The legislative session is slightly more than halfway over.
So what have lawmakers been doing in the first five weeks and what’s next?
We checked with Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas.
Q: Would you explain the process that happens in the first half of the session? For people who don’t understand what goes on at the Capitol this time of year, what should they know?
A: Legislators come up here with grand ideas, and they put them in the form of bills. Bills have to get heard by committees, and then the committees take them and bring them to the floor of each chamber. The House and Senate have to ultimately find agreement on any differences and pass a final bill.
Q: Now we’re in the second half of session, and the process is going to shift a little bit. What will see a lot more of now?
A: We are now going to see the priorities starting to come through the House and Senate leadership – which is controlled by Republicans. My take on that is that this is an election year. We have a governor who is not very popular, and so this Legislature wants to do what it can to help bolster his chances at reelection and to avoid giving him things that are divisive and controversial so that he doesn’t have to act on something that could hurt him in the polls in November.
So what we have are bills that are moving through that really kind of enhance the governor’s prospects, I think, and anything controversial has gone by the wayside.
Q: One big and somewhat controversial issue in the last couple of years has been the idea of expanded gambling, particularly with destination resort casinos proposed for South Florida. But a revamp of gaming laws appears to be off the table this year. What happened?
A: I think that’s a victim of election year politics primarily. However, it is a difficult bill to push through in any year because it’s one of those issues that divides the very powerful interest groups all over the gambling arena.
And then we’ve got this other thing hanging over our heads and that is that the Seminole Tribe of Florida has a gambling agreement with the state. Some of the provisions expire next year, and the governor has started negotiations with the Tribe. But the Legislature decided that it would be foolish for them to push forward on any new legislation until they knew what the governor had agreed upon.
So they have declared that probably nothing is going to get done. I also think that was part of the strategy. They don’t want to have anything controversial happen because gaming - while it does poll well in every region of the state - I think a lot of people, when push comes to shove, they don’t want to see gambling expansion in their backyard.
Q: There are some big pieces of legislation that have already made it through or are getting close. Can you tell us some of the key issues that you think will make it?
A: We are going to see continued efforts to push for giving students [who are] illegal immigrants in-state tuition. It’s one of those bills that also helps the governor as he tries to improve his perception and the Republican Party’s perception among Hispanic voters.
Then, of course, we’ll see the budget. The budget is going to be loaded with all kinds of things that legislators will be able to point to and say, “We brought this project home. This is going to help us in our economic development efforts. This is going to create jobs,” that kind of thing - because for the first time in years we have a budget surplus.
Q: Is there anything else we should know now that we’ve passed the midway point of the session?
A: It’s the middle of the session, but it’s almost as if it’s like the end. This week, we’re at the final week where committees can meet, and any bill that hasn’t made it through a committee this week is dead. Next week, legislators are pretty much taking a break because of Passover and Easter. Then they come back for their final week and everything will be then just voted on – on the floor. So this is going to be crunch time.