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Politics / Issues

Ten Big Legislative Issues at the Halfway Point

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As Florida lawmakers prepared last month to start the 60-day legislative session, 10 big issues popped out as priorities. Typically, big issues get resolved in the final weeks, days and hours of legislative sessions. But as the session hit its halfway point Wednesday, here is an update about where those 10 issues stand:

BUDGET: It's been called a chasm. As the House and Senate prepare to enter budget negotiations later this month, they are more than $4 billion apart on their spending plans. Ordinarily, this would be a good budget year, as lawmakers have a more than $1 billion surplus. But lawmakers face uncertainty about the future of a nearly $2.2 billion health-care program, known as the Low Income Pool, which is scheduled to expire at the end of June. The state is trying to negotiate an extension of the program with the federal government. But the uncertainty is causing ripples throughout the budget, including playing a major role in the divide between the House and Senate.

CHILD WELFARE: Last year, after a series of child deaths, the Legislature passed a wide-ranging law aimed at reforming Florida's child protection system. This year's session started after the shocking death of a child who was dropped off a bridge into Tampa Bay. After holding hearings, the House and Senate have moved forward with proposals that would build on the 2014 law. As an example, lawmakers are proposing a requirement that services to maltreated children be based on what is known as "trauma-informed care," a more child-centered approach. As another example, a House bill would expand the role of the state's Critical Incident Rapid Response Team, which the secretary of the Department of Children and Families can deploy in cases of child deaths.

GAMBLING: The House and Senate have long disagreed about gambling. Usually, the Senate has wanted expanded gambling, while the more-conservative House has refused to go along. But this year, the roles have been reversed. House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, proposed a sweeping plan that, in part, would allow up to two Las Vegas-style casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and allow slot machines at greyhound tracks in Palm Beach County and Southwest Florida. But Young said she doesn't even know if her plan will get a vote. The Senate, meanwhile, has negotiated with the Seminole Tribe of Florida on part of a deal that is scheduled to expire this summer. But with Senate President Andy Gardiner an adamant foe of gambling, the Senate doesn't appear willing to take up more far-reaching changes. Lawmakers, however, face pressure to reach agreement with the Seminoles. The deal involves $116 million a year the state receives for allowing the tribe exclusive rights to offer games such as blackjack at its casinos.

GUNS: Republican lawmakers have rallied behind the Second Amendment during this year's session. The GOP-controlled Legislature appears ready to approve a plan that would expand the number of people who could carry concealed weapons during emergency evacuations. The Senate has already passed the plan, which would allow lawful gun owners who don't have concealed-weapons licenses to carry firearms during such evacuations. Committees in both chambers, meanwhile, also have approved bills that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on the campuses of state colleges and universities. University-system officials oppose the campus gun bill, which is being considered after a shooting incident in November at Florida State University that left three people wounded.

HEALTH CARE: As happens every year, lawmakers are considering dozens of bills dealing with health-care issues. But all of those issues pale compared to the future of the Low Income Pool program and a Senate attempt to expand health coverage to about 800,000 low-income and uninsured people. Both the House and the Senate want to reach agreement with the federal government on an extension of the Low Income Pool, though only the Senate has included the program in its budget plan. But the Senate's proposal to use money available under the federal Affordable Care Act to expand health coverage has split the chambers. The Senate plan would use a private health-insurance system to provide the coverage, trying to draw a distinction with a straight expansion of the Medicaid program. But House Republican leaders have shown no sign that they are willing to accept billions of dollars in federal money to expand coverage.

LAND AND WATER: Lawmakers came into the session with an extra mandate on their plates. Voters in November approved a constitutional amendment requiring the Legislature to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars a year for land and water projects. Both chambers have moved forward with plans, but backers of the constitutional amendment contend lawmakers are not spending enough money on buying land for preservation. Leaders in both chambers say they are following the requirements of the constitutional amendment and that the state needs to focus on managing vast amounts of land that it already owns. Meanwhile, the House and Senate need to work out details of a water-policy plan, which is a key priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

PRISONS: Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, has spent the past few months digging into problems in the Florida Department of Corrections, making unannounced visits to prisons and taking sworn testimony during a committee meeting. That led the Senate on Wednesday to approve a wide-ranging plan aimed at cleaning up problems in the prison system, which has been rocked by investigations into inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups and complaints about poor working conditions. But the House and Senate still need to reach agreement on reforms. One major difference is that the Senate wants to create a commission that would have the power to conduct investigations at prisons. The House does not support such an idea.

STADIUMS: For an issue involving sports stadiums that regularly fill up with tens of thousands of screaming fans, things have been quiet. Very quiet. Lawmakers are faced with deciding whether to spend sales-tax dollars on projects at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Daytona International Speedway, Sun Life Stadium in Miami-Dade County and an Orlando soccer stadium. The issue could have been resolved in February, but it was pushed into the session. But so far, there have not been any visible signs of debate on the issue. That's not to say the issue won't emerge in the closing weeks. If nothing else, Gardiner, R-Orlando, has made clear he supports tax dollars for the soccer stadium in his hometown.

TAX CUTS: Gov. Rick Scott, who made cutting taxes a signature issue in his 2014 re-election campaign, rolled out an ambitious proposal early this year to slash $673 million in taxes. But the House has one-upped him. It is considering a $690 million tax-cut package. The House and Scott agree on some major cuts, such as a $470 million reduction in the communications-services tax on cell-phone bills and cable and satellite television. But the House also wants to add cuts such as trimming taxes on commercial real-estate leases. The Senate has moved some individual tax-cut bills but has not offered a major package amid the overall budget uncertainty.

TESTING: School testing was already shaping up to be a controversial issue this year. But in early March, technology problems caused widespread problems as students started taking the new Florida Standards Assessments. That has added even more fuel to a debate about whether students and teachers are overloaded with standardized tests and whether the testing system is reliable. The House and Senate have moved forward with bills to address testing issues. Proposals, for example, include eliminating an 11th-grade language arts test and barring final exams in classes for which the state or a local school district has end-of-course tests. But lawmakers are facing pressure to take more-dramatic steps, amid questions about the validity of the testing system.

News Service reporters Margie Menzel and Jim Turner contributed to this report.