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TFG’s 2020 Legislative Session Wrap Up

Florida lawmakers officially wrapped up the 2020 legislative session Thursday afternoon. Despite getting off to a fairly typical start, the final two weeks of session were definitely ones for the history books, with a late budget conference that ultimately stretched over two separate weekends, members sparring over divisive policy and appropriations issues, and session being extended nearly a full week to meet state budget process requirements. Not surprisingly, efforts during the final weeks of session were consumed with the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, and the impending impacts of the pandemic to the state and the nation as a whole. This has not been an easy matter for members to address. There is still more unknown than known about this virus. At this time, no one can predict the extent of its impact, and in the final days of session, lawmakers were faced with trying to determine how to allocate necessary state funding to adequately meet the response statewide, as well as meet the needs of the people and businesses of Florida – whatever those needs may ultimately be.

Session efforts culminated with final budget votes Thursday, followed by a press conference with Governor DeSantis, Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) and House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Hialeah). While leaders kept it light, with each expressing gratitude for the leadership of the others in what ended up being a tough session, there was undoubtedly an undertone of uncertainty about what is to come. At this point, no one can rule out the possibility of an eventual return to Tallahassee to readdress state funding and spending matters as the full impact of this pandemic plays out in Florida and around the world.


Session Focus

Lawmakers kicked off the session as scheduled in January, with members following the recent policy of meeting two months earlier than usual during election years. While legislators attempted to get an early start on the budget as well, it became clear in the final weeks of session that the process had stalled. This was initially due to differences in leadership priorities, but ultimately became a result of the current global pandemic. Once members were ready to set allocations and move forward with crafting a budget, the process became completely overshadowed by what had once been a threat and was now a reality. COVID-19 had reached the State of Florida.

There were some bills that members worked on extensively but ultimately did not pass through the chaotic end of session, including a school safety package and a sweeping higher education proposal. Members did, however, pass substantive measures relating to school choice in Florida, a system for combatting illegal immigration, two key health care measures, and comprehensive environmental regulation bills, among other measures. With regard to the budget, members began budget conference the weekend of March 7, but didn’t complete their efforts on the state spending plan until this past Sunday evening. Due to a required 72-hour “cooling off period,” members had to wait to take a final vote once the budget was completed. As a result, while all policy matters were completed by the scheduled end time on Friday, March 13, members had to extend the session end date by nearly one week, reconvening in Tallahassee on Thursday to make a final vote on the budget and officially end the 2020 legislative session.


Leadership

Governor DeSantis began the session with a very high approval rating, at more than 60 percent. His priorities for session included a sweeping plan to increase teacher salaries in Florida, labeling 2020 as the “Year of the Teacher.” Both the House and Senate gave tepid support to the proposal early in the process, although legislative leaders had different ideas for how to provide the boost in compensation. The Governor also pushed for continued increased spending on land conservation and water quality projects, maintaining his commitment to provide record funding for Florida’s environmental programs during his first term as Governor. In addition, he has been a strong proponent of utilizing the controversial E-Verify system as a method to combat illegal immigration – an issue that would be one of the biggest and most debated of the 2020 legislative session – and ultimately saw success. Overall, despite the session wrapping up on a dark note under the shadow of COVID-19, the Governor was seen as a strong leader and had a largely successful session, with many of his policy and appropriations priorities successfully passed.

On the legislative side, President Galvano opened session with the call for a civil process between lawmakers, rather than setting an agenda for session. However, some of his priorities included school safety legislation, gaming, and increased regulation of firearms in Florida. While the school safety legislation ultimately died and lawmakers had little appetite for gun bills, President Galvano’s longtime and key priority – comprehensive gaming expansion in Florida – certainly cannot be ruled out at this point. There has been talk in recent weeks about a potential special session to pass a gaming measure. That may be more possible now than ever as the state looks at an increased need for revenue.

This year, Speaker Oliva remained focused on keeping Florida’s health care market competitive and transparent, and once again saw the success of two of his biggest health care priorities – expanding the scope of practice for Florida’s nurse practitioners and pharmacists. While these issues were heavily discussed and debated during the final days of session, once passed they were fast-tracked through the Governor’s bill signing process, with both measures already signed into law and set to go into effect on July 1, 2020.


2020-2021 State Budget

Florida House and Senate members convened in Tallahassee Thursday to make a final vote on the 2020-2021 state budget, with both chambers in unanimous support of the spending plan. After an initial delay in allocations in the final weeks of session – due to disagreements over leadership priorities, including Visit Florida, gaming and the Speaker’s health care proposals – the COVID-19 issue complicated things even further, throwing budget discussions into a spiral and leaving members to decide on an appropriate spending plan while also setting aside funds for an uncertain future. This past Sunday, members officially completed a $93.2 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2020-2021. The updated spending plan was revised late in the process to place around $300 million in state reserves in effort to prepare for the impending economic slowdown due to the current pandemic.

In addition to allocating the reserve funds, the budget passed by legislators for the coming year provides nearly $23 billion for K-12 education, including $500 million for increased teacher salaries – meeting the Governor’s call to increase the base teacher salary in Florida to $47,500 – as well as an increase in per-student spending. Of the funding passed for teacher pay, $400 million is allocated to increase the base salary, while the remaining $100 million will be used to ensure veteran teachers see increases in pay as well, a main concern of educator advocates during the session. In addition, lawmakers provided more than $350 million for Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) projects. The funds are utilized by K-12 public schools, including charter schools, as well as public higher education institutions, for construction projects. Other higher education spending includes $15 million for the new Universities of Distinction program to highlight Florida’s nine pre-eminent universities.

The health care budget passed by lawmakers totals more than $39 billion, including $25 million for the Governor to utilize to combat the COVID-19 crisis, as well as more than $27 million in federal funds for other efforts relating to the pandemic. Members also came to terms on the controversial Visit Florida program, which will now be extended for an additional three years. Lawmakers provided an allocation of $50 million for the agency during the coming year. In addition, lawmakers allocated $690 million for water quality projects and $100 million for Florida Forever, the state’s land-buying program.

The 2020-2021 spending plan also includes a tax package totaling nearly $48 million, which members hope will boost money in reserves to prepare for future economic fallout. The original tax package was comprehensive and contained sweeping tax cuts to commercial real estate leases, aviation fuel tax and the communications services tax (CST), among others. The measure – which became one of the more contentious issues this session – was heavily amended between the two chambers and, at one point, totaled more than $230 million. What ultimately passed was a trimmed down plan that only includes direct-to-consumer relief like sales tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and hurricane preparation, but makes no cuts to the CST, commercial leases, aviation fuel tax, or other corporate taxes.


Legislative Initiatives

E-Verify

This controversial priority of Governor DeSantis was a key topic discussed and debated this session. While the original proposal would have required all businesses in Florida to utilize the E-Verify system to verify employee eligibility to work in the United States, what passed was a much different and much more scaled down measure. After divisive debate among House and Senate members, legislators ultimately passed a measure that provides an option for employers to utilize E-Verify, or keep three years of records of documents used by employees when federal forms are completed. The bill also allows the Governor’s office to randomly audit businesses to make sure employee verification is taking place.

K-12 Education

Governor DeSantis made K-12 education his top priority this session, seeing successful funding of his call for increased base salaries for Florida teachers while also calling for expansion of school choice and state vouchers programs. In addition to teacher pay, members expanded Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, adding around 10,000 students to the current total.

While the topic of school security has been at the forefront of education policy in Florida since the tragic Parkland shooting in 2018, members could not bring a comprehensive school safety measure to the finish line this session. The issue was outlined as a priority for President Galvano, with proposals to implement some of the recommendations of the Commission created after the tragedy in 2018. Members did, however, pass legislation to create a statewide panic alert system for Florida schools – a measure named for a victim of the Parkland Massacre.

There were also other education measures that did not see final passage this session, including a divisive proposal to allow voters to decide on eight-year term limits for school board members in districts throughout the state.

Higher Education

This year, Speaker Oliva called for comprehensive higher education reform, expressing concerns about spending practices at state colleges and universities and pledging to closely review and update spending on state scholarship programs. What resulted from the Speaker’s pledge was a higher education package that proposed to upend many aspects of the state’s current system. The proposal, sponsored by House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) aimed to merge the state’s two newest public universities into bigger state schools, with the original bill merging New College of Florida with Florida State University and rolling Florida Polytechnic University in with the University of Florida. The proposal was then amended to merge both new schools into the University of Florida before being dropped altogether due to lack of support in the Senate. Chairman Fine also proposed updating some of the state’s scholarship programs for private schools, including tying the Effective Access to Student Education (EASE) program to income, eliminating about 65 percent of current recipients. This proposal was highly controversial and also died without passage due to lack of support in the Senate.

Members did pass legislation to allow Florida’s college athletes to receive compensation for their name, image and likeness, following suit of other states in opposition to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (“NCAA”) longtime ban on such endorsements. However, the legislation will not go into effect until 2021, giving the NCAA time to implement its own policy.

Health Care

Two of Speaker Oliva’s biggest session priorities – in his effort to combat what he calls the “health care industrial complex” in Florida – were successfully passed this session. Although the measures initially held up the budget conference process as leaders worked to barter and negotiate, ultimately the bill to allow Florida’s nurse practitioners to practice independently of doctors, and the bill to allow pharmacists to test and treat patients for the flu and strep were approved by both chambers and have already been signed into law by Governor DeSantis.

Members also passed a fast-tracked measure early in session to prohibit minors from obtaining an abortion in Florida without parental consent. That measure still needs to be sent to the Governor for his approval.

Marijuana

This year, once again, House members worked to establish a limit on the level of THC allowed in medical cannabis products in the state – a priority on the House side since 2018, when members repealed the ban on smoking medical marijuana. This year’s proposal met the same fate as last year’s measure, and ultimately died due to lack of support in the Senate.

Energy and Environmental Issues

Governor DeSantis remained focused this year on continued increased funding for environmental programs, including water quality and land conservation, and measures to set stronger pollution rules and increase penalties when sewage is spilled into state waterways. Lawmakers again met the Governor’s call both with funding and with policy, passing several measures to increase penalties for violations of environmental laws and implement numerous provisions relating to water quality in Florida.

Members also considered controversial proposals to provide the Governor with more power over state agencies, including transferring the Office of Energy from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to the Department of Environmental Protection, moving control over state energy policy from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to the Governor. In addition, members considered controversial language to change the way the state’s DEP Secretary is appointed. Both measures failed this session.

Transportation

Every session members consider comprehensive transportation legislation that often ends up being heavily amended throughout the committee process, to the point it’s often referred to as a “transportation train.” This year’s bill included numerous provisions relating to high speed rail, airports, the state’s “Move Over Law,” the debt service cap on bonds for certain transportation projects, and child restraint laws, among numerous other provisions. Ultimately, as often happens, the bill became too bogged down and died without final passage through the session process.

Gaming

The topic of expanding gaming in Florida has been a long-debated one over the past several years, and has remained a high priority of Senate President Galvano. The issue was again on the table this session. However, once again the two chambers could not come to terms on a gaming proposal, particularly in the final weeks of session as so many new and critical issues came to the forefront.

However, leaders have not ruled out the possibility of members coming back for a special session to address the gaming issue, as the state works to negotiate an updated deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. This issue has been on a constant rollercoaster for several years. With the current deal proposed to the Tribe having the potential to net the state around $500 million each year, this issue is far from over, particularly as the state prepares for a significant economic slowdown and revenue shortfall. This was expressed by President Galvano during his post-session press statements on Thursday.


Going Forward

All eyes remain on state and federal leaders as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shut down every part of the country. Its impact is currently being felt statewide, particularly in South Florida, which seems to be the hardest hit area of the state at this point. Governor DeSantis remains a strong state leader through this time, declaring a State of Emergency and taking new steps each day to stop the outbreak and allow health care officials to address the virus without being overrun.

Through all of this, the state’s legislative process will continue, with a total of 210 bills passed this session that will need action before the new fiscal year begins on July 1, which is when many new bills are set to take effect. At this time, the Governor has signed nine bills into law. Two bills are procedural and have been filed with the Secretary of State. The remaining 199 bills are still being finalized and prepared for sending to the Governor. These include the 2020-2021 state budget and budget implementing bill.

Once the Governor receives a bill, he has a total of 15 days to either sign it into law, veto it, or let it become law without his action. The budget is the only piece of legislation over which the Governor has line-item veto power. There is currently much uncertainty surrounding the budget. Many anticipate the vetoes will be significant this year given the likelihood of an economic slowdown or even a potential budget crisis as the result of COVID-19.

Our team is working continuously with state policy and budget leaders on session issues of importance for our clients. We will keep you up to date as matters progress, and will work closely with lawmakers as members explore the potential of possible special sessions to address budget matters and a potential gaming proposal.

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The Fiorentino Group Names New Partners

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (February 19, 2020) – The Fiorentino Group (TFG) today announced that longtime principals Joe Mobley and Mark Pinto Jr. have become partners in the government relations and business development firm.

Founded in 2002, TFG has years of experience in local, state and national politics, as well as in the private sector.  The firm represents a wide array of clients at all levels of government, including transportation, healthcare, telecommunications, education, nonprofits and development and construction interests, among others.

“Joe and Mark are trusted advisors to me and our clients,” said TFG President and Founder Marty Fiorentino.  “They are highly regarded in our profession.  I cannot think of two more qualified people to have as partners.  The professionalism and integrity they bring to our clients and the firm is exceptional.  I look forward to continuing to work side by side with them for years to come.”

Active in both the Jacksonville and Tallahassee offices, Mobley brings more than 17 years of state government and legislative experience to TFG. Prior to joining TFG, Mobley served as Assistant Vice President of Legislative Affairs at Fidelity National Financial, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Jacksonville where he was part of a team responsible for the company’s legislative and political agenda throughout the United States and Washington, DC.

From left to right – TFG President Marty Fiorentino, TFG Partner Joe Mobley and TFG Partner Mark Pinto

“This is an exciting time for me and my family,” said Mobley.  “Becoming a shareholder means personally investing in a firm I’ve long believed in and I couldn’t be more proud.  I look forward to the future and growing our business with the results and integrity we’ve become known for.”

Pinto has experience in a variety of sectors including healthcare, gaming, medical marijuana, education, transportation, local government, economic development, tourism, professional sports leagues, private development, environment and real estate.  With more than 10 years at TFG, Mark advises, advocates on behalf of and manages projects for local, state, national and international clients. Mark has been recognized by the Jacksonville Business Journal as one of Jacksonville’s 40 Under 40 top young professionals.

“Joe and I are excited to help continue the legacy of success that TFG has brought to clients throughout the State of Florida,” Pinto said. “We will work hard to ensure The Fiorentino Group remains one of the best and most recognized government affairs and business development firms in Florida.”

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)

[email protected]

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2020 Legislative Session Kick-Off

Davis Bean The Fiorentino Group Bio Page

Florida lawmakers will kick off the 2020 legislative session this morning in Tallahassee.  The official start of session follows months of preparation, with legislators and staff periodically holding interim policy and appropriations committee meetings since September.

There will be much at stake for Florida lawmakers over the coming 60-day session.  It is generally more common to see sweeping policy measures passed in a non-election year, and that trend held true in 2019.  Last session, legislation implementing several major health care policy changes, updated rules for placing constitutional amendments on the ballot, and a sweeping school choice bill were all successfully passed by the legislature.  Even with the 2020 election right around the corner, there are still big issues up for debate this session, including a proposed overhaul of the way teachers are compensated in Florida, a controversial abortion proposal, continued school security discussions, and potential changes to Florida’s medical marijuana laws, among numerous other substantive proposals.

This year, the priorities of Florida’s Republican state leaders will perhaps be even more important than usual, as their success could have an impact on the 2020 Presidential Election in Florida.  For his part, Governor Ron DeSantis’ approval rating continues to be very high at more than 60 percent.  His recommendations to the legislature for his second session as Governor should hold appeal for both parties, with the Governor pushing a conservative policy agenda while also supporting increased funding for teachers, as well as boosts in spending for environmental programs.

The 2019 session was a win for the Republican Party, with major policy successes for conservatives, and was largely successful for each of the state’s key leaders – Governor DeSantis, Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) and House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Hialeah).  Also notable last year were the remarkably harmonious working relationships between the three state leaders, with each overseeing the success of their biggest priorities with little contention in the process.  This year, however, lawmakers and the Governor are at odds over several key issues, including education policy and spending, economic development programs, and placing mandates on businesses in order to combat illegal immigration in Florida.

Governor DeSantis has been hard at work on his legislative proposals for this year, driving a plan to increase teacher salaries in Florida, which he first announced last fall.  While this is one of the Governor’s top priorities for the session, reception among legislative leaders has been mixed.  Leaders in both the House and Senate support increasing teacher pay, but will have different proposals for creating and implementing the plan.  The Governor is also pushing for increased funding for land conservation and water quality projects, maintaining his commitment to provide record funding for Florida’s environmental programs during his first term as Governor.

While these issues have support among legislative leaders, this may also be a year where budget leaders are looking to tighten spending even more than usual, leaving potential for a showdown over some of the spending increases outlined in the Governor’s plan.  The Governor also supports keeping Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency – putting him directly at odds with Speaker Oliva, who has long been a strong opponent of what he sees as wasteful government spending on the state economic development organization.  The Senate is also at odds with the House on this issue, with Senate members voting to reauthorize Visit Florida until 2028 during a committee meeting last November.  State leaders will also have to decide what requirements should be placed on businesses with regard to verifying employee eligibility as part of an effort to combat illegal immigration.  The system is known as E-Verify, and Governor DeSantis is a strong supporter, but legislative leaders are reluctant to place the burdensome requirement on businesses.  These and other possibly contentious issues will likely see considerable debate over the next two months.

On the legislative side, President Galvano continues working on his comprehensive transportation legislation passed last year to create three toll road corridors in the state, with lawmakers looking this year to enhance funding for the program and potentially add infrastructure projects.  House Speaker Oliva saw overwhelming success during the first year of his leadership, with numerous health care reforms at the top of his priority list successfully passed and implemented.  This year, the Speaker remains focused on keeping Florida’s health care market competitive and transparent, and working to combat wasteful state spending of taxpayer dollars.

Members will also address numerous other policy and funding matters, including a potentially expansive gaming proposal, with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues to the state at risk if lawmakers don’t come to consensus on the issue.

Provided below and in the following pages is an overview of some of the key topics up for discussion and debate during the 2020 session.


 State Budget

Last October, Governor DeSantis made a major announcement on K-12 education spending, calling for more than $600 million in state funds to increase salaries for Florida’s teachers and set the minimum annual teacher salary at $47,500. In the weeks following this announcement, the Governor released his full 2020-2021 budget recommendations to the legislature, totaling $91.4 billion. The plan calls for $1 billion in total K-12 education spending, including the increased salary dollars, plus around $300 million for a new bonus program. While legislators remain supportive of increased education funding, aiming to boost per-student spending and increase dollars for mental health programs and school safety initiatives, reception of the Governor’s increased salary proposal has been mixed among lawmakers. Some have expressed concerns about the spending increase at a time when state revenue projections show a possible slowdown over the next several years. House and Senate leaders have expressed their plans to continue their same budget strategy going forward – focusing on increasing reserves, reducing debt and keeping taxes low. However, increasing teacher salaries is a priority for the Governor, and will likely become a top issue for negotiation as the state budget is crafted.

The Governor’s plan also calls for increased funding for Florida’s public colleges and universities, $100 million for land conservation, more than $600 million for water quality and protection projects, and nearly $10 billion to fully fund the state transportation budget. On the health care side, the Governor is requesting more than $20 million for the state’s brand new prescription drug importation plan, which is still pending federal approval. In addition, just this month it was announced that Medicaid payments to state hospitals that serve large numbers of low income patients would be cut by more than $70 million. However, the rollback has been delayed at the Congressional level. As a result, the cut is currently not included in state revenue and budget projections.

As noted above, state leaders will likely square off about economic development funding – particularly an allocation to keep Visit Florida, which coordinates the state’s tourism marketing services. In previous years, Visit Florida received $76 million in annual funding. Last year that funding was cut to $50 million. Governor DeSantis has called for maintaining the $50 million – a move supported by the Senate. However, Speaker Oliva is strongly opposed to funding the organization.


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. Whether this will be the year for new substantive gaming laws in Florida remains to be seen.

In recent years, while gaming has been extensively discussed and debated, the House and Senate have simply been unable to agree on the issue. As a result, members have failed to ratify a new compact between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the state, risking hundreds of millions in potential revenue. In addition, a powerful coalition of anti-gambling groups worked in 2018 to successfully pass an amendment on the ballot requiring voter approval for any new form or expansion of gambling.

For the 2020 session, all bets are on the table. Several gaming bills have been filed, but thus far, there is no big comprehensive measure addressing all issues at stake. One key component of any real change on the issue is sports betting – a topic included in a bill filed by Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg). Senator Brandes’ bill would include legalization of sports betting under the Florida Lottery, which would allow lawmakers to work around the 2018 rule that requires voter approval.

Members also have to decide whether to renew or amend the compact with the Tribe, or move forward with expansion without a compact. Payments from the Tribe to the state (totaling $350 million annually) have ceased – at least temporarily – because the Tribe alleges that certain “banked” card games are being allowed illegally in some betting venues, which violates the agreement. Budget writers have left Tribe dollars out of 2020-2021 budget equations for now. While Governor DeSantis has expressed optimism about working out a new deal with the Tribe, Senate leaders seem less willing to renew the relationship. Further on the gambling issue, President Galvano previously expressed that he may consider working to repeal the gaming amendment passed by Florida voters in 2018.


E-Verify

The topic of illegal immigration remains at the forefront nationwide. Last session, lawmakers passed a ban on Sanctuary Cities in Florida – a top priority of Governor DeSantis. The topic will likely again be discussed and debated this session – this time regarding E-Verify, a service used by employers to verify that employees are eligible to work in the United States. Governor DeSantis is a strong proponent of E-Verify, calling for lawmakers to support the program and pass legislation requiring businesses to utilize it to ensure employees are legally eligible to work. This was setting up to be a potential fight in the legislature, with many opposed to such a mandate on private businesses, including President Galvano. However, the measure just filed in the House is looking to be a compromise on the issue, requiring only government employers to use the service – not private companies.


K-12 Education

Each year, lawmakers consider large proposals relating to K-12 education in Florida, and 2020 looks to be no exception.  Governor DeSantis has consistently expressed his support for increased K-12 funding and reforms, including school choice and voucher programs.  Presently, the Governor has made K-12 education his top priority this session, with landmark funding for salaries and a bonus program included in his recommended spending plan for lawmakers.

The Governor’s proposal to increase teacher salaries has been met with strong criticism by the state teachers’ union, and more mild criticism from some lawmakers.  Unions have expressed concerns about whether the plan will impede teachers’ rights to negotiate their salaries.  On the legislative side, while members support increasing pay, there are some concerns about the way the Governor’s plan compensates new teachers versus longtime veteran teachers.  The Governor is also proposing a new bonus plan, totaling $300 million, to replace the current “Best and Brightest” program, which will be up for repeal this session.  The Governor’s plan also includes increased funding for student mental health and school security grants.

In addition, Governor DeSantis outlined a proposal to expand the voucher program approved by lawmakers last year – the Family Empowerment Scholarship – to allow children of military families who move to Florida to utilize the vouchers.  The Governor also aims to expand the program to additional kindergarten-thru-second grade students, as well as students who receive other scholarships.

The topic of school security has been at the forefront of education policy in Florida since the tragic Parkland shooting in 2018.  A grand jury was recently called to investigate school security methods and policies in Florida, and released a report last month outlining strong criticisms of school districts.  The report includes information about the ways districts are mishandling the new Guardian program passed by lawmakers in response to the tragedy, which allows teachers and other school employees to carry guns.  While the panel backs the program, it launched extensive criticism at districts for poor interpretation and implementation.  The report will likely serve as the blueprint for school safety and security legislation this session, with President Galvano expressing that it would likely be a key issue going forward.


Higher Education

Last session, lawmakers placed a key focus on higher education issues, particularly regarding funding for Florida’s public colleges and universities.  This year, the State University System is requesting a landmark increased spending plan totaling $252 million. The “Pillars of Excellence” plan would boost performance funding by $100 million, and provide $152 million for Florida’s designated pre-eminent universities, as well as schools working to achieve the designation. The majority of the funds would go to the state’s top three preeminent schools: Florida State University, the University of Florida, and the University of South Florida. Universities are also seeking $100 million in additional state funds to clear a lengthy backlog of maintenance and repair projects.

Last year, numerous states throughout the country announced plans to overturn a longtime rule put in place by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) that prohibits college athletes from accepting compensation relating to their sports positions until after they graduate. This included endorsements, appearances and sponsorships. Florida was one of several states calling for the rule to change, with measures filed in the House authorizing student athletes to receive specified compensation. The legislation was endorsed by Governor DeSantis last October. Just days after the Governor’s endorsement, the NCAA announced that it would start allowing student athletes to receive compensation. The organization is currently working to determine the specifics and provide guidelines going forward, with a new policy expected by January 2021 and compensation set to be allowed beginning in 2023. Yesterday, three House committees – the Education Committee, Commerce Committee and Judiciary Committee – met jointly to hold a workshop on the issue.


Health Care

Health care was one of the biggest issues addressed last session, with four key bills passed. These included a successful Certificate of Need (“CON”) bill, a bill allowing for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, a measure to expand telehealth services offered in Florida, and a bill expanding the services of ambulatory or outpatient surgery centers. All of these measures were priorities of Speaker Oliva who, in his first year leading the House, saw landmark success on his issues. Speaker Oliva was clear that he would work hard to fight what he called the “health care industrial complex” in Florida, and these new laws are the result of his efforts.

This session, Republicans are pushing a controversial measure to require minors to obtain parental consent in order to get an abortion. The legislation has been fast-tracked in the House, has the approval of Senate President Galvano, and will likely be supported by Governor DeSantis. This move could also have an impact on the upcoming election, possibly resulting in an abortion debate among presidential candidates.

The Governor continues to see success on his push for allowing for prescription drugs imported from Canada, with the Department of Health working since last session to prepare and outline guidelines for an importation program in Florida. At this time, the state is waiting for federal approval to move forward, but Governor DeSantis requested state funding in the coming budget to get the program underway. In addition, last November the Governor unveiled a new website that allows consumers to research options for health care, including price transparency and comparison tools.

Other 2020 health care proposals include a bill to allow school districts to stock naloxone, a medication used to combat opioid overdoses; a bill to allow pharmacists to test patients for the flu and strep throat; and a measure to create a Prescription Drug Donation Program in Florida to allow for the redistribution of prescription drugs to qualifying low-income patients. In addition, House leaders have outlined legislation to provide more transparency for pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) as a priority this session. This year lawmakers will also consider legislation to allow Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody to be notified about hospital mergers, and grant her office the power to receive information to ensure all laws are being upheld.


Marijuana

Since Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2016 to legalize medical marijuana in Florida, state lawmakers have worked to create laws to implement the amendment language. The implementation bill passed by the legislature in 2017 established a structure and process for growing, marketing, selling and prescribing medical marijuana in Florida. Since then, the issue has been at the center of numerous legal cases, with the framework established by lawmakers in 2017 currently at risk after being declared unconstitutional. The Florida Department of Health responded to this ruling with an appeal for rehearing, which was denied, so the state took the appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. Most recently, the Department adopted emergency rules to provide a framework for businesses growing and selling marijuana.

Also on the marijuana issue, after repealing the ban on smoking medical marijuana in 2018, lawmakers this year will look to establish a limit on the level of THC allowed in medical cannabis products in the state. This issue was filed for consideration last year, but lacked support in the Senate and died without passage. Last month, President Galvano expressed that he may be willing to consider a THC cap this session. In addition, Senator Brandes has again filed legislation calling for horizontal integration of the marijuana industry, which would open up the cannabis market.


Energy and the Environment  

Environment and water issues in Florida have been a major priority for Governor DeSantis, who committed to providing a total of $2.5 billion in environmental spending over his first four-year term. Senate and House leaders have also expressed commitment to resolving Florida’s water problems and focusing budget efforts on various environmental programs. Last session, members exceeded the Governor’s funding request for the year, providing more than $680 million for water quality and protection programs. In addition, members passed legislation to address the state’s Red Tide problem, providing an annual allocation of $3 million to combat the issue.

This year, Governor DeSantis is focused on continued increased funding for environmental programs, including water quality and land conservation. In addition, the Governor is recommending measures to set stronger pollution rules, and increase penalties when sewage is spilled into waterways throughout the state. The Governor’s proposal is based on recommendations made by the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, which he created shortly after he was sworn into office. Under his plan, state officials would be allowed to inspect sewage treatment plants, taking a more proactive approach than in the past, when the state could only react to spills. In the Senate, members will consider comprehensive legislation filed by Senator Debbie Mayfield (R-Indialantic). The Senate water bill, known as the Clean Waterways Act, focuses heavily on issues relating to septic tanks and sewage spills, and factors in some of the recommendations made by the Blue-Green Algae Task Force. The bill calls for sewage treatment guidelines and addresses matters relating to septic-to-sewer conversion, biosolids, and wastewater spills. In addition, legislation has been filed in both chambers to increase fines on local governments when sewage is spilled into state waterways.

This session lawmakers will also consider legislation to amend the state’s recycling goals, with many seeing the 75 percent statewide goal passed a decade ago as unrealistic. Legislation has been filed in both chambers to extend the deadline for reaching the recycling goal, and provide an exemption for fiscally constrained counties. Lawmakers will also hear proposals to prohibit local governments from granting legal rights to nature, including plants, animals and water bodies. Legislation was filed in the Senate just this month in response to citizen initiatives regarding access and rights to water bodies.

With regard to energy and climate issues, Democrat Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami) has filed several legislative proposals to address issues relating to climate change. The measures call for studies into the effects of climate change on human health, offer incentives for land management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and set goals for utilizing renewable energy. While these are Democrat-supported measures, Florida’s Republican leaders are planning to focus on climate issues as well. President Galvano has made particular note of the issue, announcing his intentions to focus on protecting Florida’s coastlines to prepare for rising sea levels. In addition, the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee has been working on a legislative package to address issues relating to climate change, establishing a Statewide Sea-Level Rise Task Force to recommend next steps on the issue. The legislation would also make the Statewide Office of Resiliency permanent.

Last session, a key topic for lawmakers was a proposed constitutional amendment to deregulate the state’s energy market. The controversial measure, which supporters aimed to have placed on the 2020 ballot, would have upended the state’s energy market by limiting investor-owned utilities to only construction, operation and repairs, giving customers the ability to choose their energy providers. The amendment, which was concerning for lawmakers, utility companies and other interested parties, was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court this month, with the Court ruling that the language was misleading for voters.


Transportation and Economic Development

Transportation was a key issue for lawmakers last session, with President Galvano successfully passing his biggest priority for 2019 – the creation of a new, comprehensive rural transportation program in Florida. President Galvano called for three expansive highway projects in rural areas of the state, looking to make the projects “multi-purpose corridors,” in an effort to boost economic development and provide an additional hurricane evacuation option for Floridians. The final product approved by lawmakers creates the Southwest-Central Florida Connector from Collier to Polk County, the Suncoast Connector from Citrus to Jefferson County; and the Northern Turnpike Connector from the Florida Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway. This year, President Galvano will continue his efforts on this comprehensive plan, with plans to secure additional funding and possibly expand the program to include additional infrastructure projects.

Governor DeSantis’ spending plan calls for $9.8 billion to fully fund the Florida Department of Transportation’s budget request for the year. The funds cover FDOT’s five-year work program, which includes various highway construction, seaport, airport and rail projects. Lawmakers in both chambers will also consider standard comprehensive transportation packages, which outline FDOT’s legislative priorities for the year, and include matters relating to FDOT leadership, compensation, and agency procurement practices, among other matters. This session, House and Senate members will also hear several other legislative proposals relating to transportation policy, including measures to enhance the Transportation Disadvantaged program, create an Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Grant Program, and address safety regulations for high-speed passenger rail services in the state. In addition, legislation has been filed in both chambers regarding transportation network companies (TNC), with bills outlining new guidelines for TNC drivers and riders, as well as requirements for TNC vehicles.

With regard to economic development, in addition to the debate between the Governor and legislative leaders over funding Visit Florida, lawmakers will also consider legislation to utilize funds from the $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund to fund workforce training programs at charter schools. Senator Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) has also filed legislation to provide $2 million in rebates for film production companies in Florida.


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. As of this writing, members have already filed nearly 3,400 bills for consideration this session.  The number of bills that will actually be heard and moved through the process, however, will be much smaller.  Typically, only about 200 bills pass completely through the legislative process by the time session wraps up.

In the coming weeks, lawmakers will continue to hear various policy proposals relating to a wide array of topics affecting the state. In addition, appropriations subcommittees will continue to meet and craft their individual budgets, each of which will make up sections of the overall budget plans approved by the House and Senate. Once those plans are passed, the two chambers will go into budget conference, where negotiations are made over differences between the two spending plans. Once a comprehensive budget is agreed upon and passed by both chambers, it will be sent to the Governor for his consideration. The budget conference process typically happens during the last two weeks of session.

The 60-day session is scheduled to wrap up on Friday, March 13th.

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TFG Employee News

TFG Employee News The Fiorentino Group logo

In TFG Employee News, we are pleased to share two updates about our team.  Davis Bean has been promoted to Government Affairs Consultant in our Jacksonville office. In his new role, Bean will utilize his skills in legislative affairs and policy development to create strategies to assist TFG clients with appropriations, local governmental matters, economic development, and education issues.

TFG Employee News Davis Bean

Melissa Langley has returned to the firm as Community Relations and Political Director. In her new role, Langley is responsible for managing TFG’s political fundraising efforts, planning special events for the firm and engaging with the local community.

TFG Employee News Melissa Langley

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TFG President Marty Fiorentino Speaks at PDCA International Conference and Expo

Th Fiorentino Group

TFG President Marty Fiorentino recently had the honor of serving as the keynote speaker at the 22nd Annual Pile Driving Contractors Association (PDCA) International Conference and Expo. Titled “Legislation and Advocacy in our Industry: Are You At The Table Or On The Menu?”, the presentation delved into the importance of being politically involved as a business or association.

“Governments and regulators are among the stakeholders with the biggest economic impact on companies,” said Fiorentino.  “Therefore, companies and industries should engage with governments and regulators proactively and regularly.  A strong government relations program can make industry winners and losers.  Don’t be on the menu, be at the table when government decision are being made.”

Marty Fiorentino speaking

“The construction marketplace is highly competitive with tight margins, especially during strong economic times,” said Frank Peters, Executive Director of the PDCA. “When a company is heavily involved in the bidding and building process, it’s easy to overlook the critical influences that the government can place on the construction industry through actions like municipal ordinances, state-level initiatives and even transformational Federal Acts such as an anticipated transportation re-authorization. Marty Fiorentino gave a thought provoking and eye-opening presentation to our PDCA members about the challenges our businesses face when they don’t pay attention to the policy developments that continuously reshape the playing field for the construction industry. It is clear that his insights made an impact on our members who attended his presentation.”

The PDCA is an organization of pile driving contractors that advocates the increased use of driven piles for deep foundations and earth retention systems. For more information, visit piledrivers.org.

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2019 Post-Session Legislative Update

Legislative Session Kick-Off TFG Logo


Florida lawmakers officially wrapped up the 2019 legislative session on Saturday afternoon. The session was extended by one day due to delays in finalizing the state budget, and a required 72-hour waiting period on a vote once the spending plan was compiled and printed. Members wrapped up all policy efforts late Friday night, then convened only to vote on the budget before officially adjourning the session on Saturday. The Fiorentino Group enjoyed another very successful session working on behalf of our clients, including securing critical funding for numerous projects relating to health care, education, veterans services, transportation and infrastructure projects, local environment and water projects, child safety, and critical initiatives for non-profit organizations in Northeast Florida.

While many significant issues were discussed and debated this session, a total of more than 3,500 bills were filed and less than 200 were approved by both chambers to be sent to Governor DeSantis for his consideration. Of the measures that did pass, many are comprehensive and address a number of the biggest issues impacting the state. These include several major health care policy measures, a measure to change the way constitutional amendments are placed on the ballot, a sweeping school choice bill, and legislation making texting while driving a more serious offense, among others.

Overall, the 2019 session was largely amicable, with the process staying relatively free of strife and conflict. The relationships between state leaders were mostly congenial, even through the normally contentious budget process. In this harmonious working environment, Governor Ron DeSantis, who is currently in his first year leading the state, and legislative leaders – Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) and House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Hialeah), both new to their leadership positions as well – collectively had a very successful session.

The session was also a sweeping success for the Republican Party. From a policy perspective, it was full of conservative wins, with successful bills to implement major health care reforms, ban sanctuary cities, expand private school vouchers, allow for the importation of prescription drugs, and boost laws to arm teachers, among other measures, all passing successfully through the process. The environment between Republican and Democrat leaders stayed remarkably harmonious as well, with one Democrat member accusing Party leaders of having a “get along, go along” mentality when it came to dealing with the Republican-led process.

Governor DeSantis saw several of his policy and funding objectives meet with success, including increased education spending, medical marijuana legislation, and a ban on sanctuary cities. President Galvano saw the success of his biggest session priority – a transportation measure to create three new toll roads in rural areas of the state. In the House, Speaker Oliva successfully pushed numerous sweeping health care measures through the legislative process. Health care reform has long been a key priority for the Speaker and was the subject of one of very few issues that caused contention this session – the Certificate of Need (CON) program. The CON program is a regulatory program that determines how, where and when hospitals and other health care facilities can be built in Florida. Speaker Oliva called for a complete repeal of the program, a move which the Senate strongly opposed early in session. However, the two chambers ultimately negotiated and reached a compromise on the matter, with the measure now headed to the Governor for his action.

Members also saw a smooth and successful budget process this session, with the $91.1 billion spending plan for the coming year passing unanimously through the Senate, and by a vote of 106-2 in the House.

It is generally more common to see sweeping policy measures passed in a non-election year, and that trend held true this session. Next year, Floridians may not see such significant changes come out of the legislature, with many members vying to hold their seats in the 2020 elections. Provided below is a summary of some of the key issues and priorities addressed throughout the 2019 session.

State Budget

Lawmakers passed the $91.1 billion budget with little fanfare and a strong amount of bipartisan support. The 2019-2020 budget is nearly $2.5 billion more than the current state budget.

Going into session, Governor DeSantis released his proposed spending plan to lawmakers, totaling a record $91.3 billion, with his funding priorities being increased dollars for environmental programs and K-12 schools, and addressing storm recovery efforts for parts of the state still recovering from Hurricane Michael. The final product passed by lawmakers ended up at $200 million less than the Governor’s recommendations. Interestingly, the final legislative budget was around $800 million more than the original Senate budget and $1.2 billion more than the original House budget. Lawmakers provided increases in numerous key areas of the budget, with boosts of nearly $800 million to education, more than $300 million to health care, and nearly $700 million for environment and water projects. In addition, members provided $1.8 billion for Hurricane Michael recovery efforts, as well as a $300 million tax package. Sticking points throughout the budget negotiation process surrounded several key issues, including health care and hospital funding – an issue that has been a source of contention between the two chambers for several years. This session the issue surrounded around $319 million in extra Medicaid funding from the federal government. The House wanted to distribute the funds to hospitals that provide the most charity care to uninsured patients, as has been done in recent years. The Senate wanted to distribute the money evenly to all hospitals. Ultimately, members decided to only distribute $9 million of the funds back to hospitals. The health care budget, which takes up more than 40 percent of the entire state budget, is always one of the last items settled in the budget conference process.

Members also spent time negotiating on various areas of the state education budget – both K-12 and higher education. Early in session House lawmakers proposed less than the Senate for both parts of the education budget, including cuts to state university projects as a result of a recent scandal involving the misuse of funds. Ultimately, the Senate prevailed on higher education funding, providing dollars for Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) for various higher education construction projects. On K-12 spending, lawmakers provided a boost in per-student spending, increased school safety and security funding and upped funding for the state’s teacher bonus program – a priority of Governor DeSantis. On economic development spending, members disagreed throughout session about an issue that has long been a point of contention – the state’s tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida. Speaker Oliva has been a vocal critic of the program, with the House looking to fund the organization only until its expiration date later this year. The Senate, however, called for providing $50 million for the organization. Ultimately, the Senate prevailed and plans to de-fund Visit Florida were scrapped for this year.

The budget will soon be sent to Governor DeSantis for his review and potential veto of certain line items. While the Governor does not have line item veto power in regular policy legislation, he does have the ability to veto certain funding projects in the comprehensive budget bill.

Health Care

Health care was one of the biggest issues debated during session and has long been a major priority of Speaker Oliva, who began the session looking to make significant changes to remedy what he calls the “health care industrial complex” in Florida. Overall, the Speaker’s health care reform measures were met with success, with four key bills passed. These include a successful Certificate of Need (CON) bill, a bill allowing for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, a measure to expand telehealth services offered in Florida, and a bill expanding the services of ambulatory or outpatient surgery centers.

As noted previously, CON was one of the biggest health care issues lawmakers debated during the session. Ultimately, the two chambers reached a compromise that repeals the program for hospitals, but exempts hospices and nursing homes from the repeal. The repeal of CON laws for regular or general hospitals will be effective this year. For specialty and other hospitals, the repeal won’t go into effect until 2021.

In addition, Speaker Oliva and Governor DeSantis both pushed a landmark proposal to allow for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada to the United States. The measure ultimately passed by lawmakers was a more scaled down version than the original proposal, which would have allowed any pharmacy in Florida to import drugs from Canada. The measure passed by lawmakers will limit the imported drugs to only be used in public health programs. With regard to pricing, it will implement requirements for pharmacies to report how much they pay for imported drugs, but not the prices at which they are then sold.

With regard to telehealth, the bill passed by lawmakers will authorize Florida health care professionals to use telehealth methods to deliver health care services to patients. The measure hit a roadblock over language to allow out-of-state doctors that participate in an interstate licensing agreement to practice telehealth in Florida. The language adopted by lawmakers does not include the out-of-state provision but does leave the door open for the future, calling for a study of the matter. Under the legislation relating to outpatient surgery, patients will now be allowed to stay in surgery centers overnight. This measure is part of a comprehensive health package, which also requires hospitals to notify patients when they are being reviewed for admission. Each of these bills will now be finalized by legislative staff and sent to Governor DeSantis for his consideration.

In addition to the landmark health packages outlined above, there were also numerous other health care measures heard and passed this session. These include a measure relating to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), easing some of the state requirements on health care coverage and requiring most health plans offered in Florida to cover pre-existing conditions should the ACA be changed or no longer be in effect at some point.

Florida’s opioid epidemic also continues to be a critical issue throughout the state and a key priority for lawmakers. Attorney General Ashley Moody pushed a measure this session to allow the Attorney General’s office to access the state’s drug database during opioid investigations. This would be a key component of the overall opioid lawsuit the state is currently pursuing against numerous pharmaceutical drug-makers and pharmacies, including Walgreens and CVS. The legislative effort will give the Attorney General’s office access to patient information for use in the lawsuit. While at one point it looked like this legislation was unlikely to pass, in the final week of session members moved the issue through the process. The Governor has indicated that he plans to sign the bill. This issue has the potential to eventually bring in almost a billion dollars to the state, which would be used for drug treatment programs and other methods to combat the opioid crisis currently plaguing Florida and its citizens.

Members also passed a bill allowing transportation network companies (TNCs) to contract with Medicaid services to provide non-emergency medical transportation services to patients, increasing access for patients who have issues with transport to medical appointments.

One issue that did not pass was a push by House lawmakers to include a provision in this year’s tax package to require Florida’s non-profit hospitals to report information regarding their tax-exempt status. This language was eventually stripped from the tax bill passed by lawmakers.

Education

Each year, lawmakers address large proposals relating to K-12 education and higher education in Florida, and this year was no different. Reforming the state’s K-12 education system has been a big priority of Governor DeSantis and Speaker Oliva, who started the session looking to expand school choice and offer enhanced scholarship programs for Florida’s students, including vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.

On the funding side, members provided a total of $17 billion to the Florida Education Finance Program, which includes $180 million (an $18 million increase) for school safety and security, as well as $75 million for mental health services in schools. The K-12 education budget provides a $242-per-student increase in school spending, as well as around $285 million in funding for the state’s teacher bonus program – a priority of Governor DeSantis. In addition, members agreed on a groundbreaking and controversial measure to allocate over $158 million in Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) money for maintenance of charter schools in Florida – leaving traditional public schools to continue relying on local tax dollars.

Lawmakers debated numerous comprehensive education proposals in the final days of session, but the biggest issue for members – an issue that has been extensively discussed, considered and debated since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting massacre in Parkland, Florida in 2018 – was school safety and security. After the shooting occurred during session last year, members responded with a measure outlining numerous school “hardening” measures for keeping students safe, as well as a provision allowing school districts to opt into a program to provide firearm and safety training to certain school employees. This year, members considered revisions to the measures passed last year, with a controversial proposal to expand the law allowing teachers to carry guns in schools being debated into the final week of session.

What ultimately passed was a comprehensive school safety package that implements numerous recommendations issued by a commission created after last year’s tragedy. The measure expands the school Guardian Program to allow for armed teachers in schools. The previous law only allowed staff with roles outside of the classroom to carry guns at school. Overall, the bill expands the power of school districts with regard to the Guardian program, removing requirements that districts obtain approval from local sheriffs to establish programs in schools. Governor DeSantis has expressed support for the measure and has indicated that he will sign it into law.

Members also passed a comprehensive school voucher program – the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program – to allow for expanded school choice options for Florida’s students. This was another priority of Governor DeSantis and Speaker Oliva. The measure will expand the Schools of Hope charter program, and has been compared to the voucher program previously created under former Governor Jeb Bush, who was honored during the session. In addition, a controversial education measure was proposed in the tax package passed by lawmakers and involved a long-debated issue surrounding utilizing more local dollars for charter schools. This particular proposal involved tax dollars approved in certain counties in referendums, and whether the money should be used for traditional public schools or shared with charter schools in those counties. The issue was a matter of debate between the two chambers, with the Senate even stripping the language from the tax plan at one point. Ultimately, members compromised on a plan to allow for sharing the local dollars with charter schools in only future referendums held after July 1st.

Lawmakers also passed legislation relating to workforce education in Florida, requiring school districts to offer certain courses and credits to create career opportunities for students. Members also addressed issues relating to Florida Virtual School, putting the organization under the control of the state Board of Education.

With regard to higher education, lawmakers were focused this session on issues relating to funding for Florida’s colleges and universities. Given the recent scandal at the University of Central Florida relating to the misuse of taxpayer dollars, Florida’s higher education institutions were under heavy scrutiny the past few months. Speaker Oliva outlined plans for major higher education reform, looking to increase oversight and accountability measures. While the issue was a source of contention between the two chambers at one point, the House eventually conceded to the Senate and agreed to pass a measure that allows universities to continue spending certain funds on school construction projects. The legislation does require schools to adopt spending plans for the funding, which are reserve or “carry-forward” dollars. The measure also increases reporting requirements with regard to school funds.

Energy and Environment

Environment and water issues in Florida have been a major priority for Governor DeSantis, who committed to providing a total of $2.5 billion in environmental spending over his four-year term. Senate and House leaders have also expressed commitment to resolving Florida’s water problems and focusing budget efforts on various environmental programs and projects throughout the state. Funding-wise, members exceeded the Governor’s request, providing more than $680 million for water quality and protection programs. Legislatively, members began session considering a comprehensive water quality bill to address nutrient levels to prevent algae growth around Lake Okeechobee and its tributaries, among other water issues. However, ultimately, this and other environmental policy measures failed. Members did, however, pass legislation relating to the state’s Red Tide issue and provided an annual allocation of $3 million for the matter.

On the energy front, a key topic this session was a proposed constitutional amendment to deregulate the state’s energy market. The controversial measure, which supporters aim to have placed on the 2020 ballot, would essentially upend the state’s energy market by limiting investor-owned utilities to only construction, operation and repairs, and giving customers the ability to choose their energy providers. With many strong opinions on both sides of this issue, it was particularly concerning to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, as well as state lawmakers, who all see the potential for major crisis if the state’s energy market is turned upside down. As a result, both chambers of the legislature launched efforts this session to block the amendment from being placed on the 2020 ballot. In addition to attorneys for both chambers filing briefs against the measure late last month and urging the Supreme Court to block it from the ballot, both chambers moved legislation through the process this session to increase requirements for placing initiatives on the ballot. And although the legislation looked all but dead as session was nearing its end, members actually approved the proposal in the final hours of session. The bill passed will increase requirements on groups working to get amendment language on the ballot, including implementing registration and hourly wage rules, as well as requiring certain information about the amendment to be printed on the ballot. The measure will now go to Governor DeSantis for his consideration.

Members also considered legislation to ban fracking in Florida, but the measure had ambiguous language that led to opposition from both sides of the issue. Ultimately, the measure died without final hearing.

Transportation, Economic Development and Incentives

Transportation is a key issue for lawmakers every session. This remained true this year, particularly in the Senate, with President Galvano making a comprehensive rural transportation program his biggest priority. As session began, President Galvano called for $75 million to cover three expansive highway projects in rural areas of the state, looking to make the projects “multi-purpose corridors,” in an effort to boost economic development and provide an additional hurricane evacuation option for Floridians. The measure was at times used as a bargaining chip on budget matters and was heavily opposed by environmental groups, but ultimately passed successfully through session. The final product approved by lawmakers is a program to build President Galvano’s three requested corridors. The projects are as follows: the Southwest-Central Florida Connector from Collier to Polk County; the Suncoast Connector from Citrus to Jefferson County; and the Northern Turnpike Connector from the Florida Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway.

Members also considered numerous comprehensive transportation measures this session, many of which passed successfully through the legislative process and will now be sent to Governor DeSantis. The provisions adopted by lawmakers include language relating to the Florida Department of Transportation procurement process. Members also passed a bill authorizing the use of vehicles in autonomous mode in Florida, with the goal to make the state a leader in autonomous vehicle testing and allow for more innovation in state transportation policies.

Economic development has been a key issue in Florida for the past decade and has caused a strong amount of contention among state leaders in recent years. One subject of controversy has been Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion agency. Specifically, leaders have sparred in recent years about the efficacy of the organization and the state dollars provided to fund it. The House – particularly Speaker Oliva – has long argued that state dollars should not be provided to fund economic development policies and organizations. Therefore, early in the budget process House leaders allocated just enough funding to get Visit Florida through October, when it is set to expire. The Senate, however, proposed $50 million in funding for the organization. Ultimately Visit Florida was granted a reprieve thanks to Governor DeSantis, who convinced lawmakers to keep the agency for another year. Lawmakers allocated $50 million for the program in 2019-2020.

Members also passed a tax package successfully through the process this year. The measure will provide more than $120 million in tax breaks for Floridians, including several sales-tax holidays on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies, as well as tax relief for farmers in the Panhandle area as part of the Hurricane Michael relief and recovery effort.

Medical Marijuana

Since the passage of a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in Florida in 2016, lawmakers have been focused on the issue and working to create laws to implement the amendment language. Medical Marijuana was actually the subject of the first bill signed into law by Governor DeSantis this session. The legislation signed into law repeals the ban on smoking medical marijuana, which was part of the original implementation bill passed by lawmakers in 2017. The repeal will make the medicine more accessible for patients throughout the state.

Some House lawmakers also pushed legislation this session to establish a limit on the level of THC allowed in medical cannabis products in the state. The measure, which would have prompted the Florida Department of Health to establish oversight of medical cannabis in Florida, would have also limited the supply of edible cannabis products for patients and increased regulations of daily dosages. The language, however, lacked support in the Senate and died without passage.

Members also considered several measures relating to a hemp program in Florida, and ultimately passed a bill to establish regulations for a hemp industry in the state. The measure directs the Florida Department of Agriculture to oversee licensing and establishing standards for the cultivation and production of hemp in Florida. Hemp can be harvested for the production of cannabidiol, a product used in supplements and other dietary and wellness items. This follows the legalization of hemp at the federal level last year.

Going Forward

The 2019 session was an overwhelming success for lawmakers, Governor DeSantis, and the leaders currently overseeing the Senate and House.

At this time, the Governor has received a total of only 24 bills, with 22 signed into law and two waiting for action. Legislative staff is currently working to finalize 170 other bills to send to the Governor’s office. Once the Governor receives a bill, he has 15 days to act – either sign the bill into law, veto it, or let it become law without his action. The Governor has the same time limit once he receives the comprehensive state budget bill passed by lawmakers. With the budget, however, the Governor has line item veto power.

Most of the bills passed this session, as well as the state budget, will go into effect July 1st. After that, there will only be a short amount of time before the process will start again. With the new policy of moving session up two months in election years, the 2020 legislative session will start next January, which means committee weeks could begin as early as September.

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2019 Mid-Session Legislative Update

2019 Mid-Session Legislative Update placeholder

State 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. This week marked the midpoint 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.

At this point, many issues remain in flux, with a number of topics still being discussed and debated. However, the main focus for members at the moment is the state budget. This week, both the House and Senate officially passed their budget proposals through their respective chambers, with the Senate bill (SB 2500) becoming the main budget vehicle from here. The next step will be budget conference, which will begin once presiding officers agree on final allocations for each area of the budget. It is not yet clear exactly when, but members could be in conference as early as next week or next weekend.

Overall, the first half of session has gone relatively smoothly, with the Governor, House and Senate working together on a number of key issues and avoiding early squabbles on budget and policy matters. So far Governor DeSantis’ popularity seems to be as strong with the legislature as it is with the public. Last month he achieved one of his goals for session when he signed legislation allowing for smoking medical marijuana into law. He had given legislators a deadline of March 15 to repeal the smoking ban, which was passed by lawmakers during the 2017 session after voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in Florida. In the Senate, President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) continues pushing his priority for increased education spending, as well as his plan to expand transportation projects in rural areas of the state. House Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Hialeah) is also seeing a number of his priorities move through the legislative process, with numerous health care reform measures being considered over the past several weeks. With the session at the mid-way point, it will be interesting to see how closely they continue to work together on issues that may become contentious.

The peaceful atmosphere did see a slight disruption this week when members were working to pass their chamber budgets. The issue surrounded budget conforming bills, which amend state statutes to comply with measures outlined in appropriations bills. The Senate, under the leadership of President Galvano, is committed this session to keeping policy and budget matters completely separate. As a result, the Senate requested that the House hold up the final vote on several conforming bills this week and, in order to keep budget talks and negotiations moving forward, the House agreed. Going forward, with conference looming and numerous legislative proposals still up for debate, particularly measures relating to health care and education policy and funding, the second half of session could be much more eventful than the first.

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


State Budget

In February, Governor DeSantis released his proposed spending plan to lawmakers, totaling a record $91.3 billion and providing increased funding for environmental programs, K-12 schools, and storm recovery efforts for parts of the state still dealing with significant damage from Hurricane Matthew. With the Governor’s proposal totaling $2.6 billion more than the current state budget, it was anticipated that lawmakers would pass more scaled down plans, and both the House and Senate have proposed less spending than the Governor’s recommendations. At this time, the two chambers are around $400 million apart in their spending plans.

The Senate’s $90.3 billion budget passed through the upper chamber unanimously this week. President Galvano referred to this year as one of the more difficult budget years he’s experienced. One big issue lawmakers are facing is the hurricane recovery effort in the Panhandle, which is costing the state around $2 billion. On the House side, members passed a more trimmed down budget, with House lawmakers approving an $89.9 billion plan by a vote of 105-8 this week. The Senate dedicates more funding to nearly every area of the budget than the House. At this time, key differences between the two chambers surround K-12 spending, with the Senate proposing a record $1 billion increase in per-student spending, and the House proposing around $500 million less. The chambers also differ on economic development spending, with the Senate providing full funding for Visit Florida, the state’s economic development organization, and the House only providing enough funding for the organization to operate through its expiration date later this year. Another key difference, which could end up being a big fight between the two chambers, is health care funding – an issue that’s been a major source of contention between the two chambers for several years. This session the issue surrounds $319 million in extra Medicaid funding. The House wants to distribute the funds to hospitals that provide the most charity care to uninsured patients, as has been done in recent years. The Senate is looking to distribute the money evenly to all hospitals. This will be a key issue as lawmakers head into budget conference in the coming weeks. Last year, the Senate conceded to the House on the distribution of extra Medicaid funds in return for a funding boost for nursing homes. However, this year, the nursing home dollars are not included in the Senate budget plan.

There are still a number of issues bringing uncertainty to the budget process. President Galvano’s transportation priority may become a bargaining chip during budget conference. The House’s push to repeal the state’s Certificate of Need laws, which regulate the expansion of health care facilities in Florida, may also play a key role in budget negotiations. And finally, the state remains in talks with the Seminole Tribe of Florida regarding the state’s gambling compact with the tribe. If negotiations fail, it could mean a loss of around $350 million in revenues to the state. 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.


Health Care

Health care has been one of the biggest issues debated this session and is a major priority of House Speaker Oliva, who aims to implement significant changes to remedy what he calls the “health care industrial complex” in Florida. Speaker Oliva’s plans for reform include repealing and overhauling the state’s Certificate of Need process, which the House approved last month, as well as expanding telehealth and the services of nurse practitioners, and bringing more transparency to health care pricing for patients. In addition, legislators are considering several measures to expand the services offered by ambulatory surgical centers.

At this time, Certificate of Need remains a big issue for lawmakers this session. With the House pushing for a full repeal of the program, Senate leaders expressed opposition to the measure early in session. However, late last month, Senate health leaders indicated their opposition may be wavering, with Senate Health Budget Chair Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach) announcing plans to reconsider. Presently, the Senate is moving the measure through the committee process, with the House language included in the bill. Going forward, the two chambers will have to negotiate potentially exempting hospices and nursing homes from the repeal, and applying the changes only to Florida hospitals.

Another major health care issue being addressed by lawmakers this session would allow for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada – a key priority of Governor DeSantis, who aims to combat the rising prices of prescription medications for Floridians. The House has already passed its proposal. The Senate version is currently moving through the legislative committee process.

Florida’s opioid epidemic also remains a key issue for lawmakers, with numerous bills being considered regarding opioids and prescribing the medicines to patients. Governor DeSantis has called for the reestablishment of the Florida Office of Drug Control, which would be under the leadership of a Drug Czar, to manage the state’s response to the crisis. In addition, both the Governor and Attorney General Ashley Moody are pushing for a statewide opioid task force. This effort is included in Senate legislation sponsored by Senator Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby).


Medical Marijuana

In 2016, more than 70 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida. Following the passage of the landmark amendment, state lawmakers worked to determine the best method for implementing the new law. Ultimately members passed a bill in a special session in 2017 to establish a framework for growers, prescribers and patients, and included language banning the smoking of medical marijuana, instead allowing patients to use other forms of the medicine.

Medical marijuana has again been a key topic of discussion for lawmakers this year and is the subject of the first bill signed into law by Governor DeSantis in his role leading the state. The legislation repeals the ban on smoking medical marijuana, making it more accessible for patients throughout the state.

Members are also considering measures relating to a hemp program in Florida, which would be under the oversight of the Florida Department of Agriculture. The proposals at this time work to establish a framework for regulating hemp, which was legalized at the federal level last year. Hemp can be harvested for the production of cannabidiol, a product used in supplements and other dietary and wellness items.

Also on the medical marijuana front this session, there is a push among House lawmakers to pass legislation to establish a limit on the level of THC allowed in medical cannabis products in the state. The measure, which would prompt the Florida Department of Health to establish oversight of medical cannabis in Florida, would also limit the supply of edible cannabis products for patients and increase regulations of daily dosages. There is currently no similar measure in the Senate.


Education

This session lawmakers will address several large proposals relating to K-12 education and higher education in Florida. Reforming the state’s K-12 education system is a big priority of Governor DeSantis and Speaker Oliva, who are looking to expand school choice and offer enhanced scholarship programs for Florida’s students, including vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.

The Senate and House differ on funding for K-12 schools, which will likely make education one of the most debated and contested issues during session, second only to health care. The Senate is looking to provide a record boost in funding for the state’s public schools. The $1.1 billion increase proposed by the Senate would be the largest increase since 2006. In addition to increasing per-student spending, the Senate is looking to increase the amount for the base student rate, and would also provide a $68 million increase for school safety spending and more than $230 million for a teacher and principal bonus program. While the House does propose an increase in K-12 funding, it totals around $500 million less than the Senate plan. The Senate is also looking to cut the $140 million Schools of Hope program and move the funding elsewhere in the education budget. The House, however, is looking to increase the program, with a move to allow the schools more flexibility with spending their allocated state dollars. In addition, with the backing of Governor DeSantis, House education leaders are proposing linking the program to the federal opportunity zone program, which would mean a significant expansion of the charter school program statewide. Regarding school safety, the House is proposing keeping school safety funding around last year’s level of just over $160 million. The two chambers also differ on funding for mental health services in schools, with the Senate looking to increase the funding by $30.7 million.

As previously noted, there was some contention between the two chambers this week when, at the request of President Galvano, the House had to postpone a vote on several budget conforming bills. Two of the bills address education matters, with one regarding private school scholarships and the other being a House school safety measure that would allow teachers to carry guns in schools. The House has still yet to vote on the bills, both of which would have a significant budget impact to the state.

The school safety proposal is in continued response to last year’s Parkland massacre and is based on recommendations from a Commission created in response to the shooting. Last session, lawmakers passed language to implement a number of school “hardening” measures for keeping students safe, as well as a provision allowing school districts to opt into a program to provide firearm and safety training to school employees. This year, members are considering revisions to the measures passed last year, with one of the most controversial proposals being the potential expansion of the law allowing some teachers to carry guns in schools. Current law allows only teachers who also have roles outside of the classroom.

In the Senate, leaders are proposing a measure to change the way school districts are funded by amending the District Cost Differential (DCD) program and basing it on wages instead of prices. The DCD is utilized to adjust funding based on each district’s cost of living. Senate education leaders are also looking to change the rules and application process for charter schools to open schools at the district level.

With regard to higher education, lawmakers are focused on issues relating to funding for Florida’s colleges and universities this session. Given the recent scandal at the University of Central Florida relating to the misuse of millions of taxpayer dollars, Florida’s higher education institutions are under heavy scrutiny this session – particularly in the House. Speaker Oliva has outlined plans for higher education reform, with increased oversight and accountability measures. One measure would allow state leaders to call for investigations of potential financial mismanagement. In addition, the House budget cuts five projects at state colleges and universities and allows for the completion of other school projects that have already been approved. The House plan would cut higher education construction spending in half from $673 million to $344 million.


Energy, Environment and Water Issues

Environment and water issues have been some of the most discussed and debated in recent years, particularly measures to address numerous issues around Lake Okeechobee. This year, Florida’s southwestern and panhandle regions are dealing with the most severe red tide bloom in more than a decade. As a result, lawmakers are now focused on methods to remedy these problems and providing adequate funding for those methods.

This issue is a big priority of Governor DeSantis, who committed to providing a total of $2.5 billion in environmental spending over his four-year term. Senate and House leaders are also committed to resolving Florida’s water problems, with the Senate proposing even more funding for water programs than Governor DeSantis. Budget efforts are focused on Everglades restoration, funds for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, land acquisition and conservation programs, petroleum clean up, springs restoration and water quality improvements. Legislatively, Senate members are considering a comprehensive water quality bill to address nutrient levels to prevent algae growth, among other issues.

On the energy front, a key topic this year is a proposed constitutional amendment to deregulate the state’s energy market. The controversial measure, which supporters aim to have placed on the 2020 ballot, would essentially upend the state’s current energy market by limiting investor-owned utilities to just construction, operation and repairs of transmission systems, and giving customers the ability to choose their energy provider. Proponents highlight the potential for significant savings for taxpayers under a more competitive market, while opponents argue the move would bring chaos to current systems and cause a significant decline in the quality and reliability of Florida’s current energy systems. The issue may be resolved by lawmakers, who are currently working to move legislation to limit ballot initiatives, beginning with the 2020 ballot.

In addition, lawmakers are again considering legislation relating to gas hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in Florida. This topic has been considered and debated by lawmakers for years, with numerous bills to ban the practice in the state. This year’s ban legislation is opposed by environmental groups, who argue the language would alter the definition of fracking to allow the extraction of gas and oil in Florida. The likelihood of fracking measures passing this year is yet to be determined.


Transportation and Economic Development

Transportation will be a key issue this session for lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, with President Galvano making rural transportation projects one of his biggest priorities this session. The Senate President is calling for $75 million to cover three expansive highway projects in rural areas of the state, looking to make the projects “multi-purpose corridors,” in an effort to boost economic development as well as provide an additional hurricane evacuation option for Floridians. The measure will likely come down to budget negotiations between the President and the Speaker.

Members are also considering numerous changes to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), particularly regarding the leadership and organization of the agency. The proposal being considered would implement additional requirements for the FDOT secretary regarding education and experience, among other proposed changes. In addition, legislation relating to autonomous vehicles is currently moving through both chambers. The bills authorize the use of vehicles in autonomous mode in Florida, with the goal to make the state a leader in autonomous vehicle testing and allow for more innovation in state transportation policies.

Economic development has been a key issue in Florida for the past decade and has caused a strong amount of contention among state leaders in recent years. One subject of controversy has been Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion agency. Specifically, leaders have sparred in recent years about the efficacy of the organization and the state dollars provided to fund it. The House, under conservative leadership, has long argued that state dollars should not be provided to fund economic development policies and organizations. Therefore, this session House leaders have allocated just enough funding to get Visit Florida through October, when it is set to expire. The Senate, however, has maintained funding for Visit Florida at $50 million – the current funding level. This issue is almost certain to become a matter of negotiation between the two chambers throughout the budget conference process. In an interesting twist, the Senate funding is now tied to an issue surrounding local governments banning certain sunscreens. The amendment would prohibit Visit Florida from spending money to promote areas that have such bans in place, and is particularly targeted at Key West.

Members are also considering a number of pre-emption bills this session to move the regulatory process over a number of rules and industries from the local level to the state level. One of the more controversial measures is included in legislation relating to vacation rentals, which includes a sanction against Airbnb – an issue that has been discussed over recent years. This results from Airbnb’s prohibition on listings in the West Bank, which many leaders see as anti-Semitic. This measure and other pre-emption bills are heavily opposed by local governments.


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 to address legislation already filed and craft amendments to bills addressing various issues. In addition, budget conference will soon be underway, with House and Senate budget leaders looking to push their respective plans and priorities.

The 60-day session is officially set to adjourn on Friday, May 3rd.

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2019 Legislative Session Kick-Off

The Fiorentino Group UNF President John Delany Interview 2019 Legislative Session Kick-OffFlorida lawmakers convened in Tallahassee today to kick off the 2019 legislative session. The official start followed months of preparation, with lawmakers periodically holding interim legislative committee meetings since last December to discuss and debate various policy and funding matters on tap for session.

After a typical Florida election last November, complete with recounts, candidate concessions, withdrawal of those concessions, and the removal of an elections official from office, Florida’s newly-elected, reelected and sitting legislators will work together through the 60-day session with a new Governor, Agriculture Commissioner, and Attorney General. Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is also relatively new to his position, but had been appointed prior to the general election last year. In addition, both the Senate and House are under new leadership, with President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) and Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Hialeah) officially sworn into their positions late last year.

During his inaugural remarks in January, Florida’s new Governor Ron DeSantis expressed a desire to give more power to the legislature. This is a significant shift from previous Governor Rick Scott, who was often at odds with legislators, even though both chambers were led by members of his own party. Governor DeSantis has committed to making education and environmental issues his priorities during session, with a key focus on overhauling the state’s preK-12 education system, as well as passing measures relating to red tide and algae bloom issues. He also plans to address medical marijuana matters, looking to make medical marijuana more accessible for patients.

In the Senate, President Bill Galvano is seen as a moderate Republican, and is focused on expanding transportation projects in rural areas of the state. He is a fair, thoughtful leader who gives careful consideration to some of the most significant issues impacting Florida. On the House side, Speaker Oliva, a gifted orator and steadfast conservative, has placed some of the state’s biggest programs and institutions – health care facilities, higher education systems, and economic development programs and incentives – directly in his cross hairs. He is planning extensive reforms for each of these this session.

While pre-session efforts have been fairly collaborative between the legislative and executive branches, with Governor DeSantis even receiving praise and support from Democrats on his proposed spending plan, differing priorities will most likely bring some contention between officials over the next 60 days. However, the only issue members are constitutionally required to address during session is the budget, with legislators required to pass a balanced state budget each year. Any other items addressed or passed will be at the discretion of state leaders and will be the result of lengthy discussions and negotiations between the two chambers of the legislature, as well as between the legislature and the executive branch.


State Budget

With parts of Florida still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Michael last year, and the effects of 2017’s Hurricane Irma still being felt statewide, hurricane recovery funding is certain to play a large role in budget discussions this session. The state has already spent more than $1 billion on recovery efforts after Hurricane Michael, and Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) has indicated that costs in the 2019-2020 budget could total around $2.7 billion.

Last month, Governor DeSantis released his proposed spending plan to lawmakers, totaling a record $91.3 billion. The proposal includes nearly $2 billion for storm recovery efforts and places key focus on environmental programs, with $50 million for springs protection, $360 million for Everglades restoration, $100 million for Florida Forever – the state’s land buying program – and $25 million to address algae and red tide blooms which have impacted numerous areas of the state. In addition to environment and water issues, the Governor is making preK-12 education a key priority, proposing a three percent increase in per-student funding, as well as $50 million for school safety and $10 million for mental health programs in response to last year’s tragic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida. For transportation and infrastructure spending, Governor DeSantis is proposing nearly $10 billion for the state’s transportation work program, including more than $700 million in bonding – a move supported in the Senate, with President Galvano committed to boosting rural transportation projects.

The Governor’s spending plan, which is $2.6 billion more than the current state budget, will likely be scaled down by lawmakers during session, as Florida’s conservative legislative leaders are committed to passing a tight budget for the coming year. In the House, indications are that budget leaders may make cuts in the areas of health care, particularly hospital funding – a target of Speaker Oliva – as well as higher education spending, which will be under the microscope this session, with the University of Central Florida recently found to have misused $40 million in funding for construction projects.


Medical Marijuana

In 2016, more than 70 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana in Florida. Following the passage of the landmark amendment, state lawmakers worked to determine the best method for implementing the new law. Ultimately, members passed a bill in a special session in 2017 to establish a framework for growers, prescribers and patients, and included language banning the smoking of medical marijuana, instead allowing patients to use other forms of the medicine.

This year, medical marijuana is again a key topic of discussion for lawmakers. The matter has already been debated extensively in response to Governor DeSantis calling for an updated law allowing for smoking medical marijuana to be passed by mid-March. Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) is leading the charge in the Senate, with measures currently moving through both chambers. In addition to the smoking issue, there are numerous reports of questionable prescribing practices in Florida, as well as heavy criticism of the Florida Department of Health for not monitoring the process and failing to investigate allegations against physicians and organizations providing prescriptions to patients. With a federal ban on medical marijuana still in place, the matter remains complicated at best. Members will continue their efforts to pass smoking language in the coming weeks.


Health Care

Health care will be one of the biggest issues debated this session and is a major priority of House Speaker Oliva, who plans to implement significant changes to remedy what he calls the “health care industrial complex” in Florida. During his opening remarks to the legislature this morning, Oliva labeled health care a “five alarm fire.” His plan for reform includes repealing and overhauling the state’s certificate of need process, which is used to regulate the expansion of health care facilities. He is also a big proponent of teleheath, as well as expanding the services of nurse practitioners and bringing more transparency to health care pricing for patients. In addition, legislators will also consider a measure to expand the services offered by ambulatory surgical centers this session. With health care costs taking up nearly half of the entire state budget, many lawmakers are seeking ways to trim health care spending, and Speaker Oliva is leading the charge.

Governor DeSantis is also a strong supporter of health care reform and advocates policies to make services more affordable for patients. The Governor is promoting legislation filed in both chambers to create a shared savings program, allowing patients to research the prices and details about procedures up front in the health care process, and providing for financial incentives for patients to shop for lower-priced services. He announced today that he has asked the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) to expedite the website its currently developing to track health care pricing in Florida. He also recently announced a controversial plan to import prescription drugs from Canada – a move criticized by President Galvano, who argues that the state is intruding on an issue controlled by the federal government. Galvano is instead supporting legislation filed in both chambers to increase options for patients to research and shop the lowest prices for prescription drugs.

Florida’s opioid epidemic will also remain a key issue for lawmakers this session. In addition to numerous bills filed addressing various opioid matters, Attorney General Ashley Moody is focused on the issue, and recently released a number of recommendations. These include allowing civilian law enforcement to administer opioid antagonist drugs like Narcan, increasing criminal penalties against drug dealers, and providing more options and services for opioid addicts in Florida.

There will also be other numerous legislative proposals related to health care this session. Among these are a measure filed by Senator Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) to continue a cost-saving measure passed by lawmakers last year. The bill restricts the amount of time patients are eligible for Medicaid coverage prior to submitting an application for the coverage. Previously, state law allowed for a period of three months. Last year, lawmakers shortened the window to one month but the move, which would free up more than $100 million in funds, has to be re-approved this session. In addition, legislation filed by Senator Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) would require health insurance companies to offer at least one plan to accept patients with pre-existing conditions.


Education

Governor DeSantis has called for significant reforms to the state’s preK-12 education system this session, including expanding school choice, overhauling teacher bonuses and offering enhanced scholarship programs for Florida students, including vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools. The Governor’s preK-12 plans are supported by House leaders, with Speaker Oliva also a strong proponent of school choice.

The Governor’s proposed overhaul of the teacher bonus program, known as “Best and Brightest,” would increase bonus amounts for recipients, but would eliminate tying bonuses to teacher scores on college entrance exams. Under the proposal, the bonuses would instead be awarded to teachers at schools with improved grades who also score “highly effective” on their classroom evaluations. In addition, members will consider legislation this session to expand the Hope Scholarship Program, which was created two years ago to provide funds for students who are victims of bullying to attend other schools. This year, a measure sponsored by Senator Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah) would change requirements regarding reporting bullying incidents, allowing parents to report incidents to Hope Scholarship officials rather than school principals, and expand the program to allow bullied students to attend private schools.

Higher education matters will also be front and center this session – primarily issues relating to funding for Florida’s colleges and universities. Given the recent scandal at UCF relating to the misuse of millions of taxpayer dollars, Florida’s higher education institutions will be under heavy scrutiny this session – particularly in the House. Speaker Oliva has outlined plans for higher education reform, including changes to funding formulas with emphasis on performance funding, and regulating funding for college and university construction projects, including a possible requirement that schools provide a down payment for projects.

The House has also released a committee bill addressing issues relating to the state’s higher education institutions. The measure would place requirements on how universities run direct-support organizations and require that the information be made public. Legislative leaders would also be given the power to call for investigations of suspected financial mismanagement by state universities.


School Security

Last February, Floridians were left reeling from one of the worst school shootings in the nation’s history. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland became the key focus of state lawmakers during the last half of the 2018 legislative session. Efforts centered around three key topics – school safety and security measures, background checks and requirements for purchasing firearms, and mental health services and programs.

Last session, lawmakers passed language including a number of school safety and school “hardening” measures for keeping students safe, as well as a provision allowing school districts to opt into a program to provide firearm and safety training to school employees. This year, members will consider revisions to the measures passed last year, and will factor in recommendations from a commission created by the state in the wake of the tragedy. One of the most controversial topics lawmakers will consider is the potential expansion of the law allowing some teachers to carry guns in schools. Current law allows only teachers who also have roles outside of the classroom. This year’s proposal would expand the program to allow all teachers to go through the training. This measure is supported by Governor DeSantis and Republican leaders, and was a recommendation outlined by the Parkland Commission.

In addition, this session members will consider legislation to compensate Parkland victims and their families. The bills, filed by Senator Lauren Book (D-Plantation), would create programs to provide around $160 million for victims of the shooting and their families.


Environment and Water Issues

Environment and water issues have been some of the most discussed and debated in recent years, particularly measures to address numerous issues around Lake Okeechobee. This year, Florida’s southwestern and panhandle regions are dealing with the most severe red tide bloom in more than a decade. The issue is also impacting more than 100 miles of the state’s Atlantic coastline. During session, lawmakers will focus on methods to remedy these problems and offer much-needed relief in the impacted areas of the state. This is a top priority of Governor DeSantis, who made environmental issues a key topic of his campaign, and wants to allocate more than $600 million to various water and land use programs this session. The Governor has committed to providing a total of $2.5 billion in environmental spending over four years. Senate and House leaders are also committed to resolving Florida’s water problems. Today Speaker Oliva expressed a commitment to “supporting the Governor and funding his priorities as he leads in the protection of our natural resources.” Whether or not the Senate will meet the Governor’s environmental funding request is yet to be determined, with President Galvano committed to addressing the state’s water problems, but also focused on providing necessary hurricane relief funds and boosting state transportation and infrastructure projects.


Energy

The key topic relating to energy this year will most certainly be a proposed constitutional amendment to deregulate the state’s energy market. The controversial measure, which could be placed on the 2020 ballot, would essentially blow up the state’s current energy market by limiting investor-owned utilities to construction, operation and repairs of transmission systems, and giving customers the ability to choose their energy provider. Proponents highlight the potential for significant savings for taxpayers under a more competitive market, while opponents argue the move would bring chaos to current systems, and cause a significant decline in the level of service, quality and reliability of Florida’s current energy systems. Opposition to the measure is strong, with Attorney General Ashley Moody asking the Florida Supreme Court to keep the proposed amendment off the ballot.

This session, lawmakers will again consider legislation relating to gas hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in Florida. This topic has been considered and debated by lawmakers for years, with numerous bills to ban the practice in the state. However, this year’s legislation to ban fracking is already surrounded by controversy and is opposed on both sides, with some of the state’s largest environmental groups as well as oil industry representatives in opposition to the measure. Environmentalists argue the language would alter the definition of fracking to allow the extraction of gas and oil in Florida. The oil industry opposes any sort of ban. Today Speaker Oliva announced his support for a study on different forms of fracking. He has also expressed support for a ban on fracking, but to what extent is yet to be determined.


Transportation, Infrastructure and Development

Transportation will be a key issue for lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, with President Galvano making rural transportation projects one of his biggest priorities this session. The Senate President is calling for $75 million to cover three expansive highway projects in rural areas of the state, looking to make the projects “multi-purpose corridors,” in an effort to boost economic development as well as provide an additional hurricane evacuation option for Floridians. This measure will likely be heavily amended and debated between the two chambers this session, with passage likely coming down to budget negotiations between the President and Speaker.

Also this session a group of transportation stakeholders are pushing for changes to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), particularly regarding the transportation secretary as well as the organization of the agency. The Florida Transportation Builders Association is calling for tighter requirements for the secretary position, including that the secretary be a registered engineer, hold an advanced degree in an appropriate field, or have a minimum of 10 years of experience in the transportation industry. This language was also introduced in last year’s transportation package. The group is also proposing language to boost the powers of the FDOT central office in Tallahassee, removing certain powers from the seven regional offices located throughout the state.

In addition, in recent budget discussions, Senate transportation budget leader Travis Hutson (R-Palm Coast) called for increased funding for shovel-ready road construction projects throughout the state in an effort to boost economic development.


Election Reform

Florida’s chaotic 2018 general election highlighted a number of problems that lawmakers will work to address this session through election reform legislation. There are currently several bills filed, including proposals to move the 2020 primary election day up by one week, outline a process for notifying voters when their mailed and provisional ballots are rejected due to mismatched signatures, and provide a set amount of time for voters to remedy the issue. The measure would also expand the time for voters to receive, complete and submit their mail-in ballots.

Another measure filed by Senate Democrats would require elections supervisors to apply the same rules currently in place for overseas ballots to domestic mail ballots. This means domestic ballots would be accepted and counted for up to 10 days following the election, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Yet another measure will extend current state recount deadlines and provide stricter requirements for county voting machines. These measures will likely be heavily amended and debated throughout 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. Already, members have filed more than 3,000 bills. Of these, only around 200 bills will pass completely through the legislative process by the time session wraps up.

In the coming weeks, lawmakers will continue to hear various policy proposals relating to a wide array of topics affecting the state. In addition, appropriations subcommittees will continue to meet and craft their individual budgets, each of which will make up sections of the overall budget plans approved by the House and Senate. Once those plans are passed, the two chambers will go into budget conference, where negotiations are made over differences between the two spending plans. Once a comprehensive budget is agreed upon and passed by both chambers, it will be sent to the Governor for his consideration. The budget conference process typically happens during the last two weeks of session.

The 60-day session is scheduled to wrap up on Friday, May 3rd.

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The Fiorentino Group Hires Former Florida Department of Transportation Exec Shannan Dunaway Schuessler

Legislative Session Kick-Off TFG Logo

Contact: John Finotti
904.493.5006 (office)
904.891.3867 (mobile)
[email protected]

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The Fiorentino Group Hires Former Florida Department of Transportation Exec Shannan Dunaway Schuessler

Shannan Dunaway Schuessler

Shannan Schuessler will be joining The Fiorentino Group in Tallahassee.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (January 29, 2019) – The Fiorentino Group (TFG), one of Florida’s leading government relations and business development firms, today announced that Shannan Dunaway Schuessler has joined their team as principal in its Tallahassee office.

Schuessler joins TFG from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), where she served as Chief of Staff and Director of Legislative Affairs. During her time with FDOT, Schuessler assisted with the supervision and operation of all department activities, including policy development, responsibility for 6,200 employees and a $10 billion annual budget. She also served as the primary liaison for FDOT with other state agencies and local governments to advance multimodal transportation projects and priorities.

“We are looking forward to Shannan becoming part of our team,” said TFG founder and president Marty Fiorentino. “With technology changing the transportation landscape almost daily, Shannan’s experience and knowledge of state transportation issues will be invaluable to our clients.”

In her new position, Schuessler will continue to utilize her skills in legislative affairs and policy development and to create strategies to assist TFG clients with transportation issues as well as business, economic development and local government issues.

“I am excited and honored to be joining The Fiorentino Group,” said Schuessler. “I look forward to remaining a part of the Tallahassee community and using my professional relationships and experience to assist clients in navigating state government.”

About The Fiorentino Group: 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, the firm is distinguished by their unparalleled relationships with decision-makers, their work on complex issues and their more than 50-years of combined experience in state, local and federal government relations. For more information, please visit www.thefiorentinogroup.com.

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