FYI April 2014

Lawmakers will take next week off for the Easter and Passover holidays, pressing all budget negotiations and talks over differing legislation between the House and Senate into the cauldron of the last two weeks of the legislative session.

The key to those discussions will be House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has the more ambitious agenda for the final two weeks than his counterpart, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Weatherford is pushing legislation to provide in-state tuition rates to undocumented Florida students, expand a voucher program which provides state money for private school scholarships and move Florida’s pension system to a defined benefit system for most new hires. Those bills face some level of opposition in the Senate, where they have struggled to move as swiftly as they did in the House.

“I’m going to let those work out over there. I trust the Senate President and members of the Senate to do the right thing,” Weatherford said.Compared to recent years, there are fewer bills moving through the Legislature this year, and although Senate members have legislation they want to see make it into law, none carry the high-priority status Weatherford has placed on his preferred bills.

Gaetz noted an expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program is part of the “joint work plan” with Weatherford (the Legislature already passed “work plan” bills to give scholarships to veterans and active duty military members and increase sentencing penalties for sex offenders), but said that expansion must come with more accountability and testing for private schools receiving public funds.

The House passed HB 7167 Friday without the testing requirements. Weatherford said he doesn’t want private schools to be forced to take state tests, but noted the Senate now has the chance to amend the bill and send it back to the House.

Weatherford was hopeful the in-state tuition bill – Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, sponsor of the Senate version, SB 1400, said Friday he had 21 co-sponsors for the bill in that chamber – would pass the Senate.

He also thinks the House’s latest move (HB 7173) to push new senior management hires in state government into a defined benefit pension system and trim employee contributions to the system for new workers who choose the defined benefit option would pass the Senate if given the chance.

“I think it’s the one that has the most likely opportunity from passing the Senate. It creates $26 billion in savings, long-term, for the pension fund while at the same time protecting the people who are currently in the pension system. I think it’s a great compromise. I believe the votes should be there in the senate,” Weatherford said.

Because the discussions of Weatherford’s remaining bills will be taking place at the same time as budget negotiations, the talks could very well bleed into each other. But the Senate isn’t necessarily in a horse-swapping mood.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, in line to become Senate President after the November elections, recognized that HB 7167 combines the school voucher expansion with his preference for changing how special high school diplomas for students with disabilities are doled out. But he said he’s still pushing for the testing requirement on the voucher expansion and won’t “lose sleep” over it.

“It’s obviously on my bill that deals with a special diploma and some things like that. My commitment is to what the President’s talking about, is the accountability piece of the scholarships and if there can be some understanding as to what the accountability would be from a testing standpoint we might be able to work it out.

“But I’m ready to walk away from whatever. You just can’t lose sleep over things. You roll out ideas and if it doesn’t work you come back next year. That’s kind of how I look at it,” Gardiner said.

With no meetings scheduled in either chamber next week, bills still needing to get through committees have a slim chance of reaching the floor. Senate Rules Committee chairman Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said he hasn’t been receiving an overabundance of “blue cards” – requests from members to draw bills from their remaining committees. Weatherford, speaking about a proposal to drop race requirements for greyhound tracks to run poker rooms, said bills that haven’t been heard in committee are unlikely to pass.

The pressured timeline and the relatively low amount of bills moving through the process are pushing lobbyists and lawmakers to search for “vehicles” that are moving through one chamber or another to insert stalled bills, creating “trains”.

“There’s probably less bills moving and people are pretty savvy and when they see a statute open up they amend it. I do it all the time. That’s just part of it,” Gardiner said.

Omnibus measures dealing with insurance (HB 565), transportation (SB 1272), and health care (HB 7113) are being loaded up. But that strategy can backfire when bills get amended and bounce between chambers.

“I’ve done the transportation package 10 times, and it makes it across the line maybe twice. It just gets so heavy it just doesn’t make it,” Gardiner said.

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