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Gut check: Legislative Session reaches midpoint

With the half-way mark of the 60-day 2016 Legislative Session on Wednesday, the theme so far is like a line from a Frankie Valli song: “… so close/And yet so far.”

Take the 2016-17 state budget, the only bill lawmakers are required to pass each year. The House came in at $79.9 billion with the Senate proposing $80.9 billion. Sure, that’s only a billion dollars apart, but $1 billion is still a lot of money, even in Tallahassee.

Lawmakers are set to begin talking about the state’s blueprint for spending on the floors of both chambers in the afternoon. After voting out their respective proposals, both sides will go into a conference process to come up with a final product to send to Gov. Rick Scott.

As to policy, both chambers are closing in on some sort of ride-booking legislation, for example, but remain apart on how to regulate those services, which include Uber and Lyft. And both chambers seem willing to do something about gambling, but don’t agree on exactly what.

But they did pass three big measures in the first week: A water protection bill that House Speaker Steve Crisafulli wanted; a bill that expands employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, and another that increases their educational opportunities.

The latter two were priorities of Senate President Andy Gardiner, who has a son with Down syndrome. Scott signed all three.

Here’s a recap of some major areas:

2016-17 STATE BUDGET

Scott didn’t have a lot of demands on lawmakers for the yearly spending plan. In fact, he had just two: A $250 million Florida Enterprise Fund for business incentives and $1 billion in tax cuts.

The House gave Scott the tax cuts – sort of. The Finance and Tax Committee came up with a plan that’s a little less than $1 billion in tax cuts over two years. The House also didn’t honor Scott’s request to kill the corporate income tax on retailers and manufacturers.

“Some of Governor Scott’s goals have been included,” Republican state Rep. Matt Gaetz, the committee’s chairman, said last week. “I think there’s a lot of synergy, a lot of overlay. There were some ideas … that we were unable to accommodate at this time, but, you know, hope springs eternal.”

In the Senate, state Sen. Jack Latvala came around to the incentive fund, recommending it for his chamber’s budget as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development.

“By taking a significant step forward to work with the governor, I hope we are improving the overall climate of his decision making,” the Clearwater Republican said last month, a not-so-subtle reference to the governor’s veto power over line items in the budget.

When asked whether his decision was more “olive branch or philosophical agreement,” Latvala said, “It’s a combination of both.”

RIDE-BOOKING SERVICES

The House last month passed a bill regulating “transportation network companies” such as Uber and Lyft, and mandating insurance and other requirements.

But it includes a provision disfavored in the Senate: It vests regulatory power over ride-booking services solely with the state, cutting out local bodies such as the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.

On Tuesday, the Senate moved forward with its own version that only addresses insurance requirements, setting up another logjam with the House similar to last year.

GAMBLING

Also on Tuesday, a House panel OK’d a trio of bills having to do with the Seminole Compact struck between Scott and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which operates casinos across the state.

The measures would approve the new Compact, a deal that grants the state $3 billion to be paid by the tribe over seven years. In return, the tribe gets continued exclusive rights in the state to offer blackjack. The bills also allow pari-mutuel “decoupling,” meaning racetracks would no longer be required to run actual races in order to have slots and card rooms at their facilities. The measures would also allow voters to approve any future expansion of gambling.

Florida and the tribe signed the previous deal in 2010, but the provision allowing blackjack and other “banked card games” expired last year.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate postponed consideration of similar legislation for a week. A key senator said his colleagues needed “the opportunity to digest the various amendments being filed.” One of them would clarify that fantasy sports play isn’t gambling.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee, also said, “If there is a gaming deal to be had, it would be in either the last week or the week before.”

ALIMONY REFORM

A bill aimed at effectively ending permanent alimony is heading to the House floor after clearing its final committee of reference.

Mainly, the measure limits judges’ discretion in awarding alimony by providing guidelines for how much an ex-spouse should get and for how long.

It’s the third time in recent years the Legislature has attempted to change Florida’s alimony law.

A companion bill was set to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday but the meeting ran out of time and the bill was pushed to next week.

Another family-law bill moving this session would change state law on child-sharing. It would create an assumption that equal time-sharing for both parents after a divorce is in the best interest of a child. It’s set to be heard Wednesday in the Senate Rules Committee.


Jim Rosica (jim@floridapolitics.com) covers the Florida Legislature, state agencies and courts from Tallahassee. 

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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