A small group gathered on Tuesday, June 14 in Maitland City Hall to learn about issues that face their community on the state level.
State Rep. Bryan Nelson of District 38 talked about the 2011 Legislative Session and hinted at what could be in store next for Florida.
The state budget for fiscal year 2011-2012 is $69.6 billion. The heftiest portion of this budget, 43 percent, will go to health and human services, while another 26 percent will go to education and 15 percent to agriculture, transportation and economic development.
"We started out this year with a $4.6 billion shortfall. Add to that a billion dollars we needed to add for reserves … and a billion additional dollars we needed to spend on Medicaid. So basically, it's north of a $6 billion hole we've put ourselves in this year," Nelson said.
The Legislature passed a "Smart Cap" on government spending to help reduce this deficit. The cap curbs government expansion and also reserves funds for emergencies, such as natural disasters.
The Florida Legislature has been holding statewide redistricting meetings this summer and will continue into October, which is the likely time that the House will begin reviewing the public input given at the meetings. If citizens cannot make it to these public meetings, those that are tech savvy can use a new application online called MyDistrictBuilder to propose new districts. Visit FloridaRedistricting.org to access the application.
"People think it's easy to build a district based on nice, square boundaries, but it's not that easy because you've got to get within 1 percent of the constituent numbers," Nelson said. He thinks Florida will add one congressional seat between Lake and Sumter Counties, and another between Tampa and Fort Meyers. "But that's my guess," he said.
There’s only a few weeks left before Gov. Rick Scott decides the future of SunRail, Central Florida's proposed commuter rail that would run from Poinciana to DeLand. The deadline is July 1.
"I think there are some strategic areas where rail makes sense," he said. "I mean, I wasn't a real proponent for the high-speed rail, but SunRail makes plenty of sense." Funding for SunRail would come from the federal, state and county governments, as well as several regional businesses that want to benefit from the rail line.
The Student Success and Teacher Quality Act was passed early in the legislative session. The Act changes the way that teachers and principals are evaluated as effective or not effective, adding a merit pay format. The FCAT scores of students will account for one-half, while a teacher's record from the past three years will account for the second half of their evaluations.
"I'd love to be able to give raises next year, but my honest opinion is we'll be lucky to stay where we're at again next year," Nelson said. All state employees have been asked to contribute 3 percent to their retirement, which makes up for the cuts in per-student funding.
"There were no easy answers on how to balance the budget," he said.
A look at next year
Several significant amendments will make their way to the 2012 ballot. The Health Care Freedom Act would prohibit any laws from "compelling any Floridian or employer to purchase, obtain or provide health care coverage." This is in response to President Obama's own health care plan.
Another amendment will focus on court reform. Its aim is to reform the court rulemaking process and increase transparency and accountability.
One issue that has made its way to the national stage is abortion funding. There is a proposed amendment that would prohibit public dollars from funding the procedure.
"It wasn't a fun year," Nelson said, adding that much was done, but much still needs to be done.