Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Special Legislative Session Aims to Soothe State's Insurance Woes; House and Senate Committees Begin Meeting Next Week; the Special Session Starts Jan. 16

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Special Legislative Session Aims to Soothe State's Insurance Woes; House and Senate Committees Begin Meeting Next Week; the Special Session Starts Jan. 16

Article excerpt

Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE - A rude return from the holidays is waiting in Tallahassee for state legislators, with an immediate special session to defuse climbing insurance rates, an agency in a funding crisis, looming teacher shortages and a new governor who has vowed to insist on a crime bill before anything else.

Following Charlie Crist's inauguration today as Florida's 44th chief executive, the Legislature will begin gearing up for the 2007 session. Although the Legislature won't convene until March, committees in the House and Senate will start meeting Jan. 9, followed by a Jan. 16 special legislative session Crist has called to reattempt a solution to the state's insurance problems.

At the top of Crist's agenda will be his Anti-Murder Act, a mix of tougher sentencing laws and closer supervision for ex-felons that Crist twice failed to persuade legislators to pass. The governor-elect has discarded his campaign-trail vow not to sign any other legislation until the act is passed, but most expect he will insist on it after insurance issues are addressed.

"If he holds to that, we'll have to work our way through it and that could slow some things down if there's no consensus," said Rep. Mark Mahon, R-Jacksonville.

Last week, Crist said he will have "strong recommendations" regarding insurance legislation, but wouldn't reveal his other priorities before his inaugural speech.

Legislators, however, say a long, ugly list of problems is ahead.

Mahon and Sen. Jim King, Jacksonville's senior senator and the incoming chairman of a key rules and calendar committee in the Senate, said lowering property taxes will be close behind insurance on the state's top priorities.

Rising insurance rates and property taxes have combined to create housing crises in many parts of the state. Legislators are considering several solutions, such as doubling the state's $25,000 homestead exemption and allowing homeowners to transfer it when they move. A gubernatorial task force is studying the problem, but consensus among lawmakers is unclear.

"It's a front-burner issue," King said. "Taxes are going up so much that people with fixed or even moderate incomes are finding it difficult to pay."

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton will be watching the tax debate closely. Peyton took a special trip to Tallahassee last year to press legislators to consider the impact of such property tax cuts on local governments' revenue-gathering abilities. Duval County would be hit hard, Peyton said.

"There is no taxing district for hospitals here. We have one of the lowest ... [property tax rates] among the major metropolitan areas in the state. There's no garbage or stormwater fee. And we're fast-growing," said Peyton spokeswoman Susie Wiles. "So when there's talk about taking away our ability to raise money, it's a concern. …

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