Florida lawmakers are set to convene in Tallahassee tomorrow to kick-off the 2016 legislative session two months earlier than usual. Members will test the different start date this year and may consider going to a January start date every other year going forward. Given this is an election year, the session should be less rancorous than last year as legislators try to avoid unnecessary controversy.
House and Senate members will gather after wrapping up a very contentious 2015, which included four legislative sessions – three of them ending with the two chambers at odds over issues ranging from health care, to the state budget, to legislative redistricting. However, many remain optimistic about the coming session, with members set to address a number of bills that failed last year. These proposals include a sweeping water policy bill, as well as a number of bills relating to Florida’s K-12 education policies. Also high on the agenda will be Senate President Andy Gardiner’s highest legislative priority – a bill aiming to provide more educational and job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. Members will also begin session with a budget surplus for the coming year. In late 2015, Governor Scott released his $79.3 billion recommended budget, which includes increased funding for education and tax incentives.
As many as 15 of the 40 members of the Senate will depart after this session. This is the largest number of Senators to leave the Senate since eight-year term limits were enacted in 1992. This large scale turnover, coupled with changes to Senate districts due to redistricting, could create a measure of uncertainty in the Florida Senate.
For legislative leaders in the House and Senate, as well as Governor Scott and his officials on the executive side, establishing a strong working relationship will be key to achieving any sort of legislative success this year. After last year’s political fallout between the House and Senate, and the Senate and Governor’s office, over budget and health care spending issues, it will be interesting to see if all sides can build a consensus this session. House and Senate leaders have expressed their willingness to work together, and while members remain cautious about the Governor’s ambitious budget proposal, it is likely that the legislature will fulfill much of the Governor’s requests this year.
Finally, Florida’s presidential primary is March 15th with two prominent Floridians, Governor Bush and Senator Rubio, on the ballot. It will be interesting to see what, if any impact, this has on the session. It will, however, hopefully result in this year’s session ending on time on March 11th.
Budget, Taxes and Economic Incentives
While opinions differ on the amount, lawmakers are set to begin the 2016 session with a budget surplus. State economists have estimated a surplus of just over $635 million, while the Governor’s budget leaders are predicting that it could be more than $1 billion. Either way, the surplus will be a huge benefit for members looking to fund key state education, health care and economic development programs.
One issue high on the agenda for lawmakers will be a tax incentive package proposed by Governor Scott. The Governor continues his push for jobs and economic growth in Florida, with his plan for $1 billion in tax cuts and $250 million for economic incentive programs to draw companies to Florida. Included in the Governor’s proposed tax cuts are a permanent elimination on the manufacturing equipment tax, as well as the extension of a sales-tax exemption on college textbooks, among others. The Governor also wants to permanently repeal the corporate income tax paid by Florida’s retailers and manufacturers. While both House and Senate leaders have expressed plans to pass some form of a bolstered tax incentive program, members are hesitant to commit such a large amount of state dollars to the Governor’s ambitious plan, considering the uncertainty of future state revenues.
While both Speaker Crisafulli and Senate President Gardiner agree to cutting taxes, their budget priorities are also focused on other areas, with the House highlighting increased education funding and boosting pay for certain state agencies and employees, and the Senate focusing on funding for mental health programs as well as education programs. The result will likely be a scaled down version of the Governor’s proposal.
Last summer, Florida lawmakers convened in Tallahassee to hold a special session to address the re-drawing of eight of Florida’s 27 Congressional Districts. These districts – 5, 13, 14, 21, 22, 25, 26 and 27 – were invalidated in a Supreme Court decision. The ruling also essentially invalidated Florida’s Senate districts, meaning they must be re-drawn as well. However, after the special session meeting period, House and Senate members failed to agree on a new Congressional District map, sending the issue back to the courts. In late December, the state was ordered by a Leon County judge to use a map of Congressional Districts drawn by a coalition of voting rights groups for the next three elections.
In October, members gathered in Tallahassee once again, this time to address the Senate map. However, this issue also went back to the court level and the selected map was announced just at the end of last year.
The new redistricting changes will have strong implications for candidates and incumbents, particularly in the state Senate. The new Senate plan will shake up Florida’s political races, placing a number of key incumbent Senators, including several future Senate leaders, against each other, and forcing a number of current state Senators to make difficult decisions about running and/or potentially changing locations prior to the coming November 2016 elections.
The redistricting fight has been ongoing in Florida since 2012, resulting from anti-gerrymandering provisions, known as “Fair Districts” standards, approved by voters for addition to the state Constitution in 2010. Lawmakers will again attempt to draw new maps in 2022, two years after the next U.S. Census.
Gaming will likely be one of the most contentious issues this session. The topic of potentially expanding gaming in Florida has been debated by lawmakers for the past several years. Measures to expand gaming 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. Last session, a sweeping gaming reform bill was considered, but the measure was stripped of its biggest provisions and ultimately died without passage.
Presently, a group of local governments, racetrack casinos and anti-gambling advocates are filing a joint lawsuit before the state Supreme Court. At the heart of the case is a dispute between a racetrack in Gadsden County and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation over the use of slot machines.
The gaming issue will be ongoing throughout the session and will impact the agreement, or “compact,” between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which expired last summer. Late last year, Governor Scott announced a new deal which would require the tribe to pay the state $3.1 billion over seven years in exchange for allowing craps and roulette in current Seminole casino operations. However, any new compact terms must be approved by the Legislature, and lawmakers have already indicated that the new agreement will not be passed. The deal announced by the Governor would also permit slot machines in two South Florida counties and allow for pari-mutuels to “decouple” horse and dog racing from card room and slot-machine operations. With all of these issues lumped into the legislation, passing it becomes a very difficult task.
One of the biggest issues in Florida’s education policy in recent years has been the debate over standardized testing in the state’s K-12 schools. The issues with test scores became so serious last year that a bill was passed to temporarily suspend the school grading system until the problems were investigated and resolved. Heading into the 2016 session, members of the Senate Education Committee are set to consider a number of proposals, including an amended version of the teacher bonus pay program, as well as a bill to address an issue regarding schools skirting class size limit requirements. In addition, Senator Don Gaetz (R-Destin) has filed legislation to offer national exams like the SAT as an alternative to Florida’s new standardized testing requirements.
Regarding the school grading system, the Florida Board of Education recently voted to back Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on her proposals setting benchmarks for school grades and test scores. This was despite a number of business groups criticizing the measures for not allowing enough students to pass the state’s standardized tests.
A number of other bills regarding K-12 education policy have been filed for the 2016 session. These bills include measures to limit the growth of charter schools, and establish and implement alternative graduation requirements, among others. The charter school proposal, filed by Senator Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee), would require the Florida Department of Education to issue a “statement of need” for charter schools in certain districts.
Senate President Gardiner’s legislative priorities for the 2016 session – measures to boost educational and job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities – are likely to pass quickly once the session begins.
With regard to higher education, Governor Scott recently announced plans to meet with Florida’s state university presidents at the next Cabinet meeting. The discussion will surround “Ready, Set, Work,” the Governor’s graduation-to-work challenge, which seeks to increase job placement rates for graduates.
Last year’s regular session was one of the most contentious in recent memory, all surrounding the federal government’s decision to discontinue LIP funding and the legislature’s attempt to address the Medicaid expansion issue in response to the federal decision. This issue caused a complete breakdown in negotiations between the Senate, which supported legislation offering alternatives to Medicaid expansion, and the House, which refused to hear the issue at all. The end result was a surprising early end to the session. The Senate proposal also resulted in a significant amount of tension between the Governor’s office and Senate leaders.
This session, members will again address the LIP program, which provides funding for hospitals to care for low-income and uninsured patients. Federal officials have announced $608 million in funding for the program in the 2016-17 budget – down from $1 billion in the current budget. The legislature will debate how much in general revenue they will commit to backfilling this shortfall.
On the policy end, members will consider key measures in both chambers that aim to make the costs of health care at Florida’s hospitals more transparent. The issue has been pushed by Governor Scott, who wants to address what he calls “price gouging” at hospitals in the state and file criminal charges against hospitals that overcharge patients. The Governor is also pushing for $5 million in funding for the development of an all claims payer database, and has crafted language for his own bill, but it has not yet been filed. The measures filed by Representative Chris Sprowls (R-Clearwater) in the House and Senator Rob Bradley (R-Orange Park) in the Senate, fall short of the Governor’s plan, which would implement caps on what hospitals can charge patients.
Members are also considering legislation to eliminate the “certificate of need” process for new or expanded hospitals, as well as a measure supported by House members and Governor Scott to allow ambulatory surgery centers in Florida to hold patients for up to 24 hours.
In addition, the medical marijuana issue continues in Florida, as members will consider legislation to broaden the types of marijuana that are available to certain patients. It is also likely that Florida voters will see this issue again on the 2016 ballot, as medical marijuana supporters re-attempt to pass a constitutional amendment.
In other health care issues, Senator Travis Hutson (R-Palm Coast) filed legislation for consideration this session that would allow public and private schools to buy epinephrine auto-injectors to treat emergency allergy reactions directly from manufacturers at free or reduced costs.
Water and Environmental Policy
While last session was predicted to be Florida’s “Year of Water,” the fighting between the House and Senate and contentious end to the session resulted in the lack of passage of a number of comprehensive environment, land and water bills. However, this year lawmakers have already agreed to pass a major water policy bill which is a top priority for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island).
During the 2014 election, Florida voters overwhelmingly supported Amendment 1, which requires that over the next 20 years, a minimum of 33 percent of revenues derived from document stamps on real estate transactions be used to buy and manage Florida land for conservation efforts. Members worked throughout last session to determine how best to implement Amendment 1.
Water remains a critical issue this year, with over $670 million in project funding requests submitted to the legislature for consideration this session. Members are set to vote on comprehensive water policy bills in each chamber this week. The proposals direct the state to provide more planning for water projects, establish water-flow levels for the state’s natural springs, and set other guidelines and management plans for water policy in Florida going forward. These measures are considered a top priority this session.
Criminal Justice and Public Safety
Lawmakers will address a number of issues relating to law enforcement, criminal justice and public safety this session. These issues include measures moving in the House and Senate to limit the ability of state prosecutors to charge juvenile offenders as adults, known as “direct file.”
Another key issue that will be heavily discussed and debated this session involves the issue of gun rights. There are two measures filed – one that would allow Floridians with concealed weapons licenses to openly carry firearms, and another to allow license-holders to carry their handguns onto Florida’s university and college campuses. The campus-carry bill has strong opposition from many key figures, including the state’s higher education leaders. It is uncertain whether either of these measures will be successful this session. There is also one gun control measure likely to pass, which would ban backyard shooting ranges in urban and suburban areas of the state.
Lawmakers will also consider a measure regarding how juvenile-detention costs are shared between local governments and the state. This issue has been a contentious one between the state and local authorities for years, and many are hoping for a compromise with the proposed legislation. The measure, sponsored by Senator Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), would divide the cost of detaining juvenile offenders in an even 50-50 split, making it more fair for counties, which currently pay 57 percent of the costs.
Transportation and Infrastructure
Each session the House and Senate transportation committees put forth their respective legislative packages, which include priorities outlined by the Florida Department of Transportation for the year. These bills have been filed for this year and are typically heavily debated and amended throughout session. Due to the weighty amendment process for these proposals, if passed, the transportation packages usually do not receive final approval until the last hours of session. In addition, there are several other bills filed for lawmakers to consider this session, including measures to create new funding methods for Florida’s infrastructure projects, as well as legislation requiring fees collected by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles be set aside for freight mobility and trade projects.
There will also be legislation to address transportation network companies in Florida. Companies such as Uber and Lyft are pushing a measure to preempt local laws, which prevent transportation network companies from operating in many municipalities.
There is much to be decided and much at stake in the legislature in the coming weeks, with critical state funding and policy issues up for discussion. Members will kick off tomorrow with a series of ceremonial events, but the session work will begin immediately, with a number of key priority bills up for final passage this week. In addition, throughout the next two months, members will debate controversial topics, like gaming and health care, while also working to craft and pass a balanced state budget for the coming year.
The session is scheduled to end Friday, March 11th.