Legislative Session Update – March 2017

Florida lawmakers convened in Tallahassee yesterday to kick off the 2017 legislative session. However, despite yesterday’s official start, House and Senate members actually began their session work months ago, and have been particularly busy in recent weeks holding interim legislative policy and appropriations committee meetings. Throughout this time, key issues have been discussed and debated, and priorities have been outlined and finalized for the session, which will extend through the next two months.

All indications are that the 2017 session will be an interesting and possibly contentious one. Late last year a new class of leaders assumed their positions in each chamber, including Senate President Joe Negron (R-Palm City) and House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Lutz). In addition, 66 new members were sworn in after the general election last November.

Both chambers are set to address major issues this session, including proposals relating to gaming laws, the state’s public education system, and numerous health care issues, as well as overhauls of the state’s economic development programs and gun laws, implementation of the medical marijuana amendment, and a rewrite of the state’s workers’ compensation statute, among other issues. Speaker Corcoran has also outlined a new set of House rules for his tenure leading the chamber. The new policies include registration requirements for lobbyists, as well as rules that aim to make the budget process more transparent. Late last week leaders in both chambers announced a new rule for the joint budget process going forward. That rule was passed when members convened for session yesterday.

Governor Scott released his session priorities and budget recommendations in February. The Governor and the legislature are already at odds, with the House considering legislation to eliminate many of the state’s economic programs and incentives. This is a move the Governor heavily opposes, with economic development being his main priority throughout his tenure in office. The fight over this issue has the potential to upset the priorities of House and Senate lawmakers, and could have a major impact on the outcome of the session.

As is typical in Florida, politics will likely play a key role in this year’s session, with many of the state’s current executive and legislative leaders having future aspirations and plans to run for other or higher office. With so much at stake, numerous difficult issues to be addressed, and an ever-changing environment for lawmakers to work in, some predict this year could resemble the 2015 session, when members were unable to pass a budget on time as is constitutionally required, and had to reconvene for a special session to do so. However, many are hopeful that the newly passed joint budget rule will help keep session running smoothly and members working together to achieve their legislative objectives.

Provided below is a summary of some of the key issues and priorities for session. Members are currently hard at work discussing and debating these matters, and issues are evolving at a very fast pace.


Budget

Last month, Governor Scott released his proposed $83.5 billion budget – an increase of around $1.2 billion from last year. The Governor’s proposal includes a large amount of tax cuts, as well as a continued increase in funding for state education programs. However, the Governor’s recommendations – particularly the $618 million in proposed tax cuts – have been met with resistance from lawmakers who are concerned about potential future budget shortfalls.

Expressing a commitment to make the state budget process more transparent, this session Speaker Corcoran announced a new process for the House to hear and approve projects and programs funded by the state. This includes requiring House members to file individual budget bills for appropriations projects and for those bills to be considered and heard by committees. At this time, there have been well over 1,000 budget bills filed in the House for member projects.

The Senate expressed some resistance at the new, stringent rules – particularly the timeline outlined by the House. However, late last week Speaker Corcoran and President Negron announced a new, agreed-upon rule as a compromise between the two chambers. Under the rule, passed by lawmakers yesterday, any member projects funded in the final budget must be included in the initial budgets passed by the House or Senate. This will keep last-minute projects that are not vetted through the full process out of the budget bill passed by members at the end of session.


Economic Development and Incentives

Throughout his time as leader of the state, Governor Rick Scott has made boosting economic development in Florida his number one priority. Over the years, these efforts have included a number of tax cuts and proposals to increase funding for economic incentive programs in an effort to draw companies and jobs to Florida. However, these incentives have been under scrutiny in recent years, with many questioning the effectiveness of the programs and whether or not the state funding that backs them is money well-spent. In February, a report released by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) highlighted possible inefficiencies in the programs, which have been allocated nearly $600 million in recent years.

Considering these concerns and Speaker Corcoran’s dedication to “cleaning up” state government, the House has proposed a measure to eliminate the majority of the state’s economic development programs. This proposal has resulted in a large amount of tension between the Governor’s office and the House, with the Governor and Speaker on opposing sides of the issue. This will also likely be a source of contention between the House and Senate, with the Senate arguing the importance of many of the programs to the state.

The current House economic development proposals, which were heard in committee this week, would completely eliminate Enterprise Florida and cut funding to Visit Florida by two-thirds. On the Senate side, legislation is being considered to overhaul Enterprise Florida rather than eliminate it. The Senate proposal aims to boost economic development for small businesses and enforce stricter rules on the functions of the state’s economic development agencies.

This will undoubtedly be one of the most interesting issues to watch this session, as the legislature’s actions could put many member priorities, particularly those in the House, on the line with Governor Scott.


Education

Last month, legislative appropriations committees and subcommittees met to discuss budget priorities – those of the Governor, leaders in both chambers, and member budget projects in the House. During that time, Speaker Corcoran announced his commitment to a continued increase in funding for the state’s public schools. However, Speaker Corcoran has also committed to increasing the funding without raising property taxes – another sticking point between the Governor and the lower chamber.

One of the biggest issues in Florida’s education policy in recent years has been the debate over standardized testing in the state’s K-12 schools. Members have considered and passed a number of proposals over the years and this session the efforts will continue, with both chambers introducing legislation to change the time period for testing and possibly replace some of the state’s standardized tests with alternate exams. Members will also look at the funding formula for the state’s K-12 districts, with legislation calling for a study of the “district cost differential” to examine funding for districts in different areas across the state. Also with regard to funding, members are again considering proposals that would require school districts to share construction funds, raised by local taxes, with charter schools.

In addition, state lawmakers are considering funding for programs to increase teacher recruitment and retention. This funding would be an expansion of the current “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus program.

On the higher education front, House and Senate lawmakers will consider a number of potential significant changes this session, including a renewed proposal to limit the mission and powers of Florida’s state college system. The legislation has long been a priority of Senate leadership and would create a new governing board over state colleges. The measure would also limit the ability of state colleges to offer four-year degrees. In addition, members will consider comprehensive higher education legislation to expand the current Bright Futures scholarship program and enforce additional, stricter graduation standards at the state’s public universities.


Energy, Environment and Land Issues

Environment and water issues will be some of the most discussed and debated this session. Key among them is a Senate proposal to address water quality and discharge issues in Lake Okeechobee and its surrounding land and water bodies. This matter is shaping up to be one of the biggest issues of the session and is currently very fluid, as it was discussed in a Senate Committee today.

In addition, lawmakers are currently working to determine the best way to distribute funds from the 2010 BP oil spill to eight counties throughout the Panhandle area. Members will also consider a new bill filed by Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala (R-St. Petersburg), which would implement significant changes to the way the state manages its beaches. Citing a number of problems with beach renourishment issues in coastal communities throughout the state, Chair Latvala proposes setting aside $50 million in funding for beach renourishment and inlet management projects.

Legislators will also work this session to implement Amendment 4, passed during the primary election last August, which extends the state’s solar tax exemption to businesses as well as residences.


Gaming

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.

The House and Senate have now introduced their respective gaming proposals for session – and there are stark differences between the two plans. With Speaker Corcoran opposed to gambling, the House proposal mostly addresses the state’s gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, establishing a new 20-year compact with the tribe. On the Senate side, the measure includes potential expansion of gaming to include new slots and blackjack in South Florida, in addition to establishing a new compact with the tribe. The House bill explicitly bans new slot licenses in the state, and aims to limit the ability of counties to pass their own measures relating to slots. With such vast differences in their proposals, gaming is almost certain to become an issue of strong contention between the two chambers as session moves forward.


Guns

House and Senate members will consider a number of measures this session relating to gun laws in Florida. Several bills have been filed for consideration in the House, including “campus carry,” a measure to allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry firearms on college and university campuses, as well as a proposal to allow weapons in certain areas of airports, government meetings, and courthouses, among other locations where bans are currently in place. The House will even consider a measure allowing concealed weapons permit-holders to sue businesses that ban firearms for damages in the event that an incident occurs. It is uncertain at this time whether any of the House measures will be supported in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Senate members are considering a new “Stand Your Ground” proposal, which would shift the burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors during pre-trial hearings. The measure would require prosecutors to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, why a defendant couldn’t claim they “stood their ground” in an applicable situation. Many issues relating to firearms are currently being addressed at the state court level as well, which could impact the final result of many of the session proposals being considered.


Health Care

Health care has been a contentious subject among Florida lawmakers for several years now – mostly regarding the issue of Medicaid expansion. At this time, the state is awaiting federal approval of a three-year extension of Florida’s current Medicaid managed care system. In addition, the state’s safety net hospitals are seeking $1 billion in supplemental Medicaid funding to cover the state’s Low-Income Pool, which provides funding for hospitals to care for low-income patients. Both chambers are now in agreement regarding converting Medicaid into block grants – an issue that will be discussed at length going forward.

In addition, members will consider a long list of health care bills relating to other issues. These include measures addressing direct primary care agreements between doctors and patients, as well as proposals to stop insurance companies from removing prescription medications from plans after contracts are signed. House members have also been working on legislation relating to health maintenance organizations (HMOs) in Florida.

One of the biggest health care issues being considered this session is a proposal to repeal the state’s certificate of need program, which currently requires health providers in Florida to secure a certificate before building new or expanding current facilities. In addition, there is currently a law requiring a cap on trauma centers in Florida, limiting the number of centers to 19. A measure filed in the Senate aims to eliminate this cap. Members are also considering a measure to allow ambulatory surgery centers in Florida to hold patients for up to 24 hours. These issues will be discussed and debated at length as session progresses.


Medical Marijuana

While the issue of medical marijuana was previously considered controversial in Florida, it was overwhelmingly approved by voters last November. The amendment passed during the general election legalizes medical marijuana as treatment for patients with various serious medical conditions. This session, lawmakers have to work to determine how the new law should be implemented.

After several public workshops were held by the Florida Department of Health as part of the state rulemaking process, members began to file proposals to create a system for growth, prescription, and use of medical cannabis in Florida. The proposals address a number of issues surrounding the matter, including the number of licenses for growing and dispensing organizations, product quality and oversight, requirements for doctors prescribing medical marijuana to patients, and conditions eligible for the treatment, among other matters. There are currently several proposals being considered in the Senate, with one comprehensive bill anticipated from the Senate’s Health Policy Committee. The House released its proposed plan yesterday.

Transportation and Infrastructure

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 are typically heavily debated and amended throughout the session. In addition to the comprehensive packages, members are also working on legislation that would keep local governments from regulating ride-sharing companies. The measure has already passed through all House committees and will go before the full chamber for a vote.

Members will also be heavily focused on legislation regarding a controversial Tri-Rail contract awarded by the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which was awarded to a sole bidder and is being reviewed and called into question.


Workers’ Compensation

Florida has been faced with the potential for major changes to its workers’ compensation policies in recent years, with the tipping point coming last year as a result of two landmark Florida Supreme Court decisions. Prior to the rulings, it had been about 14 years since the state enacted any major changes to the workers’ compensation system. The major effect of the rulings is a 14.5% increase in rates. As a result, lawmakers will be very focused on this issue during session.

Members have already held a number of meetings and workshops over recent weeks to discuss this issue and, late last week, a proposal was released in the Senate. The House proposal was discussed in committee yesterday. The measures address key components of the overall equation, including attorney fees and the rate-making process.

This issue will likely be heavily debated throughout the next 60 days and may not be resolved until the final hours of session.


Going Forward

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. Members kicked off the session yesterday with a series of ceremonial events, but the work actually began just after last year’s general election and has been nearly non-stop since that time. As the work of lawmakers continues at a rapid pace, issues are evolving and changing just as rapidly.

The session is scheduled to wrap up on Friday, May 5th.

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