Tuesday, 16 March 2010 11:57

Update from Tallahassee: Legislative Session 2010 Week Two

Written by  Greg Giordano
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Florida State SealThe second week of the sixty-day legislative session began and concluded without the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the opening of the annual meeting of the Florida House and Senate.  Instead, this week dealt with the nuts and  bolts of lawmaking and the slow but organized building of the state budget.  The legislature’s only duty enumerated in the Florida Constitution is to pass the  budget that runs the state’s government.  The process, which is hosted this year by the House of Representatives (each year the hosting alternates between the two chambers) was underway at one of the fastest passes in recent memory.  Although it is far too soon to project how the budget making process will end, it is the top priority of the two bodies to deal with an estimated $2.6 billion dollar shortfall as compared to the previous fiscal year.  It will be a challenge to plug this enormous budget hole because, unlike the federal government, Florida is constitutionally required to produce a balanced budget each year.  No red ink is allowed when the final product is sent to the governor for his signature.

In addition to the budget other issues of major importance have taken place this week  With so much of the state’s budget dedicated to funding Florida’s education system, the success of Florida’s students have long been one of the most important issues addressed by the legislature.  In the past state funds have been directed towards building schools, reducing the size of classrooms and standardizing the testing of studentsSenate Bill 6, sponsored by Senator John Thrasher of Jacksonville, takes education reform in a new direction.  The bill has the potential to change the way in which public school teachers are evaluated and compensated.  The legislation is based on the premise that the evaluation of a teacher’s effectiveness should be measured by the success of their students.  In 2009, 99.7% of Florida teachers received at least a “satisfactory” evaluation.  However, 60% of high school students, 40% of middle school students, and 30% of elementary school students could not read on grade level.  The proposed bill will change the teacher evaluation process to require that 50% of the teacher’s periodic evaluation be based on how well their students are succeeding.  Additionally, this innovative proposal, based on many merit-based compensation models, requires that the other half of a teachers’ paycheck be based on how much their students level of learning proceeds throughout the school year.  This will give teachers the opportunity to earn more dollars than they can under existing teacher-pay systems.  Senate  Bill 6 passed the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee this week on its through the committee process. 

Last week Senator Mike Fasano of New Port Richey passed his Senate Bill 1034, which reforms the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC), out of the Senate and sent it to the House for its consideration.  Representative John Legg, also of New Port Richey, is carrying the companion measure, House Bill 565 in that chamber.  Since the session began a workshop was held in the House in which many utility related bills were discussed.  House 565, like its Senate companion, will bring accountability and transparency to the way in which the PSC is run.  A top priority of both Senator Fasano and Representative Legg is to clean-up practices that have been well publicized in which cozy relationships have existed between the PSC  and the utilities it regulates (i.e. prohibited communications between commission staff, commissioners and utility companies).  The bill will require that all communications made between the PSC and the entities it regulates to be fully open for public scrutiny.  Additionally, the bill imposes significant penalties on both commissioners and their staff and regulated entities who engage in certain prohibited acts.  Removal from office is the ultimate penalty that could be imposed upon a commissioner.  A fine of 1/10th of one percent of an entity’s annual operating revenue may be assessed on a utility found to have violated these prohibitions.  Representative Legg is working hard to ensure that these reforms sent to the House by Senator Fasano  will ultimately become law.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee released Senate Bill 880 this week which makes major reforms to election financing laws in Florida. In an era in which campaign funding is suspect, this legislation will bring a greater level of transparency to the process.  Republican and Democrat leaders currently raise funds for the various election seasons but those funds are co-mingled in the respective party’s coffers.  Sponsored by Senator J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, the legislation requires the creation of Affiliated Party Committees (APCs).  The monies collected for the APCs will be available for the general public to view online so that everyone can see from whom legislative leaders collect contributions and subsequently how those funds are spent.  The bill continues its travels through the committee process.

With seven weeks to go the Florida Legislature is poised to pass out a lean state budget, send more good public policy bills go the governor, and hopeful impact the lives of Floridians in a positive way.  Week Three will see more bills make their way their way closer to the governor’s desk.

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