House divides over education, healthcare lawsuit, but calls a truce for Jefferson Correctional

Feb 8, 2012

Wednesday’s  Florida House Session was a marathon.  Tom Flanigan reports members kicked things off promptly at a quarter-til-eleven in the morning and were scheduled to plow through the budget process until seven in the evening.

There was a palpable sense of urgency in the Florida House of Representatives today:

“We are officially today at the halftime point of our sixty-day session.  And last week we passed the redistricting bills and today we’ll begin consideration of the second of our two constitutional duties, which is to pass a balanced budget.”

Speaker Dean Cannon pointing out to his members that there were more than thirty bills awaiting attention on the day’s calendar.  Those included such things as trust fund bills, conforming bills, budget implementing bills and lastly the General Appropriations Act.  That’s the humongous document that lays out the actual state spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.  But there were still plenty of opportunities for House members to wrangle over things only distantly related to the budget.  One such measure included an amendment by Sanford Republican Jason Brodeur:

“This amendment adds transparency to the school district budgeting practices and ensures proper management of the funding provided to the school districts by the state and that is the amendment, Mr. Speaker.”

The measure would let the legislature call county school superintendents on the carpet for fiscal mismanagement.  That would happen in the event a superintendent griped about declining school funding, called for a local sales tax hike to make up the shortfall and then closed schools anyway.  Turns out the only place that has happened lately was in Seminole County.   Republicans backed the bill.  Democrats, like Palm Beach’s Mark Pafford, called it a political hissy-fit.

“It is an emotional, upsetting thing to do.  But you know, hey.  That’s the reality in the state of Florida.  We’re going to start closing schools because of lack of attention to public funding.”

Brodeur’s amendment survived and the bill it’s now attached to is headed for a final House vote.   Then there was the higher education bill by Marlene O’Toole, Republican from The Villages.  It would expand Florida’s on-line university offerings and cap administrators’ pay amongst other things.  Which led to this exchange between Parkland Democrat Marty Kiar and Representative O’Toole:

Kiar:  “Representative O’Toole, my question concerns Bright Futures Scholarships and I’m just wondering if this bill passes, won’t it mean that less students will be able to receive the Bright Futures Scholarships to get a higher education?”

 (Speaker)  “Representative O’Toole.

O'Toole:  “It could.”

Lively debate also erupted over competing amendments to fund and simultaneously de-fund, Florida’s lawsuit against the federal Affordable Care Act.  But there was that rare instance in which every member feels the same way about a particular matter.  That involved the future of  Jefferson County’s state prison.  The Department of Corrections had targeted it for closure come the first of July.  Greenville Democrat Leonard Bembry said that would devastate the rural community.

“I realize that we have to close some prisons.  We have too many prison beds.  But you know it’s the human cost of what it is going to be in Jefferson County is going to be unbearable for the people there.”

Fearful county residents had packed the Capitol halls, buttonholing any lawmakers who would listen to their plight.  Sebring Republican Denise Grimsley crafted an amendment to save the prison.  At least for a year.

“I am sure there are many right reasons to do this.  But I must tell you that sometimes, despite all the analysis, despite all the spreadsheets, there is a fundamental awareness that this body should do what is right.”

And so the Grimsley amendment, funding Jefferson County’s prison for one more year, passed the House without a single “no” vote.    After all is said and done, she says the House budget isn’t a great deal different from last year’s.

“Compared to the 2011-12 budget, it is down $168.5 million, or 0.2-percent, meaning essentially this budget is flat from last year.”

A final House vote on the budget should come next week.  Meanwhile, the Senate’s version of the budget is still being drawn up.