Florida legislators leave big decisions for last
Gambling, insurance, tax still to be resolved
By Josh Hafenbrack and Aaron Deslatte
The state Legislature enters the final countdown to its 60-day regular legislative session with precious few of the big-dollar decisions — from taxes and fees to homeowner insurance — resolved.
And unless lawmakers break the ice in budget talks, those issues could remain unresolved when the clock runs out Friday and the Legislature is constitutionally forced into a $40,000-a-day special session to get the budget passed.
The unfinished business includes:
The two houses have passed vastly different gambling packages centered on what games should be allowed at Indian casinos, including the Hard Rock in Hollywood.
The House proposal would shut down blackjack tables at Seminole resorts, limiting the tribe to slot machines. The Senate wants to turn Florida into a tourist mecca for gambling, with full casinos at Indian resorts and blackjack games at dog and horse tracks in South Florida.
Gov. Charlie Crist threw a wrinkle into the debate by proposing the state take a $1.1 billion, two-year loan from the Seminoles in exchange for the statewide rights to blackjack.
At stake: billions of dollars for public education and the survival of Florida’s gambling sector, as well as dependent businesses like thoroughbred breeding.
Both the House and Senate have proposed rate increases for the more than 1 million coastal homeowners who have to buy their insurance coverage through the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
The House plan would allow rates to go up 20 percent per policy, while the Senate’s bill is capped at 10 percent annual increases.
The two chambers also are considering a deregulation proposal that lets major insurers raise rates without state approval. This proposal is an attempt to make Florida more attractive to private insurers but would roll back the reforms of the past two years.
At stake: For Citizens customers, prepare for premium increases of 10 percent to 20 percent.
Rep. Dean Cannon, R- Winter Park, shocked environmentalists last week when he unveiled a plan to potentially open the door to drillers to plant rigs closer to Florida beaches. The governor and Cabinet would have to approve leasing the areas within 10 miles of Florida shores.
The Senate hasn’t even given the idea a hearing, but there could be a move to tie the oil-drilling proposal to an environment-friendly bill requiring utilities to develop more renewable energy options.
At stake: oil rigs off the coasts, environmental lands, energy use in Florida and beyond.
Crist and the House are pushing a break for first-time home buyers that would give them an upfront property tax exemption worth 50 percent of a home’s value. The measure, which would require a 2010 ballot amendment, is designed to lure renters into the housing market.
The House also is likely to pass property-tax measures that would cap all property taxes at 1.35 percent of a home’s value and ensure that property tax bills don’t increase in a declining market because of a quirk in Save Our Homes.
But the Senate is reluctant to pass more property-tax overhauls that could affect local government operations in a time of economic turmoil.
At stake: millions in property taxes, Florida’s massive backlog of unsold homes, local government services such as schools and police.
South Florida’s 72-mile commuter train system is seeking a $2 charge on rental cars in South Florida to keep the public transportation system afloat.
A Senate plan calls for imposing the $2-a-day charge on car rentals until 2010, when voters in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties would have to approve the tax. But some South Florida Democrats say this might create too much uncertainty. They want to do the rental tax without a referendum.
At stake: South Florida’s 20-year-old train system, which has reached a daily ridership peak but is in financial straits.
Telecommunications giants, led by AT&T, are trying to deregulate phone service in Florida. The bill would allow landline companies to raise rates 10 percent a year without state oversight.
A key is Crist, who has issued veiled veto threats. Unless he indicates support, the phone deregulation bill might not come up for a vote.
At stake: phone rates for landline companies, which are trying to compete with unregulated Internet phone providers such as Vonage.
Josh Hafenbrack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-224-6214.