Florida lawmakers pass few bills as budget questions linger

Author: Associated Press
Surges in early voting, beyond 2014 totals. Photo via MGN.
Surges in early voting, beyond 2014 totals. Photo via MGN.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Just past the midpoint of the Florida Legislature’s 60-day session, lawmakers have left town for the Easter and Passover holidays. So let’s take a look at what they have done with the more than 1,700 bills that have been filed.

They set next year’s presidential primary for March 15. And they’re really, really close to sending Gov. Rick Scott a bill that will let rural mail carriers ride around without their seatbelts.

That’s about it.

Every year the Legislature saves most of its most difficult bills for the session’s final days, but lawmakers usually get more done in the first month than they have this year. Blame it on big budget questions, the styles of the new leaders or maybe just the Tallahassee air that’s thick with pollen.

“A lot of bills have moved through the process, there just haven’t been a lot of bills that have moved all the way through the process,” said Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens, adding that questions about whether the state will lose more than $1 billion in federal money to help hospitals treat the poor and other budget issues have cooled things a bit. “It’s cast a bit of a pall over the session. Everybody’s trying to figure out how much money we’re going to have and it throws everybody into a little bit of a tailspin.”

Exactly 14 bills have cleared both chambers. The governor has signed five of them. One set the presidential primary date. The other four are reviser’s bills, described in the House glossary as “nonsubstantive” legislation that simply cleans up language in existing laws.

Another procedural measure, the first bill the Legislature passed, just allowed the Senate and House to meet in joint session to listen to Gov. Rick Scott’s State of the State speech.

Among the other eight bills passed is a measure that forces hotels to waive minimum age requirements for members of the military. Another tweaks a law on how insurance companies notify customers about policy changes.

But the Legislature does seem ready to agree on waiving seatbelt requirements for rural mail carriers. The Senate passed the bill unanimously on Day 31 of session and the House version of the bill is before the full chamber. It could go to Scott as early as Thursday.

It’s the big stuff that’s stuck. The House and Senate are about $4 billion apart on their proposed budgets – a gap that isn’t easy to bridge. And while the Senate is trying to devise a way to expand health care to the poor, the House hasn’t done anything to expand Medicaid.

While both sides agree that standardized testing in schools must be scaled back, they have different ideas on how to do that. Ditto that with bills to address problems in the Department of Corrections and to implement a constitutional amendment passed by voters to set aside money for land and water conservation.

Republican Sen. Tom Lee, though, said lawmakers will get these and other issues done.

“The big ideas are the challenging ones, they’re the hard ones … They’re the ones that bog down both chambers,” Lee said. “Everything is teed up to get done, but all of the heavy lifting in the legislative session typically happens in the last couple of weeks.”

That’s the hope, anyway. When lawmakers return Tuesday, they’ll have 25 days to iron out their differences.

“The hope is we can all be adults about this and try to find a way to move forward in discussing our problems rather than throwing our hands up and whining,” Clemens said.

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