Best and Worst of Florida Legislative Session So Far

Feb 14, 2016 by

We’re halfway through Florida’s legislative session and time for a half-time recap.

The top priorities of the Senate President and the House speaker—expanding opportunities for the developmentally disabled and an agriculture-friendly water policy—have made it to the governor’s desk. The House and Senate appear to be working toward some of the governor’s priorities and, surprisingly after the last few acrimonious sessions, working pretty well together.

Many Floridians don’t necessarily have the time or know how to keep up with the legislative policy changes or how their tax dollars are being spent. Those rosy updates from their representatives make their actions sound too good to be true—for good reason. It’s easy to fool people when they’re not really paying attention.

Here’s my take on some of the best and worst of the legislative session so far.

Senate Bill 228 makes changes to the 10-20-Life law that unintentionally led to disproportionately long and unjust prison sentences even when no one was harmed. Mandatory 20-year sentences were given to individuals firing warning shots even when they feared for their safety or that of their family. Giving greater discretion to judges by removing minimum mandatory sentences is a better long-term fix, but this change of removing the crime of aggravated assault from the mandated sentence is certainly a step in the right direction. Kudos to state Sen. Aaron Bean and state Rep. Neil Combee.

The campus carry bill has reared its head again this session. Even though it has been defeated numerous times in the Florida Senate, the House has passed a bill that would allow guns on college campuses despite the objections of the state’s university presidents. The bill is stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Guns, alcohol, stress, immaturity and raging hormones are a dangerous combination. Kudos to state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Hurst v. Florida, overturned Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedure. The Senate and House differ on how to fix Florida’s death penalty law. The Senate bill requires unanimous decisions on at least one aggravating factor and requires a unanimous jury recommendation to impose the death penalty. The House bill only requires a 9-3 jury vote to recommend a death sentence. Florida is one of only three states that don’t require a unanimous jury decision. Kudos to state Sen. Rob Bradley, a former prosecutor, for his deliberative approach to address the court’s concerns.

Some bills are a mixed blessing.

The House wants to fund Everglades restoration with up to $200 million annually. This should be great news but unfortunately it is a thrifty tradeoff for not fully funding Florida Forever and Amendment One.

The House and Senate both increase education funding by over $500 million. The Senate, however, is rejecting Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to fund 84 percent of the increase with property taxes. Kudos to state Sen. Don Gaetz and Senate President Andy Gardner for increasing the state’s share of the funding.

And, of course, there are some bad policy and budget decisions.

The Senate has agreed to Gov. Scott’s request for $250 million for incentives to businesses that promise to create jobs. The track record of success is mixed at best and the information on how money is spent is shielded from public view. There are better ways to spend a quarter of a billion dollars than on this corporate welfare.

The House and Senate are still refusing to fully fund Amendment One as 75 percent of the voters mandated with the estimated $823 million in documentary stamp revenue. The Legislature is cutting state park funding, is only giving $22 million—instead of $300 million—to land acquisition and is diverting funds to overhead and other unintended uses. Kudos to state Sen. Thad Altman for trying to increase Florida Forever funding to $200 million.

The Legislature is continuing the assault on Open Government with numerous public record exemption bills.

The House wants $90 million for school construction for charter schools and $50 million for traditional public schools. There are six traditional public schools for every charter school, yet the House insists on nearly twice as much funding for charters. The Senate has $50 million for traditional school construction and zero for charter schools. Shame on state Rep. Erik Fresen for continuing his crusade to benefit charters at the expense of traditional public schools.

Neither the House nor the Senate has adequately funded Florida’s troubled prison system, ignoring the need for more staff and training.

These issues are still in a state of flux. Questioning your elected representatives before the final vote lets them know you’re paying attention and lessens the likelihood that they can talk their way out of bad votes or inaction.

It’s an election year—there’s no better time.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.



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