Key issues hung in the balance as the Legislature raced toward adjournment.
Tuition for the Undocumented. With two weeks left in the legislative session, a bill to grant in-state college tuition to many undocumented Florida students appeared all but dead in the Senate. As the session drew to a close, the bill was set to become law.
What changed? First, the bill’s Senate Sponsor—Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater—found a way around Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron’s attempts to block the bill from having a hearing, allowing Latvala to bring the measure straight to the Senate floor. Second, the bill picked up endorsements from Gov. Rick Scott and former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez. Finally, an increasing number of educators have been clamoring for it.
All supporters say a college education will allow these students to make a significant contribution to the state’s economy. As a result, the measure (H.B. 851) passed the Senate on the session’s next-to-last day by a 26-13 margin. The Senate version of the bill differs in some regards from the version that passed the House earlier in the year, but it does contain some key restrictions on undocumented students receiving in-state tuition: the students must have attended a Florida high school for three consecutive years before graduation and apply for college within two years of graduation.
Additionally, an undocumented student who is granted in-state tuition is still not eligible for state financial aid. Because the bill differs from the version originally passed by the House, representatives had to vote again on the bill. They passed it, 84-32, and sent it to Scott for his signature. Reconciling the Budget. Immediately after Easter, the House and Senate began the process of reconciling their respective versions of Florida’s $75 billion budget for 2013-14. The House budget is $412 million higher than the Senate bill. The biggest difference between the two is in education, where the House provided $362 million more than the Senate. According to Florida TaxWatch, the roughly $19 billion proposed by both chambers for the Florida Education Finance System–which funds K-12 public schools–is a new record for the state.
However, the organization points out that both versions of the budget call for more than $6,900 in per-student spending, below the record $7,126 spent in 2008. Other significant differences between the two chambers is in Environment and Transportation, where the House has proposed $204 million more than the Senate and General Government, where the Senate bill calls for $111 million more than the House. Despite the differences, the Legislature reached a budget agreement before the end of the session.
Medicaid Expansion. The Florida Legislature again decided not to expand Medicaid eligibility, an option available to states under the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”). Scott supports expansion and the state Senate approved it last year, but most House Republicans are opposed because of the potential long-term financial exposure. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D) did step into the fray with a proposal to utilize local tax dollars to pay for the expansion. The proposal failed to sway the Legislature in the near-term, but some medical professionals have lauded the senator for re-opening the debate. Regardless, the state’s Medicaid costs will increase anyway. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently reported that Florida’s Medicaid enrollment grew by 8.2 percent in February, the largest jump of any state that did not expand the program.
Striking at Common Core. The Legislature has passed a bill that could weaken the controversial Common Core educational standards in the state. Sort of. The legislation, S. 864 by Sen. Alan Hayes, R-Umatilla, originally would have declared that local school boards have a constitutional duty to select the educational materials. The House revised the measure and it still allows school districts to decide whether they want to choose their own textbooks, but they now must have a public hearing first. While clearly a swipe at Common Core, the bill still requires the material selected to comply with state standards, and local boards may not have sufficient resources to review all materials. The battle against Common Core opened a second front in March, when opponents attacked the Florida Department of Education’s decision to hire the American Institute for Research (AIR) to create new accountability tests to measure students’ progress in meeting state standards. State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is standing behind AIR.
Medical Tourism. Visit Florida for the … hospitals? At least two legislators think that’s the next big wave in the state’s massive tourism industry. Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, and Rep. Patrick Rooney, R-West Palm Beach, introduced bills authorizing Enterprise Florida and the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) to spend $5 million annually for four years to promote the state’s health care system. Bean hoped to bring 100 million medical tourists to the state annually, to benefit from Florida’s health care system and also enjoy the other tourist amenities. Bean’s bill passed the Senate unanimously, but Rooney’s bill died in the House.
House Budget Vote. As expected, the fiscal détente that has prevailed in Washington has begun to erode as the November elections approach, and lawmakers already have been jockeying for post-election political advantage. A clear sign of the coming battle was the early April House vote on an FY 2015 budget resolution. The measure passed, 219-205, and the vote predictably was along party lines, with no Democrats supporting the resolution and only eight Republicans voting against it. One of those eight was newly elected Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, who said he was keeping a campaign promise to protect Medicare. Otherwise, all Super Region Republicans voted for the budget and all Democrats against.
Recess Blues. Congress took its usual two-week Easter/Passover recess, and–unable to make news in Washington–legislators worked hard to make news back home. Most of what happened during the recess were the bread-and-butter events of retail politics: town hall meetings, chamber of commerce events, parades and congratulatory tweets to local arts contest winners. There was even the ultimate recess weapon: the congressional field hearing. In this case, it was the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space, and the field hearing was in Miami on Earth Day. Citing what the subcommittee said is a five-to-eight-inch rise in coastal sea levels during the last 50 years, the hearing’s subject was climate change’s impact on Florida tourism and insurance industries. The hearing chairman? Florida’s own Sen. Nelson. All in all, a textbook congressional recess.