Tallahassee; Week In Review

florida-capitol2-324x243By Tom Tillison
Orlando Political Press

A look at some of the news and happenings coming out of Tallahassee this past week, courtesy of the News Service of Florida.

Florida’s Medicaid costs look likely to grow by at least $300 million – on top of a $2 billion increase already looming next year, state analysts said Friday.  It’s uncertain what share of the state-federal program Florida lawmakers will have to meet with cash from tax collections. 

The rise in cost is attributed to rising enrollment and a change in the level of federal contribution to the program. Medicaid is on track next year to demand almost $22 billion of the state’s $70 billion-plus budget.

 The rising cost of health care for low-income Floridians is also fueling a state budget shortfall that Baker this week said could top $3 billion.  The increasing costs also are certain to add momentum to the Legislature’s efforts to overhaul the Medicaid program.

Florida employers initially expected that the state’s minimum unemployment rate would climb from $25 to around $44 per-worker. But last month, state officials said the 2011 rate would be $72.10, nearly tripling current bills. In addition to the new rate, a June payment of $9.51 per-employee will be demanded of businesses to cover $61.4 million in interest owed the federal government, which has loaned the state $1.8 billion so far to pay benefits.

Dominic Calabro, Florida TaxWatch president, said business groups would push lawmakers to cover at least the $61.4 million with state dollars – despite a budget shortfall expected to top $3 billion. Lawmakers earlier this year bailed out employers then facing a sharp hike in 2010 unemployment compensation rates. Avoiding the big increase was done primarily by delaying the anticipated rate hike and borrowing more from the federal government.

nsfGov.-elect Rick Scott said he was happy the federal government gave Florida another $342 million for the proposed Tampa-Orlando high speed rail, which put the state within reach of almost fully funding the long-sought project with federal dollars.

But Scott, who has said he did not think the state should contribute anything to the train, still did not commit to supporting its construction. “I’m pleased that the federal government recognizes that sound infrastructure is key to Florida’s economic growth,” Scott said in a statement. “I look forward to reviewing the feasibility of this project in terms of return to Florida’s taxpayers.  I’m also interested in understanding the private sector’s interest in funding this infrastructure project.”

Florida will go to court to challenge tougher federal water standards slated to kick in next year, the state’s top legal and agricultural officials said as they filed suit in federal court in Pensacola to block a controversial set of clean water standards they contend are inflexible and unworkable.

In the same court that is considering the state’s challenge to the federal health care reform, Florida’s Attorney General Bill McCollum, Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson and their successors filed the lawsuit over federal water pollution standards that set specific numeric caps on pollutant levels for Florida lakes and rivers. The standards were announced last month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Incoming Attorney General Pam Bondi and Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam have joined the challenge of the EPA’s water standards in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Pensacola, a sign they intend to continue the fight against the federal standards that have been uniformly criticized by state leaders from both sides of the political aisle.

The Florida House has begun exploring steps giving the Legislature more authority to get proposed constitutional amendments before voters – without risking having measures struck down by a court.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, lashed out at the courts for judicial activism after three proposed ballot measures approved by the Legislature last spring were barred by judges as unconstitutional. Among them was an amendment aimed at blocking the federal health care overhaul from taking effect in Florida.

A three-fifths vote of the Legislature is required to put a measure on the ballot. But House analysts reported Wednesday that only four of the 10 legislative proposals challenged in courts since 1982 have been cleared for the ballot. Overall, courts have rejected the ballot language in 70 percent of cases involving proposed amendments by the Legislature.

A push for struggling schools to lengthen the school day may become a part of a larger education reform debate that lawmakers have hinted will be a major part of the spring 2011 legislative agenda.

Key lawmakers in the Senate and House have already said that a revamped proposal on teacher merit pay that was vetoed by outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist last spring will be on the table and Democrats have signaled they are interested in talking about the issue. But it’s possible that at least in the Senate, education committees will entertain a measure to extend the school day by one hour for the state’s lowest performing schools.

Florida has the lowest number of state government employees on a per capita basis in the nation, the state’s Department of Management Services said in its annual workforce report. Florida has 117 full time and part time state government employees for every 10,000 residents, lowest in the nation and 46 percent below the national average, DMS said in its report. On average, states around the country have 216 state workers for every 10,000 residents.

Gov.-elect Rick Scott has said one of the ways he will attempt to tackle the state’s budget deficit is by cutting the state workforce, though he hasn’t released specifics. DMS also reported that Florida’s state government payroll expenditure is way below the national average of $72 per state residents. Last year Florida’s state government spent $38 per resident on government employee payroll, 47 percent below the national average.


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