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House takes giant steps in gambling negotiation

The Florida House made several major offers Wednesday to get a gambling deal done this session, including authorizing decoupling for dog and horse tracks if county voters OK it in a local referendum.

House and Senate negotiators met in the morning in their ongoing effort to agree on an omnibus gambling bill for 2017, including an agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to continue blackjack exclusivity in exchange for $3 billion over seven years.

State law requires dog and horse tracks to run live races if they wish to offer other gambling such as cardrooms. Getting rid of that requirement is known as decoupling.

Pari-mutuel owners want decoupling because the audience for dog and horse races – and thus the money bet on them – continues to decline every year, they say. Horse and dog interests say it will kill their industry.

As the House moves toward the Senate—conference chair and Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, called the House offer “serious” and “substantial”—gambling expansion opponents railed against the latest moves.

“This conference committee process is a prime example why gambling expansion should not be subject to legislative ‘sausage making’ (because) it results in gambling creep,” said John Sowinski, president of No Casinos.  “It is clear that there needs to be a bright line in the Florida Constitution that gives Florida voters the exclusive right to authorize gambling in our state.”

Sowinski also chairs a political committee aiming to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018 to give voters control over future casino gambling.

In other proposals, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the conference’s vice chair and a Miami-Dade Republican, offered:

— Authorizing blackjack, craps and roulette at all seven Seminole Tribe gambling facilities. Now, they offer blackjack at five casinos, including Tampa’s Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, and do not offer craps and roulette.

— Allowing a cut in the slot machine tax that the Seminoles and pari-mutuels pay if they agree to reduce the number of slot machines they have on the floor. For instance, a casino that agree to go down to 1,500 slots would pay 25 percent instead of 35 percent in tax on slots revenue.

— OK’ing certain designated-player games “if approved in a countywide referendum.” Designated-player games are a hybrid between blackjack and poker, where the bank is supposed to revolve among the players. But regulators have said card rooms were flouting state law by allowing third-party companies to buy their way into the games, using a worker to act as a virtual bank that rarely or never rotated, amounting to a sham, one judge determined.

— Allowing the Seminoles to offer daily fantasy sports play if the state legalizes it, but the Seminoles would have to agree it doesn’t violate any exclusive rights to gambling they enjoy.

This story will be updated later. A copy of the offer is below:

Top Senate Democrat says chambers will split the difference on state budget

There were competing accounts Wednesday of negotiations over the next state budget, with the Senate’s top Democrat saying a deal’s been struck.

The chambers have agreed to meet in the middle on the $4 billion that separates their respective proposed budgets, taking $2 billion from the Senate plan and adding $2 billion to the House version, Senate Democratic leader Oscar Braynon told his caucus Wednesday morning.

“There’s been a deal struck,” Braynon said.

“Remember, a deal struck is nothing final,” he cautioned. “My first year here, there was a deal struck and none of the things that were struck in the deal passed. That’s always a possibility.”

There still was no formal announcement from House or Senate leaders, although House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced to the House Tuesday that a deal was close.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala tweeted Wednesday morning that there was no deal yet — and that “when an agreement is reached on the budget it will be announced by the President and Speaker.”

Katie Betta, spokeswoman to Senate President Joe Negron, said she was not aware of any deal.

Braynon expected the leadership to name conferees during Wednesday’s floor session and for negotiations to begin that evening.

“The only thing that really is struck and that is set in stone is the allocations,” Braynon said.

“The Senate and the House have come to an agreement on the total number of our budget. Our budget was $4 billion bigger than theirs, so I think we met in the middle, so our budget is $2 billon more than the House had.”

Democrats have more clout in the Senate than in the House, he reminded his caucus — especially since the resignation of Hialeah Republican Frank Artiles.

“This isn’t like the House. There ain’t enough of us for them to not put people on the conference committee. Every single one of us will be on a conference committee of one of the Appropriations (sub)committees that you’re on,” he said.

“We have juice that we haven’t always had in the past,” Sen. Jeff Clemens said.

Braynon cautioned:

“There’s going to have to be $2 billion worth of cuts that they’re going to have to find as they move through the next week. Everybody watch out for everybody else’s projects, depending on where you get assigned.”

Rick Scott enlists state bonds chief in fight for Visit Florida funding

Gov. Rick Scott has distributed a letter by Ben Watkins, director of the Division of Bond Finance, to the House and Senate budget chairmen, warning that cutting Visit Florida could damage the state’s credit rating.

The letter, dated Tuesday, addressed to Jack Latvala in the Senate and Carlos Trujillo in the House, warns that cutting back on tourism promotion has harmed the economies of states that have attempted it, including Colorado and Pennsylvania.

“Even a 2 percent reduction in visitors would result in a loss of $2.2 billion in travel spending and $225 million in tax revenue,” Watkins wrote.

“If funding for Visit Florida is reduced as much as the Florida House has proposed, the credit rating on our cities and counties could be negatively impacted, especially for communities that rely heavily on tourism and tourist-related revenues,” he wrote.

“I believe it is important for policymakers to be informed about the important spending decisions and their financial and economic consequences,” he said.

The proposed House budget would provide $25 million for Visit Florida, and the Senate would provide $76 million. Scott has asked for $100 million.

The warning came as House and Senate negotiators worked toward a framework to resolve nearly $4 billion in differences on spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Jose Felix Diaz: House will ‘take giant step’ in gambling conference

The House will make its offer Wednesday morning in the Legislature’s negotiation on a gambling bill this year, state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz told reporters Tuesday night.

“I expect to make significant progress in the conversation,” he said, without offering many details and saying the House’s offer was still in flux. “The earlier we get it out, the better.”

The House and Senate are far apart on their respective gambling bills this session, with the House holding the line on gambling expansion, and the Senate pushing for new games.

But, Diaz added, “considering that the House took a very conservative approach in its bill, most people who look at our offer will think that we took a giant step forward toward the Senate’s position on certain issues.”

“I feel very confident the Senate will be happy we’re moving and continuing the conversation,” he said.

Sen. Bill Galvano on Monday tendered the first offer, which largely maintains what’s in the Senate’s bill. It would, however, classify contentious “pre-reveal” games as slot machines, and would limit two new slots facilities to either Broward or Miami-Dade counties.

The Senate also would give the state more time, up to two years, to address any future violation of blackjack exclusivity brought by the Seminole Tribe of Florida with a legislative fix. That also was addressed to court rulings that create such “violations.”

Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner has declined to comment on the talks.

Part of this year’s package is a deal to grant continued blackjack exclusivity to the tribe in return for $3 billion over seven years, though that money isn’t part of ongoing budget talks between the House and Senate.

“I will say I’m ready to propose counters on some of the Senate’s positions—and agree to some of the Senate’s positions,” Diaz said.

 

Richard Corcoran: House and Senate ‘very, very, very’ close to budget deal

The House and Senate were on the brink Tuesday evening of agreeing to a framework for negotiating s budget deal, House Speaker Richard Corcoran told the House.

“We are very, very, very close to having allocations agreed to with the Senate,” Corcoran announced from the speaker’s podium, drawing cheers from the members.

“And I mean close in the hand grenades sense, not the horseshoe sense,” he said.

“To the extent that happens imminently, we’ll appoint conferees and make announcements, and it’s very likely we’ll start (conference) tonight.”

“We made some headway, so we’re hoping on being able to get out of here. Hopefully, we’ll have a deal within the next hour,” House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo said. “It’s 4 o’clock right now. Hopefully, at 6, 6:30, we’ll have our welcome and start caucusing.”

He was over-optimistic — Katie Betta, Senate President Joe Negron‘s spokeswoman, said several hours later that there would be no conference that night.

Trujillo’s committee that morning had voted along party lines to approve a “standard operating budget,” or contingency budget, adhering mostly to the budget the Legislature approved last year for the existing fiscal year.

The plan then was to let the Rules Committee decide whether to calendar that budget.

“I think they meet in the next half-hour, so I don’t think they’re going to calendar it at this point,” Trujillo said.

Details, including the future of Senate President Joe Negron’s ambitious Lake Okeechobee plan, state worker pay raises, and the House ‘Schools of Hope’ bill, remain to be worked out, he said.

The Senate had ruled out passing a contingency budget over the weekend. By midafternoon Tuesday, the House had sent a new offer across the rotunda, which the Senate was reviewing, according to staffers in both chambers.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco says he is ‘very disappointed’ Jack Latvala is putting political ambitions first

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco is criticizing Sen. Jack Latvala for standing in the way of what he calls a big win for Pasco County.

“I am very disappointed that Senator Latvala is putting his political ambitions ahead of the needs of the state,” he said.

As the battle over the 2017-18 budget continues to wear on, several hometown projects could be on the chopping block, including $4.3 million for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.

The money, according to the Times/Herald, will be used to create the Florida Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactical Training. The forensic laboratory, located in Land O’Lakes near the Pasco County jail, would teach law enforcement officers and students, all the while focusing on an estimated 16,000 unsolved murders and missing person cases in Florida.

The Miami Herald reported Tuesday that Latvala said it was ironic that the “single largest project in the budget is for” House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

“I haven’t criticized the project,” said Latvala, according to the report. “”I’m just saying that it’s ironic: He’s against projects, but the largest single project in the budget is for him … It’s do as I say, not as I do.”

Corcoran said the project is for the “entire state.”

The project’s leaders include Nocco and forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who led the research that unearthed the remains of young boys buried in unmarked graves at the Dozier School for Boys.

Nocco said he’s surprised Latvala’s Tallahassee politics could be blocking a win for Pasco and the state.

“He said he would not be our biggest cheerleader, but he also said he would not stand in our way,” said Nocco.

Nocco also doesn’t understand why Latvala won’t support a project that will be based in Pasco.

“He does remember that part of his district is in Pasco County,” he said.

 

Liquor ‘wall of separation’ could fall in Florida

A bill to allow retailers to sell hard liquor in the same store as other goods is one step closer to passing the Legislature.

On Tuesday, the House decided to take up the Senate’s version of the “whiskey & Wheaties” legislation (SB 106) out of a “spirit of compromise,” said bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican.

After two and a half hours of questions and a string of amendments that were defeated or withdrawn, the House could take a final vote on the bill as early as Wednesday. Its version has been struggling out of committees on one- and two-vote margins.

The Senate bill would repeal a Prohibition-era state law requiring businesses, such as grocery chains and big-box retailers, to have separate stores to sell liquor. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

The bill also requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in. It calls for employees over 18 to check customers’ ID and approve sales of spirits by cashiers under 18.

It still faces strong opposition, with Avila having to defend against a parade of horribles brought up in questions.

Rep. Tom Goodson, for example, brought up that the 955 pure-play liquor stores in the state employ about 1,200 workers, and he worried whether the big box chains would put them out of business.

Wal-Mart, Target and others have said that tearing down the wall of separation between liquor and other goods is a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience, but independently-owned liquor stores counter they’ll suffer.

Other alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits, say the measure is a naked play to expand the big-boxes’ market reach.

Last month, Kiran Patel, who owns liquor stores in Melbourne and Palm Bay, told lawmakers that he and other small-business store owners will be “finished.”

“There’s no way we can even compete with” big box chains, he said, which will “put pallets and pallets” of booze out in the open.

Avila didn’t give in Tuesday.

In the 29 other states that sell hard liquor in main stores, “there hasn’t been a rash of underage drinking, there hasn’t been a rash of alcohol-related incidents, there hasn’t been a rash of cases of DUIs, (and) the small businesses there have continued to compete, with no decrease in the number of independent liquor stores,” he said.

Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, tried to amend the bill with a provision that no one under 21 could work in a store where hard liquor was sold.

Publix, the Florida supermarket chain that opposes the measure, has said their reading of state law suggested teenage employees would no longer be allowed to work in stores if hard booze was sold there. Publix’s opposition has been rooted in its investment in separate stores.

It’s about choices, Plakon said, mentioning Wal-Mart and saying its choice was to employ teens, sell hard liquor, or keep separate stores. His amendment failed.

Jack Latvala, Larry Ahern trade budget jabs on Twitter

With 10 days until the scheduled end of the 2017 Legislative Session and no allocations on the desk, it’s fair to say things are getting a little heated in Tallahassee.

Case in point: An exchange between Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala and House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Larry Ahern on Twitter over the House’s proposed standard operating, or continuation, budget.

As news spread Sunday the House had offered a so-called continuation budget, Latvala, a Clearwater Republican took to Twitter to question why the offer was being made.

“A continuation budget is just putting our names on former legislators’ work,” he tweeted around 8 p.m. Sunday night. “Aren’t we better than that?”

That tweet hung out there until about 3 p.m. Monday, when Seminole Republican retweeted Latvala’s quote and asked: “What are you doing as Appropriation Chairman to facilitate a compromise that makes it unnecessary?”

Hours later, Latvala shot back asking Ahern why he couldn’t “find a single project worthy of funding in Pinellas?” Latvala is the chairman of the 10-member of the Pinellas County legislative delegation, of which Ahern is a member.

Ahern’s response came this morning: “My project funding approach is more statewide. Over half have some benefit directly to Pinellas. About 9 million dollar’s worth.”

Latvala, who spent most of his morning in the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, hasn’t replied. The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, passed its so-called standard operating budget during a meeting this morning.

House sets up $300 million tax holiday package for final vote

Legislation extending $300 million in tax holidays and breaks for veterans, college students, farmers, young families, and more moved closer to a final House vote Tuesday, picking up an amendment expanding use of private contractors to collect auto tag fees.

The amendment, by Republican Jason Brodeur, would let tax collectors in 64 counties where they don’t answer to county commissions contract third parties to sell auto tags after hours and on weekends, and charge a “convenience” fee on top of the state fees.

”Any county that doesn’t want to do this, they don’t have to. Just do it the way they do it now,” Brodeur said.

HB 7109 provides for a range of sales tax breaks and holidays.

College textbooks and “instructional materials” would be exempt from July 1 through June 30 next year.

Diapers and incontinence products would become tax-exempt.

“Low-income families pay roughly twice as much for diapers than families that have access to bulk-buying options,” ranking Democrat Janet Cruz said.

Florida’s “tampon tax” on feminine hygiene products would be eliminated, as it was between 1977 and 1986, Democrat Katie Edwards said.

The bill contains nearly $14 million in tax cuts for agricultural products, including fencing and animal health products.

Floridians could stock up on emergency supplies during nine days in May and June, as hurricane season sets in, including generators and batteries.

Military veterans would win a nine-day annual sales tax holiday for clothing and shoes.

Finally, there’d be a back-to-school tax holiday.

Appropriations Committee sends its medical marijuana bill to Senate floor

A Senate panel cleared its version of the medical marijuana implementing bill, sending it to the floor and setting House and Senate up for negotiations over the two different proposals in the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill (SB 406) that would implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment. Sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, the bill is generally favored by medical marijuana advocates; but several expressed concerns about access during the final committee stop Tuesday.

“We have a huge supply deficit in the state,” said Dennis Deckerhoff, whose son uses low-THC cannabis.

Deckerhoff said one of the dispensaries in the state has run out of the product his son uses, forcing him to go to a second dispensary, which has since changed the formula.

“Access means getting the medicine you need, not the medicine the dispensary is producing,” said Deckerhoff, who urged lawmakers not to pass the bill.

Bradley’s proposal, among other things, grandfathers in existing dispensing organizations as medical marijuana treatment centers, brings five additional medical marijuana treatment centers online by Oct. 3, and requires the Department of Health to license four more medical marijuana treatment centers after each time 75,000 patients register with the state’s compassionate use registry.

The bill also removes the three-month waiting period and limits the number of retail facilities from which growers can dispense medical marijuana.

The vote comes one day after the House Health and Human Services Committee approved its version of an implementing bill. The House proposal (HB 1397), which is considered more restrictive, includes the 90-day wait period; bans pregnant women from using medical marijuana, even if their doctor recommends it, and prohibits vaping and edibles.

Bradley said the Senate is in “active negotiations with our friends in the House” over the proposal. The House version is also headed to the floor.

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