Fla. Legislative Session to Be a Mix of Priorities
TALLAHASSEE (AP) - Tax cuts, stiffer sex offender laws, expanding school vouchers and, as always, the state budget will be among the issues Florida legislators will consider over their annual 60-day session that begins shortly.
But so will legalizing half-gallon beer growlers, raising the speed limit to 75 mph in some areas and finally making it legal for unmarried men and women to have sex in the homes they share.
Hundreds of bills have already filed for the session beginning March 4 - some mundane, some making a political point, some dealing with major policy changes and some that could affect Floridians' everyday lives. And most will never make it to Gov. Rick Scott's desk when lawmakers go home the first weekend in May.
The House and Senate leaders say, though, they will not be taking a step back and coasting during an election year, when many contentious issues are often left for another time.
"We really wanted to continue to push the envelope this year and not waste a session," House Speaker Will Weatherford said.
Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have laid out a five-point work plan for the session dealing with education; making the state more military friendly; making broad-based tax cuts; protecting children, the elderly and other vulnerable Floridians; and addressing government pension costs and ethics.
"The thought was we wanted it to be bigger and broader and hopefully bolder than the agenda we had last year," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
But one issue that seems to be debated every year at the Capitol - gambling - won't be high on the priority list of either lawmaker.
"We're both very skeptical about gambling," said Gaetz, R-Niceville.
There will be a push to create casino resorts, particularly in Miami, as there have been the last few years. Gaetz and Weatherford aren't closing the door to the idea, but Gaetz said there first needs to be a holistic look at Florida's gambling industry in general to clean up laws and regulations that have been patched together over the years.
And there's also the compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe that allowed exclusive gambling rights for their casinos in exchange for what's approaching $1 billion in payments to the state over the last four years.
A portion of the agreement allowing blackjack and other card games at the tribe's casinos expires in August 2015. How Scott handles negotiations with the tribe could also affect what the legislature does.
More important to the leaders are changes in other policy, like expanding a corporate tax credit for companies that give private school vouchers to low-income students. They also want changes in the state retirement system similar to a failed proposal last year that would have required all future public employees to have individual investment accounts similar to 401 (k) plans instead of a guaranteed pension.
They want to build on ethics laws passed last year by further strengthening penalties for those who don't follow them and to apply standards required of elected state officials to local officials.
They are also pushing for approval of a G.I. bill that will help members of the military and their spouses get college degrees and jobs in Florida.
Another priority has widespread support in both chambers and among lawmakers of both parties: tightening sex offender laws.
A series of proposals that would create tougher penalties for the worst sex offenders and make it easier for them to be civilly committed once they've finished their sentences is expected to be ready for a vote the first week of session.
Among the hundreds of other bills lawmakers will consider are a measure that repeals a law enacted in 1868 that makes it illegal for an unmarried man and woman who share a home to have sex. And Florida's quickly growing craft brewing industry's top priority is a measure to legalize half-gallon beer jugs known as growlers. Gallon and quart growlers are legal in Florida, but the 64-ounce size that's an industry standard in the 47 states that allow them can't be filled here.
For their part, Democrats say they will not support the expansion of corporate vouchers and changes to the state workers' pension system. They will also have the goal of pointing out what Republicans won't be doing, like expanding health care and raising the minimum wage to $10.10 as Democrats are proposing.
They'll support Republican proposals to roll back automobile registration fees that were increased five years ago and for sales tax holidays for school and hurricane supplies. But the Democrats won't support corporate tax cuts while vulnerable Floridians are on waiting lists for care, said House Democrat Leader Perry Thurston.
"I would like to see that go towards getting somebody's grandmother off a list than to give to a corporation. We have great laws to attract corporations here in the state of Florida. I'm not saying we can't make them better, but in terms of my priorities, that would be my priority," Thurston said.
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