TALLAHASSEE (AP) — For most lawmakers, drawing new boundaries for legislative districts that help keep them in office will be priority No. 1 in the once-a-decade session devoted to reapportionment.
Aside from that, it's unclear what else will get done in the 60-day legislative session that begins Jan. 10. Although lawmakers are required to pass a budget, they could decide to call a special session later in the spring in hopes of a rosier forecast from economists.
Although a highly public battle waits on the expansion of gambling in Florida, many legislators are reluctant to tackle it in an election year. They'll also be looking for ways to crack down on the massive amount of fraud that plagues both the automobile and personal property insurance marketplaces.
It's shaping up as a bountiful session for lobbyists, who have dramatically increased their influence at the Capitol over the past generation. The parties with interests at stake in the gaming and insurance fights have bankrolled some of the city's most prominent wheelers and dealers.
Those issues and others could wait until lawmakers figure out their own political routes. That path may be a bit trickier than in the past for the Legislature — where Republicans have overwhelming advantages of 28-12 in the Senate and 81-39 in the House — as voters approved constitutional amendments banning gerrymandering. No longer may lawmakers draw legislative or congressional districts where the obvious aim is to help the majority party or an incumbent.
The reapportionment process is often time-consuming and usually not pretty.
The results also can be unpredictable. Democrats were in charge 20 years ago when the legislative and congressional boundaries were redrawn but that didn't stop Republican takeover of state government.
The legislative maps, but not the congressional plan, go to the Florida Supreme Court to ensure they comply with the state constitution. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has veto power over the congressional map but not the legislative plans.
The maps must also be reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department to make sure they're in accordance with the federal Voting Rights Act because of past racial discrimination in five of Florida's 67 counties.
But, beyond redistricting, there appears to be less tension between Scott and the legislative leadership this year.
Scott, who fared well in his first session last spring, appears to have adopted a more conciliatory approach overall and he's more comfortable with the veteran politicians he deals with in the Legislature.
Scott and some lawmakers also want to find ways to make the state university system more effective and boost the number of students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. House Speaker Dean Cannon, though, said lawmakers may do no more than just start the conversation in 2012 without acting on this complex issue.
Scott has made a turnabout on education spending. Last session, he proposed deep cuts as part of his drive to reduce taxes in hopes of jump-starting Florida's economy. Now, Scott wants an additional billion dollars for education in the budget year that begins next July 1.
However, Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston said it was “disingenuous” for the governor to claim he's proposing a $1 billion increase when schools are losing $634 million next year due to expiring federal stimulus and jobs bill money while more students come into the public schools system.
The mundane but critical battle for dollars will be closely watched again in a year as lawmakers face a $2 billion budget shortfall.
Scott, who once ran the nation's largest chain of hospitals, suggested that savings could be realized by cutting what the state spends reimbursing hospitals for taking care of patients enrolled in Medicaid. He also would like to close a handful of state prisons, eliminate 4,500 state jobs and require all state employees to pay the same for health insurance.
The governor and his Republican cohorts in the Legislature have said they will not raise taxes in order to help offset the projected budget shortfall.