Florida lawmakers convened in Tallahassee last month to kick off the 2018 Florida legislative session. Members have worked in recent weeks to address numerous issues relating to various state policy and appropriations matters. Last week marked the mid-point of the 60-day process, with four weeks remaining for members to discuss, debate and vote on a number of policy proposals, as well as finalize and pass a state budget for the coming year.
While lawmakers have worked steadily since session kicked off, at this point, many issues remain in flux. Just last week, both the House and Senate officially passed their budget proposals through their respective chambers. The next step will be budget conference, which will begin once presiding officers agree on final allocations for each area of the budget. Members will likely be in budget conference sometime later this week or next. While the first half of session went relatively smoothly, going forward, with conference looming and several legislative proposals still to be discussed, the second half of session could become more contentious for lawmakers.
There are many important issues up for discussion this year and, as noted above, many of those issues will be resolved in the coming weeks. Among the matters up for discussion and debate this session are higher education funding, K-12 education funding and policy, texting while driving, the opioid crisis, and “sanctuary cities” in Florida, among others. In addition, members have worked throughout the past several months on issues relating to hurricane response and preparedness in the state.
On the leadership side, Senate President Joe Negron (R-Palm City), House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Lutz) and Governor Rick Scott are all in the final year of their current leadership positions. All three leaders began the session with clear objectives and priorities, with the Governor staying focused on economic development and K-12 education, and supporting measures and funding to fight Florida’s opioid epidemic. On the Senate side, President Negron is committed to increasing higher education funding, as well as funding for the state’s land-buying and environmental programs. Speaker Corcoran remains focused on the state’s education system and is looking to boost policy and funding for charter schools. The Speaker is also pushing measures to ban sanctuary cities in Florida and pass legislation to combat texting while driving.
At this mid-point in session, many of the key issues that are still unresolved are also seen as likely points of contention between the House and Senate over the next four weeks. One of these issues is Speaker Corcoran’s omnibus education measure for this year, which would allocate public funds for a new voucher program to allow certain students to attend private schools. The controversy surrounds the House’s plan to make more than $8 billion in funding for public schools contingent upon the successful passage of the legislation, which also contains a number of other provisions relating to K-12 education. The Senate has criticized this move and it is yet to be determined how the House plans will factor into overall budget negotiations. The House and Senate also have very different plans for higher education funding, with President Negron determined to provide increases, while Speaker Corcoran has proposed cuts to state colleges and universities. In addition, the two chambers currently differ on sanctuary cities legislation – a major priority for Speaker Corcoran. The House and Senate also disagree on plans relating to how lawmakers can raise state taxes and fees going forward. And, in a sea change from last year’s session, the House and Governor’s Office are on the same page regarding economic development funding, while the Senate has proposed cuts to Visit Florida.
Provided below is a summary of the some of the key issues and priorities being discussed and debated as we move into the second half of session. Members are currently very hard at work on these matters, and issues continue to evolve at a very fast pace.
There are a number of factors currently impacting the state budget. Key among those are repeated tax cuts, as well as annual increased spending on programs like Medicaid. In addition, while original projections completed last year had the state with a budget surplus of about $52 million, much of that number was wiped out by Hurricane Irma. As a result, lawmakers started the session last month with a commitment to passing a trimmed down, efficient budget for the coming year. On Friday, the state Revenue Estimating Conference issued a general revenue projection showing the state with an increase of $181 million more than previous estimates for the coming year. While the increase is good news for Florida, all current indications are that legislative leaders plan to place the extra funds in state reserves.
In November, Governor Scott released his $87.4 billion recommended budget for 2018-19, which was $3.9 billion more than he recommended last year, and $5 billion more than the budget passed by lawmakers last session. The Governor’s proposal included around $180 million in tax cuts, a four-percent increase in Florida’s K-12 funding, increased higher education funding for the Bright Futures scholarship program, and funding to combat the opioid issue. In recent weeks, both the House and Senate have worked to craft their respective budgets for the coming year. Once allocations for each section of the budget are agreed upon by the two chambers and released by legislative leaders, which will likely happen sometime this week, members will begin budget conference, where differences in the spending plans will be negotiated. Once members pass the budget – the only action they are constitutionally required to complete during session – it will be sent to the Governor for his select veto actions and overall approval of the spending plan.
All three budgets proposed are very close in total numbers, with Governor Scott proposing $87.4 billion, the Senate proposing $87.3 billion and the House at $87.2 billion. Education funding is once again a major priority this session, but each side seems to have differing ideas of how funds should be allocated and what programs should be increased or not. While the Senate remains committed to increasing higher education spending – specifically, the Bright Futures program, the House is taking a different stance, focusing on K-12 funding issues. The House budget increases K-12 funds by just over $500 million, but cuts more than $200 million from state universities. The Senate, however, proposes increasing funding for state colleges and universities by more than $380 million. In addition, as noted above, Speaker Corcoran has provided that $8.3 billion in funding for the Florida Educational Finance Program, which school districts are primarily funded through, will be contingent upon his proposed comprehensive education bill becoming law. These differences on education funding could become significant points of contention between the two chambers in the budget conference process.
On the economic development side, both chambers are providing $85 million for Governor Scott’s infrastructure program. However, on the Senate side, the funds are tied to federal reimbursement funds the state should be receiving from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This stipulation could become another point of contention between the House and Senate as the budget is ironed out. The Senate plan also decreases funding for Visit Florida – a difference between the upper chamber and the House and Governor’s office.
The Senate has recently focused on key health care funding issues, with President Negron expressing a commitment to a Medicaid funding model that would redistribute more than $265 million in “enhancement” funds to hospitals through their Medicaid base rates. The two chambers differ on how this funding should be distributed, with the House taking the stance that the funds should be sent to hospitals based on their percentage of Medicaid care provided to patients. In addition, there are differences between the two chambers regarding $130 million in one-time funds the Senate wants to provide for hospitals to offset cuts, but the House does not agree to that provision.
For environmental funding, both chambers have expressed a commitment to providing funds for Florida’s waterways and coastal areas, with the Senate committing $75 million for springs restoration and $50 million for other water projects, and the House allocating $25 million for state beach renourishment projects. However, there are significant differences with regard to the state’s land buying program, with the House providing $8 million for Florida Forever, while the Senate has prioritized the issue, providing $150 million for the program. For transportation, both chambers are supporting legislation to provide $60 million to create a new statewide “alternative” transportation authority to address traffic congestion.
Florida’s education system is once again set to be the biggest issue discussed and debated during the 2018 session. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has made K-12 funding and policy matters his legacy issue throughout his tenure as House leader. This year, Speaker Corcoran’s omnibus education bill, mentioned in earlier sections of this report, is being compared to his education reform bill passed last year, which created the controversial Schools of Hope scholarship program. Speaker Corcoran’s legislation this year, which will likely cause contention with the Senate over its tie to $8 billion in K-12 funding, includes a number of sweeping policy measures. Key among these provisions is language allowing students who are bullied at public schools to use public funds to attend private schools instead. This language, which is supported in the Senate as well, has been compared to other controversial school voucher legislation considered by lawmakers in recent years. In addition, the bill contains language providing funds for low-performing readers in elementary schools to secure tutoring services, and controversial language regarding membership in teachers’ unions, among other items. In addition, the legislation contains numerous provisions relating to charter schools, including language making it more difficult for school districts to close charter schools.
From the start of session, Senate leaders expressed a commitment to focusing on higher education policy and funding issues in Florida. Boosting funds for the Bright Futures scholarship program has long been a priority for Senate President Negron, and he has committed to passing the measure this year. Last week, the Senate released a budget plan to increase funding for colleges and universities by more than $380 million. This would include a significant increase for financial aid, which covers the Bright Futures program. In addition, state universities would receive funding boosts, including additional performance funding, as well as Florida colleges, which would receive an additional $40 million in operating funds. The House plan, however, is vastly different. With a stance that Florida’s higher education system has been “overfunded” for years, the House is looking to reduce funding for universities and is not supportive of the increase for Bright Futures.
Health care has been a contentious topic among Florida lawmakers for several years, with differences between the two chambers typically surrounding the state’s Medicaid program. Last session, however, the big health care debate centered around legislative funding reductions for the state’s hospitals, and it looks like the hospital funding fight could come back up again this session.
The issue this year surrounds Medicaid inpatient “enhancement” funds, and ideological differences between the two chambers on the issue. There is roughly $265 million in funds that the legislature needs to decide how to distribute to hospitals. The Senate wants to divide the funds based on each hospital’s Medicaid base rate, which would negatively impact the state’s safety net hospitals. The House, however, wants to distribute the funds to hospitals whose patient services include at least 25 percent in Medicaid care. The hospital funding issue became so divisive last year that session was extended for several days to address the matter. Ultimately, it was decided that hospitals would receive around $130 million in one-time funding to offset cuts. The Senate wants to provide the one-time funding again this year, but the House has not agreed to the move, setting the matter up to become an issue in budget conference.
On the policy end, lawmakers have placed key focus this year on working to combat the state’s opioid crisis – an issue plaguing states across the nation. Governor Scott made this a key priority this year, proposing $50 million in funding for programs and supporting legislation to implement new policies like a strict limit on the frequency of opioid prescription refills. The Senate has also made this issue a priority, currently considering legislation to limit prescription lengths and other changes to current state policy. In addition, both chambers are providing funding for efforts on this issue.
Members are also again considering legislation to repeal the certificate of need process, which regulates the building of hospitals in Florida, and measures providing authorization for certain health care services to be provided via telehealth. In addition, there are a number of proposals relating to health insurance claims and payments, including legislation prohibiting health insurers from retroactively denying claims in certain circumstances. One key issue also being considered by lawmakers is regarding trauma centers in the state. Both chambers are working on legislation that addresses the approval of new trauma centers, as well as the “grandfathering in” of existing trauma centers as the issue is currently being litigated in the state court system.
Going forward, it appears that once again health care matters could become a major and difficult issue during budget conference.
Hurricane Response and Preparedness
Following the devastation of powerful Hurricane Irma, Speaker Corcoran appointed a team of House members from across the state to serve on a Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness to discuss and determine the best ways for the state to respond to current and future storm issues.
As the committee began its work, members narrowed down specific issues to address, including power supply at assisted living facilities, availability and accessibility of fuel in times of emergency, and the strength and efficiency of the state’s electric grid, among other matters. In addition to the committee’s work, there have been a number of bills filed pertaining to hurricane-related issues this session. For example, legislation prohibiting cable and telephone companies from charging customers for service during outages from storms and other incidents.
These matters are also factoring largely into budget discussions this session. Both chambers have included hurricane-related issues in their budgets, with funding provided for housing in areas impacted by the storm.
In addition, Governor Scott is focused on resolving issues relating to storm evacuations, and recently directed the Florida Department of Transportation (“FDOT”) to implement changes relating to Florida’s transportation and highway system, as well as fuel availability along evacuation routes. Also with regard to fuel, lawmakers are considering legislation this session to develop a task force to address fuel reserve and shortage issues during storms.
Environment and Land Use
Environment and water issues have been some of the most discussed and debated in recent years, and this year is no different. Lawmakers, particularly Senate members, have placed a key focus on securing funding for the state’s land buying and water programs, with Senate leaders expressing that maintaining and preserving land in Florida is a “responsibility” of the legislature.
The Senate has focused its efforts on both substantive and appropriations legislation, with measures to commit nearly $300 million annually to protect the state’s land buying efforts, as well as fund programs to restore and protect Florida’s springs and other water bodies. On the House side, members have allocated around $43 million for land acquisition and conservation, and $25 million for springs protection. The differences between the two chambers on funding for environmental programs is vast and will need to be addressed during budget conference.
Legislation has been filed again this session relating to coastal management in Florida. The measures would make significant changes to how the state deals with Florida’s beach erosion and renourishment issues. However, current indications are that the legislation is unlikely to pass again this year. While the proposal, which would allocate $50 million for beach projects and provide for a three-year beach management plan, has passed through all committees in the Senate, at this time it looks like it will not be taken up by the House.
In addition, members are considering measures in both chambers to shift the responsibility and oversight of wetland permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”). This is also a priority of Governor Scott, who has been working with the Trump administration on the issue.
Economic Development, Taxes and Incentives
Economic development and job creation have been the top priorities of Governor Scott during his time leading the state. The issue was initially a source of much contention between the Governor and the Speaker, with the Speaker scrutinizing a number of the programs the Governor strongly supported. However, negotiations made between the two sides last year resulted in lawmakers providing the Governor with an $85 million infrastructure fund, and fully funding Visit Florida as the Governor requested. Presently, that $85 million is provided in both chambers’ budgets, although the Senate has tied the money to funds the state is set to receive from FEMA. That Senate provision could become a conference fight between the two chambers.
This year, Governor Scott requested a total of $100 million for Visit Florida – an increase of $24 million from last year. While the House has not agreed to the increase, House members did fund Visit Florida – the state’s tourism promotion agency – at last year’s level. The Senate, however, only provided $50 million in its budget for the organization.
In addition, both chambers are currently considering legislation relating to tourist development taxes, otherwise known as “bed taxes.” The proposals would expand the use of those taxes to include infrastructure projects that benefit tourism. However, the move is not supported by those in the industry, who mainly want to focus the revenues on marketing efforts. House members have also worked on legislation to add more transparency to local economic development efforts – a priority of Speaker Corcoran.
With regard to taxes, the House is expected to release its tax package soon – possibly this week. It is anticipated that any tax cuts will be less than in recent years due to unexpected costs to the state from issues like Hurricane Irma. Even Governor’s Scott’s recommended tax cuts for the coming year were the least he has proposed since taking office as Governor.
Lawmakers are also currently considering legislation to implement rules regarding how legislators increase taxes in the future. On the House side, the legislation would require a two-thirds vote by members to raise taxes. The Senate version would require a three-fifths vote.
Transportation and Infrastructure
Lawmakers are considering several bills relating to transportation innovation and infrastructure this session. Members in both chambers have been largely focused on the issue of autonomous vehicles, with legislation filed to authorize vehicles with this technology in Florida. Members are also considering legislation relating to prohibiting the operation of drones in certain locations, as well as regarding the use of electric and hybrid vehicles in Florida.
In addition, both chambers are currently working on their comprehensive transportation packages, which will likely be added to existing bills at this point. These would include numerous provisions relating to Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (“DHSMV”) and FDOT programs.
The House and Senate are also considering legislation to create a statewide “alternative” transportation authority. The move would create an authority to develop alternative transportation systems and programs in order to relieve traffic congestion issues in the state.
Early in the legislative session, bills were filed in both chambers to ban oil and gas hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in Florida. This topic has been considered and debated by lawmakers in recent years. However, the issue became headline news in January when President Trump announced plans to open the majority of the Outer Continental Shelf off the U.S. Coast, including Florida, for offshore drilling. This was an issue long opposed by Governor Scott, and the Governor quickly jumped into action to have Florida excluded from the order. Soon after, federal officials announced that Florida would be exempt from the new offshore drilling plans (although other federal officials expressed that Florida was still being “analyzed”). Since then, state legislators have pushed a resolution requesting that Congress extend a moratorium on drilling off of Florida’s coasts. The legislation to completely ban fracking in the state has also received hearing in the Senate, but the House stance is that any ban should be temporary while studies are developed.
Many topics up for consideration this session center largely around hurricane issues, in response to the massive power outages the state was left to deal with in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. The storm led to scrutiny of Florida’s utility and power policies, and members began looking to address issues before the state faces future storms. One measure filed would prevent utilities from charging Floridians during large service outages. In addition, legislation is moving this session to give the Florida Public Service Commission (“PSC”) the authority to determine when electric transmission lines should be located underground.
The topic of potentially expanding gaming in Florida has been debated by lawmakers for the past several years. Measures for gambling expansion in the state, particularly in South Florida, have been strongly backed by Vegas-style casinos, but have ultimately failed to pass through the legislative process. Another factor in Florida’s gambling equation is the state’s gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Preliminary estimates have shown that a gaming deal would potentially provide the state a revenue boost of around $300 million per year – an amount that could help fund the state’s big ticket items like education and Medicaid. While Senator Travis Hutson (R-Palm Coast) filed a more limited measure this session, gaming bills are always complex and uncertain and typically run through the final week of session. In fact, Senator Hutson filed an amendment to his language just last week. The new provisions include the Seminole Gaming Compact and keep fantasy contests exempt. This is in addition to stand-alone legislation being considered this session to exempt fantasy sports from current gaming regulations, making fantasy sports legal in Florida. While the new Senate language is still different from the House version, adding the Seminole Compact language brings the two chambers closer together for negotiations as lawmakers go into the final weeks of session.
In addition, a powerful coalition of anti-gambling groups worked hard in recent months to push a petition to place an anti-gambling amendment on the 2018 ballot. In January, that group, which was supported by the Seminole Tribe, was successful in their effort. The amendment will be considered by Florida voters later this year.
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. With this being an election year, politics will undoubtedly be a big factor going forward. Members will continue in the coming days and weeks to address legislation already filed and craft amendments to bills addressing various issues.
The 60-day session is officially set to adjourn in less than 30 days on Friday, March 9th.