Florida lawmakers convened in Tallahassee yesterday to kick off the 2018 legislative session. Leading up to yesterday’s official start, House and Senate members were busy in recent weeks and months holding interim legislative policy and appropriations committee meetings. Throughout this time, key issues were discussed and debated and priorities were outlined and finalized for the session, which will extend through the next 60 days.
Among the matters set for discussion and debate are higher education funding, K-12 education policy, texting while driving, and proposals to combat the opioid crisis, among other important issues. In addition, the state was left reeling after Hurricane Irma last September. As a result of the storm and the damage it caused in numerous regions of the state, lawmakers jumped into action, holding public hearings and legislative meetings to discuss the state’s response and preparedness to Irma, as well as future storms going forward.
Governor Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron (R-Palm City) and House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Lutz) have each outlined their priorities for session. Governor Scott issued his policy and funding recommendations – the largest state budget proposal ever put forward – to the legislature back in November. The Governor’s plan includes a four percent increase in per-student spending for K-12 schools, as well as a renewed ask for transportation and infrastructure funding and increased health care spending on issues like opioids and mental health services. On the Senate side, President Negron is pushing for increasing funding for the Bright Futures scholarship program to 100 percent of tuition and fees for Florida’s higher education students, as well as funding Florida Forever, the state’s land buying program. Speaker Corcoran remains focused on cutting government waste, boosting policy and funding for charter schools, banning sanctuary cities in Florida, and has expressed a commitment to pass legislation to combat texting while driving.
While lawmakers typically stray from issues considered too controversial during election years, differing priorities will most likely bring some contention between officials over the next 60 days, with House and Senate members already set to square off over education spending. In addition, more than half of Governor Scott’s proposed increase for education funding would come from local property taxes – an issue that will likely be a fight between the Governor and House lawmakers.
Tallahassee has not been immune to the national focus surrounding sexual harassment. In addition to the legislative work outlined above for session, Senate lawmakers have recently dealt with other substantial issues – primarily, the resignation of powerful Senate Budget Chief Jack Latvala amidst allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. In the wake of Latvala’s departure, Northeast Florida Senator Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) was appointed by Senate leaders to take over the powerful post. In addition, yesterday’s session began with two powerful senators issuing a joint statement apologizing to their families and constituents for having an affair that was the subject of an anonymous blog and accompanying video.
While the state economy is strong overall with low unemployment, Florida’s budget is in a much different state due to tax cuts and annual increased spending on programs like Medicaid. And while original projections completed last year had the state with a budget surplus of about $52 million, much of that number was wiped out by Hurricane Irma. As a result, lawmakers started the session yesterday with a commitment to passing a trimmed down, efficient budget for the state in 2018-2019.
In November, Governor Scott released his $87.4 billion recommended budget for the coming year. The Governor’s plan includes $180 million in tax cuts – the smallest proposed during his tenure in office. In addition, the plan proposes a four percent increase in Florida’s K-12 funding, but relies on property tax revenues to fund half of the increase – which will likely be an issue for debate this session. While the Governor increases funding for the Bright Futures scholarship program, he calls for a small decrease in funds for state universities. The Governor’s proposed health care budget allocates funding for combating opioids and providing mental health services and, in a change from previous years, includes no cuts to the state’s public hospitals. The Governor has also requested environmental funding to repair the Lake Okeechobee dike, address beach renourishment and beach erosion issues, and fund septic tank conversion programs.
Education funding looks to be a major priority for legislative leaders and the Governor this session, but each side seems to have differing ideas of how funds should be allocated and what programs should be increased or not. While the Senate is committed to increasing higher education spending – specifically, the Bright Futures program, the House looks to be taking a different stance, focusing on funding for Public Education Capital Outlay (“PECO”) projects. House Budget Chairman Carlos Trujillo (R-Doral) expressed during a committee meeting last year that the state may want to hold on PECO funding for new projects in 2018-19 and instead focus on fulfilling commitments for unfinished projects.
Hurricane Response and Preparedness
Last fall Florida was hit with powerful Hurricane Irma, which led to the largest evacuation in state history and caused the unfortunate deaths of 14 Floridians due to a power outage at a nursing home. Following the storm, Speaker Corcoran appointed a team of House members from across the state to serve on a Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness to discuss and determine the best ways for the state to respond to Irma issues, as well as prepare for future storms going forward.
As the committee continued its work, members narrowed down specific issues to address, including power supply at assisted living facilities, availability and accessibility of fuel in times of emergency, and the strength and efficiency of the state’s electric grid, among other matters. Lawmakers are also factoring in the extensive damage in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria, and how that might impact our state budget.
The Governor and Senate have already been at odds over the Governor’s use of funds in the days following Hurricane Irma, and it looks like the House and Senate may disagree over how hurricane funds should be allocated and spent. Governor Scott has also issued a request for the legislature to double the state’s emergency management budget. Environmental funding will be key, as it’s estimated that beach erosion costs could total around $350 million post-Irma. These matters will factor largely into budget discussions this session.
Florida’s education system has always been a top priority for lawmakers and is again set to be the biggest issue discussed and debated during the 2018 legislative session. With regarding to the state’s K-12 budget, Governor Scott is pushing for a four percent increase in spending over last year. However, the Governor wants to use local property taxes to fund more than half of this increase – a point of contention between the Governor and House leaders.
On the House side, most of the efforts will focus on programs relating to charter schools in Florida. Speaker Corcoran has announced his support of legislation to offer scholarship funds, known as the “Hope Scholarship Program,” for students who face bullying or abuse in public schools to attend charter schools instead. This will be a priority for the House this session. There is also the ongoing issue of Speaker Corcoran’s omnibus “Schools of Hope” legislation, which passed last year and is currently being weighed by the courts. The legislation, known as an education “train,” was overwhelmingly supported in the House but ultimately received final passage on the last day of the 2017 session as part of a deal brokered between the House and Senate. The charter school-friendly measure is being challenged before the Florida Supreme Court by a coalition of school boards throughout the state, who argue the legislation undermines local control of public schools. Last month state education officials released their proposal to implement the legislation, which will be considered by the State Board of Education.
Lawmakers have already placed key focus on higher education policy and funding issues in Florida leading up to the start of session. Boosting funds for the Bright Futures scholarship program has long been a priority for Senate President Negron, and he has committed to passing the measure this year. Negron is also looking to restore the second-level Bright Futures scholarship, the Medallion Scholar Award, which would cover 75 percent of tuition. Senate lawmakers have also heard Negron’s full higher education agenda, which includes measures to improve four-year graduation rates. The legislation has already passed through its assigned committees and is set to be taken up for a full Senate vote later this week.
At this time, the House is taking a different stance on funding for higher education, with House budget leaders looking to tighten the reins on spending rather than increase funding this year. Several House members have expressed concern about the availability of funds for such substantial increases. However, Speaker Corcoran has expressed support for President Negron’s overall plans for both state universities and community colleges.
On the policy side, Senate lawmakers will consider legislation to create a new state board to govern the state’s community college system. The measure would also put requirements in place to ensure community colleges are serving “local education needs” before expanding degree programs.
Environment and Land Use
Environment and water issues have been some of the most discussed and debated in recent years, particularly last year, with the legislature’s passage of a measure to address issues around Lake Okeechobee. This year, spending for environmental land use programs will again be a key issue for lawmakers. On the Senate side, Senator Rob Bradley, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee as well as the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation, has filed legislation to provide annual funding of $100 million for Florida Forever, the state land conservation program. Members will also focus on spending for beach renourishment and beach erosion – particularly areas impacted by Hurricane Irma – with legislation filed in both chambers to ensure $50 million in annual state funds for beach programs. Senator Bradley is also looking to increase spending on rehabilitation projects for the St. Johns River, as well as springs protection programs in Florida.
In addition, continuing the issue passed last year, Governor Scott has requested $50 million from the legislature for funds to repair the dike around Lake Okeechobee, as well as funding for Everglades restoration.
Health care has been a contentious topic among Florida lawmakers for several years now, with differences between the two chambers typically surrounding the state’s Medicaid program. Last year, however, the big health care debate centered around legislative proposals to cut funding for hospitals. The issue ultimately resulted in a three-day extension of session.
Health care costs remain the largest expense for the state, accounting for more than 30% of the state’s spending budget. Membership in the state’s Medicaid program is expected to grow annually for the next several years. However, with Florida utilizing a portion of the $1.5 billion handed down from the federal government to cover some health care costs for underinsured patients, overall Medicaid spending is expected to be less this year.
On the health care policy end, lawmakers are placing a key focus this year on working to combat the state’s opioid crisis – an issue plaguing states across the nation. Members are looking to increase funds for programs and make changes to the way health care professionals treat patients with opioid addiction issues. Governor Scott has made this a key priority this year, proposing $50 million in funding for programs and supporting legislation to implement new policies like a three-day limit on prescribed opioids. There are also other bills filed on this issue, with a Senate measure aiming to limit prescriptions to seven days and allow refills for only 30 days.
In addition, members will again consider direct primary care legislation which would enable patients to contract directly with doctors for basic health services, as well as other health care measures relating to telehealth, a proposal to eliminate the “certificate of need” process which regulates the building of hospitals in Florida, as well as a measure to allow ambulatory surgery centers to hold patients for up to 24 hours, among other measures.
Lawmakers will also focus this session on mental health services and funding, with Governor Scott proposing increased spending for mental health programs and the Senate considering legislation to better treat mental health patients in order to avoid events like mass shootings. In addition, a measure has been filed in the House to rework state laws regarding trauma centers and where they can be opened in the state.
Economic Development, Taxes and Incentives
While economic development and job creation have been the top priorities of Governor Scott during his time leading the state, those issues were under heavy scrutiny by the legislature last year. Leading the charge was House Speaker Corcoran, who labeled the programs and incentives “corporate welfare” and looked to cut funding to Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida in last year’s budget. However, in a late budget deal reached between the Governor and Speaker, an agreement was made to restore funds for Visit Florida and create the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, which provided $85 million for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (“DEO”) and Florida Department of Transportation (“FDOT”) for public infrastructure projects and workforce training grants. This was undoubtedly one of the most highly debated issues last session.
This year, Governor Scott has requested a $24 million increase for Visit Florida. This request has not been received well by some House lawmakers who again question the efficiency of and need for an organization like Visit Florida. Other economic development proposals for consideration this session include legislation in both chambers aiming to prohibit local governments from utilizing tax dollars for professional sports stadiums.
Considering budget projections released in recent months showing limited surplus dollars due to increased spending and decreased taxes, Governor Scott proposed just $180 million in tax cuts in his budget recommendations. This is the smallest number of cuts the Governor has proposed in his time in office. The Governor’s request includes two sales tax holidays – one for back to school supplies and the other for hurricane preparedness supplies.
Transportation and Infrastructure
Lawmakers will consider several bills relating to transportation innovation and infrastructure this session. Members in both chambers have been largely focused on the issue of autonomous vehicles, with legislation filed to authorize vehicles with this technology in Florida. Members will also consider legislation relating to prohibiting the operation of drones in certain locations, the use of electric and hybrid vehicles in Florida, as well as “Florida Smart City Challenge Grant Program” legislation, which would provide funding through FDOT for local transportation initiatives.
In his proposed budget, Governor Scott allowed for $740 million in new debt for transportation projects, which would focus mostly on right-of-way and bridge construction projects. In addition, each session the House and Senate transportation committees put forth their respective legislative packages, which include priorities outlined by the Florida Department of Transportation and Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles for the year. These bills have not yet been filed for the session but are typically heavily debated and amended throughout the 60-day period.
Legislation was recently filed in both chambers to ban oil and gas hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in Florida. One member also filed a bill to place the issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. This topic has been considered and debated by lawmakers in recent years. However, the issue recently became headline news when President Trump announced plans just after the New Year to open the majority of the Outer Continental Shelf off the U.S. Coast, including Florida, for offshore drilling. Drilling off of Florida’s coast is an issue that has long been opposed by Governor Scott. The Governor immediately announced his intention to meet with members of the administration to have Florida removed from the federal plans. Just yesterday, federal officials announced that Florida would be exempt from the new offshore drilling plans.
Other energy issues up for consideration this session center largely around Hurricane Irma and the massive power outage Floridians were left to deal with in the storm’s aftermath. The situation led to scrutiny of Florida’s utility and power policies and members are looking to address the issues before the state faces future storms. One measure filed would prevent utilities from charging Floridians during large service outages.
Texting While Driving
Speaker Richard Corcoran recently announced plans to push legislation that would increase punishment on texting while driving offenses. This issue has been discussed and debated in various forms among legislators for years, but Speaker Corcoran has expressed a commitment this year to cracking down on the issue. While previously passed legislation would technically ban texting while driving, it is currently only considered a secondary offense. This means law enforcement officers cannot pull a driver over for texting or suspicion of texting alone. The legislation supported by Speaker Corcoran this year would make texting while driving a primary offense, which means drivers could be stopped for that violation alone and could face strict penalties if cited.
The topic of potentially expanding gaming in Florida has been debated by lawmakers for the past several years. Measures for gambling expansion in the state, particularly in South Florida, have been strongly backed by Vegas-style casinos, but have ultimately failed to pass through the legislative process. Another factor in Florida’s gambling equation is the state’s gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Preliminary estimates show that a gaming deal would potentially provide the state a revenue boost of around $300 million per year – an amount that could help fund the state’s big ticket items like education and Medicaid. While Senator Travis Hutson (R-Palm Coast) filed a more limited measure this session, gaming bills are always complex and uncertain and typically run through the final week of session. There is also legislation filed this session that would exempt fantasy sports from current gaming regulations, making fantasy sports legal in Florida. In addition, a powerful coalition of anti-gambling groups is working hard to push a petition to place an anti-gambling amendment on the 2018 ballot. The Seminole Tribe is supportive of this amendment and has reportedly contributed $1 million to the group.
There is much to be decided and much at stake in the legislature in the coming months, with critical state policy and funding issues up for discussion. While the session officially kicked off yesterday, work actually started last fall and has been steady since that time. As the work of lawmakers continues, issues are evolving and changing at a rapid pace.
The session is scheduled to wrap up on Friday, March 9th.