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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After two and a half hours of questions and a string of amendments that were defeated or withdrawn, the House could take a final vote on the bill as early as Wednesday.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.

House assignment of benefits reforms move closer to final vote

The House cleared its version of assignment of benefits reform for a final vote Tuesday, defeating an amendment that would have frozen property insurance rates and required a premiums rollback next summer.

PCS/HB 1421 would tighten requirements for contractors to report claims to insurance companies and establish a graduated scale for determining whether contractors holding these agreements qualify to recover litigation expenses from carriers.

“What’s important is to make sure that we don’t reward bad lawyers who are trying to abuse the system on either side with the guaranteed fee mechanism, and to make sure everybody has skin in the game,” Grant said.

It also will require the Office of Insurance Regulation to collect data on trends in assignment of benefits, or AOBs, and related litigation.

“Most homeowners here in the state of Florida will see roughly a 50 percent increase in their property insurance rates if we don’t so something,” co-sponsor James Grant said.

An amendment by Democrat Evan Jenne would have held property insurance rates at existing levels through July 1, 2018, then rolled rates back by 6.5 percent. And property insurers could no longer impose “use and file” rate increases, but rather would have to go through formal, public hearings.

His proposal was “100 percent pro-consumer, with no shame attached to it,” Jenne said.

“Rep. Jenne, I think you know, is one of my favorite members in this chamber to work with,” Grant said. “But this would actually be, I believe, a counterproductive way to roll back rates.”

The amendment fell on a voice vote.

In September, the insurance office approved a 6.4 percent increase in premiums charged by Citizens Property Insurance Corp., largely blaming AOB abuse by dodgy contractors and attorneys.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier testified in committee that the bill would go “a long way in addressing this issue.” Seventy-three percent of the rate filings his office approved in 2016 were for increases, Altmaier said.

Between 2010 and 2015, the industry experienced a 42 percent increase in water claims, 28 percent increase in their severity, and a trebling of assignment of benefits agreements. AOB-related lawsuits increased from around 400 in 2006, to more than 1,000 in 2011, to more than 28,000 in 2016.

House ‘standard operating budget’ clears Appropriations Committee

The House Appropriations Committee voted along party lines Tuesday to approve an $82.1 billion “standard operating budget,” in a move Democrats complained brought Washington-style dysfunction to Tallahassee.

“I can tell you, we have spent every last, legitimate effort trying to compromise before we came to this point. It wasn’t for lack of effort. It wasn’t that we just grabbed our ball and went home,” Chairman Carlos Trujillo said.

But the Florida Constitution gives the Legislature 60 days to write a budget, and House leaders didn’t want to extend or call a special session, he said. Or bankrupt the state.

“And I can tell you, some of the negotiations, that’s exactly where we were heading,” he said. “I can tell you, the budget that we were negotiating would have ruined the state.”

The vote was 14-10.

The development came amid reports that House and Senate negotiators were close to a deal — although Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala warned: “not to believe the rumors.”

Following a lengthy meeting of his committee, Latvala declined to comment on the budget talks.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” Latvala told reporters. ”I’ve been sitting here. You guys have seen me sitting here for four hours. I don’t know anything about what’s going on with the budget.”

Back on the House side, Democratic leader Janet Cruz expressed frustration at the situation.

“This is House leadership trying to turn Tallahassee into Washington, D.C., where we kick our problems down the road because we don’t have the will to solve them,” she said.

“By passing this budget we are essentially admitting that we have wasted the taxpayers’ time and money on two months of grandiose speeches and posturing, with nothing to show for it,” she said.

“I feel like we are pawns of political posturing. We all just need to grow up. We need to sit at a table together and we need to do what the citizens of Florida and the fricking taxpayers have asked us to come here and do — and that is to take the money that we collect from them and pass a balanced budget.”

Committee Democrats denounced the move, pointing to a list of human services spending — including Alzheimer’s and autism treatment, homelessness, and human trafficking programs — the budget would scrap in the service of “political posturing.”

“This is not fair, and it’s not right,” Democrat Cynthia Stafford said.

Republican Jason Brodeur insisted that only projects lacking recurring funding sources would be affected, and that the budget would meet critical state needs.

“I’m sorry if your personal pet projects are being cut,” Brodeur said.

The bill continues spending at levels the Legislature approved for the current fiscal year, although with increases to meet growth in demand for Medicaid and the student population, while setting aside $3 billion in reserves.

State agencies would continue at existing spending levels.

Details available here.

The budget would include $1.5 billion to reimburse hospitals for charity care, contingent on the Trump administration making good on its promise to provide that much money. In the meantime, the bill would set aside $608 million for that purpose.

“The $1.5 billion is nothing but gravy on top,” Trujillo said.

Visit Florida would get $50 million, more than the House wanted to spend. Similarly, universities and Enterprise Florida would continue at existing spending levels, Trujillo said following the vote.

But there’d be no money for Senate priorities including Senate President Joe Negron’s ambitious universities enhancements and Lake Okeechobee project.

Trujillo said the new budget amounted to Plan B — a contingency in case negotiations with the Senate fail.

“Unless a deal has been struck and they’re just waiting for the ink to dry, time is precious at this point. And every hour and every day that goes by really puts us at a huge deficit,” he told reporters following the hearing.

“It’s not a negotiating tactic,” Trujillo insisted. “We have to pass a budget.”

The House now faces the prospect of having two proposed budgets. The Rules Committee will decide later today whether to send the new one to the floor — contingent on whether House Speaker Richard Corcoran can strike a compromise with the Senate.

“If he has an agreement, I’m sure Rules won’t calendar and send this to the floor. If we don’t have an agreement … I’m sure they’ll take this off calendar and send it straight to the floor, and we’ll pivot directly onto this budget.”

Is there a chance the House could pass the new budget and go home, as it did in 2015?

“You would have to ask the speaker,” Trujillo said.

House leaders instigated the move despite Senate objections to a contingency budget. The chambers are nearly $4 billion apart on spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

With less than two weeks remaining in the Legislative Session, the time is running short to reach a compromise and bring it to a vote.

Still, Democrat David Richardson argued in debate that it was too soon to take this step.

“It’s just too early to admit defeat,” he said.

LIBRE Initiative releases Spanish-language ad calling for end of ‘corporate welfare’

The LIBRE Initiative is calling on the Florida Legislature to put an end to corporate welfare.

In a new Spanish-language digital ad, the organization calls on Floridians to contact their lawmakers and tell them “the game’s over; end this corporate welfare.” The 60-second spot is similar to one released earlier this month by Americans for Prosperity-Florida, which compared economic incentives to gambling and said the incentives “haven’t paid out.”

Both the LIBRE Initiative and Americans for Prosperity-Florida are aligned with the Koch brothers.

“Hispanic families and small business owners across Florida deserve a fair, competitive free market where the government does not pick winners and losers. This is why the Florida Senate should pass a responsible budget that doesn’t fund corporate welfare and special interests,” said Cesar Grajales, the coalitions director of the LIBRE Initiative, in a statement. “Ending these wasteful, unfair programs is an important step toward breaking down barriers to economic growth and opportunity. Stopping this broken system will lead to economic progress and increasing prosperity that benefits everyone – not just well-connected corporations.”

The House budget does not include funding for Enterprise Florida and associated economic incentive programs. The Senate, however, has approved a 2017-18 budget that includes funding for Enterprise Florida.

The LIBRE ad comes as state lawmakers are working to resolve a budget stalemate.

See the ad in Spanish:

Here’s the ad in English:

Florida Forever bill could affect Everglades reservoir plan

A bill that looks to “un-muddy” the mission of Florida’s main environmental land acquisition program could potentially affect the plan for an Everglades reservoir.

A House bill brought forth Monday by Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Republican with close ties to House leadership, was passed unanimously by a House panel. Caldwell wants to alter what projects are eligible for money under the Florida Forever Program and put more money into land conservation. But the measure would also remove funding allocations for acquisitions on water management districts’ priority lists.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said this could potentially make it more difficult for water management districts to fund projects through bonding.

“I’m just pointing out that by taking water management districts out, it takes away an important part of the Florida Forever program that has been used to fund both land acquisition and construction of projects,” Draper said.

This could hinder Senate President Joe Negron‘s plan to build a $1.2 billion reservoir system south of Lake Okeechobee to curb toxic algal bloom from coastal communities. Senate Bill 10 would direct the South Florida Management District to find land for the reservoir system.

Negron’s plan to have the state borrow money to pay for the project has not been welcomed by House leadership, which has yet to hear the proposal. Caldwell’s bill could prevent the South Florida Management District from using bonding for the reservoir project. House Speaker Richard Corcoran supports the Florida Forever bill.

Caldwell does not believe his bill takes aim at Negron’s project because the focus of his bill pertains to land acquisition for conservation purposes, not capital projects.

Environmental groups were split on whether removing water management districts would affect the project. But they said they were hopeful Caldwell’s bill could lead to more money in the state budget for the Florida Forever program.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Beer advertising bill cleared for House floor

A House bill that would have allowed “advertising” by beer companies in the state’s theme parks on Monday morphed into a measure that specifically allows “brand naming agreements.”

What “brand naming agreements” are, however, isn’t defined in the bill (HB 423).

“I’ll bet you your definition and my definition are two different things,” sponsor Mike La Rosa told the Commerce Committee, which eventually cleared the bill for the full House on a 17-9 vote after no debate.

“My intent is that it’s for marketing purposes,” he added. “So if a manufacturer wanted to name an event, or sponsor an event, they can do both” under the bill.  

But another amendment failed that would have allowed such agreements with all businesses that serve booze on premises, not just theme parks.

Josh Aubuchon, executive director of the Florida Brewers Guild, the state’s craft beer lobby, referred to the proposal as “little more than a cash grab by the theme parks from beer manufacturers.”

A similar measure (SB 388) already passed the Senate but contains provisions not in the House, including opening up the state to the sale of wine bottles of all sizes.

Updated 10:30 p.m. — As of Monday night, both bills were placed on the House’s special order calendar for Thursday.

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