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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014
Politics

Legislature reviewed at its halfway point


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Florida lawmakers have crossed the midpoint in their 60-day march to craft new laws, amend existing ones and agree on a roughly $75 billion budget for the next fiscal year.

Here’s a look at where major issues stand as lawmakers head toward the homestretch of the 2014 session:

Child welfare. In response to media reports about a series of child deaths last year, lawmakers have crafted a sprawling proposal that attempts to address a number of areas in the child-welfare system, from upgrading the education of child-protective investigators to keeping siblings together when possible to expanding the transparency of state and privatized agencies. The House and Senate bills aren’t far apart, but senators are working on several provisions. The heart of the matter is funding, though, and the final numbers are still in flux.

Dreamers’ tuition. The Republican-dominated Legislature has handed Scott what some see as a dilemma and others see as an election-year gift — a measure that would allow illegal immigrants to pay cheaper, in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities if they meet certain requirements. The House has approved the proposal, a top priority of Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. The bill also includes a sweetener for Scott: a reduction of the “tuition differential” that allows universities to hike tuition by up to 15 percent annually without legislative approval. The Senate version of the bill has started moving through committees.

Gambling. After months of discussion, lawmakers won’t move forward with an expansion of gambling, such as proposals to allow resort casinos in South Florida. That will remain the case until Scott completes negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida about a portion of a 20-year gambling deal that will expire in mid-2015.

Health. Many of the major health care issues pit different parts of the industry against each other. For example, hospitals are in a lobbying fight about bills dealing with the approval of new trauma centers. Lawmakers have waded into the issue after nearly three years of litigation that focuses on trauma centers the Department of Health approved at Blake Medical Center in Manatee County, Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Pasco County and Ocala Regional Medical Center in Marion County. Also unresolved are closely watched issues about granting more powers to advanced registered nurse practitioners and expanding the use of telemedicine in Florida. Supporters say those proposals could help expand access to care, but physician groups oppose more authority for nurse practitioners and also are worried about out-of-state doctors using telemedicine to provide treatment to Floridians.

Marijuana. GOP leaders in both chambers are backing proposals that would make available a strain of cannabis that is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component in marijuana, but high in the derivative cannabidiol, or CBD. The effort is being pushed by parents who say the substance dramatically reduces life-threatening seizures in children who suffer from a rare form of epilepsy. It also comes as a proposed constitutional amendment will go before voters in the fall that would legalize medical marijuana in the state. Details of the House and Senate bills differ about how to address the low-THC, high-CBD strain of marijuana. House sponsor Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, is trying to work a deal out with the Senate, and House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he will hear the bill but has not determined when.

Public schools. The House has spent much of the first half of the session pushing for more school choice, from a sweeping expansion of a voucher program to a measure meant to help charter schools get started and expand.

But the Senate has proved to be an obstacle. The upper chamber pulled its version of the voucher expansion less than a month into the session. The House responded by tacking the language onto a bill that would help parents pay for the services of children with disabilities, but the Senate seems to be resisting that. And the charter school bill was essentially gutted by a Senate committee at its most recent stop. Lawmakers are expected to approve a bill streamlining the state’s school-grading system and suspending penalties for bad grades for a year. Some education groups have pushed for a longer transition period after a new test is introduced in the 2014-15 school year, but Republican members, in particular, haven’t shown willingness to extend it.

Transportation. Senate Transportation Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, drew widespread attention when they called for repealing the state’s red-light camera law. But that idea appears dead, though lawmakers could put some more restrictions on local governments that use the cameras.

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