Sorting through the debris.
Once again, the Florida Legislature was unable to finish its annual business by the mandated Friday deadline. This year, though, the circumstances that forced overtime were understandable and justifiable.
The regular session was humming along until Feb. 14, the day a gunman murdered 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. It proved to be not just a turning point on the legislative calendar, but also in Florida gun politics.
Public outcry — led by several Parkland survivors who marched on the Capitol — pressured legislators to suspend other business and respond, on the fly, sometimes reordering spending priorities. What emerged didn’t go as far as what many had hoped for — a ban on AR-15s and similarly styled semi-automatic rifles. For others, it went too far — the $400 million package includes funding for a program to allow qualified school employees to be armed on campus. But overall, it moved the needle in a direction the so-called “Gunshine State” has rarely seen.
Indeed, the National Rifle Association, which usually has a chummy relationship with the Legislature, was so offended it swiftly filed a lawsuit to prevent the state from increasing the age limit to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21 (the same as it has been for handguns).
Legislators had to work into Sunday to pass the $88.7 million budget before adjourning. Sorting through the debris, we cataloged some of the good and the bad of the 2018 session, from what the Legislation accomplished and what it failed to do.
Good: Bills aimed at repealing vacation rental rules in places such as Flagler Beach stalled. That postpones, for at least another year, another Tallahassee assault on home rule. Make no mistake, though: The issue will be back before lawmakers in 2019.
Bad: It was disappointing to see the Legislature failed to make texting while driving a primary offense, something that all but four other states do. A bill to align Florida with most of the rest of the nation sailed through the House thanks to new support from Speaker Richard Corcoran. But it surprisingly died in a Senate committee, after concerns were raised about potential effects on minority drivers. Given the experiences of all the other states that have made texting while driving a primary offense, surely Florida can address those issues next year and put legislation on the next governor’s desk.
Lawmakers also failed to make necessary changes to prevent abuse in “assignment of benefits” property insurance, a problem that escalated after most of the state was walloped by Hurricane Irma in September.
Good: The gun control and school safety law represented progress on a politically polarizing, highly emotional issue.
The budget includes $100 million for Florida Forever. That’s not as much as what supporters of Amendment One, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2014, had hoped for. But considering the Legislature last year designated zero dollars to the state’s environmental program, this, too, was progress.
The state created $45.4 million in tax exemptions and refunds for homes and businesses damaged by Hurricane Irma.
Bad: Although lawmakers increased funding for Bright Futures scholarships for college students, they passed several education stinkers. They added a mere 47 cents (.01 percent) to the base allocation for per-student funding. They created a voucher program for students who have been bullied. And they now require teachers unions to have 50 percent of all teachers who are eligible to be union members pay dues, or risk being decertified. It’s a provision that, oddly, doesn’t apply to other public sector unions, such as police and firefighters — perhaps because they aren’t as solidly in the corner for Democrats as the teachers are.