Thursday, Oct 23, 2014
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A modest session to build upon

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The 2014 legislative session, which ended late Friday, may be remembered more for what didn’t happen than for what did.

A major gambling expansion was considered but put on hold, and a bipartisan effort in the House to substantially increase funding for the state’s ailing freshwater springs was pushed aside for a more modest approach. There was no talk of accepting the billions in federal Medicaid money available to the state under Obamacare and blocked last year by House Speaker Will Weatherford.

But lawmakers did boost education spending, showed compassion for immigrants seeking college degrees and passed $500 million in tax cuts and fee reductions for Floridians. In the end, they passed a record $77.1 billion budget.

Although modest in its accomplishments, the session offers a good start toward correcting years of neglect for education and the environment. We hope that momentum continues into the 2015 session.

Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, should be applauded for standing up for immigrants who earn high school diplomas and deserve a shot at an affordable college education. Under a measure he championed along with Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, thousands of immigrants will be eligible for much cheaper in-state tuition rates.

With $1.2 billion in surplus to spend in an election year, lawmakers decided to reduce car registration fees by as much as $25 and add sales tax holidays on hurricane supplies, back-to-school supplies and energy efficient appliances, providing some relief to taxpayers.

Of more consequence, they increased per-student spending on education and budgeted over $100 million for much-needed construction and repairs to the state’s public schools, needs which have gone unfunded for years.

And state universities will get $200 million to divvy up based on new performance standards and another $250 million for facilities, including $10 million for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg business school and $20 million for USF’s Heart Institute and College of Medicine. Those are substantial allocations for important higher education facilities in the Tampa Bay area.

We wish lawmakers had been more generous when tackling child welfare issues. Lawmakers approved only $21 million to hire new child abuse investigators next year, far less than what some lawmakers wanted and what Gov. Rick Scott requested. It leaves more work to be done next year on fixing the state’s child welfare system, a task that shouldn’t be delayed.

Lawmakers were equally stingy with funding for freshwater springs despite an excellent bill calling for hundreds of millions in recurring funding for springs protections. But lawmakers rejected the $380 million the House had proposed, and only about $30 million is expected to be available next year for springs restoration, $20 million less than the governor requested. Though disappointing, the issue is expected to be revisited next year, something every Floridian should encourage.

Lawmakers passed a measure that opens the flood insurance market to private carriers, offering hope to some homeowners faced with staggering rate increases under recent changes to the federal flood insurance program. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, is of particular need in the Tampa Bay area.

Also passed were compassionate measures allowing an immigrant from Largo to obtain his law degree, and allowing patients suffering from epilepsy and cancer to get relief from a marijuana strain known as Charlotte’s Web.

There’s plenty to applaud this year, but lawmakers need to remember their unfinished business next year.

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