Budget Looms Large in Legislature’s Final Week
THE FINAL WEEK
By Lloyd Dunkelberger
LEDGER TALLAHASSEE BUREAU
Published: Monday, April 27, 2009 at 9:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 27, 2009 at 9:22 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE | Although lawmakers will not finish the state budget this week, Floridians could be impacted by some critical issues still in play in the 2009 Legislature, ranging from a tuition increase for state universities to new efforts to revive the state’s troubled property insurance market.
As lawmakers head toward their Friday deadline, it is not unusual to have many of the session’s major issues unsettled.
What is unusual this year is approaching the deadline without any signs that the House and Senate can settle the $65 billion state budget – the one bill lawmakers must pass each year.
The budget deadlock will force an overtime session – either an extension of the 60-day session or a special session in the next few weeks.
Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said legislative leaders are "making progress" on the budget negotiations but would have to hold an overtime session because they could not meet the 72-hour deadline for printing a budget before taking a final vote Friday.
"First you have to agree on how much revenue you decide you’re going to have to spend and how much reductions you’re willing to make," Cannon said. "Once they reach those conclusions, we’ll see where we’re at and then make the determination on how to do them."
The budget negotiations are in the hands of House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.
And the unsettled budget will likely pull a few related bills along with it, including the Senate proposal to raise the state cigarette tax by $1 a pack and Gov. Charlie Crist’s proposal to reach a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe in exchange for $100 million or more a year.
But again it will be up to the legislative leaders to decide which issues will remain alive in an extended session or special session – if they cannot reach an agreement on the bills before Friday’s deadline.
Atwater said Monday evening he was inclined to extend the session, although no decisions have been made on what other issues may be included.
Some issues appear likely to be settled this week.
Atwater said the Senate would not take up the House’s plan for the expansion of oil drilling as close as three miles from Florida’s beaches.
The Senate on Monday did back a bill to allow the 11 state universities to increase their tuition by as much as 15 percent a year, until they reach the national average for tuition.
Five universities, including the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida State University, already have that ability, with the bill extending the power to the remaining six.
The House is expected to endorse the tuition plan, which has the backing of Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
One of biggest unsettled issues is property insurance.
With a new hurricane season a little more than a month away, lawmakers are moving legislation that would allow Citizens Property Insurance to increase its rates, which have been frozen since 2007.
But the Senate on Monday decided to cap the increase at 5 percent a year, while the House would let some policies rise as much as 20 percent.
The bills also allow the state to scale back the $28 billion hurricane catastrophe fund.
Another property insurance bill, which would let the larger companies offer policies free from much of the state’s normal rate regulation, is running into opposition.
Proponents say the bill could help attract more private insurance companies to the state and could possibly help State Farm reverse its decision to leave the property market.