Senator warns of tough times September 15, 2003 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Senator warns of tough times Senior EditorA state senator painted a sobering picture of recent policy decisions made by the legislature, as well as budget challenges facing lawmakers.Sen. Dennis L. Jones, R-Seminole, spoke at a joint August 22 luncheon of the boards of governors of The Florida Bar and its Young Lawyers Division. Both boards were meeting in Clearwater Beach for their first business meetings of the 2003-04 Bar year.Jones, the majority leader, noted that even before the session starts next spring, the state faces an expected $2 billion shortfall, and it hasn’t helped that lawmakers have used one-time revenues to patch budget holes for the past two years.That $2 billion figure includes about $500 million to continue implementing the class size amendment approved by voters in 2002, $625 million for the Pre-K education amendment approved the same year, an undetermined amount to begin building the high-speed rail, and hundreds of millions when the state takes over more funding of the trial courts from the counties, due to Revision 7, he said.The state is likely to cut other funding for counties to make up for new spending on the courts, Jones said, but he cautioned the overall picture for funding of the third branch is not rosy.He noted this year the legislature did not fund any of the 56 new judges requested by the Florida Supreme Court, and cut $13 million in other funding for the courts, mostly in staff, administration, and attorney ad litem programs.And despite a variety of budget shifts and tactics, the budget approved earlier this year “did not meet the needs of the state,” Jones said.He said he had a three-page list of important needs that were not funded, and he cited several examples:• State university and community colleges received no funding for enrollment growth.• The state cut matching funds for challenge grants for higher education, which has cost millions in gifts that have been rescinded or placed on hold.• Funding for public education was increased minimally on paper but after inflation, paying for enrollment growth, and other costs, most school boards had less money. Jones noted that Pinellas County had an effective $20 million reduction in funding, which resulted in several layoffs.• 10,000 families with autistic children are on waiting lists for home services that will cost $10,000 to $15,000 per child. Jones said if those families give up waiting and turn their kids over to state custody, those costs would be $85,000 to $100,000 per child.On policy matters, Jones said insurance matters seemed to dominate the regular and special sessions.It began with calls for nursing home insurance reform. But Jones said the legislature addressed that issue last year and there was an agreement that no further laws would be passed until the effect of those changes could be determined.After haggling for the entire regular session, in a special session the legislature did pass a complete rewrite of the workers’ compensation system, which Jones said had among the highest rates in the country and lowest benefits for injured workers.The impact, he said, is a projected 11 percent reduction in rates. Of that, 9 percent is projected savings on attorneys’ fees and 2 percent from reduced benefits for injured workers.“That’s basically the bill we passed,” Jones said. “If that will be held constitutional, I don’t know. We passed that and the governor signed it.”Another rewrite came in the automobile personal injury protection insurance area. Lawmakers heard testimony that fraud was so prevalent with PIP that it amounted to 25 percent of the average automobile insurance premium.The final bill prescribed several solutions, including data collection and reporting systems, and sunsetted the measure in October 2007. Jones said the Senate was losing patience with the no-fault system that uses the PIP program.“The Senate president [Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville] said if we can’t fix it, then flush it,” Jones added. “If by 2007 this hasn’t improved, it will go away and we won’t have no fault in this state.”Of course, the biggest insurance issue came over medical malpractice premiums, and Jones, a chiropractor, headed up the Senate’s efforts.“It’s basically a bill that at this point apparently nobody likes,” Jones said. “I don’t know if it will be held constitutional or not. There are lots of parts of that bill that I do not like. . . . “I still have problems saying one shoe fits all. We do have litigation in this state, because we do have cases of medical malpractice.”One of the holdups was Gov. Jeb Bush’s adherence to a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages, although there were never more than 10 votes in the Senate for that position, Jones said. He also said many of the claims about the medical malpractice “crisis” evaporated when the Senate put witnesses under oath.And Jones remains skeptical that a crisis exists. He noted that in the past 10 years, only 673 medical malpractice claims had been filed in Pinellas County, and only 23 resulted in verdicts that exceeded $1 million. He added, “A lot of the rhetoric you read about these large awards just isn’t true.”As for the future, Jones noted the legislature will be back in October to consider legislation on parental notification when minor women seek abortions “and then we’re back in the budget crunch.”Lawmakers will be meeting two to three weeks each in January and February, he said, to get ready for the regular session, which begins in March.