Guest column by Shawn Harrison
The Florida Legislature is in session. The Florida Constitution requires the state legislature to meet once per year for 60 days. The only constitutional requirement each year is the passage of a state budget. Everything else that happens is just gravy, or spoiled milk, depending upon your viewpoint.
Like the Federal Congress, the State Legislature is divided into two houses. The Florida Senate is comprised of 40 Senators, representing roughly 600,000 people each, serving staggered 4-year terms. New Tampa is represented by Dist. 24 Sen. Tom Lee in the State Senate.
The State House is comprised of 120 members representing roughly 160,000 constituents each, while serving only two-year terms that are not staggered. New Tampa is represented by Dist. 63 Rep. Mark Danish in the State House.
The good news for 2013 is that instead of the record $4-billion budget shortfall in 2011 and a $1 billion shortfall in 2012, it appears that there will actually be a small surplus in the State budget this year. Painful cuts, which were a regular part of life in the past few years, are no longer necessary, thanks to the requirement in the Florida Constitution of a balanced state budget. If only the U.S. government had to balance its books annually, too!
In Florida, each House and the Governor create their own budgets. So, the legislative session starts with three competing, and often very diverse, budget proposals, with ideas about where to cut and where to increase spending, what programs to grow and shrink, and what to do with any surplus often being quite different.
Each legislative chamber’s budget reflects the priorities of the leaders of that chamber. The Senate President is Don Gaetz, from Okaloosa County in the panhandle. The House Speaker is Will Weatherford, from right here in Wesley Chapel. Both are Republicans, but each has his own set of priorities, as does Gov. Rick Scott. The budget process takes all session and often requires the extension of the session in what is called a “special session,” since the Florida Constitution forbids the annual session from “exceeding 60 days.”
All other bills that pass the House and Senate must be identical to each other, and must either be signed by the Governor or allowed to become law without his signature. Gov. Scott can veto bills, just like the U.S. President, although when it comes to the budget, the Florida Governor can exercise a line item veto and strike certain expenditures or cuts from the budget agreed to by the House and Senate. This is not possible at the national level.
Battle Over ‘ObamaCare’
In 2013, the budget process will focus on the state’s implementation of the Affordable Care Implementation Act, or “Obama Care,” as it is known. The Act requires the expansion of Medicaid roles, and there is a battle brewing now in Tallahassee between the Governor and the House about expanding the Medicaid program, with Gov. Scott — despite his earlier promise to never implement the Act — now favoring the idea, and the House, led by Speaker Weatherford, against it.
Look for this to be a hotly contested issue as the session progresses. There is always horse trading between the chambers on their priorities, so it is likely the Medicaid problem will be a last minute negotiated agreement.
Other bills that have garnered attention so far are elections reform and ethics reform. Multiple bills have been filed on these topics, but they are priorities for both chambers and for the Governor, so passage of both reforms are likely.
And, in addition to the priorities of the House and Senate leaders, members also may file their own bills. In the Senate, each Senator can file an unlimited number of bills. In the House, each member gets only six, so House members must be cautious about the bills they file, and often you can tell much about the priorities of House members by the bills they file. It’s hard to pass a bill in the Florida Legislature, and even more rare to get identical bills passed by the House and Senate and then signed by the Governor. In 2012 there were 2,052 bills filed in the legislature, and only 280 that actually became law.
Depending upon your point of view, that may be a good or bad thing.
Former Dist. 60 State Rep. Shawn Harrison served as the chairman of the Tampa Palms Community Development District (1996-98), on the Tampa City Council (1999-2007) and the Florida House (2010-12). He was a shareholder in the Tampa firm of Wetherington, Hamilton, & Harrison, P.A., but now practices in the areas of commercial litigation, health care law and government relations at Shawn Harrison Associates (1010 N. Florida Ave.). For additional information, call 337-6683 or visit ShawnHarrisonAssociates.com.