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Friday, Aug 01, 2014
Politics

Lawmakers show Libertarian bent in election-year session


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or at least the ones with the strongest backers

One thing to bear in mind: No bill passed by the Legislature becomes law until Gov. Rick Scott signs it.

♦ Tax and fee cuts: It’ll be cheaper to register your vehicle under legislation already approved by Scott.

Before the session, he rolled out his “It’s Your Money Tax Cut Agenda,” promising $500 million in cuts, and went on tour around the state.

The reduction of auto fees comprised the lion’s share of his requested cuts. They were jacked up in 2009 to help narrow what was then a multibillion-dollar budget gap.

The average driver should see savings of $20 to $25 per vehicle. It goes into effect on Sept. 1.

Other reductions include sales-tax holidays on hurricane-preparedness and back-to-school supplies, and on energy-saving appliances.

♦ Flood insurance: It took them way more than 15 minutes, but lawmakers passed a measure that could save you hundreds – even thousands – on your flood insurance.

They approved a bill (SB 542) encouraging more private insurers to offer flood coverage in the state. It would, however, require homeowners to cover the full replacement cost of their homes.

Six admitted carriers, insurers regulated by the state, are eligible to write residential flood insurance in Florida. Supporters have been crossing their fingers that private insurers will be less expensive for Floridians than the National Flood Insurance Program, which is backed by the federal government. Florida comprises 37 percent of the program’s customers nationwide.

Pressure on homeowners has decreased, though, since Congress agreed to hold off rate hikes on National Flood Insurance Program policyholders.

♦ Civil Service Board: Depending on whom you listen to, it may get easier or more difficult to get a local government job in Hillsborough County now.

The Legislature passed a bill (HB 683) that affects the county’s Civil Service Board, which acts as a combined human resources department for the constitutionally elected officers, including the county commission, clerk of court and sheriff.

They complained that the organization is slow and cumbersome in hiring new employees.

The measure allows the 21 county agencies covered by the board to opt out of their services, which most – if not all – are expected to do. Those agencies would be allowed to conduct human-resource services now done by the board, such as recruitment and testing.

The idea behind the board’s creation in the 1950s was to insulate hiring and firing from politics.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, opposed the measure. She said she now fears that applicants will be hired based on loyalty and “who they know” rather than qualifications.

♦ Speed limits: Drivers may be able to travel 5 mph faster on some state highways under legislation that allows higher speed limits.

That bill (SB 392), co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, passed on the closest vote of the legislative session, 58-56 in the House.

Members of both parties argued that faster leads to disaster, meaning more traffic injuries and deaths.

The bill doesn’t mandate upping speed limits; rather, any increase on a given stretch of highway would occur only if state traffic engineers determine the roadway is safe enough for a higher speed.

Current law allows for 70 mph on interstates, 65 mph for highways with a divided median and 60 mph on certain other roadways, including rural highways. Under the bill, all of these limits could be raised by 5 mph.

Some critics said proponents never articulated a clear reason of the need for higher speeds, though some lawmakers joked in debate they might vote for anything that lets them get to Tallahassee faster.

♦ Government transparency: Getting information from your state government will be tougher.

Lawmakers passed a plethora of exceptions to Florida’s open government or “sunshine” laws, considered the best in the nation.

“I’m fairly sure we’ve set a new record as to the number of new exemptions, eclipsing the total number created during the five special sessions and the one regular session immediately following Sept. 11, 2001,” said Barbara Petersen, president of The First Amendment Foundation, an open government watchdog.

Though most of the new exemptions are limited in time or scope, “the sheer number is alarming,” she said.

The new ones include allowing university direct-support organizations, like the University of South Florida Research Foundation, to close meetings to the public when discussing funding requests (HB 115).

♦ Florida G.I. Bill: National Guard members and veterans returning to civilian life in Florida will get a break on college tuition.

Early in the legislative session, lawmakers passed and Gov. Scott later signed the Florida G.I. Bill (HB 7015), creating the “Congressman C. W. Bill Young Veteran Tuition Waiver Program,” which requires a state university or college to waive out-of-state charges for honorably discharged veterans returning to or resettling in the state.

Young, the longest-serving Republican member of Congress when he died last year, represented Pinellas County and was a staunch supporter of the military.

Veterans going back to school have been paying out-of-state tuition; universities generally require 12 months of residency for in-state tuition. The bill just requires veterans to be Florida residents when they apply.

The savings are substantial. For example, the University of South Florida’s out-of-state full-time undergraduate cost is $19,664 per academic year, compared with a cost of about $6,409 for in-state students, records show.

Florida is home to more than 1.5 million veterans, the third-largest population behind California and Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

♦ Springs funding: Lawmakers agreed on $30 million toward restoring the state’s springs, a figure advocates bemoaned because Scott had requested $55 million.

And a Senate plan died that would have provided more than $300 million a year for springs-related projects.

The state’s springs have long suffered from fertilizer runoff and septic tank and other pollution.

“Geologists estimate that there are more than 900 springs in Florida, possibly the largest concentration of freshwater springs on Earth,” according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Many springs are in the Tampa Bay area, including those in Lithia Springs County Park and Eureka Springs Park.

A constitutional amendment slated for this year’s ballot would require the state to sock away money to conserve land and other natural resources and help restore the Everglades.

♦ New license plates: You soon may have three more specialty license plates to choose from.

Lawmakers, ignoring their own self-imposed moratorium on new tags from 2008, decided to add to Florida’s panoply of specialty plates.

A bill (SB 132) OK’d plates to benefit Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center, Keiser University and fallen law enforcement officers.

More than 137,000 specialty tags were sold and 1.2 million were renewed last year, creating revenue of nearly $34 million, according to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The money goes to charities for their causes.

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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