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County agrees on legislative program
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Pinellas County Commissioners will be keeping a close eye on a rather lengthy list of items that might come up during the 2013 session of the Florida Legislature.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners will be keeping a close eye on a rather lengthy list of items that might come up during the 2013 session of the Florida Legislature.

Tax Collector Diane Nelson started the discussion at the commission’s regular Feb. 12 meeting with a request for support of proposed House Bill 421 that would lower the interest rate on delinquent real property tax certificates from 18 percent down to 12 percent.

Several years ago, a movement to lower the interest rate failed, she said. The rate increased from 12 percent in the 1970s to 18 percent in the 1980s. The intent of HB 421 is to provide relief for Florida families by helping those who are trying to make their tax payments.

Nelson actually advocates a different way of setting the interest rate, taking the prime rate plus a certain percentage. She suggested that the same method be applied to tangible personal property.

“Let the market drive the rate, not law and give relief to the taxpayers,” she said. “Let’s give everyone tax relief if we can and look at what is best for the whole state.”

Assistant County Administrator Carl Harness presented the rest of the 2013 legislative package, which includes all the items county staff plans to monitor during this year’s meeting of state lawmakers. The county’s lobbying team from the Pennington Law Firm in Tallahassee will manage the legislative program on a day-to-day basis.

Harness said much of this year’s program is carryovers from previous years. The county remains opposed to any state action that would create unfunded mandates. The commission continues to support maintaining funding for beach nourishment. It also supports funding for the county’s health department and opposes any legislation that would reduce or eliminate the ability for it to provide primary health care services.

Pinellas supports juvenile justice reforms to reduce its financial obligations for detention, revise current billing structures and create collaboration and incentives to benefit youth and cut costs.

The commission supports additional legislation and rules for regulating designer and synthetic drugs and creating consistent enforcement, including proactive and rapid elimination of emerging products. Commissioners also support legislation that would help fight prescription drug abuse.

Other items the commission intends to support include an amendment to allow use of Penny for Pinellas tax (infrastructure sales tax) to pay for operations or maintenance, legislation that would reduce inmate medical expenses, revision of Medicaid billing and science-based nutrient criteria to monitor the state’s water quality.

On the list of items to oppose is any legislation that would pre-empt local fertilizer ordinances passed prior to July 1, 2011, including Pinellas County’s ordinance. The commission opposes any benefit change that would result in a substantial increase in the county’s contribution to the Florida Retirement System.

Commissioner John Morroni objected to only opposing a substantial increase. He is opposed to any increase.

Pinellas’ lobbying team will oppose any actions that would adversely affect the sheriff’s ability to maintain jail population and control costs. Legislation that would prevent local governments from collecting a local business tax will be opposed. The county does not now collect a business tax but would like to preserve its right to do so if needed in the future.

The commission is opposed to any state action that would reduce Pinellas County’s representation on the Southwest Florida Water Management District board and any legislation that would reduce or eliminate control of air quality at the local level.

Harness suggested adding opposition to a bill that would allow authorized physicians to dispense and fill prescriptions for workers compensation claims. The issue is physicians have less regulation and supervision when filling prescriptions than pharmacies and can charge higher prices, thus inflating the price. In addition, there is the potential for the misuse, the same as with prescription drugs dispensed at pain clinics.

County Attorney Jim Bennett pointed out that pharmacies also track interactions between prescriptions, something doctors don’t have to do.

Harness informed the board of HB 439 and Senate Bill 258 that would allow counties and municipalities to restrict smoking on outdoor property. Currently state law controls where smoking is permitted and preempts local governments' rules.

The commission was undecided about legislation that would allow express lanes – toll lanes in Pinellas. The consensus was that more information was needed.

The original legislative package contained support for a statewide ban on assault weapons, which was removed from the final version. Several residents spoke in opposition of the ban at a meeting Jan. 29.

Commissioner Janet Long spoke Feb. 12 in support of doing more to control guns via a more thorough background check. She said current law does not require that a background check include a history of domestic violence or mental illness.

“We need to move forward to strengthen and clarify what is needed for a background check,” she said.

Bennett said by state law, the county could not do anything independently to control guns.

“But we can talk with our legislatures about how to make our communities safer and stronger,” he said.

Long asked that it happen.

“I would support having that conversation,” Commission Chair Ken Welch said.

Commissioner Norm Roche also wants to talk to legislators about a statewide domestic partner registry that would be less costly and cumbersome than different counties and cities doing it on their own.

Commissioner Karen Seel said she would support the matter only if the state used the language contained in Pinellas’ ordinance.

“I’m interested in doing it as long as it uses the language we passed,” Seel said.

Long said past attempts to get it done at the state level had died in committee.

The commissioners will present their legislative package to the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation on Feb. 26.
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