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Looking Back at the Week in State Politics

Most of the state is focused on celebrating July 4th this weekend, but for those in state government, this week marked also marked the fiscal New Year.

However, as a budget that would have been $6 billion in the red without spending cuts, trust fund sweeps and federal assistance became law this week, not many people were rockin’ when the clock struck midnight on fiscal year 2008. So it was when the $66.5 billion budget - largely propped up on stimulus dollars, a $1 cigarette tax increase and other increased fees - went into effect Wednesday, affecting the budgets of local governments, schools and other governmental entities.

The Baby New Year budget also increases fee hikes to avoid deeper budget cuts, and in some cases the increases are pretty hefty. Some of the increases don’t actually start until September, but the budget relies on those eventual increases. Reinstating a suspended driver's license will increase, late payment fees on driver's license renewals go up 15-fold, from $1 to $15, and the cost of the original driver's license will go from $27 to $48. Renewing a driver's license goes from $20 to $48.

There also will be 35 percent increases on all vehicle registration fees and vehicle title fees will more than double in September.

Easing the dread about the new budget is the fact that the stimulus money and fee increases enabled lawmakers to avoid much of the pain that had been anticipated when the calendar New Year began. When lawmakers had returned to Tallahassee in March, many feared a budget situation that involved catastrophic cuts to education and health care. But the stimulus and fee increases are providing an influx of cash that allowed those programs to be held relatively harmless.

Before you start kissing strangers though, remember that the Legislature's economists will meet this summer to release new revenue estimates, which will determine whether the state has enough money coming in to cover the days-into-law budget. If the projections are below the anticipated income, the Legislature may have to come back for a special session to revise it.

There was celebration in some quarters – the ones not relying on state spending – about the start of July. Backers cheered this week when the bill that allows police to pull over and ticket adult drivers if they see them not wearing a seat belt went into effect, despite that fact that it was more than a decade later than many would have liked.
Supporters said the Dori Slosberg and Katie Marchetti Safety Belt Law would make a difference in highway safety as soon as it became law. The new law applies to front seat passengers. Police were already able to pull over motorists if they believe a child under 18 is unbelted, no matter where they are in the vehicle, and they could also ticket non-seat belt wearers stopped for other traffic offenses.

Investors also had reason to celebrate the first days of fiscal year 2009 this year as a bill (HB 483) that expands regulatory oversight of securities transactions, broadening the state's ability to investigate fraud and enhancing registration requirements for investment advisors, dealers and other personnel became law. The measure was signed early in the week by Gov. Charlie Crist on the same day when a federal judge sentenced infamous financier Bernard Madoff to 150 years in prison for swindling customers in a ponzi scheme.

There was some unhappiness about new laws this week too. Environmentalists liked some provisions in a new water management bill, but a provision that lets managers of the five water management districts approve permits without a formal governing board vote didn’t sit well.

Gov. Crist cautioned executive directors to vet permitting issues before their full board of governors, but nonetheless approved SB 2080, saying it would further state efforts to improve the quality of water entering Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. The measure includes a provision supported by environmentalists that prevents homeowners associations from restricting the use of Florida-Friendly yard practices to reduce the use of water and fertilizer.

BITING THE HAND THAT APPOINTED YOU

Gov. Charlie Crist was rebuffed this week by a Supreme Court that he helped shape, as the high court told the governor that he had to name a new judge to an appellate court after months of fighting over the slate of candidates for the job and whether the bench accurately reflected the state’s diversity.

The decision ended a ten-month tit-for-tat that began when Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Robert Pleus informed the governor that he intended to retire from the bench, triggering a process that has a judicial nominating commission assemble a list of candidates of potential replacements.

When the list for Pleus' spot was sent to Crist, the governor said the candidates did not reflect his goal of diversity on the court and he refused to name a replacement from the list. Twenty-six people had applied for the opening and the Fifth District Judicial Nominating Commission had forwarded six names to the governor – four white men and two white women.

Crist said that at least three African-Americans were among the list of applicants for the position and wanted to know why not one of them had made the list, but the JNC did not believe it had constitutional authority to change the list and the appeals court simply wanted a new judge.

Ultimately, Pleus sued the governor to force him to name someone to the vacancy and the court sided with him instead of with the governor that appointed four of the seven, striking a blow for judicial independence to some, an odd way of saying “thanks for the Supreme Court seat governor” to others.

THE TRAIN THAT WON’T REACH THE END OF THE LINE

The week that was also brought new life for the controversial proposal for commuter rail in central Florida. Instead of allowing the deal that would allow the Department of Transportation to purchase 61 miles of existing railroad tracks from CSX Corp. to build the controversial proposed SunRail train in Orlando to expire, the chairman of the panel that would oversee the train - should it ever win approval from the Legislature - said the freight company decided not to hit the brakes on the proposal just now.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who in addition to serving as Orlando mayor is also chairman of the Central Florida Rail Commission, said CSX has agreed to extend the proposal to purchase the rail line and negotiate new terms of liability, which had been a source of contention in the state Senate.

But the senator credited with putting the brakes on the proposal said that without major changes to the deal, an extra six months granted by the company to hammer out details is "manufactured news.”

Sen. Paula Dockery said this week that she was unsurprised that the company extended the period to negotiate the SunRail liability agreement, which the freight rail company has tied to the sale of the track. Dockery said that with the company slated to receive more than $600 million for the sale of the tracks that would be used for the proposed train and improvements to existing rails that would be used by rerouted freight trains, CSX has much to gain by giving the state more time.

Hailing the extension earlier this week, SunRail backers said the new deadline would allow supporters to continue addressing concerns that were raised in the lengthy Senate debate and said opposition to the measure was not based on the concept itself, but the details of the plan.

"I hope that this is truly a good faith effort to renegotiate and not an effort to repackage the same deal and go back for round three," Dockery said.

If not - at least when it comes to SunRail - fiscal year 2009 might be a lot like FY2008, words no one wants to hear days into a new year.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The worst fiscal year in recent memory came to end this week and the budget that lawmakers had to go into overtime to agree on became law.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “While we applaud the Governor's interest in achieving diversity in the judiciary - an interest we believe to be genuine and well-intentioned - the constitution does not grant the Governor the discretion to refuse or postpone making an appointment to fill the vacancy on the Fifth District Court of Appeal.” Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga writing for the court in a decision that will mean Crist has to end his hold out for a more diverse list of potential appeals court judges.

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