Preview of the 2013 Florida Legislative Session Tallahassee, Florida

The 2013 session of the Florida legislature commenced on March 5, 2013. The session runs for 60 days and is scheduled to conclude on May 3, 2013.

Since 2012 was a redistricting year, all of the legislative seats were up for election on the fall ballot. This resulted in some fairly significant changes in the composition of the legislature. In the House, 44 new members were elected out of a total of 120 seats. In the Senate, 15 new members were elected out of a total of 40 seats. While the Republicans still hold a strong majority in both chambers of the legislature, they lost the super majority that they held during the prior session.

The legislature is currently conducting committee meetings in preparation for their busy session.

The legislature will be addressing a wide array of issues, both old and new, during the session. Most of the bills that will be considered have already been filed and are presently available for your review on the Internet. Some of the more noteworthy issues to be addressed are:

Healthcare – Since Florida’s state government guessed wrong as to the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”), Florida is behind many states in the enactment and implementation of corollary legislation. The state is now working quickly in an effort to recover. Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) has formed a Select Committee on the PPACA. He directed them to launch a comprehensive assessment of the impact of the law on the state of Florida, evaluate the State’s options under the law, and make recommendations to the full Senate membership on any actions necessary to mitigate cost increases, preserve competition in the insurance market, and protect Florida consumers. The Florida House, led by its Speaker, Will Weatherford (R- Wesley Chapel), has created a similar committee.

These committees have an enormous amount of work to accomplish in a very short time. The two most critical issues to be addressed are: (1) whether Florida will create its own insurance exchange to offer health coverage to its residents who are required to have health insurance by 2014; and (2) whether to expand Medicaid coverage to include more low income residents. The outcome of the legislative process on these two issues is far from settled. It will be of critical importance to healthcare practitioners and to millions of Florida residents.

Ethics – Senate President Gaetz has also declared ethics reform to be a major priority for the upcoming legislative session. The Senate has two bills for consideration that are being described by some as the most significant ethics reforms since enactment of the Sunshine Amendment (36 years ago). These bills would make financial disclosures available online, would require state officers to abstain from voting on certain matters that would benefit them directly and would place much greater restrictions on public employment while in office and on lobbying after leaving office. In addition, a prohibition of the acceptance of gifts from political committees and Committees of Continuous Existence is included.

Citizens Insurance – Recent disclosures in the media regarding mismanagement and excessive travel spending by the management at Citizens Property Insurance Company have led to heightened scrutiny of Citizens and even a call for the appointment of an inspector general. Furthermore, the enormous financial risks to the state posed by the current structure and composition of Citizens are propelling further evaluations of alternative approaches to the vitally important marketplace for hurricane insurance. Governor Rick Scott continues to pursue his plan to reduce the number of Floridians who are insured by Citizens by transferring more policies to private insurers. As in the past, there is a delicate balancing act between ensuring Florida has both affordably priced premiums and actuarially sound insurance risk pools. That is why we generally see the legislature proceed in small steps in this area.

Public Employees Retirement – Previously the legislature adopted a bill that required state employees to fund a portion of their retirement benefits in an amount equal to 3% of their compensation. That legislation was challenged in the courts but recently upheld by the Florida Supreme Court. The state legislature is also looking at possible elimination of the defined benefit plan for all or some employees. This could be replaced with a defined contribution plan that will look more like the 401(k) plan that most private sector workers have today.

Mental Health – While many states will be proceeding with efforts to regulate assault weapons and large magazines in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, such responses are highly improbable in Florida. On the other hand, there is widespread recognition of the need to provide better funding for mental health programs in hopes that the likelihood of similar tragedies can be reduced. Florida currently ranks 49th out of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, in funding for mental health. The Legislature is presently looking at increases in that funding and new mental health programs in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Citrus Greening – Citrus greening is a serious disease, spread by insects, that destroys citrus crops. The impacts are worldwide. The disease is now spreading across the state. The enormous problems with the federal budget process have severely limited funding for scientific research to cure or impede the spread of this disease. A strong push is being made within the state legislature to fund citrus greening research at the state level in an effort to save our valuable citrus industry.

Civil Litigation – As usual, the legislature will be reviewing and considering a host of possible reforms to limit or restrict recovery of non-economic damages, attorneys’ fees and claims against state and local governments.

Election laws – Most Floridians are quite familiar with the long lines experienced by many voters at the polls in major metropolitan areas this past Election Day, with waits of up to two or three hours, as well as a reduction in the number of days permitted for early voting. There is a major effort underway to restore the early voting days that were taken away by the last legislature, and to take additional steps to reduce the long lines that so many Florida voters experienced.

Budget – The overarching issue every legislative session is the state budget. The state is required by law to balance its budget every year. Fortunately, the overall economic recovery experienced during the past has led to some projections of a possible budget surplus during the coming year. Governor Scott, who plans to run for re-election in less than two years, has indicated his willingness to spend some of the projected surplus on education and on other programs. It remains to be seen whether the Republican legislature will try to assist Governor Scott, or whether they will be more interested in pursuing their own projects. Governor Scott has not been shy about striking these projects from the budget in the past. The interaction between the Governor and the state legislature should be very interesting.

We’re always interested in the legislative issues that impact our clients. If there are particular issues that concern you, please contact us and we will work to keep you informed of developments during the upcoming session.

Please look for information coming soon about Dean Mead’s “Annual Florida Legislative Update”. Our attorneys will be offering this program series in cities around the state immediately following the conclusion of the Florida legislative session.

About the Author:  David Gunter has more than 30 years of diverse experience in administrative and governmental law, business litigation, environmental law, and trust and estate litigation. He joined Dean Mead in 2001, after 11 years of practicing law in South Florida, and 10 years in Indiana. Geographically, Mr. Gunter practices throughout the State of Florida in both state and federal courts. He represents individuals, business owners and businesses of all sizes and types. He may be reached at dgunter@deanmead.com.

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