Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 4 of 39

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Against criticism by governor, Joe Negron makes the case for budget deal

Faced with the prospect of a gubernatorial budget veto, Senate President Joe Negron said Wednesday that he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I hope the governor doesn’t veto the budget, because I think it’s a strong budget. He certainly has every right to look at particular items,” Negron told reporters following the day’s Senate session.

Scott noted earlier in the day that he has the authority to veto the $83 billion budget in whole or in part, although he did not commit to either course. He’s specifically mentioned his unhappiness with funding levels for Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida, and repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

Scott also criticized the Florida Legislature budget talks as secretive, saying he does not know what is or is not in the budget.

“The governor always has that option,” Negron said of a veto. “I don’t see anything unique about this budget that would make it more or less likely to be vetoed.”

Regarding secretiveness, he insisted the process has been “very open and transparent.”

For example, the House and Senate agreed not to insert projects into the budget during conference committee meetings.

“That’s a dramatic change from how the budget process was done before.”

He and House Speaker Richard Corcoran started making decisions only when their budget chairman and subcommittee chairman could not, Negron said.

“The vast majority was of it was resolved before things got to the presiding officers.”

He noted that the Senate has been supportive of Scott’s priorities, including Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida and other economic development programs.

“The Senate has fought hard for the governor’s priorities the entire session,” he said.

“At some point in this process, if one part of the Legislature does not want to fund something, it’s always easier not to do something than to actively fund something.”

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon said his caucus might be happy to see budget elements vetoed.

“It depends. We’ve got to see it first. I’m not going to opine on something that, as you can see, is not on my desk,” Braynon said.

“I’m trying to think of something terrible. Schools of Hope. Maybe Best and Brightest,” he said — referring to two education programs disfavored by many Democrats.

One element of the workers’ compensation fix headed to the governor

It’s not the big banana, but a small piece of workers’ compensation reform is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The bill is CS/CS/HB 1107, shielding personally identifying information about workers’ comp claimants under Florida’s public records laws.

It passed the House on a 120-0 vote Wednesday, having cleared the Senate, 37-0, on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the big workers’ compensation package remained on the Senate calendar, awaiting debate. The House has passed its version of that legislation.

The information at issue was shielded until 2003, when the Legislature allowed a public records exemption to lapse.

Advocates of the exemption argued it allows trial attorneys to identify possible claimants, encouraging costly claims appeals.

The National Council on Compensation Insurance has blamed litigation costs for 10 percent of the 14.5 percent workers’ compensation insurance premium increases that began to take effect in December.

“By exempting public records relating to injured or deceased workers, this relief is one way to clear the burdensome pressures in the system to get injured workers healthy at affordable rates to employers,” Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, said in a written statement following the House vote.

Final $83 billion budget bill awaits only fine tuning, conferees report

The House and Senate were tantalizingly close Wednesday to completing negotiations on an $83 billion state budget. It appeared only a question of firming up some details and completing the paperwork.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into preparing the document and getting it distributed and printed and whatever. But the major points are decided,” Senate budget chief Jack Latvala said following a noon meeting with his House counterpart, Carlos Trujillo.

What’s left?

“Mostly the HHS budget, and then some various implementing and proviso kind of situations. But we’re a long way down the road,” Latvala said.

Earlier in the day, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced their intention to distribute a budget bill to members on Friday, go home over the weekend, and extending for a short session Monday on the budget only.

The Legislature will miss its Friday deadline for completing a budget.

Working late on Tuesday night, the presiding offers settled the major remaining disputes.

“We appreciate the amount of time and effort the Senate’s put in and the amount of compromise that we’ve made in order to pass a responsible budget,” Trujillo said during the meeting Wednesday.

“It should be apparent to all of you that we’re now into gear. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress today, which hopefully will continue,” Latvala said.

The House and Senate have agreed in principle to restore $50 million of a possible $600 million in cuts to reimbursements to hospitals for treating Medicaid — or $120 million, counting federal matching funds.

“We haven’t got the paper and exchanged the offers, but the commitment is there to settle that,” Latvala said.

There’s no money for the Florida Forever land acquisition program next year — it was sacrificed, Latvala said, to the House demand for a larger rainy day fund, now at $1.2 billion.

“As the father of Florida Forever, as the person who passed that bill, I’m obviously disappointed to have a year when I’m Appropriations chairman and not be able to fund it,” he said.

“But it you look at the totality of our budget, and look at what we’re doing for Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, springs, Lake Apopka, the St. Johns River, beaches … I believe you’re going to probably find there’s more money in this budget for the environment than we’ve had in a long time.

“If buying raw land suffers for a year, so be it. Next year, I’ll try to fix that.”

Negron’s Lake Okeechobee restoration plan, sent to the governor Tuesday, also represents a major environmental investment, he said.

“It’s going to be spent for land buying. It’s just down there. It’s not timberland in North Florida.”

The House accepted Senate language allowing the state to use $1.5 billion made available by the federal government to reimburse hospitals for charity care unless both chambers agree.

The House agreed to pay nursing home residents $105 per month to spend on sundries — House leaders had wanted to reduce that to $70.

“The Senate considers that a big win. I don’t know why that should be a big issue,” Latvala said.

There’s $50 million for beach restoration, up from $30 million now. The House has not agreed to an emergency renourishment fund.

Senate sends amended version of opioid crackdown bill back to House

The Senate approved legislation Wednesday increasing penalties for trafficking in synthetic opioids including fentanyl and carfentanil,

The vote was 37-0 to send the measure back to the House.

HB 477  targets fentanyl and related substances that, when administered by themselves or in combination with other drugs, can prove deadly, for tougher sentencing. For example, it would add fentanyl and derivatives to the list of Schedule I drugs and provides that trafficking in them resulting in death constitutes murder.

An amendment the Senate adopted Tuesday on a voice vote removes mandatory-minimum sentences from the bill, possibly setting up a clash with the House

The amendment, by Randolph Bracy, would give judges discretion to depart from minimum sentences “if the court finds in giving due regard to the nature of the defendant’s crime, the defendant’s criminal history and character, and the defendant’s chance of successful rehabilitation, there are compelling reasons on the record that imposition of the mandatory minimum is not necessary for the protection of the public.

Senate sponsor Greg Steube warned during a sometimes impassioned debate Tuesday that the amendment would endanger his bill.

“Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than morphine. That’s what we’re talking about here,” Steube said.

“The other piece of this is, we’re in Tuesday of the last week in session, and if an amendment goes on, I don’t know if the House is going to be willing to take it up,” he said.

Bracy argued that defendants typically never knew they’d dealt in substances containing the targeted drugs.

Joe Negron acknowledges the Legislative Session will enter extra innings

Senate President Joe Negron conceded the obvious Tuesday night: The House and Senate won’t wrap up budget negotiations in time to adjourn as scheduled on Friday.

“You know the timetable as well as I do, with the 72-hour requirement. So we will definitely not complete the budget work prior to the end of Friday, and so we’ll continue to work diligently,” Negron told reporters after the Senate recessed for the evening.

“We made a lot of progress today in a number of budget areas. I’m optimistic we can continue that. But I think, given the current schedule, it’s improbable we’ll be able to finish by Friday.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran expressed hope earlier in the day that the session would finish on time, but other denizens of the Capitol gave up on that idea as the day progressed.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott is taking to the road to criticize the Legislature for snubbing his bids for economic development money, repairs to the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee, greater support for public education, tax cuts, and other priorities.

Negron defended the emerging budget on all of those points.

“We certainly can’t accept every priority every session,” Negron said.

He opened the prospect of capturing $200 million that the Seminole Tribe has paid the state under its gambling compact. The state hasn’t spent the money because of legal complications, and pending passage of a gambling bill — which as of Tuesday had failed.

Still, Negron suggested the money could help with the budget.

“It we can work together with the House to make that happen, I think that would be a way to mitigate some of the situations you’re discussing,” he said when asked about the governor’s stance.

Negron said outstanding disputes involve “a very small portfolio of the entire budget and all of the policy issues. Before any of those are ratified, we’ll certainly have public meetings with the Appropriations chairs.”

Lawmakers must wait three days before they can vote on any compromise.

He confirmed that a sticking point was health care spending.

“It almost always happens that the health care budget comes in last, because it’s the most difficult,” he said.

“I’m hoping maybe this evening we can talk about ways to come to a principled resolution that would involve accommodating the Senate’s concern about money following the patient, and the House’s concern about making sure our safety nets are not hurt and our children’s hospitals are protected,” Negron said.

“There may be a way to do a blended model where both sides could win.”

This year presented a particularly vexing mix of problems, he said — including gambling, Lake O, education funding, and hospitals.

“We may need a little extra time to complete it. But, as I said yesterday, it’s better to get it right than to get it done quickly.”

Presuming an extension is inevitable, lawmakers might go begging for shelter if they try to work over the weekend — Florida State University is holding its spring commencement, and hotel rooms and other accommodations are booked.

“Here’s what my first preference would be — that we complete our budget work; that the budget is actually printed and on the desk of House members and senators in its complete and final form; and then, if there’s a short extension that has to happen for the 72-hour rule and for senators and House members to review the budget, that would be fine.

“And then we could set a date for when we would come back to take a final vote that convenient for all parties.”



Must-pass workers’ compensation, AOB reform languishing in Legislature

With House and Senate leaders caught up with budget negotiations ahead of Friday’s deadline for adjournment, advocates for legislative fixes for assignment of benefits and workers’ compensation reform confronted this possibility:

Their must-pass legislation might not pass.

There’s a workers’ compensation bill on the Senate calendar, but it differs in significant respects from the version the House adopted, and it was unclear whether those differences could be reconciled in the time left.

Meanwhile, the House has adopted assignment of benefits, or AOB, reforms. But Senate version languishes in the Rules Committee.

“The problem we have right now is a bandwidth issue, with leaders being so involved in these (budget) numbers that they can’t really focus on these policies or strategies, or how we would do it — which bill, this and that,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, who sits on the Banking and Insurance Committee and is sponsor of the Senate AOB bill.

“That’s been the impediment we’ve been seeing. If we are going to extend, the way some people are speculating now, maybe that will give us a few extra days to get something done,” Farmer said.

“At this point, we would take anything as movement,” said Rep. James Grant, co-sponsor of the House AOB bill.

“The dialog has been very good. We have the ability to move stuff when we receive it on either side of the rotunda. We just need them to send us something to start the process,” he said.

Insurance companies and their business allies ardently desire both bills, chiefly as a means to control rising premiums. The Office of Insurance Regulation approved a 14.5 percent hike in workers’ comp rates last year, and interior water claims are driving up costs for property insurers.

The Senate workers’ compensation bill, CS/SB 1582, is more generous that the House version with attorney fees in claims challenges — it would let compensation claims judges depart from the state’s fee schedule by as much as $250 per hour if justified, as opposed to $150 in the House.

Another significant difference is that the Senate would shift to a loss cost premium-setting system, whereby insurers would independently propose rates to state regulators, instead of as a group, as most do now.

Sponsor Rob Bradley has said his bill would decrease premiums by a “small to moderate” amount, versus at least 5 percent in the House. But he’s deeply involved in negotiations over spending on environmental priorities.

The House approved its workers’ compensation bill, HB 7085, on April 19.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier’s top priority this year is legislation to make it harder for unscrupulous contractors and attorneys armed with AOB agreements to inflate claims and run up legal fees.

The House has approved an Altmaier-approved AOB bill, PCS/HB 1421, which would tighten requirements for contractors to report claims to insurance companies and establish a graduated scale for determining whether attorneys qualify to recover litigation expenses from carriers.

Grant has said that the bill would forestall increases in property insurance rates approaching 50 percent.

In the Senate, the Rules Committee adjourned its final meeting last week without reaching a Farmer bill that would bar insurers from including attorney fees paid in benefits litigation when calculating premium levels.

Farmer had hoped to attach his AOB bill to that measure.

“We’ll have to see if Rules has another meeting, or if there’s some other way to get this bill moving,” Farmer said at the time.

Florida Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Carolyn Johnson could live with that, if it keeps AOB reform alive.

“Then hopefully, we might be able to get some meaningful reform,” she said — even though the Chamber opposes key elements of Farmer’s bill.

So could Grant.

“If they would pull something up and move something, we would be in a very good place,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re that far off,” Grant said of the House and Senate philosophical approaches.

“The conversations I have been a part of agree to the same two-tier criteria we’ve been talking about all along on our side — reduce premiums and not mess with a homeowner who has been paying his premiums and has a legitimate loss.”

Insurance lobbyist Tim Meenan would be comfortable with the House position on AOB reform. But he questioned the Senate’s appetite for parliamentary tricks with the budget still unsettled.

“Is the Senate up to that with only three days to go? The answer is probably no,” Meenan said. “But waive the rules with a two-thirds vote, and you’re off to the races.”

Lawmakers, lobbyists begin to contemplate an extended session

House Speaker Richard Corcoran insisted Tuesday that he still hoped to complete a budget deal in time to adjourn on schedule Friday — but other lawmakers and Tallahassee’s lobbyists have begun clearing their calendars for next week.

“I think it’s 90 percent likely,” Corcoran said of chances the negotiations with the Senate could be wrapped up that day, conceivably allowing a timely adjournment.

Sen. Jeff Brandes wasn’t counting on it.

“Monday — it’s my best guess. That’s my math,” Brandes said.

It takes 36 hours to prepare a compromise Appropriations Act for presentation to House members and senators, he said.

“It’s a complicated process, even once it’s all agreed to,” he said.

That would be in line with lobbyists’ scuttlebutt, according to one health care advocate. He predicted a budget deal would go to the members by Friday, giving them the weekend to review the bill.

Sen. Rob Bradley, who’s participating in negotiations over environmental spending, argued against selling legislative staff short.

“They have magical power to produce these bills quickly. It’s a complicated task, but it’s not impossible,” Bradley said.

A deal Tuesday would leave the House and Senate with the rest of the week to consider conforming bills, Corcoran said.

Asked which bills, apart from the budget, he’d be willing to consider if the Legislature extends, Corcoran said, “You can ask me that if we get there.”

What kind of overtime was he considering?

“We’re not. I told you, we’re hopeful we’ll get done,” Corcoran said.

“Last time I checked, I think every single conforming bill I’ve ever voted for was done on probably Wednesday, Thursday,” he told reporters.

The biggest hold-up was reimbursement levels for hospitals treating indigent patients under Medicaid, Corcoran said.

The Trump administration has promised enough money to, with a state match, provide $1.5 million for Florida’s Low Income Pool program, but House leaders want to see the money before they agree how to spend it.

Opioid-crackdown bill picks up potentially deadly amendment in Senate

The Senate adopted an amendment Tuesday easing mandatory-minimum prison sentences in a bill cracking down on trafficking in synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and carfentanil.

Senate President Joe Negron ruled that Sen. Randolph Bracy’s amendment had passed on a voice vote, following an impassioned debate touching on the drugs’ dangers and the damage minimum-mandatory sentencing has done to communities.

The amended legislation awaits a final vote.

“Man, this was one of my noncontroversial bills that I filed this session,” Senate sponsor Greg Steube said.

He said he was willing to address the sentencing issue with Bracy, but warned that the amendment would endanger his bill.

“Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than morphine. That’s what we’re talking about here,” Steube said.

“The other piece of this is, we’re in Tuesday of the last week in session, and if an amendment goes on, I don’t know if the House is going to be willing to take it up,” he said.

Bracy argued that defendants typically never knew they’d dealt in substances containing the targeted drugs.

“For us to send someone to prison for possibly 25 years, when they have no idea what is in this drug, I think is wrong,” he said.

HB 477 targets fentanyl and related substances that, when administered by themselves or in combination with other drugs, can prove deadly, for tougher sentencing. For example, it would add fentanyl and derivatives to the list of Schedule I drugs and provides that trafficking in them resulting in death constitutes murder.

Bracy’s amendment would give judges discretion to depart from minimum sentences. Under the original language, for example, possession of less than 14 grams of fentanyl would bring at least three years in prison; up to 28 grams would bring 15; and and 28 or more grams would bring 25.

Bracy said he’d agreed to hear the bill in his Criminal Justice Committee contingent on giving judges sentencing discretion.

But Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said he’d reinstated the mandatory penalties in his own committee, citing the seriousness of Florida’s opioid crisis.

Support for the amendment crossed party lines. Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes argued that judges need the same discretion in sentencing prosecutors hold in charging drug crimes.

“We’re not asking for anything radical,” Brandes said. “We’re asking for something that people do every day as prosecutors, to give that same exact authority to judges who are independent third parties who are supposed to oversee this process and make sure that travesties of justice don’t occur.”

A number of senators said they’d changed their minds about the wisdom of mandatory-minimum sentencing, including Democrat Darryl Rouson and Republican Rene Garcia. “Drug addition shouldn’t be a crime. It’s an illness,” Garcia said.

“I do trust our judges,” Sen. Kelli Stargel said, arguing against the amendment, but “this drug is killing people.”

Joe Negron sees ‘good progress’ toward budget deal as session enters final week

Senate President Joe Negron held out hope Monday evening that he and House Speaker Richard Corcoran could resolve lingering disagreements about the state budget in time to present a bill Tuesday and adjourn as scheduled on Friday.

“I know there was some real good progress made today on a number of issues, particularly in the environmental budget. If we work diligently through the rest of the afternoon and evening, I’m still optimistic that we can get it done,” Negron told reporters following Monday’s floor session.

“I think it’s more important to get it done right than to get it done quickly,” he said. “But my goal is to be able to have a budget on the desk sometime tomorrow.”

As of 5:30, no public budget negotiations had been formally noticed.

Monday was marked by progress on a number of levels.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committee chairmen — Carlos Trujillo and Jack Latvala — kicked unresolved differences to Negron and Corcoran Sunday but continued to negotiate with each other as the formal work week opened.

“There’s still significant involvement by both Appropriations chairs, in particular, but also the sub-chairs. They know their budgets the best,” Negron said.

Meanwhile, must-pass legislation advanced in Senate committee and on the floor. That included a $75 million tax package and a homestead exemption increase.

The House had demanded the latter proposal as a condition to expanding gambling options, as the Senate wants to do. The gambling bill could provide millions for state programs, Negron said.

“The budget that we have is a strong budget, but I think it could be even better if we have a couple hundred million dollars to consider expanding the tax package,” Negron said. “We could even put some of it into increasing our reserves — and I know that was a strong position of the House, to have reserves.”

The House-Senate compromise tax package falls far short of the $618 million in breaks proposed by Gov. Rick Scott.

“We funded what we think is appropriate based on the revenues that we have,” Negron said.

Homestead exemption expansion wins supermajority vote in Senate

The Senate approved a proposed ballot measure Monday to raise the value of Florida’s homestead exemption, improving chances that separate legislation to expand gambling would survive the Legislative Session.

The vote was 28-10, within the required three-fifths majority.

House leaders, who have been reluctant to open Florida to additional gambling options, have made approval of legislation to do that contingent on passage of the homestead exemption increase.

Several senators referred to those stakes, but sponsor Tom Lee maintained that the resolution was about keeping people in their homes.

“Let’s respect property rights. Let’s give the people the opportunity to make this decision,” Lee said. “They will make the right call.”

Amendments to scale back the increase to $12,500, to let county commissions opt out, and to shift the effective date to 2022, failed on voice votes.

HJR 7105 would raise Florida’s homestead exemption to $75,000 on property values of as much as $125,000, effective Jan. 1, 2019.

The increase would not apply to school taxes. And it would be subject to approval by at least 60 percent of Florida voters.

A companion measure, HB 7107, would shield financially strapped small counties by promising state money to backfill any losses in revenue.

The Senate language would cost $644 million. The original House version was priced at nearly $795 million.

Opponents argued that Florida already is a low-tax state, and that raising the exemption would force local governments either to raise tax rates or cut back services, especially to lower-income Floridians. Renters would pay more, too, they said.

“If we think that we need to cut taxes … why don’t we just do it, instead of pushing it off on local officials and then blaming them with they increase the tax rate?” Sen. Jeff Clemens said.

Sen. Gary Farmer complained that no a committee of substance ever studied the wisdom of the proposal. Rather, it was rushed through the Rules Committee last week.

“I know we’re toward the end of the session, and things start getting a little funky,” Farmer said.

“I think it’s hard for us to fully understand the fairness of this change when the issue has not been fully vetted though the committee process,” he said.

Sen. Perry Thurston said every local official in his Broward County district opposed the rollback. “This is going to pass if we approve it. But who’s it going to hurt?” he said.

Sen. Denise Grimsley expressed reservations about the potential for budget cuts for police, firefighters, and other first responders, but concluded the voters would make the right decision.

While conceding the potential for harm, Sen. Darryl Rouson expressed faith in the voters.

“I expect to take some heat,” he said. But he offered: “Strip every project I have from the budget. It’s not about the projects. It’s about a fundamental belief that do the people deserve the right to speak.”

“They will figure it out. And I trust whatever decision they’re going to make,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson.

Lee said it wasn’t true that the bill was never heard in a committee of substance — the Community Affairs Committee debated it on March 22.

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