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Legislative Update: Special Session

Late Friday afternoon Florida lawmakers wrapped up a three-day special session after hours of tense discussion, debate and brokering between leaders to resolve issues relating to the state budget, education, health care and medical marijuana, among other matters. The special session, called at the beginning of the month, followed a tumultuous regular session where contentious budget discussions and differing priorities among legislative and executive leaders resulted in a stalemate on a number of issues and led to the passage of controversial funding measures in the final hours of session.

On May 31st, legislators formally submitted their $82.4 billion spending plan to the Governor’s office. Many predicted the Governor could potentially veto the entire plan, as the Governor and House Speaker Richard Corcoran remained at odds over the Speaker’s cuts to funding for the Governor’s economic development priorities. Many also predicted that the Governor was likely to veto the Speaker’s omnibus education budget conforming bill in retaliation for the cuts to economic development agencies Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida. The education bill, also known as “Schools of Hope,” eases restrictions and provides funding for more charter schools to open throughout the state.

Although the regular session wrapped up on May 8th with tensions between the Speaker and Governor stronger than ever, politics and deal-making between legislative and executive officials led to a surprising agreement regarding special session earlier this month. However, this unofficial agreement ultimately resulted in an all-out battle between the House and Senate during the three-day special session, with Senate President Joe Negron expressing great frustration about deals made between the Governor’s office and the House, and eventually leading his chamber to even override some of the post-session actions taken by the Governor. Provided below is an overview of the special session and the issues considered.


Budget Negotiations

On June 2nd, just two days after Governor Scott received the budget, he called a press conference together with Speaker Corcoran and President Negron. At that time, a three-day special session was officially called for the following week. While many predicted the session would primarily address the medical marijuana issue, it was instead announced at that time that the focus would be a budget deal reached between the Governor and legislative leaders. Under the agreement, funding for Visit Florida would be restored and an additional $85 million would be allocated for other economic development programs. In return, the Governor would sign the comprehensive education funding bill for the state’s public schools – Speaker Corcoran’s “Schools of Hope” legislation. In addition, lawmakers agreed increase K-12 education funding by $215 million. That same day, Governor Scott signed the state budget into law. However, in order to fund both the education and economic development increases and programs, the Governor freed up around $410 million in the budget by vetoing nearly 400 projects. This move dealt a heavy blow to numerous organizations and institutions around the state, as well as the lawmakers who worked hard throughout the session to ensure funding for these now-vetoed projects.

While the initial call for the special session was a fairly simple one – Florida Education Finance Program funding and economic development funding – in the days following the announcement, the agenda was expanded to include medical marijuana legislation, a review of higher education funding, and consideration of funding for Lake Okeechobee dike repairs. In addition, Senate members considered a measure to restore some of the funding cut from state hospitals during the regular session.

The overall budget discussions were tense throughout the three-day special session. As negotiations broke down, President Negron expressed just before the final day that the original agreement reached between the Governor’s office and lawmakers was, in fact, just between the Governor and Speaker and had received no input from the Senate. At that time, it looked as though the special session would end without resolution on any of the items presented. However, members ultimately compromised and jointly supported an $11.7 billion House spending bill which provides funding for economic development and infrastructure, boosts K-12 education funding by $215 million, restores $60 million in funding for higher education projects recently vetoed by the Governor, and provides state dollars in effort to speed up federal repairs of the Lake Okeechobee dike.


Economic Development

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 this year. Leading the charge was House Speaker Corcoran, who labeled the programs and incentives “corporate welfare,” and ultimately, together with the Senate, cut funding to Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida in the 2017-18 budget passed by lawmakers and sent to the Governor. This issue was one of the most heavily discussed and debated during the regular session and caused a political rift between Corcoran and Scott, leading many to speculate that the entire budget could be at stake as a result.

However, in his late budget deal reached with the Governor, Speaker Corcoran agreed to restore funds for Visit Florida at the current amount – $76 million. In addition, House members proposed legislation to create the “Florida Job Growth Grant Fund,” which would provide $85 million in funds for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (“DEO”) and Florida Department of Transportation (“FDOT”) for public infrastructure projects and workforce training grants.

On the Senate side, members took issue with some of the provisions in the House measure, including public-private match requirements for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, as well as the details of the additional $85 million in infrastructure funding, which the Senate criticized for a lack of oversight. Senate members were also particularly concerned with the fact that the proposal basically resulted from negotiations between the Governor and the House, with little input from the upper chamber. Ultimately, amendments offered to the economic development legislation on the Senate side were voted down. However, the House did agree to language supported by Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala relating to local tourist development funds. The final result of the special session includes the full current funding for Visit Florida and the $85 million in new funding for infrastructure projects.


K-12 Education Funding

One of the key issues addressed by lawmakers this year was the “Schools of Hope” bill – a priority of Speaker Corcoran. The measure, which allocates funding and puts provisions in place to make it easier for charter schools to open in areas where traditional public schools are failing or struggling, was ultimately included in language passed in the final hours of the regular session. This legislation, originally thought to be doomed once it reached the Governor’s desk, was eventually included in the budget deal reached between the Governor’s office and Speaker Corcoran. While the Governor did not verbally commit to sign the bill, which was submitted last night, it is understood that he will support the measure in exchange for his economic development priorities.

In addition to the unofficial deal reached, Governor Scott expressed during the pre-special session press conference that he intended to veto the legislature’s funding for public schools and instead provide an additional $215 million in spending for a $100 per-student increase. This issue became one of the most debated of the special session, with President Negron expressing early last week that he planned to fund most of the additional $215 million using local dollars instead of the vetoed funds freed up by Governor Scott. While President Negron announced plans to pull the funds from taxes on new construction rather than property taxes, this led to a showdown between the House and Senate, with the House labeling an increase of the “required local effort” a tax increase, and expressing refusal to concur with the plan.

In addition, a third possible funding scenario was offered – this time from Senator David Simmons, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on PreK-12 Education. Senator Simmons proposed removing funds allocated for the “Schools of Hope” legislation and utilizing it for general operating in the state’s traditional public schools. This only served to increase the tension between the two chambers.

In a surprise move, the Senate voted to override the Governor’s veto of the public school funding in the budget passed by members during the regular session, citing the move as an “insurance policy” for public schools in case special session ended with no resolution on the matter. However, the House remained adamantly opposed to this and any other veto overrides.

Ultimately, both chambers agreed to include the funding in one comprehensive piece of budget legislation offered by the House. This includes the additional $215 million in funds for Florida’s K-12 schools. The final language passed makes no change to the current required local effort for school funding.


Higher Education Funding

While not included in the original “call” (or agenda) of special session, higher education funding became a contentious and debated issue over the three-day work period, with politics heavily at play. Despite Senator Negron’s presence at the press conference with the Governor and Speaker calling special session, it became clear over time that the unofficial deal regarding K-12 and economic development funding included little input from the Senate. Adding to the already-contentious situation was the decision by the Governor to fund the education and economic development priorities using veto dollars, primarily from projects supported by Senate members. In fact, of the nearly $410 million in vetoed projects, approximately $300 million was stripped from projects sponsored by Senators.

As a result, a frustrated President Negron included higher education funding issues in his memo released last Tuesday and, as the special session kicked off, Senate members convened to override around $75 million of the funds for higher education projects vetoed by Governor Scott. The overrides were again completely opposed by the House and led to an even wider rift between the two chambers.

Ultimately, the issue of higher education funding became one of many items of compromise between the House and Senate in the final hours of special session. The House eventually agreed to restore $60 million of the higher education projects vetoed by the Governor, and included the funds in its comprehensive $11.7 billion funding bill that was ultimately passed.


Medical Marijuana

During the regular session, lawmakers worked to determine the best method for implementing Amendment 2, which was supported by more than 70% of Florida voters last November. While members worked for several months and into the final hours of session on the issue, the two chambers were ultimately unable to come to terms on final language and no legislation was passed to implement the amendment. The key sticking point between the House and Senate surrounded the number of dispensaries each medical marijuana company could operate and how that number should be capped or limited in the state. After session ended with no bill, the Department of Health began working to implement the amendment at the executive level, but ultimately lawmakers picked the issue back up during the special session in order to get policy passed as dictated by Florida voters and establish a framework for growers, prescribers and patients.

The final result was another product of compromise between the two chambers, with members agreeing on a measure to license 10 additional medical marijuana companies by October, with companies limited to 25 retail dispensaries. In addition, language was included to sunset the provision setting the caps in April 2020, as well as language creating a sales tax exemption on medical marijuana. Members also agreed to ban the smoking of medical marijuana, instead allowing patients to use other forms of the medicine.


Funding For Hospitals

Just days before the start of the special session, the Senate announced a proposal to restore a portion of the significant funding cuts to Florida hospitals, which passed as part of the budget approved by lawmakers during the regular session. This issue was heavily argued at that time and caused delays in the budget conference process as leaders in the two chambers worked to negotiate their differences, leading to a three-day extension of the regular session. The cuts made by lawmakers were steep and drastic, totaling just over $520 million. These cuts will fall largely on facilities that serve low-income patients through the Medicaid program – primarily, the state’s safety net hospitals.

The day before the start of the special session, President Negron released a memo announcing that the Senate planned to restore $100 million of the cuts to state hospitals. This proposal was strongly opposed by the House and Governor’s office and ultimately died due to concerns about long term impacts to recurring annual funds for hospitals, as well as a lack of support from the House.


Lake Okeechobee / Herbert Hoover Dike

Key among the policy measures passed by lawmakers during the regular session was a Senate proposal to address water quality and discharge issues in Lake Okeechobee and its surrounding water bodies. The bill passed by lawmakers and approved by Governor Scott provides for 30,000 acres of land already owned by the state to be used for reservoirs for Lake Okeechobee discharges.

In addition, during the regular session, Governor Scott called for lawmakers to provide $200 million for Lake Okeechobee dike repairs, which would allow the Lake to hold more water and reduce the need for discharges. At the time, members in both chambers rejected the call, arguing that the dike is the responsibility of the federal government. However, in a surprise move late in the special session last week, members agreed to provide $50 million in funding for repairs to the dike, which members are hoping will help speed up the federal repair project.


Summary

While lawmakers have officially concluded their work for 2017, there are still several big items up for final approval by the Governor’s office. These include the 278-page “Schools of Hope” measure (HB 7069) as well as a higher education bill (SB 374) passed by lawmakers during the regular session. SB 374 includes provisions scaling back the Florida Community College System – many of which have been longtime priorities of President Negron. With the Governor seeing success on his top issues last week, he will likely sign both bills into law without delay.

Looking back on the three-day special session, it’s difficult to outline winners versus losers, as the Governor and presiding officers all achieved key funding and policy priorities. However, both the regular session and special session this year highlighted vast differences between the two chambers with regard to ideology and methods, and battle lines were drawn over a number of critical issues. With both President Negron and Speaker Corcoran up for another year in their leadership posts, the 2018 session will likely be another one for the books. The fact that it will be an election year will only add to the dynamic.

Once all actions are taken with regard to the 2017 budget and legislation, lawmakers will have a limited amount of time off before reconvening in Tallahassee to prepare for the 2018 session. Since session will take place two months earlier next year, a practice lawmakers are now implementing in election years, members are likely to be back in Tallahassee for committee meetings around September, and will convene to kick off the 2018 session in January.

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Post-Session Legislative Update – May 2017


Last week, Florida lawmakers officially wrapped up the 2017 legislative session. The budget-focused session lasted 63 days, with a three-day extension called as the result of a complex negotiation process to craft a state spending plan for the coming year. Even now there is much uncertainty surrounding session outcomes, with the budget – the only item lawmakers are constitutionally required to address each year – currently being finalized for delivery to Governor Scott for his review and action. The session started with a tumultuous relationship between the House Speaker and the Governor as the result of a House proposal to eliminate state economic development programs. The bad blood lasted throughout the more than two-month process, and many speculate the Governor could wield heavy use of his veto pen this year, or even veto the entire budget, as a result.

The 2017 session could largely be viewed as a mixed bag. While Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran both saw successful passage of their main priorities, numerous other key issues that were considered critical for lawmakers to address died without agreement between the two chambers. These included reforming state workers’ compensation laws to help businesses stave off the potential impacts of a looming significant rate increase, and implementing the medical marijuana amendment overwhelmingly supported by Florida voters last fall. In addition, while members were able to agree on an $83 billion state budget, the spending plan passed implements more than $500 million in cuts to Florida hospitals – many of which are already strapped due to a largely uninsured or underinsured patient population. In fact, the budget seems to be the biggest sore spot for session critics. This year, legislation known as budget conforming bills seemed to play a bigger role than ever. Several conforming bills, which do not fall under the same rules and requirements as general budget items and cannot be amended on the House or Senate floor, included a great deal of substantive policy issues in the final hours of session.

Delays in the budget process throughout session were caused largely by ideological differences and a complicated relationship between the leaders in the Senate and the House. Ultimately, members were able to come to terms, with both sides making a number of concessions to finalize and pass a plan. Speaker Corcoran saw numerous successes. A vocal critic of the state’s economic development programs, which he refers to as “corporate welfare,” the Speaker ensured funding for the programs was significantly scaled back. He is also a staunch supporter of charter schools and oversaw the passage of landmark education legislation to make it easier for charter schools to open statewide. In addition, the Speaker is a strong opponent of any expansion of gambling in Florida, and new gaming measures failed to pass this session. On the Senate side, President Negron also achieved success on his biggest priorities – passage of legislation to address issues with water storage around Lake Okeechobee, which has already been signed into law by Governor Scott, as well as significant reductions in funding for the state college system (formerly community colleges), and increased funding for the state university system.

On the executive side, Governor Scott’s biggest priorities throughout his tenure in office have been jobs and economic development. With significant reductions in funding for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, the Governor has expressed a strong amount of concern and dissatisfaction with the results of session. It will be interesting to see what actions he takes on the budget in the coming weeks. He has the ability to strike individual line items, or even veto the entire budget, and has indicated more than once that he will consider doing so in response to what he sees as a lack of transparency in the process this year.

Additionally, there has been near constant talk since session ended of a special session to address medical marijuana and other possible issues. While there is no indication of when a special session would take place, the possibility is supported by Speaker Corcoran. For a special session to happen, it would either need to be called by the Governor or called jointly by the House Speaker and Senate President.


Budget

In Florida, the legislature is constitutionally required to pass a balanced state budget each year. Many predicted the 2017 appropriations process would be one of the most contentious in recent years. Considering the session was extended due to lengthy, complex budget negotiations, the reality may have even exceeded those expectations. There were a number of big issues at stake this year, including the fate of the state’s economic development agencies, boosts in funding for Florida’s K-12 schools, and hundreds of millions in spending for district or “member” projects.

The plans passed by each chamber in April were around $4 billion apart. While the House proposed a limited, trimmed-down budget, Senate members allocated more in spending for various programs. With the two sides unable to agree on total funding allocations for various sections of the budget until late in session, the conference process was delayed by more than a week, and negotiations stalled several times throughout the final week of session – with members “bumping” numerous items to budget chairs and presiding officers to address. These included a controversial proposal to make $600 million in cuts to Florida’s already strapped hospitals.

Ultimately, conforming bills – legislation conforming state law to each section of the budget – were a key component of the contentious budget process. The 15 conforming bills became more complex and critical than ever this session, with many loaded up with numerous policy changes – including a controversial education funding measure passed the final day of session. While the actual budget bill comes with a required 72-hour “cooling off” period, conforming bills do not have the same requirement. The controversial provisions tacked onto those bills in the final days of session became the ultimate showdown between lawmakers, with both sides eventually making concessions – the Senate more so than the House – so that the $83 billion spending plan could be voted on and prepared for the Governor, and the 2017 session could finally wrap up.


Economic Development and Incentives

Throughout his time as leader of the state, Governor Scott has made economic development and jobs his top priorities. Over the years, these efforts have included a number of tax cuts and proposals to increase funding for economic incentive programs 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. Leading the charge has been Speaker Corcoran, who released a proposal early in session to eliminate the majority of the state’s economic development programs. This proposal caused tension between the Governor’s office and the House, which lasted throughout the more than 60 days of session.

The two agencies under scrutiny this session were Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida. While many predicted this could be one of the biggest showdowns of the session between the two chambers, the funding was agreed upon fairly early in the process compared to other issues, with members allocating $16 million for Enterprise Florida and $25 million for Visit Florida. However, late in the process Speaker Corcoran added language in the conforming bill that tied the funding for Visit Florida to new rules regarding travel and employee salaries. The language was eventually accepted by the Senate. These efforts are not likely to sit well with Governor Scott, who called for $100 million in funding for Visit Florida and more than $100 million for Enterprise Florida. While reports early in session indicated Speaker Corcoran was building enough support to override any potential veto by Governor Scott, the bill is actually five votes short of being veto-proof.

In addition to economic development, members also passed legislation relating to property taxes – another priority of Speaker Corcoran. Under the measure, a constitutional amendment will be placed on the 2018 ballot to expand the state’s homestead exemption program by an additional $25,000.


Education

During the recent session, as in most years, members addressed a number of issues relating to state K-12 and higher education policies and funding. There were numerous education bills considered by members over the past two months – most tied to large amounts of funding and left without final decision until the last moments of session. Many of the K-12 changes were ultimately outlined in nearly 300 pages of budget conforming language released late in the process – an issue criticized by the media and public for being handled behind closed doors rather than in the “sunshine,” as is required by state law. As session ended, education funding and policy became a matter of ultimate compromise between the two chambers, with the Senate accepting Speaker Corcoran’s K-12 priorities, and the House accepting key, longtime priorities of President Negron relating to state colleges and universities. While many Senate members expressed reluctance to support the late-filed language proposed by the House, it was understood that agreement was necessary for session to wrap up.

Key among the K-12 education measures considered this year was the “schools of hope” bill – a priority of Speaker Corcoran. The measure, which allocates funding and puts provisions in place to make it easier for charter schools to open in areas where traditional public schools are failing or struggling, was ultimately included in the language passed. The comprehensive bill, which Speaker Corcoran referred to as “the greatest education K-12 policy passed in the history of the state,” also includes expansion of the “Best and Brightest” bonus program, as well as a measure amending the way local and state funding is shared between charter schools and traditional public schools, and a continuation of efforts to amend and scale back the state’s standardized testing policies. In addition, members addressed issues relating to Title I funding and providing more federal dollars the state receives to charter schools.

On the higher education front, much of the discussion this session surrounded a push by President Negron to make steep funding cuts to state colleges in Florida. While many criticize the move to cut colleges while at the same time boosting funding for state universities, this has been a longtime priority for Negron. The language was included in a comprehensive higher education package passed in the final hours of session to implement the newly-created “College Competitiveness Act.” The measure includes a number of provisions to increase funding for state universities and amend tuition requirements, while implementing new rules regarding the way the state’s 28 state or community colleges are governed. The ultimate result is nearly $8 billion in overall funds for higher education, with roughly $30 million in permanent cuts to state colleges.

Also on the higher education front, members pushed legislation through this session to expand online course services offered by colleges and universities. However, Governor Scott weighed in during the last week of session, expressing concern about the state joining an alliance with schools in other states to offer online programs. Governor Scott wanted to ensure that Florida could withdraw from any alliance or compact. Lawmakers amended the language to reflect the Governor’s request.


Energy, Environment and Land Issues

Environment and water issues were some of the most discussed and debated this session. Key among them was a Senate proposal to address water quality and discharge issues in Lake Okeechobee and its surrounding land and water bodies. What ultimately passed after much debate was a comprehensive plan to provide for Everglades water storage and allocate $800 million in bonding authority for the project. While the original proposal called for the state to acquire 60,000 acres of farmland south of the Lake to build a reservoir, it was highly controversial. The final plan involves utilizing around 30,000 acres of land already owned by the state for reservoirs. The issue will continue next year, with funds for additional state land acquisition already set aside in next year’s budget. The legislation passed by lawmakers this session has already been signed into law by Governor Scott.

Funding for state environment and natural resources programs became one of the most contentious areas of budget negotiations this year. As conference began, Senate leaders had several large priorities for environmental spending, but the House countered on most of them. What resulted is a plan allocating funding for beach recovery and renourishment, hurricane recovery efforts, and more than $100 million for Everglades restoration. The plan also includes $50 million for springs restoration and more than $13 million for St. Johns River and Keystone Heights lake region projects, but no funding for the Florida Forever program. In addition, lawmakers allocated funding to continue implementation of 2014’s Amendment 1, approved by voters for water and land conservation programs. However, this year’s funding has been criticized by environmental groups, as it applies to salaries and benefits and other operational costs instead of actual land conservation.

Lawmakers also focused on various energy and environmental policy issues this session. Key among them was legislation to implement a solar amendment approved by voters during the primary election last August. The measure passed by members extends the state’s solar tax exemption to businesses as well as residences. It will now be sent to Governor Scott for approval. Members also filed proposals again this year to establish a statewide ban on fracking, but the legislation never progressed through the committee process.

In addition, members worked to determine the best way to distribute funds from the 2010 BP oil spill to eight counties throughout the Panhandle area. After much discussion and debate, the House and Senate finally came to agreement during the final week of session on a plan distributing millions in funds for damage related to the spill. Under the measure, the eight Panhandle counties hit hardest by the oil spill will receive $300 million, with guidelines on how the money can be spent. The measure still needs to receive final approval from Governor Scott.


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.

Early in session, the House and Senate introduced their respective gaming proposals, with stark differences between the two plans. With Speaker Corcoran opposed to gambling, the House proposal was largely limited to addressing the state’s gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The bill introduced by the lower chamber explicitly banned new slot licenses in the state and aimed to limit the ability of counties to pass their own measures relating to slots. On the Senate side, the measure included potential expansion of gaming to include new slots and blackjack in South Florida, in addition to establishing a new compact with the Tribe.

As the end of session approached, members in both chambers worked to negotiate the stark differences between the plans. While the House proposed to essentially freeze gaming activity in the state, many compromises were made throughout the negotiation process that would have resulted in new gaming policies very different from the House’s original goal. However, negotiations collapsed during the last week of session due to a proposal pushed by President Negron to allow eight counties where local referendums were passed to add slot machines to existing dog and horse tracks. This essentially killed any efforts to pass gaming legislation this session.


Health Care

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. However, this year’s big health care debate came down to the final days of session and centered around proposed funding cuts for the state’s hospitals. The issue eventually caused additional delays in an already-contentious budget process, and ultimately resulted in a three-day extension of session. While members expressed early in the process that cuts to hospitals would be likely to address potential state revenue shortfalls in the coming years, the proposed cuts were steep and drastic.

As the budget conference process began in late April, lawmakers received word that Florida would receive $1.5 billion in federal funding for the state’s Low Income Pool (LIP), which reimburses hospitals for serving uninsured and underinsured patients. However, the funding was not included in the budget passed by members, with lawmakers instead planning to determine how best to distribute the funds at a later date, as federal officials have yet to outline terms and conditions for the funding. The total cuts for hospitals ended up just over $520 million – a steep amount that will fall largely on facilities that serve low-income patients through the Medicaid program – primarily, the state’s safety net hospitals.

Members did also address issues relating to the state’s Medicaid program this session. While a measure to restructure the program from 11 regions statewide to eight larger regions was considered in the final hours of session, the legislation became weighted down with amendments adding language from other bills, and ultimately died without passage.

There were also a number of other health care proposals considered, but nearly all failed to pass successfully through the legislative process. These measures dealt with issues ranging from nursing education, nursing homes, expanding practice abilities of advanced nurses, and implementing policies relating to telehealth. In addition, a controversial measure to eliminate the current “certificate of need” process, which regulates the building of hospitals in Florida, ultimately failed. Also among the numerous health proposals not passed by lawmakers were a measure to allow ambulatory surgery centers in Florida to hold patients for up to 24 hours, as well as legislation that would have allowed patients to contract directly with doctors for basic health services – known as the direct primary care bills.


Medical Marijuana

While the issue of medical marijuana was previously considered controversial, a proposal to allow for its use in Florida was overwhelmingly approved by voters last November, with a constitutional amendment securing more than 70% of the vote. The amendment passed during the general election legalizes medical marijuana as treatment for patients with various serious medical conditions. This session, House and Senate members worked to determine how the new amendment should be implemented. Unfortunately, lawmakers were unable to come to agreement on final language and, even though members worked until the final hours of session to resolve the issue, no legislation was passed to implement the medical marijuana amendment.

Members in both chambers filed proposals early in session to create a system for the growth, prescription, and use of medical cannabis in Florida. The proposals addressed the number of allowed licenses for growing and dispensing organizations, product quality and oversight, requirements for doctors prescribing medical marijuana to patients, and conditions eligible for treatment, among other matters. The ultimate sticking point between the two chambers was the total number of dispensaries each licensee would be allowed to have. At this point, it will be up to executive branch officials at the Florida Department of Health to put a framework for the new law in place. However, there have been numerous calls for a special session to readdress the issue – including from Speaker Corcoran. This issue is one that will continue to be addressed over the next several months.


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. This year was generally quiet with regard to transportation issues, but lawmakers did pass a transportation package late in session.

Members also considered and passed ride-sharing legislation – a big win for Florida’s free market, and companies like Uber. The legislation was heavily supported this year and has already been signed into law by Governor Scott. In addition, members passed legislation creating regulations for unmanned devices, including drones.

On the funding side, members increased transportation funding by more than $130 million from last year.


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 the 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 last year’s rulings was a 14.5% increase in rates. As a result, lawmakers were very focused on this issue throughout the session, aiming to rework and reform the state’s workers’ compensation laws. Unfortunately, members were unable to come to agreement and the legislation was not passed.

With plans to address issues regarding attorney fees and the rate-making process, legislation offered by both chambers included provisions regarding the length of time benefits would be available, as well as caps on attorney fees. However, the attorney fees were the ultimate sticking point that could not be negotiated between the chambers, as the House wanted to cap fees at $150 an hour, and the Senate wanted a cap of $250 an hour.

With the looming increase and the potential for an additional 20% increase next year, business groups around the state have expressed great disappointment about the lack of any successful legislation to address the matter.


Going Forward

While the 2017 session has officially adjourned, it is far from over. With several issues left unresolved, including a state budget largely opposed by the Governor, as well as numerous bills that have yet to be sent to the Governor’s desk, most actions taken by lawmakers during session still face an uncertain future. When it comes to the budget, the Governor has the power to veto individual line items, or could even veto the entire spending plan. Conforming bills have to be either passed or vetoed altogether. With such heavy policy issues wrapped into conforming bills this year, it will be very interesting to see what actions the Governor takes on all budget products passed by lawmakers. For regular substantive legislation, the Governor has 15 days to take action once he receives a bill. He can either sign the bill into law, veto it, or let it become law after the 15 days without his action.

In addition to the issues outlined above, there is still the potential for a special session to address medical marijuana and other possible unresolved issues.

Once all actions are taken with regard to the 2017 budget and legislation, lawmakers will have a limited amount of time off before reconvening in Tallahassee to prepare for the 2018 session. Since session will take place two months earlier next year, a practice lawmakers are now implementing in election years, members are likely to be back in Tallahassee for committee meetings around September, and will convene to kick off the 2018 session in January.

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Mid-Session Legislative Update – April 2017

Florida lawmakers convened in Tallahassee last month to kick off the 2017 legislative session. Last week marked the mid-point of the 60-day process, with members taking time off this week to observe the Passover and Easter holidays.

Lawmakers have stayed very busy in recent months, but at this point in the session, nearly every key issue remains in flux. During their limited work period this week, both chambers are set to formally pass their budgets. The House and Senate are currently very far apart on their spending plans, and the budget will undoubtedly be a key focus going forward. The next step will be budget conference, which will begin once presiding officers agree on final allocations for each area of the budget. Members are expected to be in budget conference sometime around the weekend of April 21st. With conference looming and many major legislative proposals still to be discussed, the last half of the session could be quite contentious for lawmakers.

This session members set out to tackle issues and amend state laws relating to gaming, public education and health care, as well as potentially overhauling the state’s economic development programs, implementing the medical marijuana amendment, and rewriting the state’s workers’ compensation statute, among other matters. At this time, all of these issues are still moving through the legislative process.

Senate President Joe Negron (R-Palm City) and House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Lutz) are both well-experienced, strong leaders, and both remain dedicated to the issues they see as priorities for the state. In addition, with the power to veto legislation and individual items in the state budget, the Governor plays a significant role in session. Governor Scott and the legislature were already at odds as session kicked off in March, with the House offering legislation to eliminate many of the state’s economic programs and incentives. The Governor is heavily opposed to this effort, 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 the House and Senate, and could have a major impact on the outcome of the session. In addition, the House and Senate are currently very far apart on their budget proposals. With a potentially volatile situation at play, the possibility of a special session to pass a budget has not been ruled out, and Speaker Corcoran has indicated that he’s already lined up votes for potential post-session veto overrides.

Provided below is a summary of some of the key issues and priorities being discussed and debated this session. Members are currently very hard at work on these matters, and issues continue to evolve at a very fast pace.


Budget

The 2017 legislative appropriations process may be one of the most contentious in recent years. The two chambers, under the leadership of President Negron and Speaker Corcoran, are currently several billion dollars apart in their spending plans. Governor Scott’s funding priorities are also at play, as he will have final review of the budget passed by lawmakers.

Leading into the 2017 session, Speaker Corcoran expressed a commitment to making Florida’s state budget process more transparent. Corcoran then announced new procedures for the House to hear and approve projects funded by the state, including requiring House members to file individual budget bills for appropriations projects this session. As a result, hundreds of bills were filed to fund local projects. However, early this month, House budget leader Carlos Trujillo (R-Doral) announced that one-quarter of those projects were struck from the House plan. While Senate leaders did not formally implement new budget requirements for the upper chamber, the two sides were able to come to terms on a joint process just before session started in March.

Last week, appropriations committees in both chambers passed their respective budget proposals, and members will hear the plans and make final votes this week. These proposals will serve as the blueprint for budget allocations to be released by House and Senate leaders soon, which will then take members into the budget conference process. With only four weeks remaining in the 60-day regular session, the budget process will begin to move very quickly from this week on.

At this time, differences between the two plans are stark, and total around $4 billion. While the House proposal is a conservative, trimmed-down budget, Senate members have allocated more in spending for various programs. Current predictions are that final budget negotiations between the House and Senate will begin on April 17th, with budget conference likely taking place the weekend of April 21st. With strong leadership in both chambers and the two plans currently so far apart, at this point no one is ruling out the possibility of a special session to comply with the constitutional requirement that state lawmakers pass a balanced budget each year.


Economic Development and Incentives

Throughout his time as leader of the state, Governor Rick Scott has made economic development 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 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.

Considering these concerns and Speaker Corcoran’s dedication to making state government more efficient, the House proposed a measure early in session to eliminate the majority of the state’s economic development programs. This proposal caused a large amount of tension between the Governor’s office and the House, with the Governor and Speaker on opposing sides of the issue. On the Senate side, Senate lawmakers expressed immediate reluctance to eliminate programs and funding for economic development in Florida. The differences between the two chambers are clear in their proposed spending plans.

This issue will be a significant budget fight, with the Senate proposing $1.4 billion in economic development funding and the House proposing just under $780 million. While the Senate funds Visit Florida at $76 million, the House allocates just $25 million for the agency – one of two under major scrutiny from the chamber, with the other being Enterprise Florida. This issue will remain one of the most interesting to watch this session as the legislature’s actions could put many member projects, particularly those in the House, on the line with Governor Scott, who continues to highlight economic development as a key priority.


Education

Education is always a top issue for lawmakers to address each session. At this time, there are numerous proposals being considered by both chambers to deal with issues surrounding Florida’s PreK-12 and higher education policies and funding. This session, on the PreK-12 side, one of the biggest efforts will be to address the state’s charter school policies. The measures being considered involve revenues from local taxes and how those revenues are distributed throughout school districts. On the House side, members want charter schools to be able to utilize those funds for capital outlay projects. Members are also considering a similar proposal in the Senate. In addition, House members are considering comprehensive legislation known as the “Schools of Hope” bill, which would provide incentives for charter schools in areas where traditional public schools are struggling. This measure is a key priority for Speaker Corcoran.

This session, legislative efforts also continue to address issues with standardized testing in Florida’s public schools. This has been one of the biggest education issues discussed by lawmakers in recent years. In the Senate, members are considering a heavily amended bill which would eliminate numerous high school end-of-course exams, push current testing dates back, and allow for the study of alternatives to standardized tests going forward. Members also continue to maintain a key focus on the “Best and Brightest” program, which is in place to award bonuses for “highly qualified” teachers in Florida. The current proposal being considered by members was recently amended to expand the program to apply to more teachers as well as principals in schools. In addition, lawmakers are considering legislation regarding the way class sizes are formulated, as well as a measure to prevent school districts from awarding annual contracts to teachers.

On the higher education front, members are debating a number of potential significant changes this session, including a renewed proposal to limit the mission and powers of Florida’s state college system. Senate President Negron has proposed a significant overhaul on this front, and both chambers are considering measures to tighten restrictions, including caps on how many four-year degrees state colleges can offer. There is also a large measure being considered to expand online degree programs in Florida, a move supported by Governor Scott but currently lacking the support of Senate leadership.

With regard to the education budget, Governor Scott has continued his push for consistent funding of current PreK-12 and higher education programs. At this time, the House and Senate plans differ in per-student spending, with the Senate looking to increase per-student funding significantly more than the House. The plans also differ regarding required local effort for education spending.

Higher education funding could be a divisive issue going forward, with the two chambers proposing differing plans for state college and university funding. While the House plan cuts higher education funding by more than $100 million, the Senate is proposing an increase of more than $300 million for state universities, as well as an increase in scholarship funding.


Energy, Environment and Land Issues

Environment and water issues have been 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 has been one of the biggest issues of the session. The current Senate proposal, which originally called for the state to purchase 60,000 acres of sugar farm land south of the Lake to build a reservoir, was recently amended as a compromise for opponents of the purchase. The amended language has been scaled down to reduce the amount of land needed. Opponents argue purchasing the land would result in a significant loss of jobs and other economic damage to the area south of the Lake. The House’s position on the proposal is still uncertain. Speaker Corcoran recently expressed more of an interest in the amended version, but has stated he still has concerns about utilizing bonds to fund the project.

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. The two chambers have worked out a number of differences in their respective plans to address this issue. Members are also considering legislation filed by Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala (R-St. Petersburg) and Representative Kathleen Peters (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, the measures set aside funding for beach management projects, as well as amend the way projects are scored by the state.

Legislators are also working 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.

On the budget front, the Senate has proposed providing more funding for state environmental programs than the House, which offers no funding for Florida Forever, the state’s land-buying program. The Senate funds the program at more than $15 million. The Senate has also offered funds to address damage in communities impacted by Hurricanes Matthew and Hermine.


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.

Early in session, the House and Senate introduced their respective gaming proposals for session, with stark differences between the two plans. With Speaker Corcoran opposed to gambling, the House proposal mostly addressed the state’s gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The bill introduced by the lower chamber early in session explicitly banned new slot licenses in the state and aimed to limit the ability of counties to pass their own measures relating to slots. On the Senate side, the measure included potential expansion of gaming to include new slots and blackjack in South Florida, in addition to establishing a new compact with the Tribe.

At this time, each chamber is moving forward with their very different plans. The House legislation essentially places a “freeze” on gaming in the state, while the Senate moves forward with various forms of expansion. In addition, there are issues within the House regarding a provision in the lower chamber’s plan tying revenues to Speaker Corcoran’s “Schools of Hope” legislation. This would provide money the state brings in from gaming to high-performing charter schools in Florida. This issue will likely be debated through the final days of session.


Guns

House and Senate members are considering a number of measures this session relating to gun laws in Florida. Several bills have been filed for consideration, 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.

In addition, Senate members introduced a new “Stand Your Ground” proposal earlier in session, which would shift the burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors during pre-trial hearings. The measure would require prosecutors to prove why a defendant couldn’t claim they “stood their ground” in an applicable situation. The House is currently working on a similar proposal, with legislation passing through the full chamber last week.


Health Care

Health care has been a contentious topic among Florida lawmakers for several years now – mostly regarding the issue of the state’s Medicaid program. This session, members are looking to make cuts in funding to hospitals to address potential state revenue shortfalls in the coming years. Members are also considering a measure to change the structure of the state’s Medicaid managed care program, establishing eight regions to receive Medicaid contracts and services. However, at the center of the contention between the two chambers, is a Senate push to expand the state’s Medicaid program and convert the system into block grants. This issue will be discussed at length going forward and will prove interesting to watch, as the House remains in strong opposition to any sort of Medicaid expansion.

In addition, members are considering a long list of health care bills relating to other issues. These include measures addressing direct primary care agreements between doctors and patients, which the House and Senate currently differ on, as well as proposals to stop insurance companies from removing prescription medications from plans after contracts are signed. 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. Members in both chambers are also considering measures 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.

On the funding side, the two legislative budget proposals currently differ on funding for the Low Income Pool (LIP). Governor Scott recently stated that he continues to work with the federal government on LIP funding issues. While the Senate funds LIP at more than $600 million in its budget proposal, a move supported by Governor Scott, the House included no funding for LIP in its budget. In addition, the House proposes a cut of the hospital share of Medicaid by nearly $239 million. When combined with federal matching dollars hospitals receive, Florida hospitals would take a hit of $621.8 million in the coming budget. However, the Senate takes a less severe approach, recommending a reduction in hospitals’ share of Medicaid by $99.3 million, totaling $258.6 million in funding losses for hospitals.


Medical Marijuana

While the issue of medical marijuana was previously considered controversial, a proposal to allow for its use in Florida was overwhelmingly approved by voters last November, with the constitutional amendment securing more than 70% of the vote. The amendment passed during the general election legalizes medical marijuana as treatment for patients with various serious medical conditions. This session, lawmakers are working to determine how the new amendment should be implemented.

After several public workshops were held by the Florida Department of Health as part of the state rulemaking process, members in both chambers began to file proposals early in session to create a system for growth, prescription, and use of medical cannabis in Florida. The proposals address the number of allowed 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 multiple proposals being considered in the House. On the Senate side, last week members in the Health Policy Committee considered a comprehensive measure to implement the medical marijuana amendment. Included in the bill are provisions to allow non-residents to get medical marijuana under certain circumstances, as well as allow patients to receive a 90-day supply or more in certain situations. In addition, the latest Senate plan will increase the number of allowed dispensaries in Florida.

This issue will likely continue to be addressed by both chambers throughout the remainder of the session.


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 – a measure that passed through the House last week.

On the funding side, both chambers released their proposals for funding the state’s transportation programs and projects, including FDOT’s five-year work program.


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 have been very focused on this issue during session.

Throughout committee weeks and the early weeks of session, members held a number of meetings and workshops to discuss workers’ compensation and craft proposals to address issues surrounding the matter, including attorney fees and the rate-making process. On the Senate side, members are proposing attorney fees up to $250 an hour. This is one of the biggest points of contention of the bills, as the House is proposing only $150 an hour – a move supported by business groups throughout the state.


Going Forward

There is much to be decided and much at stake in the legislature in the coming weeks, with the state budget and a number of potentially controversial issues up for discussion. Members will continue in the coming days and weeks to address filed legislation and craft amendments to bills addressing various issues.

The 60-day session is officially set to adjourn on Friday, May 5th. However, with the current budget divide and outstanding substantive proposals, the possibility of a special session will certainly be a factor going forward.

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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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TFG Trendlines: August 2016


 

Three Questions With: Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Executive Director Tony Vecchio

The Fiorentino Group: Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens‘ new Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is scheduled to open early next year.  How will this impact North Florida?

Tony Vecchio: The Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is set to open in January.  This will provide the only facility in North Florida where injured, orphaned, or cold-stressed manatees will be cared for.  This year has seen record numbers of manatees injured by boat strikes.  Currently these compromised animals have to be transported to Orlando or Tampa to receive the care they need.  This facility will allow us to help the manatees from our region right here in our community.

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Vecchio at Jacksonville Zoo

TFG: The zoo recently launched the Wildlife Immersion Program, a one of a kind program in the state of Florida.  How will the immersion program help serve our youth?

TV: This program works with at-risk teens to teach them valuable skills that will help them not only as they further their educations but throughout their lives as well. These teens will, after extensive training, be paid zoo employees charged with educating our visitors as well as the community at large.  They will learn communication skills, but, more importantly, they will develop the confidence to speak with adults and children, one-on-one or in formal, group presentations.

TFG: The zoo is always holding interesting events like Brew at the Zoo.  Are there any new events on the horizon you’re excited about?

TV: Our newest event is Fiesta del Jaguar on September 17, a celebration of Hispanic culture and heritage that will highlight conservation in Latin America.

 


Ed Burr Honored at Mineral City Celebration

The Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach recently honored GreenPointe Holdings President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Burr at their annual “Mineral City Celebration”. Burr started the Monique Burr Foundation for Children in 1997 in honor of his late wife, a staunch children’s advocate.

“Annually this event celebrates an individual who lives up to and exceeds the Rotary mottoes: ‘Service Above Self’ and ‘One profits most who serves best.'” said Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach President Will Montoya.  “Ed has been so focused on making better and safer communities with his successful business and he has helped secure his late wife’s passion to work with and protect children by establishing the Monique Burr Foundation for Children.  It did not take us long to identify Ed as a true unsung hero of our community.”

“Ed Burr’s leadership is not only creating great companies, it is creating a better state,” said TFG President Marty Fiorentino.  “He is a thought leader that gives tirelessly of his time and talents. Because of Ed, his vision and the gifts he has made, Florida students have a prevention program that teaches them how to protect against bullying, cyber bullying, and all types of child abuse.  Ed is a dear friend with a selfless heart who brings a passion for excellence to everything he does.”

 


TFG Employee Reaches Milestone Anniversary

TFG’s Tiffany McKinley celebrated her 10 year anniversary at the firm in December. Prior to joining TFG, Tiffany served in Governor Jeb Bush’s office as assistant to the executive director of External Affairs and as a White House intern.

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TFG’s Marty Fiorentino, Tiffany McKinley and Tammy LeMaster celebrate Tiffany’s anniversary.

“Tiffany is an amazing person,” said TFG President Marty Fiorentino.  “She is the nerve center of our firm. Her outstanding work has provided our clients with tremendous value added services. While she works largely behind the scenes, her contributions to our firm are immeasurable and a large part of our growth and success.”

“Working with TFG has been an amazing experience,” McKinley said.  “I’ve learned so much throughout my time with the firm, and I’m proud of our efforts on behalf of our clients.  The past 10 years have been incredibly rewarding, and I look forward to many more with the TFG family.”

 


Russ Thomas Presented with Child Advocacy Award

Availity LLC CEO Russ Thomas has been given The R. David and I. Lorraine Thomas Child Advocate of the Year Award.

The award “recognizes those who have made a significant impact toward the lives of underprivileged youth.” Mr. Thomas received the award earlier this year at a Children’s Home Society of Florida awards luncheon.

“As an adopted child, raised by wonderful parents, I’ve always felt called to work with disadvantaged children,” Thomas said. “My early experience in child welfare with great organizations like Joshua House and Hillsborough Kids, both in Tampa, opened my eyes to the huge opportunity we have to break the cycles of abuse and neglect with children.”

“Russ is a renaissance man,” said TFG President Marty Fiorentino.  “He has grown a great company and is making an impact in our community with his leadership in the United Way and on the board of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority.  As an adopted child myself, I’m particularly thankful for his work with underprivileged and adopted children.”

Thomas, a native Floridian, was adopted through Children’s Home Society of Florida in Tampa and joined their Board of Directors later in life.

 


Yes for Jacksonville

A critical issue in Jacksonville is the city’s unfunded pension liability. Mayor Curry has worked tirelessly to develop a plan to solve this issue for our community. TFG was proud to be the lead lobby firm for the city, which passed state legislation authorizing a local referendum on this issue. In addition, TFG President Marty Fiorentino is serving as a finance co-chair for the “Yes for Jacksonville” campaign, which is supporting the referendum. Curry recently released a video that details his bold plan to solve the pension crisis once and for all. We urge everyone in Duval County to vote “Yes” on County Referendum No. 1 on August 30.

 


ICYMI: Allison Carter Joins TFG

Recently we announced the addition of Allison Carter to the firm by way of a virtual “scratch off” image. Click the image below to try it for yourself!

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Allison Carter Joins The Fiorentino Group

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For Immediate Release

 

The Fiorentino Group Grows Its Presence in Tallahassee

With Addition of Allison Carter 

 

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (June 21, 2016) – The Fiorentino Group (TFG) today announced that Tallahassee veteran Allison Carter has joined the government relations and business development firm as Principal in its Tallahassee office.

Carter brings more than 15 years of legislative and state government experience to TFG. Most recently, she served as the Chief Process Advisor to the Florida Speaker of the House. Previously, Carter worked for Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater as Director of Program Management, where she was responsible for assessing and recommending programmatic improvements.

“Allison’s deep knowledge of the legislative process and her many contacts in the legislative and executive branches of state government will be great assets to the firm as we continue to provide high-level representation to our clients,” said TFG President and Founder Marty Fiorentino. “We are excited that Allison will be joining our firm and look forward to her insight and counsel.”

Carter’s keen understanding of the legislative process will assist the firm in developing and supporting appropriations and policy issues for TFG clients. Her experience will be instrumental in the continued success and growth of TFG throughout Florida, Fiorentino added.

“I’m thrilled to join the TFG team and eager to begin this new chapter of my professional life,” Carter said. “The Fiorentino Group has a great reputation for integrity and results.”

A fitness enthusiast, Allison enjoys running and helping others reach their fitness goals in her spare time. She is also very active in her local church, Fellowship Baptist Church of Tallahassee.

Allison is a graduate of Florida State University. She and her husband Todd have a daughter, Lauren. 

About The Fiorentino Group (TFG): TFG is a full-service government relations and business development firm with offices in Jacksonville and Tallahassee.  The firm provides a broad range of consulting services to Fortune 500 companies and other highly regarded organizations looking to influence public policy and create new business opportunities. Founded in 2002, we are distinguished by our unparalleled relationships with decision-makers, our work in complex issues and our more than 50 years of combined experience in state, local and federal government relations. For more information, please visit www.thefiorentinogroup.com.

Media Contact:
John Finotti, Tucker/Hall
904-493-5006 (office)
904-891-3867 (mobile)
jfinotti@tuckerhall.com

 

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Post-Session Legislative Update – March 2016

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Last Friday evening, lawmakers formally wrapped up the 2016 legislative session. After passing a state budget for the coming year and addressing a number of legislative proposals, House and Senate members ended the session with little fanfare – a stark difference from last year’s budget breakdown and early session end. Members committed to having a more productive session this year, and the two chambers were largely able to maintain a good working relationship throughout the 60-day session. However, while the session had a more peaceful, harmonious tone, there were some issues that were not passed or even addressed, as lawmakers had little appetite for controversy during an election year. In addition, members ended up on the opposing side of the Governor on a number of priorities outlined in his recommendations released prior to the start of session. Earlier this week, despite not yet officially being presented with the budget from the legislature, Governor Scott announced his plans to veto $256 million of the $82 billion budget plan passed by lawmakers. Last year he recorded a record number of vetoes totaling $461 million.

While members did start the year facing several more contentious issues, including gaming and medical marijuana, any session fireworks came from debate over issues relating to education funding and policies, with a controversial and much-debated education bill sent to the Governor on the final day of session. In addition, there were differences between the legislature and the Governor regarding funding for economic incentives. Prior to the start of session, Governor Scott outlined his 2016 legislative priorities, including a $1 billion tax cut package and $250 million for economic incentive programs. Neither of these goals were met by lawmakers, but members did pass a $400 million tax cut compromise on the final day of session, which allowed the Governor to fulfill his campaign pledge made two years ago to cut taxes by $1 billion.

House and Senate members also declined a confirmation hearing for the Governor’s Surgeon General nominee, and refused to approve a renewal gaming compact negotiated by the Governor and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. This was the first time in 21 years that a department head of the Governor’s had not been confirmed. Members started the session with the issue of potentially expanding gaming on the horizon, but that matter died without passage as well, as lawmakers remain opposed to relying on gaming for state revenues. Among other issues not supported by members this session were a number of bills relating to gun rights in Florida, as well as a proposal to support ride-sharing services and technologies like Uber and Lyft.

The $82 billion state budget passed by lawmakers received bipartisan support in both chambers, with a unanimous 40-0 vote in the Senate, and only one dissenting vote by a lone Republican House member. While the legislature’s work is done for the year, there is still work to be done at the executive level, with the Governor set to officially sign the budget (including his announced vetoes), as well as consider the bills sent to him by lawmakers as session came to a close.

Going forward, members and candidates will be busy preparing for the November elections, with campaigns and fundraising in full swing. In fact, politics were already at play during the last week of session regarding future leadership of the Florida House, with Representative Eric Eisnaugle (R-Orlando) conceding to Representative Chris Sprowls (R-Clearwater) in the contest for the House Speaker term beginning in 2021. Leadership positions in the Florida House and Senate can be highly contentious and are often decided years in advance.

In recent news, today Melissa Sellers, chief of staff to Governor Scott, announced she will be departing the Governor’s office at the end of the month. Sellers served in the position for just over two years and was previously Governor Scott’s campaign manager. She will be replaced by current legislative affairs director Kim McDougal. In addition, Governor Scott’s General Counsel, Tim Cerio, has announced he is leaving his position as well. His replacement has not yet been announced.


State Budget

With last year’s budget issues (which resulted in a special session to pass a state spending plan) top of mind, state lawmakers began working on this year’s budget early this session. However, despite their efforts, members were still unable to finalize a plan until early the last week of session. This was after two weekends of budget conference and numerous meetings and discussions. The sticking point between the two chambers surrounded education funding.

The budget passed by lawmakers was around $3 billion more than the spending plan offered by the Governor. Governor Scott’s $79.3 billion budget proposal, released late last year, included increased funding for education, $1 billion in tax cuts and $250 million for economic incentives. Early in session, the House introduced a large tax cut proposal totaling $1 billion, but took a different approach with regard to which taxes were eliminated or reduced, and how long the exemptions would be in place. In the Senate, only small, individual tax bills were introduced, with Senate Appropriations Chair Tom Lee (R-Brandon) expressing that the upper chamber was not open to cutting such a substantial amount. Ultimately, members reached a compromise of around $400 million in cuts after an economic report revealed lower-than-expected state revenue projections. Of that total, only about $129 million applies to the specific tax cuts recommended by the Governor.

The final agreed-upon plan included a one-percent increase in per-student spending as well as nearly $714 million in funds for education construction projects and $49 million for the “best and brightest” program, which provides bonuses for Florida’s teachers With regard to environmental projects, the legislature’s budget included funding for restoration of the Florida Everglades, as well as projects to protect Florida’s springs.

With the unexpected early release of the Governor’s veto list this week, a number of the member projects passed late in the budget conference process were subject to the Governor’s veto pen. The full veto list includes the $55 million members pulled from an economic development trust fund, as well as $15 million from health care programs, nearly $70 million from education projects, $9 million from the criminal justice budget, and around $20 million in water projects. At this time, the budget still has not been formally presented to the Governor, and the vetoes will not be official until the Governor receives and signs the budget into law.


 

Taxes, Economic Development and Incentives

While members did not meet the Governor’s call for large-scale tax cuts and incentives, lawmakers did pass a more measured, compromise tax cut bill, which includes several priorities outlined by the Governor. The measure passed by lawmakers in the final hours of session will permanently eliminate the sales tax on manufacturing equipment and machinery, as well as implement a three-day tax holiday in August for back-to-school shopping. The legislation also includes a $290 million reduction in property taxes.

Members also passed legislation allowing for a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot which will aim to extend a renewable energy tax break to commercial property as well as residential property.

On the policy side, comprehensive economic development legislation died without final passage again this session. The proposals aimed to clarify definitions and streamline the incentive process, including provisions to lower the return-on-investment totals projects are required to meet to be eligible for grants. However, the two chambers differed on funding for incentive programs, with the House bill having no funding component. Once the budget conference process was complete, the legislation died without final hearing.


 

Gaming

The topic of potentially expanding gaming in Florida was on tap for lawmakers again this session and, again, no gaming proposals were approved or passed through the process. This was a success for those individuals and groups who oppose any expansion of gambling in the state. Several bills were filed in both the House and Senate, some including language regarding a deal reached between Governor Scott and the Seminole Tribe prior to the start of session. The compact would have allowed the Seminoles to add craps and roulette at each of the tribe’s seven Florida casinos and in return, the tribe would pay the state $3 billion over seven years. However, finalization of the compact required legislative approval and lawmakers rejected the plan and all other gaming legislation this session.

Other proposals included provisions that aimed to overhaul the state gaming industry and allow for additional slot machines in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties. In a surprise move, the Seminoles worked together with the pari-mutuel industry near the end of session in an attempt to get legislation filed and heard, but no bill was ever written.

Going forward, the gaming issue lies with the courts, where two gambling lawsuits are set to be heard involving the Seminole Tribe and the state.


 

Education

While many anticipated this session to be relatively light with regard to education, policy and funding issues relating to the state’s K-12 schools ended up being the most highly debated topic this session.

On the last day of session, after much debate and jockeying between the House and Senate, an omnibus school choice bill, known as the education “train,” passed through both chambers. Among other items, the legislation changes the way charter schools receive and qualify for funding, allowing charter schools that serve low-income students or students with disabilities to receive more funding allocated for construction projects. The bill also amends state law to allow public school students to attend any school in the state with space available, and includes performance funding language for state colleges and universities.

In addition to the education package, a number of other bills were passed, including legislation creating a pilot program for certain Florida counties that will allow principals in low-performing schools to oversee school improvement policies. One of the biggest issues lawmakers debated was the “Best and Brightest” program, which provides bonuses to teachers. The language passed in an education budget bill that ties in $49 million in state funding for the program. In addition, Senator Don Gaetz attempted to keep the fight against the state’s testing system with legislation that would have allowed school districts to offer national standardized tests instead of state standardized tests, but the measure ultimately failed to make it through the legislative process.

Members also passed legislation, which has already been signed into law by Governor Scott, making significant changes to the panel that oversees educator discipline issues, as well as legislation to ease certification requirements for STEM teachers. In addition, members passed important legislation to allow schools more flexibility for obtaining epinephrine auto-injectors used for potential allergic reactions.

On the higher education front, lawmakers passed a bill requiring that colleges and universities notify students of any proposed tuition hikes. In addition, members passed a top priority of Senate President Andy Gardiner, which will allow colleges and universities to establish programs for students with disabilities.


 

Health Care

While health care was easily the most contentious issue of the 2015 session, this year was much different, with members keeping the door closed on Medicaid expansion and focusing instead on other issues.

Of the proposals considered, the most significant measure was regarding “balance billing,” which happens when insurers charge patients the difference between the cost of a procedure and what an insurance company pays for the procedure. The legislation aims to curb the balance billing process and was amended on the final day of session with language regarding people with Down syndrome. The bill will now be sent to the Governor for signature.

In addition, members passed legislation to carve out dental services from the list of required benefits under Medicaid plans, and passed a measure regarding telehealth, which creates an advisory council to study the issue and report back to the legislature.

There were also several issues not passed this session, including a bill that would have eliminated hospital certificates of need, a measure allowing ambulatory surgical centers to hold patients for up to 24 hours, and legislation relating to direct primary care, allowing patients to pay directly through their primary care providers rather than insurance companies.

In addition, the medical marijuana issue continues in Florida, with legislation passed expanding the Right To Try Act to allow terminally ill patients to use medical marijuana. The issue will be back on the ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment this November.


 

Energy and Environmental Policy

Last session was predicted to be Florida’s “Year of Water,” but the end-of-session breakdown between the House and Senate resulted in a number of comprehensive environment, land and water bills dying without passage. However, lawmakers kicked off the first week of session this year by passing major water policy legislation mirroring the bill that failed last year. The bill was signed into law very early in session and establishes a timeline for actions by the state to protect springs, revise permitting for Lake Okeechobee projects and establish regulatory standards for water use permitting and planning in Central Florida.

One issue that caused a considerable amount of discussion and debate this session was legislation relating to oil and gas resources in Florida. The House version of the bill, which passed through the chamber by a 73-45 vote, would have placed a two-year moratorium on oil and gas fracturing while a study of the issue was conducted. However, the measure was considered too controversial and did not pass through the Senate.

Members did make two key environmental issues – Everglades Restoration and Lake Okeechobee projects – priorities during the session. The last bill passed by lawmakers before adjourning the 2016 session will dedicate $200 million per year (from Amendment One funds) for these issues.


 

Criminal Justice and Public Safety

Lawmakers addressed a number of issues relating to law enforcement, criminal justice and public safety this session. Key among those issues were a number of controversial measures relating to gun rights and laws in Florida. The two main proposals focused on “open carry,” which would have allowed those with concealed weapons licenses to openly carry their guns in holsters, cases or bags, and “campus carry,” which would have allowed Floridians with concealed weapons permits to carry their weapons onto Florida’s college and university campuses. While the House spent a considerable amount of time working on these proposals this session, neither of the measures were supported by the Senate and both bills died without passage.

In addition, members passed a new law relating to death-penalty sentencing, in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that Florida’s death penalty system is unconstitutional. The ruling stemmed from Florida courts giving power to judges, instead of juries, in sentencing defendants to death. The bill will require jurors to decide unanimously on what factors make someone eligible to be put to death, and requires a 10-2 vote for a jury to recommend the death penalty.

Finally, lawmakers settled a long-standing dispute with local governments regarding the sharing of juvenile detention costs, with costs being split evenly going forward between the state and counties. This was a big win for county governments.


 

Transportation and Infrastructure

After bouncing back and forth between the House and Senate with numerous amendments (most of which were withdrawn), two transportation packages were passed into law the final day of session. Transportation bills are typically heavily amended late in session with sometimes controversial language, and often die without passage as a result. However, this year two bills were passed without significant debate. The legislation passed includes a number of provisions relating to transportation, infrastructure, seaports and airports, among other issues. The bills include language to increase annual funding for the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Program (FSTED) by $10 million to $25 million, as well as create a Seaport Security Grant Program. The legislation also includes language relating to airport zoning, and extends the terms of airport leases from 30 years to 50 years.

During the budget conference process, members agreed on transportation-related funding without much contention, providing full funding for the 2016-17 FDOT Work Program.


 

Going Forward

Florida lawmakers will now begin campaigning and raising political funds in earnest, as the general election in November approaches. With as many as 15 of Florida’s 40 Senate districts open or up for reelection, it will make for an interesting election season in the sunshine state.

Now that session has wrapped up, we shift to the Governor’s office, where the Governor must now act on the legislation passed by House and Senate members during session. Once the Governor receives a bill, he has 15 days to either sign it, veto it, or let it become law without taking action.

Lawmakers will not return for another session until March 2017, although the 2018 session has officially been moved up, with another January start date planned for that year.

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Mid-Session Legislative Update – February 2016

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Florida lawmakers convened in Tallahassee last month to kick off the 2016 legislative session, with today marking the midpoint of the 60-day work period. Members have stayed very busy over the past four weeks, with the House and Senate coming together to pass three comprehensive bills the first week of session. The legislation passed addresses issues relating to water and environmental policy, as well as educational and job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities – with the latter being the highest legislative priority of Senate President Andy Gardiner.

In addition, members began working early to craft a 2016-2017 state budget. While the state spending plan is normally addressed in the final weeks of session, House and Senate appropriations subcommittees presented their individual budgets late last month. The budget process is now in full swing, with members likely planning to go into budget conference next week.

Last year, the House and Senate ended session at odds over funding for state health care programs. That issue resulted in contention between the Legislature and the Governor as well, with the Governor vetoing more than $460 million in projects from the Legislature’s passed budget. Up to this point, this session has been much less rancorous than last year. While there are still many key policy and appropriations issues to be addressed, with this being an election year, members committed to establishing a better working relationship this session. There will be a number of differences to settle with regard to the budget, but legislative leaders indicate the two chambers are closer than in recent years. Members will also continue to address a number of controversial policy proposals regarding gun rights in Florida, as well as gaming issues, among other matters.

In December, Governor Scott released his $79.3 billion recommended budget for the coming year, which included increased funding for education and tax incentives. Job creation and economic development remain the Governor’s highest priorities. These will be addressed by the Legislature, but likely will not match the Governor’s recommendations.

Once the budget is finalized and passed and the session wraps up, as many as 15 of the 40 members of the Senate will depart the upper chamber of the Legislature. This is the largest number of Senators to leave the Senate since eight-year term limits were enacted in 1992. This large scale turnover, coupled with changes to Senate districts due to redistricting, has created a measure of uncertainty in the Florida Senate.

In addition, Florida’s presidential primary will take place on March 15th, with two prominent Floridians, Governor Bush and Senator Rubio, on the ballot. It will be interesting to see what, if any impact, this has on the session.


 

State Budget

Last week the House and Senate approved and filed their respective full budget plans – which are currently around $1 billion apart. Both plans include record funding for education and focus on economic development – two items that meet the recommendations outlined in Governor Scott’s proposed budget. However, the funding methods for economic development programs and incentives differ greatly between the two chambers. While the Senate plan includes the Governor’s call for $250 million for incentives, the House’s $1 billion tax plan leaves the $250 million allocation out and focuses solely on cutting taxes.

One key budget issue this session will be House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran’s proposal to significantly alter education funding in Florida by providing more state dollars for charter schools than the state’s PECO fund, which is used for building maintenance at the state’s public schools. Speaker-designate Corcoran has also indicated that he aims to reform the process for distributing capital outlay funding for schools. In addition, House Education Appropriations Chair Erik Fresen (R-Miami) has proposed spending caps for construction costs at schools, after it was discovered that funds were misspent in recent years. The House’s education budget includes $90 million in capital outlay funds for charter schools and $50 million for traditional public schools. The Senate proposal would fund $50 million for public schools but currently includes no funding for charter schools.

The House and Senate budgets for environmental programs are currently around $200 million apart. Both chambers have proposed funding for land acquisition, local parks, and Everglades cleanup, though the amounts differ between the two plans. In addition, both chambers provide around $50 million for water projects. With regard to transportation, the economic development and transportation proposals are currently around $800 million apart, although both chambers are spending roughly the same amounts on Florida’s transportation agencies and programs, including the FDOT Work Plan. For criminal justice and court funding, the two proposals differ on state court system spending, but are more similar on public safety funding.

The state health care budget, which caused so much controversy last session, appears to be much less contentious this session. The House plan is more in line with the Governor’s proposal with regard to state hospital funding, with the House reimbursing hospitals on a tiered system based on the amount of low-income and charity patients treated.


 

Taxes, Economic Development and Incentives

Economic development and incentive programs are key priorities for Governor Scott, Senate President Gardiner and Speaker Crisafulli. In his budget recommendations released late last year, Governor Scott proposed $1 billion in tax cuts and $250 million for economic incentive programs to draw companies to Florida. The Governor’s proposal includes a permanent elimination of the manufacturing equipment tax, as well as the creation and extension of several sales tax holidays. In addition, the Governor called for a permanent repeal of Florida’s corporate income tax as well as a cut of the state’s current six percent commercial real estate tax by one percent.

The Senate budget plan meets the Governor’s request for a $250 million pot of economic incentives funding, but would fund $100 million with dollars tied to the latest Gulf oil spill settlement money. The current House budget includes no money for incentives. However, House members are considering a $1 billion tax cut package. The House plan relies on $700 million in single-year tax breaks. The proposal makes no reductions to the state’s corporate income tax, but does cut taxes on commercial leases, as recommended by Governor Scott.

On the Senate side, members are considering legislation to make permanent the state’s sales tax exemption on certain manufacturing equipment and machinery, which is currently set to expire in 2017. The Senate has indicated that it currently does not plan to support a comprehensive tax cut package, but has expressed a possible willingness to address issues relating to property taxes resulting from increasing property revenues in the state.


 

Gaming

The topic of potentially expanding gaming in Florida has been debated by lawmakers for the past several years, but measures have ultimately failed to pass through the legislative process. Depending on how proposed changes are received going forward, gaming could again become one of the more contentious issues this session.

Gaming proposals have been filed in both the House and Senate, with the House bill heard in committee yesterday. The proposals include language regarding a deal recently reached between Governor Scott and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The agreement would allow the Seminoles to add craps and roulette at each of the tribe’s seven Florida casinos. The Seminoles will in turn pay the state $3 billion over seven years.

The House gaming legislation would overhaul the state industry and allow for additional slot machines in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties, among other provisions. The House proposal would also “decouple” dog racing and some horse racing, no longer requiring card rooms and certain other gaming facilities to hold live races. The Senate proposals were also scheduled to be heard in committee yesterday, but Senate Regulated Industries Chair Rob Bradley (R-Orange Park) decided to postpone the bills until next week so that members can properly consider amendments.

While House members may be more amendable to gaming legislation, the issue is more uncertain in the Senate, where there is little appetite for expansion of gaming in any form.


 

Education

Education policy and appropriations issues remain key priorities for state lawmakers. In recent years, legislators and the Governor have provided record funding amounts for Florida’s K-12 programs and facilities, but there has been significant debate surrounding standardized testing in the state’s K-12 schools. Lawmakers continue to address the issue this session, with Senate Education Appropriations Chair Don Gaetz (R-Destin) proposing a measure to give school districts the option of choosing national tests – the ACT or SAT – instead of the state’s standardized test.

There are also a number of other legislative proposals on the table this session, including a bill aiming to potentially overhaul how public schools are locally governed in Florida. House lawmakers are considering a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for citywide school districts, instead of the current countywide governance system. In addition, the Senate is considering a proposal to return the state Education Commissioner to an elected rather than appointed position.

One key issue this session relating to education would address the state’s K-12 charter schools. Lawmakers are considering measures to limit the amount of control local school districts have over charter schools. In addition, the House Appropriations Committee approved a measure that would require school districts to use property tax revenues to boost charter school funding.

On the Senate side, Education Budget Chair Gaetz has discussed funding for the state’s “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus pay program. At this time, there is no funding for the program in the Senate budget. Chair Gaetz has expressed that the chamber wants to vet the program more properly before committing funding.

With regard to higher education, most discussions at this time focus on funding. The Senate budget proposal provides more than $7 billion for higher education, including $4.6 billion for public universities and $1.2 billion for state colleges. The House higher education budget provides $4.7 billion for state universities and $1.2 billion for state colleges.

On the funding side for K-12 schools, the Senate proposal for funding methods currently differs significantly from Governor Scott’s plan. The Governor’s education budget relies primarily on higher property taxes, while Chair Gaetz wants to fund education programs with state tax revenues instead.


 

Health Care

Last year’s regular session was one of the most contentious in recent memory, all surrounding the federal government’s decision to discontinue LIP funding and the Legislature’s response to that decision. The issue caused a complete breakdown in negotiations between the House and Senate, as well as tension between the Legislature and the Governor’s office.

This session, members will again address the LIP program, which provides funding for hospitals to care for low-income and uninsured patients. Federal officials announced $608 million in funding for the program in the 2016-17 budget – down from $1 billion in the current budget. Currently, the Senate health budget would fully reimburse hospitals that see the most charity care patients, with tiered reimbursements for others. The House proposal also uses a three-tier system for hospital reimbursement. Going forward, members have decided to steer clear of any proposals to expand health care coverage for uninsured patients in Florida.

On the policy end, members are considering key measures in both chambers that aim to make the costs of health care at Florida’s hospitals more transparent. The issue has been pushed by Governor Scott, who wants to address what he calls “price gouging” at hospitals in the state. The Governor also pushed for $5 million in funding for the development of an all claims payer database. The measures filed by Representative Chris Sprowls (R-Clearwater) in the House and Senator Rob Bradley (R-Orange Park) in the Senate, are currently moving through the legislative process. The current House plan would require contracting for the database which would allow patients to search for information about the prices and quality of care available. In addition, members are again considering legislation relating to telehealth this session, which would allow doctors to remotely provide care to patients.

Members are also considering legislation to eliminate the “certificate of need” process for new or expanded hospitals, as well as a measure to allow ambulatory surgery centers in Florida to hold patients for up to 24 hours.

In addition, the medical marijuana issue continues in Florida, as both chambers are considering measures to broaden the types of marijuana that are available to certain patients and add marijuana to the list of experimental drugs that terminal patients are allowed to use. Florida voters will again see this issue as a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot.

In other health care issues, Senator Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) filed legislation for consideration this session that would allow public and private schools to buy epinephrine auto-injectors to treat emergency allergy reactions directly from manufacturers at free or reduced costs. This legislation is sponsored by Representative Dane Eagle (R-Cape Coral) in the House and is currently moving through the session process.


 

Energy and Environmental Policy

While last session was predicted to be Florida’s “Year of Water,” the fighting between the House and Senate and contentious end to the session resulted in the lack of passage of a number of comprehensive environment, land and water bills. However, this year lawmakers kicked off the first week of session by passing major water policy legislation mirroring the bill that failed last year. The bill has already been signed into law by Governor Scott. The new measure establishes a timetable for actions by the state to protect springs, revise permitting for Lake Okeechobee projects and establish regulatory standards for water use permitting and planning in Central Florida.

Lawmakers have also spent a considerable amount of time this session working on legislation relating to oil and gas resources in the state. The measure has already passed through the House and makes a number of changes to the state’s Oil and Gas Program. The stated goal of the legislation is to make the process of high pressure well-stimulation safer for the conservation of oil and gas resources. At this time, the Senate version of the bill still needs to be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In addition, members of the Senate Finance and Tax Committee are supporting legislation to make Florida’s renewable energy production tax credit permanent and increase the annual cap on total credits from $10 million to $15 million per year.


 

Criminal Justice and Public Safety

Lawmakers are addressing a number of issues relating to law enforcement, criminal justice and public safety this session. Key among these issues are controversial measures relating to gun rights and laws in the state. The two main proposals focus on “open carry” and “campus carry.” The House has spent a considerable amount of time working on these measures this session, with both passing the House floor after extensive discussion and debate. The “campus carry” bill would allow Floridians with concealed-weapons permits to carry their weapons onto Florida’s college and university campuses. The “open carry” measure will allow those with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry their guns in holsters, cases or bags. At this time it appears unlikely that these measures will be supported by the Senate.

Lawmakers are also considering other legislation relating to law enforcement and public safety, including a measure regarding jury counts and decisions in death penalty cases. At this time, the House and Senate do not concur on how best to address this issue. In addition, legislation is moving in the Senate to change state law so that aggravated assault convictions will no longer carry a minimum 10-year sentence.


 

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 (“FDOT”) for the year. These bills are typically heavily debated and amended throughout session. Due to the weighty amendment process for these proposals, often late in session, if passed, the bills usually do not receive final approval until the last hours of session. At this time, both the House and Senate transportation bills would, among other provisions, increase the minimum amount of funding FDOT must provide the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council (FSTED) annually to $25 million. One key component of both proposals is the creation of a new DOT Financing Corporation that could issue bonds for some projects on FDOT’s behalf. In addition, the legislation allows FDOT to assume some responsibilities currently handled by the federal government with regard to environmental policy.

Another key issue moving through the Legislature this session aims to address transportation network companies in Florida. Companies such as Uber and Lyft are pushing a measure to preempt local laws, which prevent transportation network companies from operating in many municipalities.


 

Going Forward

There is much to be decided and much at stake in the Legislature in the coming weeks, with the state budget and a number of key controversial issues up for discussion. Members will continue in the coming days and weeks to address filed legislation and craft amendments to bills addressing various issues.

With the budget process already underway, members should be set to adjourn session by the scheduled deadline – Friday, March 11th.