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Work remains on joint 'work plan' as items stumble in Senate

The best laid plans of legislative leaders can often go awry, but many of the items in the joint “Work Plan Florida 2014” from House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, are on track or have already been accomplished.

But other big-ticket items on the work plan have stumbled and face an uncertain future in the session’s final fortnight, as both chambers jockey for negotiating position on priority bills and favored budget items.

Gov. Rick Scott has already signed into law legislation aimed at cracking down on sex offenders (SB 522, SB 524, SB 526, SB 528) and increasing scholarships for veterans and active duty military members (HB 7015). He has also signed a $395 million reduction in vehicle registration fees (SB 156), and House and Senate members will wrangle over plans to cut another $105 million to meet Scott’s goal of $500 million in tax relief.

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Other parts of the work plan – to keep tuition costs low, halt cost increases for the Florida Prepaid College Board, expand Career and Professional Education certifications, implement performance funding for universities – are either on track to pass or are part of budget negotiations between the House and Senate.

The joint statement of priorities issued before the start of session is a far cry from the typical horse trading between legislative leaders in the House and Senate, but the ‘Kumbaya’ session has a few wrinkles in its final two weeks.

Weatherford’s priorities of an expansion of the voucher program, the Tax Credit Scholarship Program providing state funds for qualifying low-income students, and moving to a defined contribution pension system for most new state workers have stalled in the Senate, where they face fierce resistance. This year's House version (HB 7173) contains exceptions aimed at garnering the needed Senate support, such as reducing the employee contributions to the pension system for new workers who choose the defined contribution option and allowing non-management hires to opt out of defined contribution system.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who helped kill the pension bill last year, has been more amenable to a possible compromise this year, but other senators remain staunchly opposed. Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, said it would be “snowing in Miami” before the pension bill passed. The Senate version (SB 1114) allowing special-risk employees to opt out of the defined contribution plan will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee next week.

Gaetz has stated he’s in favor of expanding the voucher program, but wants to include accountability measures to require private schools receiving public funding to issue the same state tests required of public schools. Weatherford has said he’s against making private school students take state-required tests. The Senate version of the bill (SB 1620) was withdrawn by its sponsor, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, but it has been inserted into a separate House bill (HB 7167), giving it new life.

The same day Galvano pulled the bill, another work plan measure, SB 928, consolidating the governance of most agencies’ information technology functions, was postponed on the Senate floor. The House version, HB 7073, was passed unanimously early in the session.

Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta said he still wants to work out compromises with Weatherford but noted the accountability provision was part of the work plan priority of expanding the voucher program.

“The President was clear from the onset that he would strongly support expanding the program if the House and Senate could agree to add accountability measures. He’s hopeful that agreement can be reached on that issue and looks forward to continuing to work with Speaker Weatherford on their joint priorities as well as other issues that are important to the Speaker,” Betta stated in an email.

Yet the Senate contains more obstacles for another Weatherford priority that isn’t part of the joint work plan: in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. The House already passed HB 851, but Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, announced Thursday he would not consider the Senate version, SB 1400, when his panel meets next week, placing the bill’s chances of passing in serious jeopardy.

Latvala, the sponsor of SB 1400, which offers in-state tuition rates to undocumented Florida residents who have applied for citizenship, is locked in a battle with Negron for the Senate Presidency after the 2016 elections.

Weatherford is nonetheless hopeful the bill will make it to Scott’s desk in the remaining weeks.

“There are a lot of folks praying for these kids.  Two weeks is a long time and I remain optimistic,” Weatherford stated.

Workplan Issue

Status - 2 Weeks from Sine Die

No state tuition increase

No hike in House or Senate budget

Reduce tuition differential

In budget talks

Expand voucher program

House passed; In Senate messages

Stop cost increase for Florida Prepaid College Board

In budget talks

Implement performance funding for universities

In budget talks

Expand CAPE certifications

On Senate floor; House version ready for floor

Expand GI bill for vets, active military members

Signed by Gov. Scott

Increase sentencing, monitoring for sex offenders

Signed by Gov. Scott

$500 million tax cut

$395 million vehicle fee cut signed by Gov. Scott; $105 million cut part of budget talks

Change pension system to 401k-style plan for most new workers

On House floor; in Senate Appropriations Committee

IT consolidation

Passed by House; postponed on Senate floor

Start lobbyist compensation audits

Set to start in 2015

Clarify lawmakers’ residency requirements

New rules adopted in both chambers

Tighten ethics laws for public officials

Passed by Senate; stalled in House


Related Research: Jan. 29, 2014 Press release, "President Gaetz and Speaker Weatherford Announce Work Plan Florida 2014"

Reporter Gray Rohrer can be reached at grohrer@thefloridacurrent.com.

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