Lawmakers have big agenda for 2012

Jan 6, 2012

Florida’s 2012 Legislative Session is just days away.  Tom Flanigan reports that this year’s gathering of lawmakers will be unique in several ways.

The first, most obvious difference is the timeframe for the session.  Instead of early March, the starting date for this session is early January.  The reason is the once-every-ten year necessity for legislative redistricting, based on the outcome of the latest U-S Census.

“You’ll see the redistricting/reapportionment issue will be addressed early on.  That’s been the plan all along from Senator Gaetz who’s the chair of our redistricting/reapportionment committee, so I think you’ll see a vote on the floor real soon.”

That’s North Florida State Senator Bill Montford, a Democrat.  He believes that the redistricting issue is likely to consume most of the legislative oxygen in both chambers, at least early on.  Lawmakers must redraw both their own election districts and the state’s congressional districts.  The job is further complicated this time by the fact that voters approved two new constitutional amendments in the 2010 election.  Those require lawmakers to redraw the district lines in a way that doesn’t favor incumbents.  Some Democrats have worried that the Republican dominated legislature might somehow find ways to bend the new district lines to the G-O-P’s advantage.  But Tallahassee Democratic Representative Michele Rehwinkel Vasilinda says there’s no evidence of that.  At least not yet.

“Our fellow members I think have really watched their Ps and Qs.  And I think that’s where the victory for the people of the state of Florida was.  Now what we’ve got to do is continue to watch and monitor and make sure that everything’s done according to Hoyle.” 

Her House colleague Alan Williams agrees.  Especially since the proposed districts are still in a state of flux.

“Toward the end of the last committee week we saw what some recommendations were that came out from committee.  We don’t know really what those were based on.  Obviously they said it was from input from citizens that came in and testified at some of these town halls that we had throughout the state of Florida.”

During the town halls, some participants expressed concern that they were commenting on district maps that had yet to be drawn.  Montford says, for all intents and purposes, those maps still don’t exist.

“That’s not to say there won’t be a lot of controversy over the districts.  There already is and we knew it would be and there will be a lot of questions once we get farther down the road in terms of exactly where the lines may be.”

All this is no arcane exercise.  How the districts are drawn will very much determine who gets to represent those districts in the years ahead.   And since so many lawmakers will soon be running, either for re-election or some other political job in those new districts, Representative Rehwinkel- Vasilinda says their attention will be very much focused on that job.

“People are cautious because of then having to go out and campaign again in districts that we don’t know what they’re going to look like.”  

Of course, the only other thing lawmakers absolutely must address during the session is the state budget for next year.  It was already expected to see a few billion dollars in cuts when, Senator Montford says, Governor Rick Scott decided to urge public school spending be increased by a billion.

“You know, I applaud the governor for recognizing the worth of and recognizing that for six years public education has been cut.  And also he recognizes the fact that a billion dollars would be good, but it’s not enough to offset the cuts that we’ve already had, but we’re appreciative of the fact that the governor has recognized that public education is important to the long-term vitality of this state and it’s the right thing to do.  So that in itself is encouraging.”

Discouraging,  Montford says, will be the task of figuring out which of the state’s existing programs that billion, plus the existing two-billion dollar shortfall, will come out of.  Then there’s the matter of how much money lawmakers will actually have to spend.  That won’t be known until early March, right before the session is scheduled to end.  Senate President Mike Haridopolos is now saying the regular session might be cut from sixty to forty days, with lawmakers returning to Tallahassee for a budget specific special session after the official revenue numbers come out.  Apparently the president didn’t share that thought with House Speaker Dean Cannon before floating the idea publicly.  Cannon said Haridopolos hadn’t discussed a shortened session with him and the House was inclined to do everything, including the budget, in the allotted sixty days.