In a typical Florida legislative session, some 2,000 bills are usually floating somewhere in the process.
The 120 state House members and 40 state senators introduce a thousand or so member bills. Add to that the appropriations bills, implementing bills, budget-conforming bills, claims bills and committee bills, and pretty soon you’ve got 160 legislators chasing their tails to move thousands of bills in a 60-day session.
Although the session officially starts in early March, legislators have been making the trek to Tallahassee since September in preparation. These committee weeks are held to allow legislators the opportunity to start moving their legislation through committees and to allow the public to comment on proposed changes to Florida law.
So although many politicians extol the virtues of less government, there is no shortage of policy initiatives each year. In fairness, it does take a bill to revise or repeal a current law, but, in truth, very few of the bills actually repeal existing law.
The one and only order of business required of the Florida Legislature during the legislative session is to pass a balanced budget. Legislators must put forward a spending plan that spends no more than the estimated revenue expected to be collected.
I humbly suggest the Legislature should focus on a limited agenda and resist the temptation to micromanage, meddle and mandate. The less they do, the more they can do well with careful attention to detail and with plenty of opportunity for input, research and reasoned debate. The end result should be a well-vetted policy decision or spending plan.
With increasing revenues and a significant anticipated surplus, the Legislature has the opportunity to increase spending in underfunded areas, save funds for future needs or return dollars in the form of tax relief or fee cuts. A balanced approach would incorporate all three options.
Education: Increases in all levels of education would result in greater learning gains, better recruitment of teachers, more competitive colleges and universities, less pressure for higher education tuition increases and a greater economic development tool than costly and risky tax incentives.
Child Protection: Increases in child protection funding will begin to address the chronic problems at the Department of Children and Families. The additional funds should be used for in-depth training, recruitment and reducing caseloads to a manageable level to better protect our most vulnerable children.
Mental Health: In light of all the recent tragedies involving those suffering with mental illness, legislators should invest in mental health treatment for the growing need in our communities. This could keep these individuals from moving into our costly criminal justice system.
Water and environment: Increases in water resource and environmental projects such as land acquisition, water restoration, water supply development and land management would not only benefit our nature-based tourism but would also help our farmers and ranchers, our seafood producers, and, most importantly, our quality of life and sustainability. Significant Florida Forever funding should resume after a several-years hiatus, and funding should be provided to begin the Indian River Lagoon restoration.
Transportation: Increases in funding for transportation and other infrastructure would act as a stimulus to create jobs, attract industry and improve our quality of life.
Funds should be allocated not only for new construction, but also for improvements, maintenance and repair.
Seaports: Investment in our deep-water seaports could pay huge dividends, as ports function as economic engines for international trade, manufacturing and investment.
State reserves: After wisely investing tax dollars, some portion of the revenue should be added to the state’s reserves to address any number of unforeseen events, natural or man-made.
License fees: The Legislature should then look at giving back. Driver license and tag fees should be reduced as originally intended. The increases occurred during the recessionary years of sharply decreased revenues and were intended to temporarily fill the budget gap.
Tax breaks: Additional tax breaks should be broad-based and affect low- and middle-income workers and small businesses struggling to get by.
Medicaid: Legislators should move quickly to expand Medicaid for the nearly 1 million Floridians who would be eligible and who are trying to gain access to affordable health care. Many of these individuals could use this to transition to self-sufficiency by purchasing their own private insurance.
Criminal code: It’s well past time to rewrite the criminal code and sentencing laws to better reflect today’s realities. Decriminalize those non-violent offenses that do not pose a threat to our citizens.
Focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society after the debt is paid to reduce recidivism.
An agenda that focuses on fiscal responsibility, job creation, public safety and quality of life would show a real commitment to limited and smart government.
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.