House, Senate duke it out today
By JIM SAUNDERS
Tallahassee Bureau Chief
TALLAHASSEE — Lobbing bills at each other across the Capitol, the Florida House and Senate enter the final full day of the legislative session scrambling to resolve major issues.
Decisions today could affect how much homeowners pay for property insurance, how much businesses pay for workers’ compensation insurance, how Florida manages growth and how the state deals with climate change.
One of the biggest questions centers on a property-insurance bill that could lead to rate increases for homeowners across the state, with much of the focus on customers of the government-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
The Senate approved a version of the bill that would limit Citizens’ rate increases to 5 percent a year, while the House would allow increases of as much as 20 percent for some policyholders.
Also involved in the politically sensitive issue are the state Office of Insurance Regulation and Gov. Charlie Crist, who has made holding down rates one of his top priorities.
"There’s a lot of energy (being) expended to try to craft a bill that the House can accept, that the Senate can accept, that OIR can live with and that the governor can sign," said Senate Banking and Insurance Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples.
The 60-day annual session was scheduled to end today. But delays in negotiating a state budget will force lawmakers to return to Tallahassee late next week to debate and vote on a spending plan.
House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said lawmakers will deal only with budget-related issues next week.
That led the House and Senate and dozens of lobbyists to work Thursday on getting bills passed — or killed — in what often resembles a game of political cat and mouse.
Some issues appeared near resolution, such as a high-profile bill that would ease state regulations on phone companies such as AT&T and Embarq.
Also, budget negotiators reached agreement on numerous issues as they work on a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
As an example, the negotiations brought good news for Stewart-Marchman-Act Behavioral Healthcare and Serenity House, which provide substance-abuse treatment programs in Volusia and Flagler counties.
Chet Bell, chief executive of Stewart-Marchman-Act, said House negotiators offered Thursday to go along with a Senate proposal to continue spending $15.2 million next year on a collection of substance-abuse programs statewide. Stewart-Marchman-Act and Serenity House rely on part of that money to help fund programs.
But Thursday was dominated by jockeying between the House and Senate over policy issues.
For instance, the Senate revamped a growth-management bill that the House approved Wednesday. The bill then went to the House, which refused to go along — and tossed the issue back to the Senate.
Similarly, the Senate made substantial changes to a House bill that would hold down workers’ compensation-insurance rates by limiting attorneys’ fees in legal disputes about benefits for injured workers. The House objected to the changes and sent the issue back to the Senate.
The Senate also tried to salvage a Crist priority that would require electric utilities to use more renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind. The House has refused to move forward with the issue throughout the session.
Trying to reach a compromise, the Senate approved a bill Thursday that would allow utilities to count nuclear power toward meeting part of the requirements.
Critics argue that contradicts the goal of using more renewable energy to combat climate change. But Senate sponsor Jim King, R-Jacksonville, defended including nuclear energy.
"We did it because that’s the only way we’re going to get an energy bill," said King, whose district includes parts of Volusia and Flagler counties.
Meanwhile, in a move that looked unlikely a week ago, the Senate took up a proposed constitutional amendment that would create an additional property-tax exemption for new homeowners.
The proposed amendment, which would go to voters in 2010, also would lower from 10 percent to 5 percent a cap on annual assessment increases for non-homestead properties such as businesses and second homes. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure today.
Senate sponsor Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said the proposal is about spurring economic growth.
– Staff Writer James Miller contributed to this report.