The annual session of the Florida Legislature kicks off on Tuesday. And while there have been overviews running throughout the weekend, it appears that there are five key questions that will ultimately decide whether the session ends gracefully within 60 days or turns into a train wreck.
1. Do Republicans reject some or a large portion of the stimulus? Gov. Charlie Crist has presented state lawmakers a plan to get in and out of town of 60 days and take of Florida's $5 billion budget shortfall. But it comes with more than $500 million in fees, relies on approving a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and most importantly, relies on spending nearly $8 billion from the federal stimulus package to patch holes in the current year budget and next year's budgets. In the days to come you will hear a lot about recurring vs. non-recurring. That's Tallahassee speak for spending one-time money on day to day expenses, or what some call spending your savings on the monthly mortgage payment. The governor's response will be that we are living in extraordinary times and we need to do what we can to keep the budget intact and keep the economy moving. The place to watch closely is the House: Can its members say no to gambling and tax hikes and also say no to stimulus? Plus, the other wild card: Getting federal approval to receive the education stimulus money that pumps $880 million into the school-funding formula.
2. Is it a tax, is it a fee, it is fair? Not a lot of people noticed but the GOP-controlled Legislature actually did some significant during the special session in January. Lawmakers agreed to a nursing home assessment where money collected from nursing homes would be used to draw down federal money. Some might call this a tax since it resembles the already existing tax on hospital revenues. Crist in his budget proposal created a "bottled water severance fee" that some say is a tax. But is it easier to swallow than repealing the sales tax exemption on bottled water? Is repealing that exemption in fact a tax increase? And then's there the cigarette tax that some lawmakers want to increase by a $1 a pack. One piece of legislation would rename it a user fee. The reason that all of this is critically important this wordsmithing may control the eventual outcome. House Republicans will resist any talk of raising taxes to balance the budget, but fees are a different deal. Another critical element: Is is fair or does it in lobbyist speak "level the playing field?" That notion can also used to sell a major tax change.
3. Will cultural and social responsibility issues suddenly dominate the session? Don't be surprised if some of the cultural issues that have been hot-button items in the past to make a reappearance. The ultrasound legislation that died on a 20-20 vote in the Senate has been refiled for this session. Plus there are plenty of other bills that have been filed dealing with spanking, premarital counseling, and random drug testing for those who receive unemployment benefits.
4. Is there a way to come up with a gambling deal that makes everyone happy? Probably not. The Seminoles want lawmakers to approve their deal that allows blackjack and baccarat. The other pari-mutuels say this will destroy their business so they want lawmakers to reject it. Legislators could make the South Florida tracks that have slot machines happy by lowering their tax rate. But that probably wouldn't be enough to get a truce between all sides. The other complication is that there are conservative Republicans in the House who are dead set against approving anything they view as expansion of gambling. There is probably enough votes in the Senate to pass something, like giving everyone slot machines. But what will the House demand in a trade to approve any kind of serious gambling legislation? If lawmakers do nothing, the Seminole Tribe could wind up getting federal approval for expanded gambling, but there's argument about that as well. Right now this just looks like something that can't be solved in the next 60 days.
5. What to do about the tangled property insurance mess? This one is really a doozy and it is a bipartisan issue: Democrats and Republicans veer all over the map on this one. That's because this is a geopolitical issue that has just as much to do with where you live in Florida as what party you belong to. The bottom line: The credit crisis has created a big-time potential shortfall in the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which is the state-created backstop meant to help private insurers keep rates down. Lowering the state's risk would likely trigger rate hikes. Meanwhile, Citizens Property Insurance rates will go up at the start of 2010 if lawmakers do nothing and allow a current rate freeze to expire. One idea that is being explored is to have the state assume the initial coverage for windstorm. Hmm. Have you heard that before? Yes, you have. It's what the Democrats proposed back in 2006.