Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 7 of 41

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.

Tax breaks clear Senate Appropriations as session enters final scheduled week

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved some $75 million in tax breaks Monday, including repeal of Florida’s tampon tax, that would be central to passing an $83 billion budget and ending the Legislative Session on time Friday.

The committee also approved across-the-board pay raises for state workers, with extra money for high-risk employees, plus an option to participate in a defined-contribution retirement plan instead of a traditional pension.

“I am pleased to see a tax package advance to the Senate floor that incorporates several ideas promoted by the Senate throughout the 2017 Legislative Session,” Senate President Joe Negron said in a written statement.

“This tax relief package continues our commitment to reducing the tax burden facing Florida families and businesses in a broad-based and meaningful way.”

The package would reduce the sales tax on commercial leases from the existing 6 percent to 5.8 percent — not eliminate it entirely, as Gov. Rick Scott wanted.

It would provide a three-day sales tax holiday for back-to-school purchases, and exempt feminine hygiene products, construction materials for projects in rural areas of opportunity, and health products for agriculture and aquaculture.

It also would provide tax breaks to encourage construction of large data centers, and to encourage construction of low-income housing.

The House approved some $300 million in tax breaks and holidays, but would go along with the Senate version, Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said.

“I believe that’s an agreed-upon bill,” he said. “I think all together that’s $75 or $80 million.”

Associated Industries of Florida praised passage of the tax bill.

“AIF supports reducing taxes, such as the business rent tax, to attract new businesses to the Sunshine State,” president and CEO Tom Feeney said in a written statement.

“With Florida being the only state in the nation to charge taxes on the lease of commercial property, AIF supports a gradual reduction and eventual elimination of the business rent tax to the benefit of Florida small and large businesses,” he said.

 

Union representatives argued against the retirement fund shift, which the committee amended onto a bill creating a legal presumption that cancers common to firefighters are work-related.

Workers would have nine months to choose, and could change their minds later. The same amendment would let state workers chose among a three-tier health insurance options

Latvala suggested they were foolish to oppose the measure.

“Did my irritation come through there?” Latvala asked reporters later.

“There’s nobody that’s fought harder for our public employees in Florida for the past seven years than I have. I think it’s ridiculous for them to fight because people are too slow to fill out a form in nine months. That’s not my problem. That’s their problem.”

But might the shift open the possibility of undermining pension guarantees in the future?

“I think it’s irresponsible to even say that. There’s no indication of that. It’s not going to happen next year — I can assure you. Maybe not for the next eight years. Read into that what you will.”

Big budget questions headed to House and Senate presiding officers

House and Senate negotiators agreed on $40 million in water projects and a $23 million higher education budget Sunday, but major decisions on charter schools, Lake Okeechobee restoration, and more remained unsettled.

Carlos Trujillo and Jack Latvala, respectively the House and Senate budget chairmen, made progress during what Latvala said would be their last meeting — although Trujillo said they’d meet once more, possibly on Monday morning.

“We are going to have another conference committee only for the conforming bills,” Trujillo told reporters. “It’ll happen within the next 48 hours at the latest.”

The chambers must wait three days to vote on a budget bill, but conforming bills require only 24 hours’ rest, he said. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Friday.

Regardless, clearly major policy and spending questions involving health care, the environment, school construction, criminal justice, and more will fall to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

“Ag and environment is one that we have a lot of work to do. In our subcommittees, we really struggled on that one,” Trujillo said.

And the public might not know what the big decisions are until the presiding officers reach deals and present the final bill.

“Just like any issues that bump, it will ultimately be laid on the desk,” Trujillo said.

“It’ll be laid on for 72 hours. Members will be able to debate and, ultimately, vote on the budget.”

Budget conferees spent the weekend wheeling and dealing. See here, here, and here.

Sen. Rob Bradley, chairman of the environmental budget subcommittee, emphasized the conference process’ accomplishments.

“We’ve resolved the water projects, which is obviously something that’s very important to a lot of the members. So, that was a big step forward in that area of the budget, to resolve that dispute between the two sides today. Everybody’s happy and we move on to the rest of the budget,” Bradley said.

Conferees bump university foundation-control question to budget chairmen

House and Senate higher education conferees agreed Saturday to trim cuts to developmental education programs at state colleges, but sent a disagreement about control of state university support foundations up the chain of command.

Lead Senate negotiator Bill Galvano indicated at one point during an afternoon meeting that the developmental spending might have to be referred to the House and Senate appropriations committee chairmen — Carlos Trujillo and Jack Latvala, respectively.

But House negotiator Larry Ahern agreed to a Senate offer to reduce the cut by $30.2 million. The original Senate budget would have cut around $90 million.

Developmental programs are intended to help nontraditional students cope in the classroom.

The foundations — also known as direct support organizations, or DSOs — were another matter.

“The House has its DSO position, and we are not going to the House position on it. That’s something that the big chairs are going to have to discuss and figure out. We just left it open,” Galvano said.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran entered the budget process intent on exerting control over the foundations, including opening more of their books to public scrutiny.

The committee didn’t reach formal agreement on the foundation policy bill, HB 5601, or on SB 374, spelling out the Senate’s reorganization of the state college system.

“They’re not necessarily bumped. Those policy issues are really not in controversy,” Galvano said.

Attendance by conferees during the meeting had declined markedly since negotiations opened on Thursday — “more and more as we closed out issues,” Galvano said.

“I think we had one of the more cohesive budget conferences. A lot of these big issues were Fourth Floor issues” — of interest to the presiding officers — “and have been around in both chambers. So when we came together, there was not as much to fight over,” he said.

House, Senate moving closer on civil and criminal justice spending

The main things separating the House and Senate on civil and criminal justice spending is whittling down Senate member projects and construction costs in the juvenile justice and prison systems.

That’s according to Rep. Bill Hager, the lead House negotiator, speaking following a conference subcommittee hearing Saturday morning.

“These are really not sticking points. It’s really the philosophical difference,” Hager said.

The talks opened with a $200 million gap between the House and Senate positions — the former intending to spend $4.8 billion, the latter $5 billion.

“The Senate proposed budget was substantially higher that the House. They’ve come down. We’ve shown goodwill — we’ve come up on some issues,” Hager said.

He figured the next meeting, sometime late morning, would resolve “90, 95 percent” of the remaining differences.

“It’s been hard to get to their numbers in the House, but we’re getting there,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, sitting in for Sen. Aaron Bean as lead Senate negotiator while other business occupied Bean.

Both sides agree that Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala should have fewer prosecutor slots, since she’s vowed never to seek the death penalty, although the Senate started out with a smaller cut, designed to shield Ayala’s human trafficking program — $622,000, compared to $1.3 million in the House, representing 21 positions.

“It’s not a cut of positions; it’s an allocation of positions consistent with work. It needs to be articulated that way, because that’s what it is,” Hager said.

The meeting was the occasion of rare public comment when Jack Cory, lobbyist for the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, told conferees of the complicated administrative process grant recipients must go through to get paid.

Legislative leaders have stressed that conference meetings would offer opportunities for public participation but, thus far this year, there have been few takers.

“Talking with the members, I think there’s been some misunderstanding that mentoring programs, juvenile prevention programs, and in fact many of the programs that you all have funded, that on the first of July the state writes us a check and pats us on the head and we just go our way. Nothing can be further from the truth,” Cory said.

In fact, oversight is such that his clubs were reimbursed for July 2016 expenses only on Oct. 1, he said, following multiple levels of oversight.

“As chairman of Government Oversight and Accountability, I’m encouraged we have that much accountability,” Baxley said.

PreK-12 conference eyes paltry per-student spending hike, with supplements

House and Senate negotiators have agreed on per-student spending in the PreK-12 education budget — and it wouldn’t go up much compared to existing spending.

The Senate side on Friday accepted the House call for 1.2 percent increase — to about $7,220.

The conferees were still talking about how much to spend on the House’s “Schools of Hope” charter school program and the Best and Brightest bonus program for top teachers.

Lead House negotiator Manny Diaz said the per-student increase would be supplemented by the charter school and teacher bonus investments. Each would attract around $200 million, but the details could change.

“It’s been our theme from the very beginning that we’re going to laser target those students in high-need areas,” Diaz said. “You have to look at it as a whole. The FEFP (ie: per-student spending) doesn’t tell the whole story.”

“To not count that in the investment in education is not correct,” Senate negotiator David Simmons agreed.

“We’re headed in the right direction, and we’re making the emphasis where emphasis needs to be made,” he said.

House warms to Joe Negron’s ambitious higher education agenda

House negotiators gave ground toward Senate President Joe Negron’s ambitious plan to bolster Florida’s state colleges and universities Friday.

They accepted a series of spending amounts for specific programs.

“Tuition assistance was real big in our offer,” House negotiator Larry Ahern said.

“We’ve moved to a lot of the Senate positions. We concur with a lot of the student assistance, to continue to lower the debt that students might acquire through the college and university experience.”

That means more than $715 million for various financial aid programs, including textbook assistance for Bright Future scholars — who qualified for aid based on academic achievement.

The House also accepted the Senate position on community colleges. CS/CS/SB 375, the proposed College Competitiveness Act, would revamp their governing structure and re-emphasize two-year programs.

“It’s something the Senate president thinks is important and the speaker concurs with,” Ahern said.

The Senate offered a raft of compromises on proviso language.

“Nothing overly substantive — just to start matching up with some of the funding line items,” Senate negotiator Bill Galvano said. “We didn’t get into the meat of, like, SB 374, those kind of things.”

Homestead exemption boost moves from Rules Committee to full Senate

The Senate debated Friday whether to raise Florida’s homestead exemption to $75,000 on property values of as much as $125,000 — a key to the chamber’s budget compromise with the House, but bitterly opposed by local governments.

The increase would be subject to approval by Florida voters, but is a high priority for House leaders, and represents a major give by Senate leaders in the interest of compromise on a budget for next fiscal year.

The debate on HJR 7105 set the measure up for a final floor vote, and followed its approval in committee on a vote of 9-2.

Sen. Jeff Clemens asked sponsor Tom Lee whether it wasn’t unusual to take up a bill in committee and on the floor on the same day.

“The abnormalities that occur in the Legislative Session, they all occur in the eighth or ninth week,” Lee said. “It’s not abnormal for the eighth or ninth week.”

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

The House version of the legislation was priced at nearly $795 million. The Senate language reduces that to $644 million.

Some senators, mostly Democrats, worried about the hit to local government coffers.

That led Sen. Dennis Baxley to wonder: “Whose money is this and what’s the fiscal impact on them?”

Lee replied that many local government representatives spoke against the measure in committee, but “I didn’t see anyone’s constituents in there.”

Sens. Perry Thurston and Oscar Braynon voted “No” in committee.

“When we do these politically motivated cuts — things that sound great in a sound bite, or maybe make certain organizations happy — we don’t think about the real, legit consequences of it,” Democratic leader Oscar Braynon argued.

“I can’t in good conscience vote for this,” he said.

“I look on this more as an opportunity to do a broad-based tax cut that is directed at the middle class, and that will apply as equally as possible throughout the state of Florida — but recognizing that special designation of fiscally constrained counties,” Lee said in committee.

Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson argued the proposal would subvert home rule and undermine finances for local governments still recovering from the Great Recession.

“Your citizens are not asking for less services,” Robinson said.

“I get it — I understand that this is a good political bill. But it is not good government,” he said.

Sen. Rob Bradley asked the local government representatives in committee to declare their millage rates. Many were below the legal limit, and theoretically could raise tax rates.

Critics argued that would still burden local governments.

“I do not see this as a tax increase. I see this as a tax shift,” said Ralph Thomas, chairman of the Wakulla County Commission.

“Claiming a tax decrease by taking money away from the local community is like claiming to lower calories by taking away someone else’s lunch,” Thomas said.

“If you put it on the ballot, it will pass. Because people vote for what they want. And, of course, everybody always wants a tax cut,” said Eddy Labrador, intergovernmental affairs director for Broward County.

“But those things have impact, and we can’t ignore that. This is going to have significant impact for the people of Broward County.”

“The state government has been reducing recurring revenue every year since 2013. Now you are forcing local governments to reduce revenues in the same way. Working families will suffer,” said Rich Templin, lobbyist for the AFL-CIO.

Environment and natural resources conferees go light on details

If you can read a spreadsheet, you might be able to figure out the offer the House made Friday morning on the agriculture, environment, and natural resources budget.

If you can’t — well, lead House conferee Ben Albritton wasn’t willing to explain it to you.

Albritton distributed a spreadsheet listing the House position, but declined to discuss it. Even when asked by Rep. Loranne Ausley.

Sen. Rob Bradley, chairing the hearing, conferred with Albritton — inaudibly, to the audience — then announced:

“We’re not going to do that publicly at this time. The document reflects the two sides. This is a public document.”

Bradley added: “At our next gathering, we can have a discussion about the remaining differences. But at this time, we’re not going to do that.”

Albritton did offer that the line items for specific House changes had been highlighted. They included agreement with the Senate on items including citrus greening research and sea turtle restoration.

Following the meeting, Albritton and Bradley exited through a rear door.

“I’ve been here before. This is not the way it’s been done in the past,” said Ausley, who returned to the Legislature last year following a hiatus.

“The speaker started this session saying this was going to be the most transparent session ever. This process, to me, is not transparent,” she said.

“I’ve been going to the other conference meetings, and they’ve been going line by line. Last night, we got a sheet, so I thought today we’d at least get more information. It’s helpful to the public to go through this as well,” she added.

“It remains to be determined whether supporting this is in the best interest of the people of Florida. I don’t know, because we don’t have enough information at this point,” Ausley continued.

“It’s clear that a lot of decisions have been made not in these rooms. It would be helpful to the public and to those of us who are ultimately going to make decisions to know what the background is, and what’s going on with all these things that are important.”

Senate offers to cull $21 million in projects as higher ed conference opens

Sen. Bill Galvano delivered the bad news first as the House and Senate opened conference negotiations on higher education spending Thursday evening.

The Senate would have to cut at least $21 million in projects from its version of the budget to reach the level agreed upon with the House, he said.

“Many of you on this conference committee, as well as advocates for your positions in the audience, have what we traditionally call placeholders, in the hopes that somehow these placeholders will find additional dollars as the process goes on,” Galvano said.

“I just want to manage expectations in that regard. Because when you are starting with a significant reduction, it’s highly unlikely that a placeholder is going to move in the upward direction, as opposed to either staying where it is or in a downward direction.”

The higher education conference subcommittee was among the first to meet after Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced how much each subcommittee would have to play with, and who would serve on those panels, earlier in the day.

The panel has $7.8 billion to spend.

Galvano, serving as chairman of the higher ed conference, made the Senate’s first offer; Rep. Larry Ahern, the vice chairman, was expected to present a counter-offer around 8:30 Friday morning.

“The gist of what the Senate is proposing, with regard to projects, is a significant reduction — a $21 million reduction,” Galvano said.

“The other two big takeaways are the mitigation of the developmental ed funding in the college system, as well as the restoration of the performance funding in the state college system.”

Meaning the final budget won’t hurt the 28-member state college system as badly as expected.

About those projects — the Senate had voted to spend $71 million on them.

Galvano expected similar bad news for House projects.

“For sure, for sure. We’ve got to get where it balances out and move on. We had the difficult exercise of being the offerer in a budget scenario where our allocation required us to start by negotiating against ourselves. It should get easier for us here. Maybe not so much for the House.”

Ahern thought the opening meeting went well.

“It all has to start somewhere. We were able to come together and agree that this is a good place for both of us to get started. It looks like a pretty good offer at first blush — at least something we can work with.”

Rick Scott’s demand for budget priorities leaves Carlos Trujillo unfazed

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo did not appear especially intimidated by Gov. Rick Scott’s tough talk on the state budget Thursday evening.

That $200 million Scott seeks to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike, for example? Not likely.

“That showed up about a week ago, and we’d already gone a far way down the road as far as crafting our budget,” Trujillo told reporters.

“It’s something I wish had been included in the original budget, and its something I wish we would have had an opportunity to discuss and debate early on as we crafted our own budgets,” he said.

“I think there’s merit in doing it. I don’t there’s merit in ever lending the federal government $200 million that they should be responsible for.”

Trujillo sees no need to build a veto-proof majority.

“We just have to pass a budget. If he vetoes it or he doesn’t veto it, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

He believes House Democrats “have had a meaningful seat at the table the entire time,” and have supported key House spending priorities.

“You look at our House budget — in committee, only two Democrats voted against it. On the floor, we had a substantial amount of Democrats vote for it — much more than a veto-proof majority.”

House and Senate leaders finally reached agreement in principle Thursday on an $83 billion state budget for next fiscal year, and put conference committees to work on refining the deal.

Scott all but demanded his way on his own priorities — also including boosting Visit Florida’s funding to $100 million, and providing business incentives money for Enterprise Florida.

The House-Senate budget deal provides about $25 million for Visit Florida and no incentives money for Enterprise Florida, although that agency would be allowed to live.

Scott figures the Legislature can afford his projects because of the $1.5 billion in Low Income Pool, or LIP, money promised by the Trump administration to reimburse hospitals for charity care.

Neither of the House or Senate plan on spending close to that amount for the care. Still, Trujillo was reluctant to spend the federal money before it’s in hand.

“We’re still waiting for the terms and conditions before we can figure out how much we can actually use,” he said.

“We are including the money, but it’s outside of the budget. We will appropriate it depending on the terms and conditions” imposed by the Trump administration. He was still negotiating how to handle the matter with Senate budget chief Jack Latvala.

Regarding Lake Okeechobee, the House does plan to take up SB 10, Senate President Joe Negron’s $1.5 billion restoration plan, which would not pay for the repairs to the dike around the lake.

“We’re making a lot of progress in getting that passed in our chamber,” Trujillo said of the overall Lake O plan. “I don’t know if we’ve agreed to bond, but we’ve agreed in concept to the policy.”

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