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Column: The Legislature's mixed bag

In the rush to adjourn the Legislature last week, politicians were like diners in the buffet line on a cruise ship, trying to fit as much on their plates with only minutes to go before the kitchen closed. And unfortunately some of us feel the entree got left off the plate. So how did the people do? Here is a brief list of what happened in Tallahassee — the good, the bad and, well, the embarrassing.

The good

Election reform: Simply put, election reform was a critical "deliverable" for the people of Florida. There was no way after creating chaos in the 2012 Florida elections, including delays of up to eight hours to vote and taking four days to figure out how we voted, that this issue would not be addressed.

And the Legislature came through with a respectable package of reforms that will ease access to early voting, allow easier repair of absentee ballots and allow voters to cast a regular ballot as they move around the state.

Hats off to Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the Ethics and Elections Committee, and Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, who chairs the Ethics and Elections Subcommittee, for their efforts to get bipartisan support.

Ethics: With a 37-year drought of ethics reform, and one of the highest rates of convicted elected officials, the Legislature finally restricted the revolving door that allowed legislators to profit off their service as highly paid lobbyists. Now, the lines are much clearer for former legislators who can no longer lobby the Legislature or the executive branch or state agencies for two years. Also, it'll now be easier to collect fines and refer charges as legislators' pay can be garnisheed if they are still working on a public payroll.

Right to speak: Did you know that many areas in Florida, cities, counties and school boards do not allow citizens to speak at public meetings before official action is taken? This bill, pushed by the League of Woman Voters for years, will now give citizens the right to speak and ensure that local governments that did not allow this opportunity, will now do so. That's an important milestone for citizen input statewide. Kudos to Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, for making this one happen.

The bad

Pay to play? Ignoring research that shows higher campaign limits reduce everyday contributions from citizens, and more important, reduce voting turnout, Gov. Rick Scott approved a bill that (to his credit, he did resist) would raise campaign contribution limits 600 percent from $500 to $3,000 for state offices, a priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford. It also doubles the amount to $20,000 that incumbents can keep as nest eggs for their next race, making it harder for challengers to compete.

Not enough sewage being released into our coastal waters? Floridians just barely dodged a bullet, a huge water bill that included every giveaway to the Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries possible. If a number of groups, including the League, had not protested, sewage release into coastal waters would have been increased, and the already tenuous ability of local governments to protect water quantity and quality would have been decreased. This was a poster bill for the importance of citizen attention and participation during the session.

The embarrassing

In a move of imperial lunacy, the Legislature refused $51 billion in federal money to expand Medicaid access for Florida's working poor and families. Estimates show an additional 1.1 million people would receive health coverage, and a recent University of Florida study estimates the addition of 121,000 new jobs over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, members of the House pay a shocking $8 a month for excellent health care. Addressing the state's medically uncovered was the missing "entree on the plate" of session.

What this means is we have more than a million people with no coverage, no preventive care, who are much more likely to fall into personal bankruptcy and mortgage default. Unless the Legislature steps into take action, the federal Affordable Health Care Plan will not help those it should in our state. This money — Florida tax dollars — will now go to other states all across America, instead of being put to work here in our state, creating jobs and saving lives here.

We hope citizens will join the call for some listening sessions on this subject and a special legislative session to create and implement a credible plan of action to use our tax dollars to protect our workers and stimulate our economy. We have no time to lose, the window for implementation begins Oct. 1, and right now we are not even near the playing field, never mind suiting up in the locker room.

Deirdre Macnab is state president of the Florida League of Women Voters. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: The Legislature's mixed bag 05/09/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 9, 2013 2:50pm]
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