didn't fly. Last year, a medical marijuana constitutional amendment that could have opened the door to unintended consequences received 58 percent of the vote — just short of the 60 percent needed for approval. Yet lawmakers did not get the message. By failing to push forward aggressively on even a limited, noneuphoric system, the Legislature has virtually assured that Florida will face a vote on an improved medical marijuana amendment in 2016. Another opportunity was wasted for a measured approached to medical marijuana, leaving the amendment route the only alternative.

No gambling deal

Here's another deadline the state may miss that would cost taxpayers millions. A key portion of the state's gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida expires this summer. Without a new agreement, the state stands to lose about $260 million a year that the tribe sends to the state from operations such as its Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.

The least lawmakers should do is preserve that revenue stream and extend the agreement with the tribe. They do not need to open the floodgates to allow destination casinos or let the Seminoles add roulette, craps and other games. It would be a step forward to stop forcing greyhound tracks to run a minimum number of live races just to preserve their poker rooms.

But at a minimum, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature should keep the status quo with the Seminoles. To let part of the compact expire and leave millions on the table would be financially irresponsible.

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