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Tax cuts, testing, even booze, make Legislature's agenda

and Contact ReporterTallahassee Bureau
As lawmakers head to Tallahassee, issues abound

Cable and cellphone bills could be trimmed, the cost of textbooks cut, and testing in public schools reduced. Water and land policy may be overhauled, medical marijuana legalized, and beer and liquor laws loosened.

As state lawmakers gather Tuesday to kick off a 60-day legislative session, these issues and more likely will push themselves to the top of the agenda in Tallahassee.

Tax cuts

THE ISSUE: Gov. Rick Scott's proposal includes $673 million in tax cuts, mostly on cellphone and cable TV bills. He also wants to eliminate the sales tax on college textbooks. But legislative leaders are looking at trimming other areas and new sales tax holidays.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: For cable users with monthly bills averaging $100, the savings from Scott's plan would be about $40 a year. Business groups want to see the commercial rent tax reduced by at least 1 percent, which would save businesses $200 million.

School testing

THE ISSUE: Testing in public schools has become the hot-button education issue this year, with parents, teachers, superintendents and many state leaders saying students take too many exams. A growing "opt out" movement, fueled by parents upset by the high stakes attached to many tests, has caught lawmakers' attention, and they'll consider ways to scale back the number of exams students take. Gov. Rick Scott already has used an executive order to cancel a new 11th-grade test.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Students in grades 3 to 10 will take the state's series of standardized tests starting this week. But lawmakers may reduce the number of end-of-course exams and make other changes that could cut back testing next year. Testing is the cornerstone of Florida's school accountability system and a key part of its teacher merit-pay law, so lawmakers are unlikely to completely dismantle either.

Charter schools

THE ISSUE: Expanding school choice has been a mantra for years, but more than three dozen charter schools in South Florida have closed or been ordered to close in the last two years.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Reforms focus on making it more difficult to open a charter school, requiring they fill an unmet need and tightening financial rules.

Budget

THE ISSUE: Lawmakers have a projected surplus of nearly $1 billion for the estimated $77 billion budget, but that could be illusory if $1.3 billion in federal funding for a Medicaid program isn't extended by the federal government.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: For children in state care or inmates in prisons, it could be a matter of life and death. Scott's proposal includes more money for those two agencies beset with scandals, as other state departments are targeted for more cuts. Florida's ranking as 49th among states in per-capita spending on mental-health care could get more attention from lawmakers, too.

Beer, booze

THE ISSUE: Craft beer brewers want to be able to preserve their right to sell their beer directly to customers. Meanwhile, large retail stores are pushing to repeal a law requiring hard liquor to be sold in separate stores.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Beer aficionados looking to fill up on 64-ounce containers known as growlers will be able to do so if craft beer bills make it into law. Current state law allows for beer to be sold only in 32-ounce containers or 128-ounce kegs.

Gay Rights

THE ISSUE: With gay marriage now legal in Florida — barring an adverse judgment from the Supreme Court — LGBT rights organizations are moving to tackle workplace discrimination.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Although a great deal of the state is already covered by local ordinances, a bill with heavy Republican backing would make it illegal statewide to fire people based on their sexual orientation. Marriott, Wells Fargo and some 200 other businesses support the legislation.

Stadium funds

THE ISSUE: Sports franchises thought they had succeeded in securing state taxpayer funds for stadium projects last year. But a budget panel told the full Legislature to divvy up the incentive funds. Now the Miami Dolphins, Daytona International Speedway, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Major League Soccer's Orlando City Lions will have to battle again.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Most of the projects are either already underway or are planned to begin with or without state funding. But there is strong opposition to using taxpayer funds for sports teams.

Medical pot

THE ISSUE: Lawmakers took notice when a proposed constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana garnered 57.6 percent of the vote in 2014 — just 2.4 percent shy of becoming reality. Although legislation last year legalized noneuphoric strains, this year's bills would legalize all forms of marijuana for people suffering from a handful of illnesses.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: There are sick people to help — and there is a whole lot of money to be made. Legalizing all marijuana for medical purposes would create an entire new industry that could be worth $785 million in Florida, according to the Florida Cannabis Coalition.

Gambling

THE ISSUE: The Seminole Tribe's exclusive right to table games such as blackjack is up for renegotiation. The tribe insists on some sort of exclusivity but other players want a bigger piece of the pie. Yet even the renewal of any deal is not a sure thing. Anti-gambling lawmakers, citing the state's projected $1 billion budget surplus, say the state doesn't need tax revenues from gambling, and the tribe may be content to negotiate with the feds instead of Florida.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: So, so much money. The state raked in about $257 million from the Seminoles in the last fiscal year. The Seminoles, meanwhile, made twice that amount at the Hard Rock Hollywood Casino alone.

Water, land

THE ISSUE: A constitutional amendment approved in November sets aside certain revenues for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Environmentalists say the bulk of the money should go to land purchases, but key lawmakers say the wording leaves room for water projects and other spending.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: State economists estimate the amount of dedicated revenues would be $757 million. Environmentalists say it could go toward buying U.S. Sugar land near Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir. Key lawmakers want to concentrate more on maintaining the land the state already owns and on a more integrated approach to protecting water resources.

Guns

THE ISSUE: On Nov. 20, 2014, Myron May went to Florida State University, pulled out a pistol and wounded three people before police killed him. That event directly resulted in a bill to allow concealed weapons on college campuses and gave momentum to other bills expanding gun rights.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Guns would be allowed on college campuses. They would be limited in grade schools to faculty or staff members who have a school superintendent's permission. A separate bill would allow anyone to carry a firearm during a mandatory evacuation, regardless of whether they have a concealed carry permit.

Abortion

THE ISSUE: A perennial hot-button issue, conservative lawmakers are looking at ways to tighten regulation.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: The bill that stands the best chance of becoming law requires doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. Another bill would ban induced abortions and require any termination to take place in a hospital but it stands little chance of becoming law.

Texting while driving

THE ISSUE: Police now can issue tickets for texting while driving only if they pull over drivers for something else. Now, a half-dozen bills would make it a stand-alone offense.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: According to the National Highway Safety Administration, 18 percent of all fatal crashes are due to texting while driving. Lawmakers are proposing bills to make it either a primary offense under any circumstance or a primary offense only in school zones. Other bills would provide harsher punishment if someone is killed due to texting while driving.

Sober homes

THE ISSUE: Delray Beach has seen explosive growth in sober homes, halfway houses for people fresh out of rehab. These homes are largely unregulated, and neighbors have complained about overcrowded homes, transient tenants and drug dealers.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: A bill has been proposed that would require them to be licensed by the state in order to receive referrals from hospitals.

Greyhounds

THE ISSUE: Florida is one of only two states that do not require dog tracks to report injuries to greyhounds. One state investigation found 28 greyhounds seriously injured and 109 euthanized in a six-week period at one track.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Of the 20 greyhound tracks in the country, more than half are in Florida. Bills call for mandatory reporting of injuries and decoupling, which would allow the tracks to keep casinos while giving up or reducing the number of races.

Boating

THE ISSUE: There are more boats registered in Florida than in any other state, and that means more accidents and more boat traffic.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Lawmakers will debate placing "place boating under the influence" convictions on a person's driving record. Additionally, the Broward Legislative Delegation wants to give responsibility for posting waterway speed limit signs to the county instead of the state. A separate bill would target boats anchored long-term in Fort Lauderdale's Middle River.

Local bills/Broward

THE ISSUE: Each session legislators file bills that address concerns specific to their area, but which must be addressed by the legislature.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: One bill would clear up an ongoing fight over 32.5 acres claimed by both Davie and Weston. Another would add a single property to the North Springs Improvement District. A third would extend the charter of the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority and make all non-homestead exempt residential properties in its borders part of the DDA.

Local bills/Palm Beach

THE ISSUE: Each session legislators file bills that address concerns specific to their area, but that must be addressed by the legislature.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: One bill would allow schools in unincorporated areas to continue to solicit businesses to hang advertising signs on school fences. Another would reduce West Palm Beach Fire Department employees' contributions to their local pension plan. A third bill would reduce a West Palm Beach water catchment area from 450 feet wide to 50 feet, to accommodate a proposed baseball spring training stadium.

Staff writer Leslie Postal contributed to this report.

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