Gov. Rick Scott considering controversial legislative agenda

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20 September 2011

Gov. Rick Scott has yet to formally roll out his 2012 legislative agenda, but documents from his office show that the first-term governor is looking at bills to abolish personal injury protection insurance, reform immigration laws, spend a dedicated amount of money in the classroom - and maybe give raises to state employees.

The Legislature, in Tallahassee this week for committee meetings, is just starting to formulate its agenda for the 2012 session that begins in January. But Scott has been working all summer on issues that he wants to see turned into law. Some are campaign promises; others he sought last session. Nearly all are controversial.

In a document obtained by the Sun Sentinel, Scott's legislative staff laid out preliminary priorities in August, with PIP topping the list. It was followed by a statewide energy plan focusing on renewable energy, a bill allowing the sale of health insurance across state lines, Texas-style reforms to higher education that would eliminate tenure for university professors and an immigration bill.

Scott spokeswoman Amy Graham said that the governor would release a more detailed agenda after this weekend's Presidency 5 event in Orlando.

Some of his top priorities will not be easy legislative battles.

Immigration, for one, nearly tore apart the Senate last spring. Scott and the House wanted to require companies to use the federal E-Verify program to check employees' immigration status and require cops to check the legal status of anyone being investigated for a crime.

But the Senate balked at the E-Verify provisions and passed a bill that simply allowed law enforcement to investigate the immigration status of anyone arrested in connection with a crime. Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who was charged by Senate President Mike Haridopolos with writing the bill, wound up delivering an emotional speech against it before voting "No."

The House dismissed what members viewed as a watered-down bill and didn't even take it up on the floor. State Rep. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, who championed the House version, said he was still not committed to re-filing a measure unless the Senate is willing to go beyond what he called an "inadequate" bill.

"They know where we can be," Snyder said. "They know what I have and what the speaker will let go through the House."

For his part, Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters Tuesday he wasn't budging. "We passed an immigration bill last year," he said. "The House has talked very tough about immigration, and we'll see if they send us a bill, which they failed to do last year."

On Scott's spreadsheet, his staff calls it a "build consensus bill," noting that it was a "campaign pledge" during Scott's 2010 campaign.

Some of Scott's other proposals may be a little easier to accomplish.

PIP, for example, is being studied by a task force named by CFO Jeff Atwater. The insurance pays medical bills for policyholders injured in auto accidents, regardless of who is at fault. But insurers say fraud is rampant and is driving up costs.

Atwater, Scott and Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty have all called for changes. The task force recommendations may be easier for lawmakers to pass than a package that died this past session.

Scott's priority list called for PIP to be eliminated, replaced or "significantly" modified to curb fraud. Haridopolos told reporters that there's interest in trying to fix the system, but not in killing PIP entirely. "It seems like there's interest on all sides to right this wrong," he said.

Education also makes Scott's top tier of proposals.

But his advocacy of Texas-style higher education reforms that eliminate tenure for professors has already drawn criticism from university presidents and the state Board of Governors. Haridopolos said, "We'll give it the full venue it deserves."

Scott is also looking for legislation that would require school districts to spend a specific percentage of school funds in the classroom as opposed to on administrative expenses, a measure that's died in previous sessions.

One of his secondary priorities is an "education savings account," as proposed by former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, that would allow parents to use state dollars to send their children to private school or pay for expenses such as textbooks or tutoring. Scott's spreadsheet says that the foundation will "take lead" on it.

"We have parental choice for students with disabilities. We have parental choice for students who are low income," said Bush spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof, noting this would give parents of students who don't fit into those categories more control over their children's education.

Rounding out Scott's list are items that will likely be included in his proposed budget. They include a repeat of this year's failed attempt to roll back $235 million in motor vehicle fee increases that were raised in 2009; unspecified funding for the teacher merit pay system that was created earlier this year; and giving state employees some form of raise for the first time in several years.

Though Republicans have a super-majority in both chambers, Scott found this year that lawmakers could stand up to him. And in an election year, some of his proposals might face even tougher scrutiny.

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said the speaker's office has had a few informal "staff-level discussions" with the governor's office, but it has not received any specific legislative requests at this point.

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