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House panel votes to raise the bar for proposed constitutional amendments

A lively debate on governing principles broke out Thursday as a House committee voted unanimously to ask the voters to raise the threshold for amending the Florida Constitution.

HJR 321 would require approval by 66 2/3 percent of the voters to change the state’s foundational document. At present, that requires 60 percent approval.

Sponsor Rick Roth, a freshman Republican from Loxahatchee, acknowledged his proposal would make it harder to change Florida’s basic law.

“I watch politics very closely, and have for 30 years, and it seems like it’s becoming, more and more, who has the money to put something on the ballot,” he said following the 14-0 vote by the Oversight, Transparency, & Administration Subcommittee.

“This is a great opportunity for debate, actually,” Roth said.

As his proposal advances through the legislative and, potentially, electoral process, “people will become more informed, I hope, of what kind of government we have and how important the Constitution is,” he said.

The proposal advances to the Rules & Policy and full Government Accountability committees. There’s a Senate companion bill — SJR 866 by Dennis Baxley.

The change would go to the voters in 2018 if approved by three-fifths of the House and Senate. Of course, more than 60 percent of the voters would have to agree to raise the bar against themselves.

Critics argued the measure would weaken voters’ control over government.

“Why are we continuing to make it harder for our citizens to get something on the ballot in Florida?” wondered Kelly Quintero, of the Florida League of Women Voters.

“We have the most stringent citizens’ initiative in the United States,” said Gail Marie Perry, of the Communications Workers of America.

Medical marijuana activist Melissa Villar called the proposal “an affront to democracy.”

In fact, the medical marijuana initiative on last year’s ballot would have met the proposed threshold — it won 71 percent of the vote in November.

Republican Cary Pigman said there should be a high bar to changing the Constitution. Unlike the legislative process, which allows for changes as bills proceed through the committee process, proposed amendment language is fixed, he said.

“We are a republic of elected representatives,” Pigman said. “I stand for election every two years, and anyone can run against me. And I’m term-limited. That is where the people are heard.”

Blaise Ingoglia echoed the point. “The people’s will is electing representatives to come up here to represent them in our districts,” he said.

“Amending the Constitution should be hard, and it should not be taken lightly. I would submit that amending our Constitution right now is a little too easy.”

Katie Edwards, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, argued the Constitution has become cluttered with provisions the Legislature finds ways not to observe. “That is the real affront to our democracy,” she said.

Still, “after going back and reading this cluttered mess, I’ll support you today,” Edwards told Roth.

In other action, the panel voted, 14-0, for HB 397, creating an exemption in the Sunshine Law for information that would identify victims of sexual harassment in state government.

The subcommittee also voted to tighten internal auditing controls and oversight at local agencies; and to extend Sunshine Law exemptions for Department of Citrus research, peer review panels at two programs researching cancer and other serious ailments, and Social Security and other personal-identification information among unclaimed property administered by the Department of Financial Services.

Background on those bills is available here.

casino table

House gambling bill gets thumbs up on first look

With its chair saying he wants to “freeze” gambling in the state, a House gambling panel on Thursday cleared that chamber’s overhaul bill, including a renewed blackjack agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee OK’d the measure (PCB TGC 17-01) on a 10-5 party-line vote.

But the bill, which isn’t yet assigned to another committee, differs greatly from the Senate’s gambling legislation. Its proposal (SB 8) now is cleared for consideration by the full chamber after a 14-2 vote in the Appropriations Committee, also Thursday.

The House is looking to contract gambling overall; the Senate would expand some gambling opportunities though bill sponsor Bill Galvano has said it contracts gambling overall.

State Rep. Mike La Rosa, the House panel’s chair, was hopeful about reaching compromise, though he made clear the Senate would have to vastly change its position.

“I think their expansion and where they’re going with it would be a non-starter here,” the St. Cloud Republican told reporters after the meeting. 

For example, the House outlaws designated-player card games, but the Senate would let “all cardroom operators … offer designated player games,” and the House would prohibit the expansion of slot machines, while the Senate generally expands the availability of slot machines. No Casinos, the anti-gambling expansion group, supports the House bill.

Moreover, the state’s cut of the Seminole gambling money – $3 billion over seven years – would go to education, split three ways among “K-12 teacher recruitment and retention bonuses,” “schools that serve students from persistently failing schools,” and “higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.”

But state Rep. Jared Moskowitz criticized the bill for doing exactly what the House’s GOP majority says it hates: Picking winners and losers.

“The winners are the Seminoles, and the losers are everybody else,” he said. The Coral Springs Democrat had tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to delete a legal requirement that racetracks run live races to also offer other gambling, like poker.

This is not free market—this is a corporate mandate,” he said of the legislation. Moskowitz also pointed out the many gambling policy conflicts between the chambers.

“What are we doing here? I have no idea, actually,” Moskowitz said. “…We’re debating something we know is already dead.”

State Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura, the panel’s Democratic Ranking Member, suggested that the bill’s funding mechanism would disproportionately benefit privately-run charter schools.  

“It’s not corporate welfare” for charter schools, La Rosa told reporters.

Where the money goes exactly isn’t “solid yet,” he added, but “who’s actually benefiting is the student (who doesn’t have to go) to a failing school.”

Senate Appropriations votes 14-2 to OK gambling bill, now cleared for Senate floor

A wide-sweeping gambling bill is now ready to be heard by the full Senate when the 2017 Legislative Session kicks off next month, after it cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee this morning.

The bill (SB 8), sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, ratifies the 2015 Seminole Compact, subject to the approval of amendments to conform the agreement to provisions outlined in the bill and other actions to be taken by the Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida, and would expand the number of facilities where slot machines can be operated.

“Florida is a diverse state and our constituents have many different opinions, beliefs and convictions regarding gaming. This legislation does not attempt to make value judgments about the private activities of free, taxpaying Floridians, instead it presents a comprehensive approach to regulating a voter-approved industry that has contributed billions of dollars to our economy for education, health care and infrastructure, while providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to Floridians over the course of nearly 100 years,” said Galvano in a statement after the vote.

The bill passed 14-2, with Sens. Aaron Bean and Kelli Stargel voting against it.

“I don’t feel like we need to go down this path,” said Bean, who commended Galvano for his effort. “I see us going on the continued road of a slippery slope.”

The measure was amended Thursday to add a bingo provision for charitable organizations. Under the new section, veterans’ organizations may conduct instant bingo using electronic tickets instead of paper tickets.

The amended bill also appears to outlaw advance deposit wagering, a form of gambling in which the bettor must fund his account being allowed to place betters. The amendment makes it a third degree felony to accept those wagers on horse races, but not on dog races.

It also toughens standards for race animal doping; changes the name of the Office of Amusements, which would regulate fantasy sports, to the Office of Contest Amusements; and gives regulators no more than 45 days to approve “rules for a new authorized game submitted by a licensed cardroom or provide the cardroom with a list of deficiencies as to those rules.”

Several members expressed hesitation about what the bill could mean for the state’s future, before voting for it. Sens. Anitere Flores and Rob Bradley were among those who said they faced a difficult decision, but felt inaction was no longer an option.

“This is a difficult issue for me,” said Bradley. “If I could do one thing to wave a magic wand in our state government, I would get rid of the lottery and move on in a different direction on gaming, because I think Florida is about something different. We’re about beaches and sunshine. Not gaming. But ladies and gentlemen, I don’t have a magic wand, none of us do.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, called the measure a jobs bill and said he hoped it will be “one more place where the Senate comes down strong for jobs.”

The House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee OK’d its own gambling bill Thursday.

Lottery fight between Gov. Scott and House could be costly

Florida could spend up to $100,000 in the skirmish between House Speaker Richard Corcoran and the administration of Gov. Rick Scott.

Corcoran last week asked a court to block a contract the Florida Lottery approved last fall. The contract with IGT Global Solutions is worth more than $700 million.

Corcoran’s lawsuit maintains lottery officials broke the law because they approved a contract that exceeds the department’s authorized budget.

The Florida Lottery this week hired attorney Barry Richard with the Greenberg Traurig firm to represent them in the legal battle. Richard represented President George W. Bush during the presidential election recount battle in 2000.

Richard’s contract calls for him to be paid up to $60,000 for a trial and an additional $40,000 for any appeal. The Florida House is using lawyers who work for the state on the case.

Higher education budget chair favors vocational training as voting begins

The House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee OK’d eight member requests for state funds Wednesday, including programs boosting technical training for people not headed to college and a veterinary lab at the University of Florida.

As did chairmen of other budget panels reviewing member projects (see here and here), Larry Ahern of the higher ed panel warned members that their votes merely rendered the projects eligible for inclusion in the House version of the appropriations act.

It did not guarantee them a place in that bill.

“Let me be clear that a vote for a project today does not mean that project will ultimately be funded at that level or even in the House bill. This is just the next step in the process of developing our budget,” the Seminole Republican said.

Which bills have the best chance of making the cut?

“A compelling state interest is one of the big ones. Is it something that’s already being done somewhere else?” he said. “Ultimately, is this even the right place in the budget for some of these projects?”

Ahern is particularly interested in vocational projects — apprenticeships, internships, other forms of nonacademic training.

“I find those very attractive because of their ability for those not going to college or a university to have a career path that pays a better-than-average wage,” Ahern said.

For example, the panel approved $200,000 for a partnership with car dealers to train young people for relatively high-paying jobs in auto shops. The bill is HB 2235.

(Here’s the background on the bills debated.)

“There is a demand for those jobs, but they’re not able to train enough young adults to fill these jobs,” Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., said.

HB 2237 would provide $300,000 to buy a 3D printer for Daytona State College, to train young people for associate of science degrees in “additive manufacturing” — an emerging field.

HB 2273, meanwhile, contains $265,000 for IT and advanced manufacturing training in Baker County.

HB 2225 would authorize $375,000 to organize academic mentoring programs for African American high schoolers in the Big Bend area through Tallahassee Community College. Rep. Ramon Alexander said their graduation rate in the area is 68 percent.

Academic projects included HB 2131, $3 million to establish an Institute for Comparative Veterinary Diagnostics at the University of Florida — essentially, a diagnostic lab. At present there isn’t one in Florida, so tests have to be sent out of state.

HB 2019 would provide $1.5 million for a pediatric research and education program at UF. HB 2057 would allocate $2 million for a neurodegenerative disease program at UF, conducting research into Alzheimer’s disease and related maladies.

The committee approved $1.6 million to expand an honors program at Florida Gulf Coast University (HB 2211).

Ahern is not pre-selecting projects for votes by his subcommittee, as some other chairman are doing. He’s letting his members decide.

“That’s the beauty of this process,” he said.

“A lot of these (projects) previous to this were just put into the budget during a conference committee at the end of the session. There now is the transparency, that the public can view and see and hear” the process.

VIDEO: Matt Gaetz in Tallahassee to promote Medicaid block grants

Congressman Matt Gaetz was in the Capitol Wednesday to discuss health care reform, including his support for a block grant funding method for Medicaid, the joint state-federal health care program for the poor.

After a structured media availability, the former state representative elected to Congress last year held a more informal gaggle with members of the Capitol Press Corps.

Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican, served in the Florida House for six years.

Below is a Periscope video of his Q&A in the House media room.

Firms randomly picked for lobbying compensation audits

Even as some lawmakers have questioned its necessity, legislative and executive branch lobbying firms were again randomly selected Wednesday for audits of their compensation reports.

The firms picked for legislative lobbying audits are:

— Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney

— Buigas & Associates

— David R. Custin & Associates

— Ericks Consultants

— Hopping Green & Sams

— Lewis Longman & Walker

— Lisa Aaron Consulting

— Luis E. Rojas

— McGee & Mason

— Redfish Consulting

— Ronald R. Richmond

— Shumaker Loop & Kendrick

— Smith & Smith

— The Labrador Co.

The alternates are:

— Barlow Consulting

— Butler Weihmuller Katz Craig

— Capitol Hill Group

— Damon Smith Consulting

— Dixie Sansom Consulting

— Littlejohn Mann & Associates

— Pruitt & Associates

— Quintairos Prieto Wood & Boyer

— R. Dale Patchett Managemen

— Shutts & Bowen

— Southern Campaign Resources

— Strategos Public Affairs

— Sunrise Consulting Group

— Uhlfelder and Associates

The firms picked for executive-branch lobbying audits are:

— Andrew J. Liles

— Calhoun Management & Consulting

— Capitol Insight

— Carr Allison

— Champion Consultants

— Janet Llewellyn

— Lester Abberger

— Lindstrom Consulting

— Pruitt & Associates

— T.B. Consultants

— TC Wolfe

— Wilson & Associates

The alternates are:

— Capitol Energy Florida

— Foley & Lardner

— Horton & Associates

— Impact GR

— Jordan Connors Group

— Law Office of Cynthia G. Angelos

— Cusick and Associates

— Punyko Associates

— R. Bruce Kershner Co.

— Rachael Ondrus

— Richard S. Kip

— The Peeples Group

The last round of audits, required under a 2005 state law and released in September 2015, found discrepancies big and small after staff randomly picked 26 lobbying firms to be audited.

Auditors discovered a number of firms either underreporting or overreporting the money they made in 2014. In another case, auditors couldn’t tell who had paid a particular bill.

But generally, lobbying firms were annoyed at having to undergo auditing and lawmakers were underwhelmed.

“I don’t understand how the public’s interest is advanced by this exercise,” said state Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who formerly sat on the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee.

“I just don’t see how this information is relevant” other than being a “marketing tool for big lobbying firms,” Bradley said in late 2015.

Legislation was actually filed for the 2016 Legislative Session that would have repealed the audit requirement, but it died in both chambers.

The latest audits are scheduled to begin May.

House won’t change nursing home reimbursement formula this year

The House won’t pursue a proposal to change the way the state reimburses nursing homes caring for Medicaid patients — at least, not this year.

They think the program is not quite cooked yet.

“Although we like the idea of a prospective payment system … perhaps the calculations that were done in that study don’t meet all the needs,” Jason Brodeur, chairman of the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee, told members Wednesday.

He referred to a plan by Navigant Consulting Inc., under which the state would pay nursing homes using a per diem rate calculated based on four components, of which patient care would account for the largest portion, 80 percent, of total reimbursement.

“One of the things I think we could probably do as a committee is maybe commit ourselves to a more intellectually disciplined approach,” Brodeur said. “I think the data exist to get us much tighter and a little bit better.”

Ranking committee Democrat David Richardson agreed.

“It needs more work,” he said.

Brodeur said following his committee’s meeting that the Navigant plan uses cost of living indices only for Broward and Miami-Dade counties and the entire rest of the state.

“Everybody who’s been to Naples and Liberty County knows they probably shouldn’t be in the same payment matrix,” he said.

Navigant proposed a two-year “glide path,” or transition to the new system.

“What you could potentially have is somebody losing millions of dollars and only having two years to absorb that. The committee would probably like more time to look at whether a five-year or six-year glide path would be more reasonable.”

LeadingAge Florida, representing some 400 senior communities, issued a written statement saying the move. The decision would “prevent unnecessary disruptions in nursing home care,” president and CEO Steve Bahmer said.

”High-quality care for Florida’s seniors was at stake, and the committee recognized the complexities of the system and the careful balance needed,” he said.

Bahmer looked forward to working with the Legislature, the state Agency for Health Care Administration and other players “to develop a fair and equitable reimbursement system focused on quality care.”

Emmett Reed, executive director of the Florida Health Care Association, which represents most state nursing homes, also issued a statement.

“We appreciate chairman Brodeur’s thoughtfulness on how best to move forward with a payment system for Florida’s nursing centers, and agree that any changes this significant require careful consideration of how resident care and center operations will be impacted,” Reed said.

“We still believe a prospective payment system makes sense for Florida’s nursing centers and the state of Florida and look forward to working with both chambers on the best way to proceed,” Reed said.

The subcommittee was one of several that began voting on member projects Wednesday. Among the measure it approved were:

HB 2021, providing around $250,000 for a jobs training center for disabled people serving Orange and Seminole counties.

HB 2067, worth more than $1 million, to provide alternative living arrangements to state mental hospitals for people in eight North Florida counties.

And HB 2075, authorizing $2.9 million for job training, after-school, mental health, and family services for people in six counties clustered around Palm Beach County.

Brodeur cautioned members that yes votes did not guarantee inclusion in the House budget.

“Really, what we did today is make their projects eligible to be in the budget,” he said. “We didn’t pass anything today, as much as make it eligible for future budget consideration.”

CHANCE THE RAPPER

Craft beer debate includes … Chance the Rapper?

Craft brewers can thank Chance the Rapper for getting this year’s beer bill over its first legislative hurdle.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Wednesday cleared the measure (SB 554) on a 6-3 vote. Democrats Perry Thurston and Randolph Bracy joined Republican Lizbeth Benacquisto in opposing the bill.  

But Oscar Braynon, the chamber’s Democratic Leader, said he would support the legislation because of the example of the 23-year-old Chicago-based rap star.

The measure would allow smaller craft brewers to distribute their own beer. It would create an exception to Florida’s “three-tier system” born after Prohibition, which requires separation of alcoholic beverage manufacturers, distributors and retailers to avoid price-fixing.

Braynon explained that Chance, who won three Grammy Awards this year, first independently distributed his own music before getting “multimillion-dollar offers for distribution deals.”

The bill “would allow small brewers to do just what Chance the Rapper did,” Braynon said. “So I’m going to give this (bill) a chance—thanks to Chance the Rapper.”

(Chance, however, may be staying independent, according to The New York Post; he’s allegedly turning down $5 million-$10 million offers from record labels.)

The measure, sponsored by Tampa Republican and craft beer advocate Dana Young, only applies to those who produce 7,000 kegs or less a year, which she called the “smallest of the small” craft beermakers who are “not on the radar of distributors.”

Still, 7,000 kegs—at 15.5 gallons each—equals 868,000 pints of beer.

Lobbyists for “Big Beer” concerns rejected arguments there is a shortage of distributors for small brewers and added that the bill would further chip away at the state’s three-tier system.

Thurston agreed: “We are looking at a dismantling” of that, adding Chance “gave his music away … for free” at first to gain a following.

But Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, looked confused. “I’ve never heard of Chance the Rapper,” he said before voting for the bill.

Darryl Rouson wants to raise the smoking age to 21

Floridians can vote and enlist in the military when they’re 18, but a new Senate bill would have them wait until they’re 21 to go to Marlboro Country.

SB 1138, filed Wednesday by Democrat Darryl Rouson, would raise the smoking age from 18 to 21.

Rouson’s bill would amend Florida Statute 569.008, which currently restricts the sale, barter, furnishing, delivery, and gift of tobacco products to those 18 and over.

Though most places in the United States allow smoking at the age of 18, as Florida currently does, there is a movement among anti-tobacco activists such as Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids to raise that age to 21.

Some states, cities, and foreign countries have this restriction in place already.

Hawaii and Guam bans tobacco for the under-21 set. Cities in Massachusetts, Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois have similar local ordinances. Sri Lanka and Kuwait likewise ban tobacco for those under the age of 21.

Outside of the United States, people as young as 14 years of age can smoke cigarettes in the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Malawi, Lesotho, and Yemen

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