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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