From algebra to Zika, 2016 brought a plethora of material to the Capitol Press Corps. Trying to pick the top state government stories is a subjective pursuit, to say the least, but here are the FloridaPolitics.com picks for the passing year. In (kind of) chronological order:
— Kevin McCarty ousted as state Insurance Commissioner, replaced by David Altmaier
McCarty gave himself the ax in early January, saying he was resigning to pursue “other career opportunities.” The then 56-year-old often took the blame for rising insurance rates in the state, especially when homeowners discovered they would have to pay more in premiums. Gov. Rick Scott had had it in for McCarty for a while; he was among a triumvirate of state officials that Scott forced out the door, including FDLE Commissioner Gerry Bailey and Department of Revenue head Marshall Stranburg. Then Scott and CFO Jeff Atwater deadlocked on McCarty’s replacement. (Under state law, Scott and Atwater first have to agree on one candidate.) Scott backed retired insurance executive Jeffrey Bragg, while Atwater was behind Bill Hager, a state representative and former Iowa Insurance Commissioner. The compromise candidate was David Altmaier, then the Office of Insurance Regulation’s deputy commissioner, who once was a high school algebra teacher. Altmaier was appointed in April.
— Pro-school vouchers rally in Tallahassee; school vouchers ruling
Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., led a march and rally in downtown Tallahassee during the Legislative Session in February, in support of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship, attracting several thousand participants and spectators. Capitol Police director Chris Connell even sent an advisory to state workers that “organizers are busing in people from around the state and are planning for approximately 10,000 people to attend the rally.” The timing was apt: It was the day after the federal holiday memorializing his father, the slain civil-rights leader. Then in August, the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with a lower court to throw out the lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association and others over the state’s largest private school voucher program. They had argued its method of funding private-school educations for more than 90,000 schoolchildren is unconstitutional. The vouchers are funded by companies, which in turn receive tax credits on money they owe to the state.
— Rick Scott’s $250 million in incentives nixed by lawmakers
Scott had proposed a “Florida Enterprise Fund,” $250 million for business incentives. “Everyone knows my priorities,” he said close to the end of session. “All of them are tied to getting more jobs in our state. The tax cut is important … along with the $250 million for (the Fund).” But, as Uncle Junior once said of Richie Aprile, “He couldn’t sell it.” An intransigent House, including current House Speaker Richard Corcoran, derided it as corporate welfare. Relentless criticism from groups like Americans for Prosperity-Florida didn’t help either. In the end, Scott’s business recruitment effort got “zero.” And Scott wound up vetoing $256.1 million from the final 2016-17 budget – eerily close to the $250 million he sought for economic development.
— Legislature punts on new Seminole Compact
The history of failure in dealing with gambling continued in the Legislature in 2016. A deal between the state and Seminole Tribe of Florida on exclusive rights to offer blackjack in Florida expired last year, and Scott negotiated a new “compact” guaranteeing blackjack exclusivity in exchange for $3 billion over seven years. The deal died in March when it couldn’t get to either floor for a vote. It contained provisions that would have allowed the tribe to also offer craps and roulette—that is, more games. And lawmakers tacked on bills that would have expanded gambling offerings for the dog and horse tracks in their districts. Legislative leaders say they support bringing the compact back in 2017. But a federal judge recently sided with the tribe in, saying no matter what the Seminoles can keep dealing cards till 2030 – the end of the original agreement – and don’t have to pay the state a dime. Nonetheless, the tribe is still paying to keep a fragile peace, depositing $19.5 million in state coffers this month.
— Rick Scott signs death penalty overhaul into law, which Supreme Court later invalidates
In March, Scott signed a measure that overhauled Florida’s death penalty by requiring that at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend an execution for it to be ordered. Florida previously only required that a majority of jurors recommend a death sentence but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state’s sentencing law was unconstitutional. In 2013, Scott also signed “The Timely Justice Act,” which requires governors to sign death warrants within 30 days after a Death Row prisoner exhausts all appeals, among other provisions. This year’s fix was short-lived: By October, the Florida Supreme Court shot the law down, saying death sentences require a unanimous jury. The court added the new law can no longer be applied to pending prosecutions in the state. Still another decision opened the door to death-sentenced inmates getting their sentences reduced to life. And the opinions mean lawmakers will once again, in the words of Justice Harry Blackmun, have to “tinker with the machinery of death” in 2017.
— Supreme Court decisions punch holes in workers’ comp system
The state’s business lobby had a conniption after the Florida Supreme Court ruled on two cases this summer affecting the state’s workers’ comp system. One struck down a law that limited payments to injured workers to only two years. Another struck down a law that capped attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases. Soon, the National Council on Compensation Insurance, which submits rate filings on behalf of insurers, asked state regulators to OK a nearly 20 percent rate hike in workers’ comp premiums. That request was whittled down to 14.5 percent, which took effect Dec. 1. Opponents have criticized the 2003 changes put in place by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature, saying they were draconian and favored employers at the cost of injured employees. Companies said the new system cut costs, which helps businesses grow jobs. And the changes also were intended to reduce lawsuits over benefits. Expect lawmakers to tackle this issue as well in 2017.
— Citrus Department gets smaller budget, staff cuts
The citrus greening epidemic, which is killing the state’s citrus trees, also hit the Department of Citrus this year. Normally, the department’s operations are paid for by a tax paid by growers on each box of citrus. But because the state’s citrus crop is shrinking, so are the department’s finances. The Florida Citrus Commission, which oversees the department, in June approved a $20.7 million spending plan for 2016-17, a 32 percent decrease from the prior budget year. That was after leading growers called for the Department to “be scaled back considerably,” saying they “do not believe current marketing programs are generating an economic return.” One bit of good news came by year’s end: Florida’s orange crop production will hold steady at 72 million boxes for the 2016-17 season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasted.
— State economists say budget is heading into the red
In September, the state’s economists told lawmakers Florida is likely to basically break even next year in terms of its state budget. The Joint Legislative Budget Commission met in the Capitol to hear the latest financial outlook for 2017-18: Income and outgo estimates left Florida with a relatively scant $7.5 million left over out of about $32.2 billion in available revenue. And deficits were forecast for following years. The current year’s budget is roughly $82 billion, which includes federal dollars. (About two-thirds of the yearly budget goes toward health care and education.) By December, the outlook was a bit more sanguine, with nearly $142 million expected to be available. Within context, however, that amounts to a “very minor adjustment,” said Amy Baker, the Legislature’s chief economist.
— Scott tussles with Tallahassee over Hurricane Hermine response
Welcome to Tallahassee, where politics meets weather. Hurricane Hermine, the first to make landfall in Florida since Wilma in 2005, smacked the Panhandle on Sept. 2. Afterward, Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee and Republican Gov. Rick Scott had a testy faceoff over the speed of repair to the city’s electric system. Scott said in a press release that the city was declining help from other utilities and the Department of Transportation. He said he was “frustrated” over how long it was taking to get power back on. Gillum shot back that Scott’s “comments and press releases and tweets have been put out, in my opinion, to undermine our cooperative process … We owe it to (the people of Tallahassee) to not be about politics, but to be about getting power to them.” When Hurricane Matthew skimmed Florida’s Atlantic coast the next month, Scott was more solicitous in dealing with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a former Republican Party of Florida chair.
— Voters pass medical cannabis amendment
The second time was the charm for a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing Floridians a right to medical cannabis. Florida voters approved the initiative by 71 percent, well over the required 60 percent needed. That was two years after it missed passage by roughly 2 ½ percent. The amendment creates a right for people with debilitating medical conditions, as determined by a licensed Florida physician, to use medical marijuana. It defines a debilitating condition as cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other disorders. In Florida, the “non-euphoric” version is already approved for children with severe seizures and muscle spasms. The state later passed a law allowing terminally ill patients to use a stronger form of marijuana during their final days. Lawmakers already have begun dealing with how medical marijuana will work in Florida, holding the first of many workshops this month.
— Dozens begin applying for seats on Constitution Revision Commission
The Florida Constitution allows for a “revision commission” to meet every 20 years to “examine the constitution, hold public hearings and … file its proposal, if any, of a revision of this constitution or any part of it.” The next one is scheduled to convene in the 30 days before the beginning of the 2017 Legislative Session in March. The lead-up started in January. That’s when the LeRoy Collins Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank, released a cartoon featuring an animated Sandy D’Alemberte, the legal legend and former Florida State University president who chaired the commission in 1977-78. Later in the year, scores of constitution-revising aspirants turned in applications to Scott, who gets to pick 15 of the 37 members and will choose its chair. Applications also rolled in to Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, who gets three picks, and Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who get nine choices each. The applicant lists read like a Who’s Who of Florida, old and new, including present and former lawmakers, lawyers and law professors, local officials and lobbyists.
— Richard Corcoran rolls out tough new House rules
The new Speaker, calling for a new culture of transparency in the Florida House, issued new rules in November that get tough with the capital’s lobbying corps. One increases the ban on former members lobbying their colleagues from two years to six years. Another prohibits state representatives from flying in aircraft owned, leased, or otherwise paid for by lobbyists. Still another requires lobbyists to file an individual disclosure for every bill, amendment, and individual appropriation they are trying to influence. And he created a new Committee on Public Integrity and Ethics, which will “consider legislation and exercise oversight on matters relating to the conduct and ethics standards of House members, state and local public officials, public employees, lobbyists, and candidates for public office, the regulation of political fundraising and the constitutional prerogatives of the Legislature.” Lobbyists publicly nodded in agreement – and privately expressed displeasure. “What I take major issue with is trashing ALL lobbyists and accusing us of being the reason legislators are out of control,” one said anonymously.
— Pitbull controversy ends with VISIT FLORIDA head’s ouster
In December, Scott called on CEO Will Seccombe to resign, the last casualty of a kerfuffle over a secret contract with Miami rapper Pitbull to promote Florida tourism. Corcoran filed suit for the agency to reveal how much it promised the rapper after it claimed the deal was a “trade secret.” Pitbull had the last laugh, disclosing his contract via Twitter and showing he stands to make up to $1 million. Scott wrote to agency board chair William Talbert, telling him he wanted an overhaul of how it does business, revealing more on how it spends money, including contracts. “The notion that Visit Florida spending would not be transparent to the taxpayers is just ridiculous,” Scott wrote. By that point, Seccombe already had fired two of his top executives, Chief Operating Officer Vangie McCorvey and Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps, but it wasn’t enough. Seccombe had been in charge of the agency since 2012.
— Department of Health beats Zika–for now
Florida declared its crisis with local transmission of Zika over for the season in December, ahead of peak tourism months. But health authorities warned that travelers would continue bringing the disease into the state. Starting in late July, state health officials had identified four zones in the Miami area where the virus was spreading through local mosquitoes – the first such transmissions in the continental U.S. – and launched aggressive efforts to control the insects. One by one, the zones were deemed clear of continuing infections, and Scott announced that the last one – a 1.5-square-mile area in touristy South Beach – also was cleared. About 250 people have contracted Zika in Florida, and over 980 more Zika infections in the state have been linked to travel, according to state health officials. Zika causes mild flu-like symptoms for most people, but it can cause severe brain-related birth defects when pregnant women become infected. “Hopefully, by next summer, we’ll have a federal government that has a vaccine,” said Scott.
Peter Schorsch, Michael Moline and The Associated Press contributed to this post (reprinted with permission).