Last Friday evening, lawmakers formally wrapped up the 2016 legislative session. After passing a state budget for the coming year and addressing a number of legislative proposals, House and Senate members ended the session with little fanfare – a stark difference from last year’s budget breakdown and early session end. Members committed to having a more productive session this year, and the two chambers were largely able to maintain a good working relationship throughout the 60-day session. However, while the session had a more peaceful, harmonious tone, there were some issues that were not passed or even addressed, as lawmakers had little appetite for controversy during an election year. In addition, members ended up on the opposing side of the Governor on a number of priorities outlined in his recommendations released prior to the start of session. Earlier this week, despite not yet officially being presented with the budget from the legislature, Governor Scott announced his plans to veto $256 million of the $82 billion budget plan passed by lawmakers. Last year he recorded a record number of vetoes totaling $461 million.
While members did start the year facing several more contentious issues, including gaming and medical marijuana, any session fireworks came from debate over issues relating to education funding and policies, with a controversial and much-debated education bill sent to the Governor on the final day of session. In addition, there were differences between the legislature and the Governor regarding funding for economic incentives. Prior to the start of session, Governor Scott outlined his 2016 legislative priorities, including a $1 billion tax cut package and $250 million for economic incentive programs. Neither of these goals were met by lawmakers, but members did pass a $400 million tax cut compromise on the final day of session, which allowed the Governor to fulfill his campaign pledge made two years ago to cut taxes by $1 billion.
House and Senate members also declined a confirmation hearing for the Governor’s Surgeon General nominee, and refused to approve a renewal gaming compact negotiated by the Governor and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. This was the first time in 21 years that a department head of the Governor’s had not been confirmed. Members started the session with the issue of potentially expanding gaming on the horizon, but that matter died without passage as well, as lawmakers remain opposed to relying on gaming for state revenues. Among other issues not supported by members this session were a number of bills relating to gun rights in Florida, as well as a proposal to support ride-sharing services and technologies like Uber and Lyft.
The $82 billion state budget passed by lawmakers received bipartisan support in both chambers, with a unanimous 40-0 vote in the Senate, and only one dissenting vote by a lone Republican House member. While the legislature’s work is done for the year, there is still work to be done at the executive level, with the Governor set to officially sign the budget (including his announced vetoes), as well as consider the bills sent to him by lawmakers as session came to a close.
Going forward, members and candidates will be busy preparing for the November elections, with campaigns and fundraising in full swing. In fact, politics were already at play during the last week of session regarding future leadership of the Florida House, with Representative Eric Eisnaugle (R-Orlando) conceding to Representative Chris Sprowls (R-Clearwater) in the contest for the House Speaker term beginning in 2021. Leadership positions in the Florida House and Senate can be highly contentious and are often decided years in advance.
In recent news, today Melissa Sellers, chief of staff to Governor Scott, announced she will be departing the Governor’s office at the end of the month. Sellers served in the position for just over two years and was previously Governor Scott’s campaign manager. She will be replaced by current legislative affairs director Kim McDougal. In addition, Governor Scott’s General Counsel, Tim Cerio, has announced he is leaving his position as well. His replacement has not yet been announced.
With last year’s budget issues (which resulted in a special session to pass a state spending plan) top of mind, state lawmakers began working on this year’s budget early this session. However, despite their efforts, members were still unable to finalize a plan until early the last week of session. This was after two weekends of budget conference and numerous meetings and discussions. The sticking point between the two chambers surrounded education funding.
The budget passed by lawmakers was around $3 billion more than the spending plan offered by the Governor. Governor Scott’s $79.3 billion budget proposal, released late last year, included increased funding for education, $1 billion in tax cuts and $250 million for economic incentives. Early in session, the House introduced a large tax cut proposal totaling $1 billion, but took a different approach with regard to which taxes were eliminated or reduced, and how long the exemptions would be in place. In the Senate, only small, individual tax bills were introduced, with Senate Appropriations Chair Tom Lee (R-Brandon) expressing that the upper chamber was not open to cutting such a substantial amount. Ultimately, members reached a compromise of around $400 million in cuts after an economic report revealed lower-than-expected state revenue projections. Of that total, only about $129 million applies to the specific tax cuts recommended by the Governor.
The final agreed-upon plan included a one-percent increase in per-student spending as well as nearly $714 million in funds for education construction projects and $49 million for the “best and brightest” program, which provides bonuses for Florida’s teachers With regard to environmental projects, the legislature’s budget included funding for restoration of the Florida Everglades, as well as projects to protect Florida’s springs.
With the unexpected early release of the Governor’s veto list this week, a number of the member projects passed late in the budget conference process were subject to the Governor’s veto pen. The full veto list includes the $55 million members pulled from an economic development trust fund, as well as $15 million from health care programs, nearly $70 million from education projects, $9 million from the criminal justice budget, and around $20 million in water projects. At this time, the budget still has not been formally presented to the Governor, and the vetoes will not be official until the Governor receives and signs the budget into law.
Taxes, Economic Development and Incentives
While members did not meet the Governor’s call for large-scale tax cuts and incentives, lawmakers did pass a more measured, compromise tax cut bill, which includes several priorities outlined by the Governor. The measure passed by lawmakers in the final hours of session will permanently eliminate the sales tax on manufacturing equipment and machinery, as well as implement a three-day tax holiday in August for back-to-school shopping. The legislation also includes a $290 million reduction in property taxes.
Members also passed legislation allowing for a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot which will aim to extend a renewable energy tax break to commercial property as well as residential property.
On the policy side, comprehensive economic development legislation died without final passage again this session. The proposals aimed to clarify definitions and streamline the incentive process, including provisions to lower the return-on-investment totals projects are required to meet to be eligible for grants. However, the two chambers differed on funding for incentive programs, with the House bill having no funding component. Once the budget conference process was complete, the legislation died without final hearing.
The topic of potentially expanding gaming in Florida was on tap for lawmakers again this session and, again, no gaming proposals were approved or passed through the process. This was a success for those individuals and groups who oppose any expansion of gambling in the state. Several bills were filed in both the House and Senate, some including language regarding a deal reached between Governor Scott and the Seminole Tribe prior to the start of session. The compact would have allowed the Seminoles to add craps and roulette at each of the tribe’s seven Florida casinos and in return, the tribe would pay the state $3 billion over seven years. However, finalization of the compact required legislative approval and lawmakers rejected the plan and all other gaming legislation this session.
Other proposals included provisions that aimed to overhaul the state gaming industry and allow for additional slot machines in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties. In a surprise move, the Seminoles worked together with the pari-mutuel industry near the end of session in an attempt to get legislation filed and heard, but no bill was ever written.
Going forward, the gaming issue lies with the courts, where two gambling lawsuits are set to be heard involving the Seminole Tribe and the state.
While many anticipated this session to be relatively light with regard to education, policy and funding issues relating to the state’s K-12 schools ended up being the most highly debated topic this session.
On the last day of session, after much debate and jockeying between the House and Senate, an omnibus school choice bill, known as the education “train,” passed through both chambers. Among other items, the legislation changes the way charter schools receive and qualify for funding, allowing charter schools that serve low-income students or students with disabilities to receive more funding allocated for construction projects. The bill also amends state law to allow public school students to attend any school in the state with space available, and includes performance funding language for state colleges and universities.
In addition to the education package, a number of other bills were passed, including legislation creating a pilot program for certain Florida counties that will allow principals in low-performing schools to oversee school improvement policies. One of the biggest issues lawmakers debated was the “Best and Brightest” program, which provides bonuses to teachers. The language passed in an education budget bill that ties in $49 million in state funding for the program. In addition, Senator Don Gaetz attempted to keep the fight against the state’s testing system with legislation that would have allowed school districts to offer national standardized tests instead of state standardized tests, but the measure ultimately failed to make it through the legislative process.
Members also passed legislation, which has already been signed into law by Governor Scott, making significant changes to the panel that oversees educator discipline issues, as well as legislation to ease certification requirements for STEM teachers. In addition, members passed important legislation to allow schools more flexibility for obtaining epinephrine auto-injectors used for potential allergic reactions.
On the higher education front, lawmakers passed a bill requiring that colleges and universities notify students of any proposed tuition hikes. In addition, members passed a top priority of Senate President Andy Gardiner, which will allow colleges and universities to establish programs for students with disabilities.
While health care was easily the most contentious issue of the 2015 session, this year was much different, with members keeping the door closed on Medicaid expansion and focusing instead on other issues.
Of the proposals considered, the most significant measure was regarding “balance billing,” which happens when insurers charge patients the difference between the cost of a procedure and what an insurance company pays for the procedure. The legislation aims to curb the balance billing process and was amended on the final day of session with language regarding people with Down syndrome. The bill will now be sent to the Governor for signature.
In addition, members passed legislation to carve out dental services from the list of required benefits under Medicaid plans, and passed a measure regarding telehealth, which creates an advisory council to study the issue and report back to the legislature.
There were also several issues not passed this session, including a bill that would have eliminated hospital certificates of need, a measure allowing ambulatory surgical centers to hold patients for up to 24 hours, and legislation relating to direct primary care, allowing patients to pay directly through their primary care providers rather than insurance companies.
In addition, the medical marijuana issue continues in Florida, with legislation passed expanding the Right To Try Act to allow terminally ill patients to use medical marijuana. The issue will be back on the ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment this November.
Energy and Environmental Policy
Last session was predicted to be Florida’s “Year of Water,” but the end-of-session breakdown between the House and Senate resulted in a number of comprehensive environment, land and water bills dying without passage. However, lawmakers kicked off the first week of session this year by passing major water policy legislation mirroring the bill that failed last year. The bill was signed into law very early in session and establishes a timeline for actions by the state to protect springs, revise permitting for Lake Okeechobee projects and establish regulatory standards for water use permitting and planning in Central Florida.
One issue that caused a considerable amount of discussion and debate this session was legislation relating to oil and gas resources in Florida. The House version of the bill, which passed through the chamber by a 73-45 vote, would have placed a two-year moratorium on oil and gas fracturing while a study of the issue was conducted. However, the measure was considered too controversial and did not pass through the Senate.
Members did make two key environmental issues – Everglades Restoration and Lake Okeechobee projects – priorities during the session. The last bill passed by lawmakers before adjourning the 2016 session will dedicate $200 million per year (from Amendment One funds) for these issues.
Criminal Justice and Public Safety
Lawmakers addressed a number of issues relating to law enforcement, criminal justice and public safety this session. Key among those issues were a number of controversial measures relating to gun rights and laws in Florida. The two main proposals focused on “open carry,” which would have allowed those with concealed weapons licenses to openly carry their guns in holsters, cases or bags, and “campus carry,” which would have allowed Floridians with concealed weapons permits to carry their weapons onto Florida’s college and university campuses. While the House spent a considerable amount of time working on these proposals this session, neither of the measures were supported by the Senate and both bills died without passage.
In addition, members passed a new law relating to death-penalty sentencing, in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that Florida’s death penalty system is unconstitutional. The ruling stemmed from Florida courts giving power to judges, instead of juries, in sentencing defendants to death. The bill will require jurors to decide unanimously on what factors make someone eligible to be put to death, and requires a 10-2 vote for a jury to recommend the death penalty.
Finally, lawmakers settled a long-standing dispute with local governments regarding the sharing of juvenile detention costs, with costs being split evenly going forward between the state and counties. This was a big win for county governments.
Transportation and Infrastructure
After bouncing back and forth between the House and Senate with numerous amendments (most of which were withdrawn), two transportation packages were passed into law the final day of session. Transportation bills are typically heavily amended late in session with sometimes controversial language, and often die without passage as a result. However, this year two bills were passed without significant debate. The legislation passed includes a number of provisions relating to transportation, infrastructure, seaports and airports, among other issues. The bills include language to increase annual funding for the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Program (FSTED) by $10 million to $25 million, as well as create a Seaport Security Grant Program. The legislation also includes language relating to airport zoning, and extends the terms of airport leases from 30 years to 50 years.
During the budget conference process, members agreed on transportation-related funding without much contention, providing full funding for the 2016-17 FDOT Work Program.
Florida lawmakers will now begin campaigning and raising political funds in earnest, as the general election in November approaches. With as many as 15 of Florida’s 40 Senate districts open or up for reelection, it will make for an interesting election season in the sunshine state.
Now that session has wrapped up, we shift to the Governor’s office, where the Governor must now act on the legislation passed by House and Senate members during session. Once the Governor receives a bill, he has 15 days to either sign it, veto it, or let it become law without taking action.
Lawmakers will not return for another session until March 2017, although the 2018 session has officially been moved up, with another January start date planned for that year.