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State budget includes $654K to enhance security at Jewish day schools

Florida is taking extra steps to boost security at Jewish day schools across the state.

Lawmakers tucked $654,000 into the fiscal 2017-18 budget, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott law week, for security funding for Jewish day schools throughout Florida. The request for funding came after a string of bomb threats against Jewish institutions across the country earlier this year.

“There has recently been a dramatic rise in the threats against Jewish day schools and I was proud to join Governor Scott and my fellow Legislative members in taking immediate action to help protect our Jewish communities,” said Rep. Randy Fine, who joined Scott at the Orlando Torah Academy earlier this week to discuss the funding. “This funding will help provide Jewish day schools with important security resources and ensure our students, teachers and parents feel safe.”

Fine, a Brevard County Republican, pushed for the funding during the 2017 Regular Session. His proposal (HB 3653) received bi-partisan support; unanimously clearing the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, and picking up a half dozen co-sponsors, ranging from Republicans Jason Fischer and Bill Hager to Democrats Joseph Geller, Jared Moskowitz, Emily Slosberg and Richard Stark.

The money, according to the Governor’s Office, will be used to help provide security and counter-terrorism upgrades such as video cameras, fences, bullet-proof glass, and alarm systems.

Scott visited two Jewish day schools — the Orlando Torah Academy and the Brauser Maimonides Academy in Fort Lauderdale — to highlight the funding.

There were 167 bomb threats made to Jewish institutions in 38 states and three Canadian provinces as of March 21, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which is tracking threats made to Jewish institutions.

The ADL reported that 18 Jewish day schools, at least one of which was in Florida, received a bomb threat as of March 21.

“We want to make sure our students stay safe and focused on what is most important- getting a great education, and I appreciate the Florida Legislature for taking quick action to come together and fight for this important funding,” the Naples Republican said in a statement earlier this week. “We will continue to work closely with the members of Florida’s Jewish community and our partners in the state and federal government to do all we can to help keep all of our students and families safe.”

Jeff Brandes files amendment to medical marijuana in Senate

Sen. Jeff Brandes is proposing a sweeping change to his chamber’s medical marijuana implementation bill that would, among other things, remove a limit on the number of licenses for medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTCs).

The St. Petersburg Republican filed the 63-page strike all amendment late Wednesday.

His “Putting Florida Patients First Act” also removes a requirement that marijuana growers and sellers be “vertically integrated,” or share ownership.

The amendment will be formally offered on the Senate floor Thursday, an assistant said.

It would be the first opportunity for the Senate to vote “for the free market,” he added.

Sen. Rob Bradley‘s underlying bill (SB 8-A) will be taken up by the Health Policy Committee at 8 a.m.

The panel also will consider an accompanying bill (SB 6-A) that creates an exemption under the state’s public records law for personal identifying information of marijuana patient “caregivers.”

Legislation moving in both chambers would add more growing licenses and sets a “soft cap” of 25 retail locations allowed throughout the state. That limit could increase as the number of patients increases in coming years.

Lawmakers are meeting in Special Session this week to consider education, tourism marketing and economic development funding, with implementation of the state’s medical marijuana constitutional amendment, passed by voters in 2016, officially added to the call Wednesday.


Are vaping and smoking the same? Ray Rodrigues won’t say

As the medical marijuana implementation bill winds its way through the Special Session, some lawmakers still are grappling with whether smoking medicinal cannabis is the same as ‘vaping’ it.

Before the Health and Human Services Committee approved the House bill (HB 5A) on Wednesday night, members asked bill sponsor Ray Rodrigues, the House Republican Leader from Estero.

“Are we allowing smoking?” asked Rep. Thad Altman, an Indialantic Republican. Nope, said Rodrigues, just vaping—short for vaporizing.

Earlier Wednesday, John Morgan—attorney, entrepreneur and main backer of Florida’s medical marijuana amendment—said he still plans to sue the state because lawmakers won’t explicitly allow smokeable medicinal cannabis.

“I will be suing the state to allow smoke,” he said in a statement to “It was part of my amendment.”

It’s not entirely clear that it is; the amendment’s language can be read as allowing smoking but doesn’t make it explicit.

“Is vaping igniting?” Altman also asked. Rodrigues punted, saying he wasn’t an expert, but offered that vaping allows more control of marijuana dosage.

Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican and licensed physician, also dug in.

“If we have the whole flower being ignited … wouldn’t that be a form of smoking?” asked Massullo, a dermatologist.

“I’m not trying to be cute,” Rodrigues said, “but I would need to see it to understand it.”

Medical Jane, a medicinal cannabis information website, says vaping works by “passing heated air over the dried herb (or concentrate), vaporizing the material more evenly and efficiently.” (Debate continues over whether it’s any better for your lungs than smoking, however.)

The marijuana “never comes in touch with the heating element; instead air is either forced by a fan, or through inhalation, over the herbs and through the delivery system,” unlike lighting up and taking a drag on a marijuana cigarette.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Rodrigues still wouldn’t commit.

“As a non-user, I can’t give you that answer,” he said. Given the example of boiling a liquid in a glass container till it gives off vapor, he again deferred.

“You can ask this question in any format you want, I will continue to give the same answer,” Rodrigues said, smiling.

The committee also cleared a related privacy bill (HB 7A) that adds caregivers to patients and doctors in a public records exemption covering personal identifying information in the state’s “Compassionate Use Registry.”

Also, in debate, Altman called the amendment “incredibly misleading (and) flawed from the beginning,” saying he isn’t convinced that there’s good scientific evidence showing marijuana’s medicinal benefit. 

Tallahassee physician Michael W. Forsthoefel, for example, wrote an October 2014 “My View” column for the Tallahassee Democrat, saying he “never would recommend marijuana to any of my patients.”

“With more than 400 chemical compounds at varying strengths, it is impossible to have standardization from one patient to the next, and any potential side effects or drug interactions could do far more harm than good,” he wrote.

Forsthoefel did say “there are compounds in the marijuana plant that can be helpful.”

As Altman put it Wednesday, “We are practicing medicine by petition and that is going to hurt a lot of people. People will suffer because of this (amendment) and I believe people will die.”


As Special session opens, the Florida Senate asserts its prerogatives

That deal everyone assumed Gov. Rick Scott struck with legislative leaders to ensure a smooth special session?

It didn’t exist. At least, it didn’t include Senate President Joe Negron.

Scott invited him to Friday’s press conference held to announce that he was calling a three-day special session on education, Visit Florida, and Enterprise Florida, Negron said Wednesday. He went out of respect for the governor, but there was no meeting of minds.

“It was very clear to the governor, in my communications with him, also through our staff, that any particular details of how the special session would unfold were not agreed to by the Senate. In fact, we were never even approached about those particular details,” Negron told reporters.

“Some falsely interpreted the events as a narrative involving the House, the Senate, and the governor,” he said.

“The Senate’s been very clear that we’re here to do the people’s work.” Just as Scott and the House have their priorities, “the Florida Senate has its own ideas and its own ways that we think the budget can be improved,” Negron said.

For his part, Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala bristled at suggestions the Senate was bound to any deal.

“The mood of the chamber is, we want to do what’s right for the people we represent. And we’re not going to told what to by somebody else,” he said.

The Senate began bucking as soon as it left the gate. It voted to override Scott’s vetoes of various public schools and higher education projects — as an “insurance policy” against House high-handedness regarding the plan to boost spending by $215 million, Latvala told the senators.

The Senate also asserted its prerogatives on the economic development package, and will debate reinstating $100 million in Medicaid reimbursement cuts to charity hospitals.

Sen. David Simmons plans to offer an amendment to divert $389 million pledged to HB 7069 — the Schools of Hope Bill — for the public schools.

Some $100 million of that would provide wrap-around services to kids in underperforming schools — meaning “intensive assistance to children in low-performing schools,” Simmons said — the very ones targeted by Schools of Hope charters.

Simmons argued to reporters that there’s no way the program can get off the ground during the new budget year. In the meantime, it makes sense to spend the “fallow” money on pressing needs, he said.

Latvala saw irony in the House’s cooperation with Scott on the incentives package in light of criticism of the Legislature over behind-closed-doors deal on the Appropriations Act. The governor was among the critics.

“When you give the Senate a bill that you have written between the governor’s office and the House of Representatives and say, ‘This is what we want,’ what’s different about that? Out of the three, it’s just a different two of the three making the decision,” he said.

Sen. Anatere Flores is carrying legislation that would restore $100 million of the $200 million in cuts to hospitals that treat Medicaid patients under the Appropriations Act. That would draw an additional $160 million in federal funds.

She would get the money from the state’s rainy day fund, which, fed by Scott’s line item vetoes would still total around $3 billion, Flores said. There’d be $1.3 billion in the working capital fund, enough to preserve the state’s bond rating.

“We would be somewhat derelict in our duties if we didn’t go back and say, there are some other issues that we could take a stab at,” Flores said.

“These are pregnant mothers. These are children. This is their safety net,” she said.

Is she talking to House leaders?

“I think that we’re all just talking right now. Soon, maybe, we’ll be talking to each other. I hope.”

Regarding the outlook for a timely adjournment on Friday, Negron was conciliatory after the Senate concluded business for the evening.

“The Senate’s relationship with the governor has been very productive,” he said.

“I don’t take it as an offense when the governor exercises his constitutional right to get a final review of the budget and to veto certain items,” he said. “Under our constitutional system, the Legislature gets to also make a review.”

And he welcomed the House’s movement toward positions Scott and the Senate have embraced all along.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. We certainly understand where the House is on their priorities. I hopeful over the next two days we can continue the dialog,” Negron said.

Senate bristles at House ‘Holy Grail’ version of economic incentives package

The Senate’s frustration at the cosy new relationship between Gov. Rick Scott and the House showed during debate in the Committee on Commerce and Tourism on a compromise economic incentives and tourism-marketing plan.

Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, presenting the bill, noted the criticism over “backroom dealmaking” involving the budget approved during an extended regular session last month. “Even, I think, from the governor,” he said.

So, rather than pass the House version of the bill, worked out between House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Scott, Latvala presented a version that boosts oversight over economic development grants and contains other Senate priorities.

He was not about to accept the House version as the “Holy Grail,” Latvala said.

“I will assure you that I’m going to continue with that same attitude over the next couple of days. And we may or may not get a bill here. But we’re not going to get a bill that we’re stuffed with and we’re told we have to pass without amendments. I’m done doing that.”

During the regular session, the Senate took positions much closer to Scott’s than did the House.

A House committee approved that chamber’s version earlier in the day.

SB 2-A would provide $85 million for Enterprise Florida and $66 million for Visit Florida. The money for that first organization would be spent through a Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, “to promote economic opportunity by improving public infrastructure and enhance workforce training.”

The grants could not be used “for the exclusive benefit of any single company, corporation, or business entity.”

Additionally, the Senate bill would withdraw $107 million already committed to projects from an escrow account and move it into an account where it could attract 3 percent or 4 percent interest — instead of the nominal return it draws now.

“It’s just a prudent business decision,” Latvala said.

The Department of Economic Opportunity and Enterprise Florida would recommend grant recipients to the governor, including local infrastructure projects to promote economic activity. The money would be funneled through local governments.

State colleges and technical centers would qualify for workforce training grants targeting “transferrable, sustainable” skills “applicable to more than a single employer.”

Infrastructure projects would be strictly for public ownership and use.

Any money not spent under the existing Quick Action Closure Fund — a pot of cash used to close deals bringing companies to Florida — as of July 1 would revert to the state.

Enterprise Florida would run under a strict 50:50 mix of public money and private donations. And its contracts and operations would fall under public scrutiny.

No employee could earn more than the governor — around $130,000 at the moment.

As for Visit Florida, its staff would become subject to the same daily expense limits as state employees, even though Visit Florida is not a state agency. The bill also tightens financial disclosure requirements for corporate officers.

Deals by both agencies worth more than $750,000 would be subject to review by a Legislative Budget Commission or, alternatively, the House speaker and Senate president.

House panel clears Special Session infrastructure, job training bill

The House’s main budgeting panel on Wednesday cleared one of the bills planned for the Special Session dealing with tourism promotion, job training and public infrastructure.

The Appropriations Committee, on a unanimous vote, OK’d the measure (HB 1A).

Among other things, it creates the $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, and awards $76 million to and imposes accountability and transparency measures on VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing agency.

The bill—carried by House Republican Paul Renner—was supported by a range of tourism interests, including VISIT FLORIDA CEO Ken Lawson, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, and more than a dozen independent hotel owners from throughout the state.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat, tried to amend the bill, however.

He wanted to shut down the ability of a project getting funded the same year it was vetoed: “I don’t want this to become a back door,” he said.

Moskowitz withdrew his amendment after Renner said there could be “changes in circumstance” that would merit later funding of a vetoed project.

Several Democrats complained about the bill before voting for it.

Rep. Roy Hardemon, a Miami Democrat, said he had no compassion for people “crying on his shoulder” about not getting funding when tourists already don’t visit inner city areas, including Liberty City, that he represents. 

Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat, had reservations about giving Scott and future governors a “big bucket of money with no oversight,” referring to the Job Growth Grant Fund.

Also, “it seems to me there’s going to be no transparency at all … when that money goes to local governments” to be spent, he said. 

And House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa used the example of a man who has expensive golfing equipment but can’t play.

The growth fund “is all bag, no golf … it’s a slush fund, money you worked hard for and send to us, now we’re going to say, ‘here you go, Guv, spend this on who you want to,’ ” she said. 

But Republicans countered that the bill was “exactly what we hoped for … and it feels great,” as Rep. Jason Brodeur put it. 

House Republican Leader Ray Rodrigues added: “We will have greater control … We have taken a program that was problematic and made it much, much stronger.”

The committee also approved a bill (HB 3A) for education funding that “appropriates $11.7 billion in total state funds” and “provides $7,296.23 in total funds per student, a $100 increase over total funds per student provided in Fiscal Year 2016-2017.”

Denise Grimsley, Kelli Stargel ask Joe Negron to support veto overrides of 2 budget line items

Two senators have asked Senate President Joe Negron to support expanding the call for a special session to override two line-item vetoes.

Sens. Denise Grimsley and Kelli Stargel sent a letter to Negron on Wednesday asking for his “assistant and support in expanding the call for Special Session 2017-A to include the veto override of two budget line items.”

Grimsley and Stargel have asked for Negron’s support to override Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of $3 million for Polk State College and $1 million for the IFAS 4-H $ Family Initiative.

In their letter to Negron, Grimsley and Stargel said the decision to veto funding for Polk State College “will have a negative impact in our community and will result in the Lake Wales campus shutting down.”

As for the 4-H & Family Initiative veto, the two women said it will “negatively impact the development of leadership skills for young Floridians interested in the agriculture industry.” The funding, Stargel and Grimsley wrote, has been part of the base for “many years and was singled out for the the first time in the 2017 Regular Session.”

Rick Scott expands special session call to include medical marijuana

Medical marijuana has officially been added to the agenda for this week’s special session.

Gov. Rick Scott issued a proclamation Tuesday afternoon expanding the three-day special session to include medical marijuana implementing legislation. The announcement came shortly after Scott met with House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, who carried the implementing legislation during the regular session.

“Medical marijuana was approved by 71 percent of Florida voters in 2016, and I believe that it is the role of the Florida Legislature to determine how to best implement this approved constitutional amendment,” said Scott in a statement. “I am glad that both the Florida Senate and House are moving toward crafting legislation to help patients, and I have added medical marijuana to the call for special session.”

Sen. Rob Bradley has filed legislation that will be taken up this week. During a brief floor session Wednesday, Rodrigues told members the bills appeared to “match up” with the House’s position. He expected a bill on the House floor by Thursday.

The agreement calls for 10 new growers to be licensed this year, in addition to the seven that already hold a state license under the existing, limited cannabis program. Five new growers would be added for every 100,000 patients.

Retail facilities would be capped at 25; however, the cap on dispensaries will sunset in 2020.

“I know many members of the Legislature, including Senate President Joe Negron and Speaker Richard Corcoran, have worked hard on implementing Amendment 2 and I look forward to the Legislature passing a bill this week that puts Florida patients first,” said Scott in a statement.

The 2017 Legislative Session ended without a bill to implement the state’s medical marijuana constitutional amendment. An implementing bill gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.


Senate votes to override veto of public education budget as ‘insurance’

The Senate voted Tuesday to override Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of the public schools budget, plus a number of higher education building projects.

The first override was an “insurance policy” intended to keep the schools open after July 1 if this week’s special session of the Legislature breaks down.

“This is an insurance policy. We just don’t want to get to a situation where we end up without having our (education) finance program funded,” Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala said.

“You know as well as I do that we’re in contentious times here. We’re faced with very aggressive House of Representatives in advocating their position on issues,” he said.

“You never know what that’s going to produce. I don’t want to be responsible, as our Appropriations Chairman, and our president doesn’t want to be responsible, for getting into a situation where we leave town and we do not have our school funding in place.”

The measure passed with three dissenting votes — well within the necessary supermajority. The senators subsequently approved a raft of additional veto overrides involving public education.

And when the Senate reconvened Tuesday evening following committee hearings, it approved a series of overrides of higher education capital project vetoes worth about $75 million — reflecting Senate President Joe Negron‘s ambitions for the university system.

“We feel strongly that universities are an important component of economic development, of attracting people to Florida,” Negron said.

Latvala noted that some of the items had been in the budget for years and subjected to vetoes this year for the first time. They included projects at Miami Dade College, Florida State University, the University of Florida, Florida International University, and Florida Gateway College.

The new state budget takes effect on July 1.

The plan remained to take up separate legislation that would funnel $215 million into the education budget on top of the $404.6 million in the state budget approved during an extended session last month,” Latvala said

Sen. Tom Lee asked whether Latvala had briefed the governor on the plan, including the override.

“I’m sure they are watching on TV,” Latvala replied.

John Morgan: I’m still suing the Legislature

Where there’s no smoke, there’s a John Morgan lawsuit.

Morgan—attorney, entrepreneur and main backer of Florida’s medical marijuana amendment—Wednesday said he still plans to sue the state despite lawmakers brokering a deal to include implementation of the measure in this week’s Special Session.

Mainly, Morgan’s hair’s on fire that Florida doesn’t allow smokeable medicinal cannabis. Morgan first said he planned to sue last month.

“Done is better than perfect and this is far from perfect,” he said in a statement to “I will be suing the state to allow smoke. It was part of my amendment.”

The marijuana amendment refers to allowing smokeable cannabis only obliquely, however.

It says in one section, for instance, the state can’t “require any accommodation of any on-site medical use of marijuana in any correctional institution or detention facility or place of education or employment, or of smoking medical marijuana in any public place.”

The amendment also uses the state law definition of marijuana that includes “every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the plant or its seeds or resin,” seeming to suggest smokeable cannabis is included. 

“These legislators don’t understand capitalism because almost all of them have never run a business or made a payroll or made money,” Morgan added. “Some are so broke they need a cosigner to pay cash.

“The free market will sort this all out,” he added. House Speaker RichardCorcoran was right. Cream rises. Price and service dictate who wins and who loses. Just ask Kmart, Sears and J.C. Penney. And ask Wal-Mart about Amazon.”

Lawmakers reached agreement early Wednesday, hours before the start of this week’s Special Session, to include medical marijuana implementation in the call.

The deal calls for 10 new growers to be licensed this year, in addition to the seven existing ones. Five new growers would be added for every 100,000 patients, and a limit of 25 retail locations per authorized grower will be OK’d. That cap will “sunset” in 2020.

The 2017 Legislative Session ended without a bill to implement the state’s medical marijuana constitutional amendment. An implementing bill gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.

The medical cannabis constitutional amendment passed in 2016, with just over 71 percent of statewide voters approving the measure.

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