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Sen. Gaetz: 2012 Legislative Session Report

Balanced budget, no tax increases

The most encouraging news to come out of the 2012 session of the Legislature is that, unlike other large states, Florida balanced its budget without raising taxes for the second year in a row.

We achieved a balanced budget despite a $1.4 billion shortfall in revenues by doing what businesses and families have to do when money is tight – making hard choices, doing what will make our future brighter, and fitting spending inside our income.

Good decisions…but not too many new laws

For me, it’s good news when the Legislature repeals bad laws and rules and it’s bad news when too many new laws are passed. I’m not satisfied with every decision the Legislature made, but here’s a partial list of bills that passed with my support:

· Improving funding to our K-12 schools by over $1 billion
· $90 million in tax relief to small businesses, property owners and senior citizens
· Increasing economic development funding tied directly to creating more jobs
· Repealing mandatory septic tank inspection
· Expanded educational choices and funding for disabled adults and children
· More help for children who have been exploited or sexually abused
· Stopping $200 million in scheduled unemployment compensation tax increases
· Repealing thousands of state agency rules and clarifying that agencies cannot develop
rules outside of the approval of the Governor and Legislature
· Supporting a constitutional amendment limiting terms of Members of Congress
· Giving preferences in contracting to Florida-based businesses
· Repealing “cap and trade” regulatory program adopted by Governor Crist

What follows is a partial list of some of the major legislation which I joined in sponsoring and after passing both the Senate and House of Representatives is on the Governor’s desk for signature.

Term Limits for Congress
SB 672/HB 83 by Senators Negron and Gaetz

The only way to end the hold of lifetime politicians on federal offices is an amendment to the federal constitution establishing term limits for Members of Congress. This legislation puts Florida on record supporting a US constitutional amendment term limiting US senators and Members of the US House of Representatives.

Repeal of the Septic Tank Mandate
SB 1824/HB 1263 by Senator Garcia, repeal language by Senators Gaetz, Dean, and Evers

Last year I inserted into the budget a prohibition against the Department of Health enforcing a septic tank inspection mandate. This year, I arranged for language to be added to the Department of Health’s agency bill that permanently repeals the mandate. That bill passed both chambers. We are very grateful to Senator Garcia for agreeing to place the septic tank repeal language in his bill and to Senators Dean and Evers and Representatives Coley and Gaetz for their advocacy and support.

Cost Sharing by Local Governments
SB 368/HB 7031 by Senator Gaetz

This legislation requires local governments facing financial emergencies to consolidate administrative services with other governmental entities in order to save money for taxpayers. Local government officials who fail to resolve financial emergencies may be suspended by the Governor.

Recognizing and Honoring Veterans
SB’s 276, 532, 922, 1080 by Senator Gaetz and sponsors Senators Sachs, Altman, Bennett, and Dean

Designates August 7 of each year as Purple Heart Day, creates Florida Veterans Hall of Fame, grants college credit for military training, creates a “veterans court” for service members and veterans who suffer from mental illness or traumatic brain injury as a result of their military service (named in honor of Judge and retired Army General Patt Maney), requiring colleges and universities to provide priority course registration for veterans, demonstrating the nation’s appreciation for the honorable service and sacrifice of Vietnam veterans, and establishing the Purple Heart Memorial Highway in Okaloosa County.

Eliminating the “Fourth Branch of Government”
SB 1312/HB 7055 by Senator Gaetz and Representative Gaetz

Thousands of rules and policies have sprung up over the years that intrude into the lives of Floridians and their businesses. Governors of both political parties have attempted to control this “fourth branch of government.” This legislation prohibits non-elected state agency employees from generating rules or policies that are not approved by the Governor or Legislature. The bill clarifies that agency heads who are appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the Governor are subject to the direction and supervision of elected officials accountable to the public. (This is the only law passed in the history of the state sponsored by a father-son, senator-representative team.)

Protect Our Children Act
SB 964 by Senators Benacquisto and Gaetz

Persons convicted of a second violation of video voyeurism laws are required to register as sex offenders if the victim was a minor. Laws prohibiting video voyeurism and sexual exploitation of children are strengthened and penalties are harsher.

Prohibit Money Laundering To Benefit Iran
SB 792/HB 613 by Senators Gaetz, Rich and others

This legislation ensures that banks operating in Florida cannot be used to launder funds for persons, businesses or foreign banks that do business with the terrorist government of Iran. Senator Gaetz and Democratic Leader Senator Nan Rich co-authored the bill, which became the most broadly supported piece of substantive legislation introduced in the Florida Senate in 2012.

Tying Higher Education to Economic Security
SB 1366/HB 7135 by Senators Gaetz and Lynn

In the next ten years 60 percent of new jobs in Florida will require science, technology, engineering or mathematics skills. Yet only 17 percent of degrees granted by Florida universities are in STEM fields. This legislation provides parents of 6th graders and up an annual economic security report showing the employment and earnings of graduates of degree programs at state post-secondary institutions. The bill also requires our state institutions to create and follow a plan to improve the chances of degreed graduates being able to get a job in high-skill, high-wage, high-demand sectors of the economy. $15 million in performance funding is awarded annually to those institutions that are most successful in educating students who earn degrees in and become employed in technology fields.

STEM Accelerated Graduation Option
SB 1368/HB7059 by Senators Gaetz, Lynn and Gardiner

This legislation expands the highly successful CHOICE career education model, pioneered in Okaloosa County, to high schools and middle schools state-wide. High schools and middle schools whose students attain the highest level of national industry certification in STEM fields would receive bonus funding. The bill also allows K-12 students able to complete courses faster to do so at an accelerated pace and graduate as much as a year earlier. Dual enrollment programs with community colleges are strengthened, including making it easier for home schooling students to participate.

Enforcement of Disabled Parking Laws
SB 226 by Senators Margolis and Gaetz

This new law prevents persons not eligible for disabled parking permits from using the permits of their relatives or deceased persons, implements a means for reporting abuse of disabled parking permits, and requires a random review of disabled parking permit holders to ensure that they still meet all legal qualifications to park in disabled parking spots.

Stronger Govt-in-Sunshine Requirements
SB 1464/HB 1305 by Senator Gaetz

While Florida’s sunshine laws are clear in restricting private communications about official business among elected officials, there has been confusion as to whether those restrictions apply between the time an official is elected and when she or he takes the oath of office. This legislation requires that officers-elect adopt and implement measures to be in compliance with open records and open meetings laws. Records of “transition periods” between election and swearing in are now open for public inspection. This bill was strongly supported by the First Amendment Foundation.

Transparency in Sale of Public Hospitals
SB 1568/HB 711 by Senators Gaetz and Garcia

There are 34 Florida hospitals owned by the public. Most have assets valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Until now, there have been no requirements that the sale or lease of public hospitals be done in the sunshine with competitive proposals. This bill establishes a fair market value for all public hospitals and requires any sale or lease negotiations to be in public with opportunities for comment from affected citizens. The bill prohibits “quiet deals” that transfer taxpayer-owned assets into other hands without a fair market exchange and opportunities for proposals from other parties. Proceeds from any sale or lease are divided equally between economic development in the health care sector and care for uninsured patients in the community.

Budget Highlights

The best feature of the 2012-2013 budget is that, for the second year in a row and unlike other large states, Florida balanced its budget, lived within its means, did not raise taxes by one penny and actually provided tax cuts to property owners, seniors and small businesses.

The 2012-2013 budget totals $70.04 billion, broken down as follows:

· Prek-12 Education………………………………$12.8 billion
· Higher Education……………………………….. 5.9 billion
· Health Care……………………………………… 29.9 billion
· Criminal and Civil Justice………………………. 4.6 billion
· General Government (other agencies, services)… 5.0 billion
· Transportation and Economic Development……. 9.9 billion

To review the entire budget in detail or learn about any line item of the state budget, go to www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2012/5001/BillText/er/PDF

Key Budget Issues for Northwest Florida

Thanks to the support of Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, I was successful in placing in the budget several key items important to Northwest Florida. These are additional appropriations over and above regular budget funding for transportation, education, courts and criminal justice, health care, and economic development.

Port of Pensacola $2 million

These funds will be used for bulkhead repairs and other port improvements to make the port competitive in securing job-creating businesses.

Port of St. Joe $5 million

These funds will be used for bulkhead repairs and other port improvements critical to the maintaining the competitively functioning port.

Gulf Coast State College
Panama City $3.9 million

· $3.0 million– Recurring additional funds to support curriculum and student services.

· $890,796 – Non-recurring assistance with physical plant improvements

Science and Discovery Center of Northwest Florida
Panama City $250,000

To support hands-on STEM facilities and services for area schools

University of West Florida
Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach $3.5 million

· $1.0 million non-recurring general revenueto establish a partnership with the University of South Florida and expand degree programs in physical therapy.

· $2.5 millionrecurring general revenue to administer degree completion programs for later-life adults in cooperation with the University of South Florida, Florida State College at Jacksonville, and St. Petersburg College.

Western Lake Bridge Crossing
Walton County $500,000

Necessary funds provided for a Pedestrian Bridge in a high traffic area of Walton County.

STEM Middle School
Valparaiso $389,825

Start-up funds to establish a grades 5-8 middle school open to students from Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties and focused on intensive studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Domestic Violence GPS Project
First Judicial Circuit $316,000

Pilot project using GPS technology to protect victims of domestic violence.

Job Projects in Oil Spill Affected Counties $10 million

Second year funding of total three year $30 million economic development grants to diversify the economies of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties. Administered by University of West Florida.

Primary Care Medical Residency Programs
Sacred Heart Health Care System
Pensacola, Panama City, Port St. Joe $3 million

These funds support on-site residency training for young physicians who will practice in primary care fields in our area.

Children’s Advocacy Centers
Niceville, Pensacola, Panama City, Milton $516,800

$100,000 for medical services for CAC of Okaloosa-Walton located in Niceville; $100 per child served in additional resources for all CAC’s in NW Florida including Santa Rosa Kid’s House, Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center and Gulf Coast Kid’s House.

Association for Retarded Citizens
Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Milton $220,000

An additional $200 in funding for every patient currently served by each ARC in Florida, including those in NW Florida, to provide more services to disabled children and adults. The additional funding shall be geared toward providing services to active duty military personnel stationed in Florida with Family members who have developmental disabilities and further shall target those individuals currently on the waitlist for services.

Baptist Health Care Lakeview Center
Pensacola $1.5 million

To provide graduate and under graduate training in caring for mental illness and substance abuse in rural and underserved areas of NW Florida.

Integrated Technology Pilot Project
Rural schools in Northwest Florida $850,000

These funds shall be used to implement a program that is designed to establish a baseline ratio that reflects the efficiencies of technology designed to improved academic achievement and will assist in future decisions to achieve Florida’s educational goals.

Hurlburt Field, Highway 98 Traffic Project $21.3 million

This funding has been approved on the Department of Transportation’s work plan to build an east/west bypass on Hwy 98 to help ease the traffic constraints entering Hurlburt Field.

William J. (Billy Joe) Rish Park
Cape San Blas/Port St. Joe $500,000

This funding will provide much needed renovations for the state’s only fully accessible beach access for disabled adults and children.

All budget items are subject to approval or veto by the Governor.

Bills that Didn’t Pass but Should Have

E-Verify Amendment by Senators Thrasher and Gaetz

With the support of Senator Negron, I did insert a provision in the Medicaid bill in 2011 to stop Medicaid payments for persons who aren’t citizens. However, the E-verify provision which Senator Thrasher and I introduced and fought for during last session did not gain enough support to be included in any bill this year.

Public Participation in Public Meetings
(SB 206 by Senators Negron and Gaetz)

This bill required that members of the public be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard before any public board prior to action being taken by that board. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House.

Full Disclosure of All Government Contracts
(SB 1626 by Senator Gaetz)

This bill would have placed every state and local government contract on a public website so every taxpayer could have seen how much was spent for what, whether the goods or services were actually delivered according to specs, and who got the contracts. The bill passed the Senate but failed to be considered in the House.

Ethical Standards for Legislators
(SB 1560 by Senators Thrasher and Gaetz)

Had this bill been enacted into law, legislators would have been prevented from seeking employment from community colleges and other educational institutions entirely dependent on those legislators’ votes on appropriations matters. The bill raised ethical requirements and reporting requirements for legislators’ assets. This good bill died in the Senate Rules Committee on a 6-6 vote.

Collecting Fines from Public Officials Who Violate Ethics Laws
(SB 252 by Senators Rich and Gaetz)

This legislation would have deducted from their public salaries any unpaid fines imposed on elected officials by the State Ethics Commission. This necessary improvement in our ethics laws failed to be approved by Senate committees.

Bills that Did Pass but Shouldn’t Have

Here are a few of the bills which did receive approval from both the Senate and House of Representatives but which I voted against:

· SB 1752/HB 7129, which allows the University of Florida and Florida State University to raise tuition without any limits and as often as they desire to do so. While I certainly support our universities, I don’t believe that “sky’s the limit” tuition increases should be approved during times when parents and students are struggling to pay for college.

· SB and HB’s 004, 457, 579, 697,877, 909, 965, 967, 1039 and 7131 which paid a total of $38,475,000 in taxpayer funds to individuals presenting claims bills to the Legislature. As a general rule, I vote against claims bills because I don’t believe the Legislature should impose its own award of taxpayer dollars in cases where trials have already been conducted and courts have already ruled. Usually claims bills result in substantial fees to influential lobbyists.

Thank you for the privilege and the honor…

For the past six years I have had the privilege of speaking for Northwest Florida in the Senate. Vicky and I are deeply grateful for your giving us the honor of a lifetime. Please always let me know your concerns, criticisms, and suggestions. Your guidance makes me a better senator.

Respectfully,
Senator Don Gaetz