News Service Of Florida, Author at Florida Politics

News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

Money could go to trauma centers after mass shootings

Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon wants to create a $10 million program that would reimburse trauma centers for care provided to victims of mass shootings, and Senate President Joe Negron said he will support the effort.

Braynon wants to create a fund in the Attorney General’s Office, with money coming from a portion of fees collected from new or renewed concealed-weapons licenses. The program would reimburse trauma centers that treat victims of mass shootings, such as the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 people dead.

Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat, initially wanted to attach the proposal to a bill (SB 1876) that is a carefully constructed deal that could end years of litigation between hospital systems about approval of trauma centers. But Braynon withdrew a proposed amendment to the bill Thursday, saying the proposal could be included in gun policies the Senate will consider in the coming weeks and that he didn’t want to affect what he called the “tenuous” trauma bill.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, said earlier in the day he supported Braynon’s efforts but didn’t want to include a funding request in a bill that focused on trauma center regulation.

The Legislature has wrangled for years over whether to continue with current trauma-system regulations or to allow a more competitive environment that would increase the number of trauma facilities.

The legislation moving ahead is a compromise between long-standing trauma providers and the for-profit HCA Healthcare, which has sought in recent years to open trauma centers at many of its hospitals. The House is advancing similar legislation.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, an Orange Park Republican, thanked Braynon for understanding that the trauma compromise “deals with so many issues that all of us, Republicans and Democrats agree” should occur.

The Appropriations Committee voted 17-3 to approve the bill, with opposition from Braynon, Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, and Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican.

Negron told reporters earlier in the day he met with two Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who sustained grievous injuries but had survived because of the quality of the care they received following the shooting.

“I am very impressed and gratified by the incredible quality of our trauma units, our surgeons, what they’ve been able to do to save lives, which they’ve done,” Negron said when asked whether he supports Braynon’s request.

“Those kinds of heroic efforts should certainly be rewarded because they are extremely expensive but worthwhile,” Negron said.

The school attack was the fourth mass shooting in Florida in the past 20 months where trauma centers were activated.

Following the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, for example, Orlando Regional Medical Center treated 35 patients at its trauma center.

Lee Memorial Hospital activated its mass-casualty trauma team in response to a shooting at Fort Myers’ Club Blu in July 2016, and Broward Medical Center activated its mass-casualty team in response to the January 2017 mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

The overall trauma bill drew some concerns Thursday, including about how Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami wouldn’t get a pediatric trauma center under the deal.

But bill sponsor Dana Young, a Tampa Republican, said the bill provides “much needed certainty that we need to make sure that excellent level of care is available as we move forward as a state as we grow.”

Local governments wary of House tax package

A $350 million tax package moved forward Thursday in the House, but local governments are fighting parts of the bill that they say could lift restrictions on “puppy mills” and adult entertainment establishments.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 18-7 to advance the wide-ranging package (HB 7087), which includes offering sales-tax “holidays,” providing some post-Hurricane Irma tax relief and reducing a commercial lease tax.

The package has run into controversy as city and county officials object to what they consider overly broad preemption language that would prohibit local bans on the sales of any goods subject to sales taxes.

Edward Labrador, a lobbyist for Broward County, said preemptions typically are designed to address a specific issue and noted the House proposal would have tied Broward’s hands in the past when it outlawed synthetic drugs called “bath salts.”

“We acted before the state did, and if this provision had been in place, we wouldn’t have been able to deal with that issue,” Labrador said.

Amber Hughes, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, said the recently introduced preemption language raises too many questions, ranging from how it would impact local prohibitions on adult entertainment establishments to how scooters are rented.

“If we want to have an individual conversation about different preemptions, which I know we do pretty much every Session, we’d be happy to do that,” Hughes said. “But doing it in the tax package maybe is not the correct place.”

Kate MacFall, the Humane Society’s Florida state director, argued the measure would eliminate rules that about 60 governments have on pet-breeding facilities.

“If this were to pass, it would allow stores to source from inhumane breeders, puppy mills, that keep animals in conditions that pet-loving Floridians would find appalling and unacceptable,” MacFall said.

Some lawmakers said the package should be slowed until decisions are made about the Legislature’s intended response to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, along with related costs.

“Until we know what we’re doing the next three weeks, I’m not doing anything,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat and a graduate of the school where 17 people were killed.

Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican, expressed concerns about aspects of the preemption. But he said he was willing to work with bill sponsor Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, to tighten the language to address adult book stores and massage parlors.

“Being from a county in Central Florida, we’re very sensitive to the public-safety risks that come from human trafficking,” Brodeur said. “Our county has worked very hard to get these places out of our community. If this would blanket let them back in, I think it would undo about 15 years of work by our county.”

Renner, who is chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, defended the preemption language by saying the puppy mill issue illustrates the need for statewide regulations.

“If you have a situation where some cities have banned the sales of those types of puppies and others have not, you have not solved the problem,” Renner said. “You’ve not solved the problem for the puppies and you’ve not solve the problem for the residents of Florida. I think it, in fact, makes the case why in certain areas we need to look at statewide, and in some cases federal, preemption.”

Florida Retail Federation lobbyist Melissa Ramba also argued that local ordinances banning sales of select items create problems for business owners.

“Address the bigger problem, not the sale of cats and dogs. A retailer should be able to sell any legal retail product in Florida,” Ramba told the committee. “The ordinances that local governments pass only support online sales. They do not support your local business. You can still order a dog online and pick it up at the airport, even though you may have an ordinance that may ban the sale of cats and dogs.”

The overall tax package features a series of sales tax “holidays’ on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies and offers an 18 percent reduction in penalties for non-criminal traffic infractions — such as speeding within 30 mph over the posted limit — if motorists attend driver-improvement school.

Former State Rep. Irv Slosberg expressed concern that the 18 percent reduction in non-criminal traffic tickets would roll back some of the traffic-safety efforts he pushed while in the House.

“What we’re doing by lowering traffic fines by 18 percent, we’re really rewarding bad behavior,” said Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat.

Meanwhile, Democrats and public-school educators remain opposed to the largest part of the package, $154 million in sales-tax credits that businesses could take to fund voucher-like scholarships in the Gardiner Scholarship Program and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Critics contend the proposal would be a “giveaway” of public school dollars.

“For the first time, we’re going to give private schools a direct line to the sales tax, which makes up 78 percent of all general revenue,” said Rich Templin, legislative and political director of the Florida AFL-CIO.

Airport officials also continue to express displeasure with the package’s call to reduce the aviation fuel tax next year to 2.85 cents a gallon. Revenue from the tax is used to secure federal matching funds and helps pay for airport improvements.

The rate is currently scheduled to go down from 6.9 cents to 4.27 cents a gallon next year.

The package also includes a $6.7 million cut that would provide a sales-tax exemption for generator purchases by nursing homes and assisted living facilities. It also includes tax refunds on building materials, fencing and gas for farmers hit by Irma.

Another $34.1 million next year in the House package would come from reducing the commercial lease tax from 5.8 percent to 5.5 percent starting Jan. 1. That reduction would affect half of the state’s 2018-2019 fiscal year, and the savings to businesses would grow to $81.1 million when implemented for a full fiscal year.

Lawmakers seek more money for opioid epidemic

Two Democratic senators are pushing to increase by $25 million the amount of funding the Senate has committed to addressing the state’s opioid problems in the upcoming year.

Sen. Kevin Rader praised Senate leaders for proposing to spend $100 million on mental-health services and school-safety programs in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last week that left 17 people dead. But he said they also need to put more money into a plan to curb the opioid epidemic.

“It looks like we are finding a lot of mental health funding, and that’s great. And I absolutely, completely support it and it’s much needed,” said Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat whose district includes Parkland, where Marjory Stoneman Douglas High is located. “I hope in the next two weeks …. we can really put the money into the opioid funding to take an enormous bite out of this apple and really help Floridians who need it.”

Rader’s remarks came as the Legislature enters the last two weeks of the annual Legislative Session and prepares to go into budget negotiations. The Senate is earmarking about $53 million for a variety of programs for opioid treatment, outpatient care and case management, medically assisted treatment, and naloxone for emergency responders.

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, said Thursday he has spent “a long time talking” with Rader and Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, about the opioid epidemic, and he thinks the Legislature ultimately will increase funding from the current levels.

Rader is working closely with Rouson, who has drafted a plan that directs funding to a number of different areas. They include spending $2 million on an additional seven “bridge programs” between hospital emergency departments and community-based opioid programs, spending $2.9 million for evidence-based prevention and launching a statewide media campaign, similar to the state’s effective anti-smoking campaign.

The four-page draft obtained by The News Service of Florida contains handwritten notes with numbers by each of the ideas. The proposal marked No 1 is a request to increase funding to managing entities, which have contracts with the state to coordinate care regionally, by $3.1 million to provide housing options for people who suffer from both mental health and addiction issues and are frequently jailed or require emergency room services.

The proposal does not include additional funding beyond what already is targeted for medication-assisted treatment programs. Negron though, indicated that he would direct additional dollars toward medication-assisted treatment.

“I want to make sure the prevention is directly related to tangible items that we can measure rather than just diffuse dissemination of information, which I don’t think is effective,” Negron said.

Gov. Rick Scott in May 2017 declared a state of emergency due to the opioid crisis, fueled by an increasing number of deaths associated with the drugs. A state report shows that in 2016, Florida had 952 heroin deaths, 1,390 fentanyl-related deaths, 723 oxycodone-caused deaths and 245 hydrocodone-related deaths.

To try to address the issues, the House and Senate are considering bills (HB 21 and SB 8) that would limit physicians’ abilities to prescribe opioids. Also, the state Medicaid program announced last week that it is limiting prescriptions for narcotics to a maximum seven-day supply, unless a physician determines it is medically necessary to increase the prescription.

During a discussion in a Senate committee, Rader reminded Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairwoman Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, that she acknowledged earlier the Senate hasn’t gone far enough in its recommendations for the upcoming year.

“You said, and I didn’t put words in your mouth, that this is ‘woefully underfunded and needed hundreds of millions of dollars of help as well,’ “ Rader said to Flores during a Wednesday meeting. “We just can’t keep the eye off the ball.”

Payday loan bill ready for House floor

A heavily debated proposal that would change regulations for payday lenders continued moving forward Thursday and is ready to go to the House floor.

The House Commerce Committee approved the bill (HB 857), which would allow the businesses to make “installment” loans up to $1,000, with repayment over 60 to 90 days. Current law limits the high-interest loans to $500 for periods of seven to 31 days.

The Senate version of the proposal (SB 920) also has steadily moved through committees and will go to the Senate Rules Committee on Monday.

Supporters say the proposal was prompted by potential changes in federal regulations that could affect the types of smaller-dollar, shorter-term loans made by payday lenders in Florida. During debate, backers have focused on what they see as a need for payday loans because many people don’t have access to other sources of credit.

“I think these types of loans, certainly for my constituents, are very useful,” Commerce Committee member Bobby Payne, a Palatka Republican, said.

But the proposal has drawn opposition from some consumer-advocacy groups and credit unions, which argue that payday loans can lead to borrowers getting stuck in “debt traps.”

Lawmakers back move to revise tuition penalty

Florida lawmakers are moving closer to easing the financial penalty for university students who take more classes than they need to graduate.

The House Education Committee on Wednesday amended an “excess” credit hours bill (HB 565) to bring it in line with a Senate proposal (SB 844). The measure would give first-time-in-college students up to 12 extra hours, penalty free, if they graduate within four years after enrollment.

Under the current policy, which has been in place since 2012, university students who take more than 132 credit hours of classes for a major that typically only needs 120 credit hours face an excess hour surcharge. It means those extra classes result in students paying double the normal tuition, which averages more than $210 per credit hour at the major universities.

The House and Senate bills would let students who take up to 144 credit hours receive a refund for 12 credit hours if they graduate within four years.

“We should not be penalizing students who graduate on time,” said Rep. Amber Mariano, a Hudson Republican, before the House committee voted 18-0 for her bill, which now heads to the House floor.

Before the final vote, Mariano, who was elected last year while still a student at the University of Central Florida, supported an amendment that eliminated a provision allowing students earning degrees in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health disciplines to take up to 144 credit hours for a 120-hour degree program and avoid the surcharge.

The amendment narrowed the scope of the legislation as well as its fiscal impact. Analysts projected it would result in the loss of $2.4 million in tuition for the universities, with nearly 1,500 students avoiding the surcharge.

Mariano’s original bill would have resulted in a loss of more than $6 million in tuition and fees by including the technology and health majors.

Senate bill sponsor Aaron Bean said he and Mariano met and agreed to limit the financial scope of the legislation to give it a better chance of passing in the 2018 Session. Bean’s bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“There are no assurances. But we think it’s in a place where we can move forward,” Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, told The News Service of Florida. “It doesn’t fully tackle the problem. But it’s a bold step to acknowledge it.”

Bean and Mariano said the measure is aimed at easing the financial burden on students.

Bean said he has met with students who changed their majors but did not realize the impact it could have on their tuition rates as they neared graduation.

“Half of them don’t even know it until it hits them like a bucket of cold water,” Bean said. “If you’re paying by yourself, it’s a lot of money.”

Based on the 2015-16 academic year, more than one out of every four undergraduates earning four-year degrees paid the tuition surcharge for classes over the credit-hour limit, representing 13,550 of the 48,391 baccalaureate graduates, according to Board of Governors.

Bean said the legislation is not as ambitious as he and Mariano originally envisioned, but, if passed this session, “we can come back next year and move the needle a little bit further.”

Transmission line measure goes to Rick Scott

Trying to undo a 2016 court ruling in a case involving Florida Power & Light, the state Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that deals with approval of electric transmission lines.

The 34-4 vote by the Senate sends the bill (HB 405) to Gov. Rick Scott. The House voted 105-2 to approve the measure last month.

The issue stems from a 2016 ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal in a dispute involving local governments in Miami-Dade County and FPL about a proposed project that would add two nuclear reactors at the utility’s Turkey Point complex.

Scott and the state Cabinet approved the project in 2014 in their role as a state power-plant siting board.

But the appeals court overturned that decision, with a key part of the ruling saying Scott and Cabinet members erroneously determined they could not require underground transmission lines as a condition of the project approval.

Lee said the bill approved Wednesday would make changes that would effectively revert to an approval process that had been in place for decades before the court ruling. He said the changes are needed to make sure that transmission lines, which are crucial to power-plant projects, can be sited.

“Over the 45 years since 1973, every transmission line in this state has been sited and permitted under the process that we are reaffirming here in this legislation,” Lee said.

But Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, said the appeals court sided with local governments on issues related to land use and local regulations and urged senators to oppose the bill.

Rodriguez, Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, and Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, cast the dissenting votes.

House adds exceptions for opioid limits

People with cancer or terminal illnesses and certain trauma patients would be exempted from opioid-prescription limits being considered by lawmakers, under a bill approved Wednesday by a House health-care panel.

Members of the House Health & Human Services Committee unanimously approved the bill (HB 21) after tagging on a 161-page amendment. Bill sponsor Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican, said he worked with the Senate and Gov. Rick Scott’s office for the past three weeks on the amendment.

The amended bill would limit to three days opioid prescriptions for patients suffering from “acute pain,” which is defined as the “normal, predicted, physiological, and time-limited response to an adverse chemical, thermal, or mechanical stimulus associated with surgery, trauma, or acute illness.”

Physicians could prescribe up to seven-day opioid supplies if they determine three days would be inadequate. They would be required to write “acute pain exception” on the prescriptions.

Unlike an earlier version of the bill, the latest iteration includes exemptions from the limits for cancer patients, people who are terminally ill and those who are receiving palliative care. Trauma patients who meet certain criteria for severity of injuries also would be exempt from the limits.

Despite the changes, the bill continued to face concerns from doctors.

Florida Orthopaedic Society lobbyist Toni Large said orthopedic surgeons are aware of opioid abuse problems but maintain that the proposed fix goes “a step too far.”

Large said the House proposal would exempt certain trauma patients from the restrictions but wouldn’t provide a similar exemption for people who undergo scheduled “major surgery.”

“My orthopedic surgeons want you all to understand that when you go back after this bill passes that you are going to have patients and loved ones and constituents that we are no longer going be able to effectively manage their pain,” Large told the House committee. “And we don’t want you to vote on this bill today without us getting that message across.”

She also warned that requiring patients to go back to surgeons after seven days to get additional prescriptions could make it more difficult to see orthopedic surgeons.

“It’s hard for many of you sitting here to get an appointment with your orthopedic surgeon today, it’s going to be twice as hard after this bill is passed,” she said.

While the bill passed unanimously, several members of the committee had concerns with parts of the amendment.

Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican, said she was worried about the lack of an exemption for patients who have undergone surgery. She told the committee that if her husband would have been required to revisit the surgeon seven days following a procedure, she “would have had to get an ambulance.”

With the annual Legislative Session slated to end March 9, lawmakers and Scott have been trying to reach agreement on a plan to help stem an opioid epidemic that has led to widespread overdoses. Legislative proposals largely focus on trying to prevent addiction to prescribed painkillers, which can lead to people taking street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.

The House bill would require every physician registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and authorized to prescribe controlled substances to take a two-hour continuing education course.

Rep. Cary Pigman, an Avon Park Republican who is a physician, said the requirement was so broad that it would impact the 44,000 physicians who are licensed in the state.

Pigman also noted that the bill was specific about which organizations could offer the continuing education requirements.

Boyd said that only the Florida Medical Association and the Florida Osteopathic Medical Association would qualify to offer the courses under the amendment. Pigman, who has been at odds with the Florida Medical Association in the past for his support of bills that would increase the scope of practice for nurses, asked about the fiscal impact on physicians who would have to take the class every other year.

Pigman, who has taken continuing education courses from the organizations in the past, suggested that the associations charge members $100 for such courses and non-members $200.

“What we are saying is (the associations) will get revenue of $4.4 million to $8.8 million every two years, which is probably why they support this bill. So when we vote for it with this piece in it, that’s what we are voting for,” Pigman said.

Boyd denied that any “deal’ was made with either of the associations.

“This whole process is give and take, and those are things we just kind of negotiate along the way,” Boyd said. “It’s something that made sense to us when we did it.”

Florida Medical Association General Counsel Jeff Scott called Pigman’s assertions “absurd.”

“We have significant concerns with the bill,” Scott said adding that the organization believes the Legislature should address the opioid “crisis” but has concerns with the limitations being imposed.

Moreover, Scott said, despite Boyd’s comments, other medical groups qualify to offer the course.

As for Pigman’s claims about upward of $8.8 million in revenues, Scott said, “Pigman can do math all day long. He has no idea what’s going to be charged. We don’t either. We just saw the amendment, so we haven’t contemplated that.”

Mental health strategies sought in wake of massacre

Better integration of data, coordination of care and services and early screening and assessment were among recommendations a panel of mental health experts offered Tuesday at a workshop organized by Gov. Rick Scott in response to last week’s shooting rampage by a troubled 19-year-old that left 17 people — including 14 teenagers — dead.

Nikolas Cruz was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder after gunning down students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Cruz had a lengthy history of mental-health issues, and the FBI received at least two reports that he posed a threat to others.

In response to the mass shooting, Scott ordered workgroups focused on education, law enforcement and mental health, with the aim of proposing legislation before the annual 60-day Session ends March 9.

Lt. Gov. Carlos LopezCantera posed the first question at the meeting Tuesday about mental-health issues led by Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll.

“What is it about the young males in their development or external factors or media or society that drives them to do these unspeakable horrific things? Because It’s males. They’re doing it. And I haven’t heard anything about that,” Lopez-Cantera asked.

The experts said that just a fraction of mentally ill people — between 1 and 4 percent — become violent.

“The angry young men is a pretty big group, but we’re talking about a very small group that present a risk in our schools,” said child psychiatrist R. Scott Benson.

But Dean Aufderheide, director of mental health services for the Florida Department of Corrections, said sociopaths need to be identified through screening before they can commit heinous crimes like the Parkland massacre.

“Who are these people? People who tend to have no empathy. No remorse. No guilt,” Aufderheide, a psychologist, said.

Telltale behaviors include isolation, alienation, ostracization, escape and anger, Aufderheide said.

“If you don’t measure for this… to identify these traits you’re doing a disservice,” he said.

But Florida State University College of Medicine professor Heather Flynn warned against contributing to the stigma of mental illness.

“We have to be careful not to inadvertently contribute to the notion that people with mental illness are dangerous. That’s something we’ve been trying to get away from for all these decades and centuries,” Flynn, a clinical psychologist, said.

Carroll, too, was cautious about branding children with mental-health issues.

“How do you integrate that (assessment) into a school system but do it in a way that’s positive, that doesn’t ostracize or target kids?” he asked. “Parents don’t want their kids labeled. Parents don’t want their kids ostracized. Parents don’t want their kids put in some other group. Because we do that.”

Early intervention and identification is critical, several experts said.

“When they reach high school, there are so many other factors that have contributed to them not wanting to be in school, dropping out and having resentment. There are all these different factors that eventually lead to something that kind of becomes out of control,” child psychiatrist Bhagi Sahasranaman said.

The experts all agreed that delivery of services, as well as the identification of families and children who may be at risk, are fragmented.

Paying for treatment is also problematic because the state doesn’t spend enough on mental health treatment. Also, services that aren’t “face-to-face,” such as psychiatrists calling parents to discuss their children, aren’t reimbursed by Medicaid.

Mary Armstrong, executive director of the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida, suggested that caseworkers, parents and others need to “all be in the room” together to share information about children with mental-health problems.

“Funding’s a huge issue. But it’s structural,” Armstrong said. “It’s broken. It’s got to be put back together. … That, to me, it’s disturbing. And we can fix that. We don’t need new resources. We can fix that.”

Early identification and intervention, even for pregnant mothers, could help steer services to families before children begin to act out, according to clinical psychologist Heather Flynn, a professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine.

“You can predict pretty well which families will have this forward trajectory even before the child is born,” Flynn said, saying that behavioral health and physical health need to be combined.

But identifying and treating every would-be school shooter like Cruz may not put an end to tragedies like the one last week in Parkland, Carroll conceded.

“It is very difficult to develop targeted assessments that are going to be 100 percent foolproof,” Carroll said in an interview during a lunch break.

That’s why the workgroup is working on broader strategies, the secretary said.

“You’ve got to lift the level of water in the tank, because if we get involved with kids earlier and we can get them treatment, hopefully less kids end up at that place and you have less of a chance of going down this avenue,” he said.

Early assessments can significantly cut down the possibilities of people like Cruz committing similar atrocities, Carroll said.

“We are in the people-helping-people business. So we do the best we can with people, but people do things sometimes that you just can’t explain, that are unspeakable,” he said.

Help for farmers advancing in Senate

Farmers and other parts of Florida’s agriculture industry could receive about $75 million in post-Hurricane Irma assistance from the state next year under a measure moving forward in the Senate.

The Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday unanimously backed the proposal (SB 1608) by Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican. The proposal, in part, would reduce property assessments on certain enclosed horticultural structures and offer tax refunds on materials used for construction of farm buildings and fences.

“We know from practice that ag typically needs a lot longer to recover from a disaster like Irma than most industries, especially when it comes to moving materials and products,” said Grimsley, who is running for state agriculture commissioner this year.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has estimated that Irma inflicted $2.5 billion in losses on the state’s agriculture industry.

The bulk of relief for the industry is expected to come from a federal spending bill that Congress approved this month. The bill includes nearly $90 billion for disaster relief, with $2.36 billion aimed at assisting the agriculture industry for losses from Hurricane Irma in Florida, Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Grimsley’s measure is moving as the Senate continues to put together a tax package that will have to be negotiated with the House over the next couple of weeks. The annual Legislative Session ends March 9.

The House has included several measures for the agricultural industry as part of an approximately $350 million tax package (HB 7087), which was approved by the House Ways & Means Committee last week.

The wide-ranging House package includes tax refunds on building materials, fencing and gas for farmers. Also, it includes a fuel tax refund on agricultural transportation and a tax break on citrus processing facilities that have been idled by Irma or by the industry’s fight against citrus greening disease.

The citrus industry is down 80 percent from its peak production years in the mid-1990s and faces a projected 33 percent reduction from last year’s harvest. It has been battling citrus greening for a decade and then was slammed by Irma, including in major citrus areas of Southwest Florida.

An amendment Grimsley made to her bill Tuesday would set aside $5 million for the Florida Agriculture Promotion Campaign within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to expand initiatives promoting state agricultural products.

Before the promotional money was added, the state Revenue Estimating Conference estimated the package would cut state revenue by $59.5 million next fiscal year, with local governments facing a combined $15.4 million loss. The savings to taxpayers would fall to a combined $36.7 million a year thereafter.

Senate diverges from House on tax ‘supermajority’

In an issue that could be part of the mix of end-of-session negotiations, a Senate panel Tuesday approved a proposal that would make it harder to raise taxes — but didn’t go as far as House leaders and Gov. Rick Scott want.

The House last month overwhelmingly approved a proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 7001) that would require two-thirds votes of both legislative chambers to raise taxes or fees in the future, up from the usual majority votes.

But the Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee took up the measure Tuesday and effectively replaced it with a Senate proposal that would require three-fifths votes of both legislative chambers — an easier standard to meet than two-thirds — to raise taxes. The Senate proposal, among other things, also would not require such “supermajority” votes to raise fees.

Senate Finance and Tax Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, pointed to potentially wide definitions of fees that could apply to such things as college tuition and amounts charged to state employees for their health insurance.

“Fees was rather broad, so we have decided not to include fees in the Senate proposal,” Stargel said.

In the closing weeks of legislative sessions, it is common for the House and Senate to take differing positions on priorities of legislative leaders. Those issues then become part of the deal-making that helps end the Session.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, and Scott have pushed for the proposal to require two-thirds legislative votes to raise taxes or fees. The 60-day Legislative Session is scheduled to end March 9. If the House and Senate can reach agreement on the proposed constitutional amendment, the issue would go on the November ballot for voters to decide.

While the Republican-dominated House and Senate differ on the details of the proposal at this point, they appear to agree on the direction of making it harder to raise taxes. But many Democrats and groups such as the Florida AFL-CIO oppose the idea, as was evident in a 4-2 party-line vote Tuesday in the Senate subcommittee.

Opponents said, in part, that Florida is already a low-tax state and that the proposal could make it harder to meet future needs. Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, pointed to a need to address climate change and sea-level rise.

“If we are barely, if at all, taking any action, why would we, before we even start taking action to address these critical long-term needs, hamstring future legislatures on being able to address that and other critical needs that are going to be coming down in the future?” Rodriguez asked.

While the Senate plan wouldn’t go as far as the House, Stargel said it “does maintain the goal of a supermajority” vote.

“The goal of this bill is the same of my ideology, and I believe some (others), which is to require a supermajority if you are going to raise the cost of doing business in the state of Florida on the citizens of the state of Florida,” she said.

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