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New budget year brings boost in spending

Florida’s new $88.7 billion budget will take effect Sunday, but that doesn’t tell the whole story about spending on education, health care, transportation and other state programs in the new fiscal year.

Projected spending in 2018-2019 is greater than the budget bottom line because lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott approved 16 bills during the 2018 Legislative Session that included additional funding totaling nearly $610 million.

The $89.3 billion in spending is $4.36 billion higher than the 2017-2018 budget year that ends Saturday, representing more than a 5 percent increase. It is more than $20 billion higher than the $69 billion 2011-2012 spending plan, which was the first under Scott, who leaves office in January because of term limits.

The state’s largest expenditures in 2018-2019 will be on human services, which include Medicaid and other health-care programs, accounting for 43.3 percent of the spending. Education will be the second largest component at 28.5 percent.

Among the bills was legislation (SB 4) making permanent an expansion of the Bright Futures scholarship program, including covering 75 percent of the tuition and fees in the new academic year for students who are “medallion scholars.” The $123.5 million in spending will also let those students use their scholarships for summer classes in 2019.

An additional $53.6 million will be spent on dealing with Florida’s ongoing opioid crisis through another bill (HB 21).

The largest spending outside the main budget is $400 million for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act (SB 7026), which passed after the Feb. 14 mass shooting that killed 17 people at the Broward County school.

The legislation includes $69 million for mental-health programs in school districts, a $97 million increase to hire more school resource officers, a $98 million grant program for improving school security and $67 million for an initiative that would allow school personnel to be trained as armed “guardians” on school campuses.

The increased safety spending is reflected in a $485 million increase in the funding formula for the 67 school districts in 2018-2019. But since much of the $101.50 increase in per-student funding is earmarked for the safety programs, the school districts will only see a statewide average increase of 47 cents in the “base student allocation,” the primary source for general operations.

State employees will not receive a general pay raise in the new budget, which was approved by lawmakers in March. But there will be targeted increases.

The seven state Supreme Court justices will see their annual pay rise to $220,600, a 24 percent increase.

State law enforcement officers could get a raise up to 10 percent if they have 10 or more years of experience. Department of Juvenile Justice probation and detention officers will get a 10 percent increase.

State firefighters will get a $2,500 annual pay raise, while there will be adjustment up to $4,000 a year for assistant state attorneys and public defenders if they have worked more than three years in their offices.

In health care, the new budget has nearly a $900 million increase to account for additional costs in Medicaid, the state-federal health program for poor and disabled people. There is $128.5 million increase in Medicaid payments to nursing homes.

Nursing home patients will benefit from a $16.9 million increase in their “personal needs allowance,” which will increase by $25 a month to $130. It will allow them to pay for personal services and items like hair styling and clothes.

In the environmental arena, in addition to $101 million for the Florida Forever land-acquisition program, there is $64 million for an Everglades-area reservoir project, $50 million for natural springs restoration, $50 million for repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and $50 million for beach-management grants to local governments.

The new budget has a $9.9 billion “work program” for the Department of Transportation, including $3.9 billion for the construction of highways and bridges and $1.3 billion for resurfacing and maintenance.

More than $454 million is slated to be spent on education construction and maintenance projects in the new academic year. That includes $50 million for maintenance at public schools and $145 million for charter schools.

The budget includes $3.25 billion in reserve funding, including $1 billion in unspent general revenue, $1.48 billion in a budget-stabilization fund and $770 million in the Chiles endowment, which is funded by a settlement with tobacco companies.

Chris King tempers expectations on his big gun agenda

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King told a room full of gun-control activists Wednesday that he’s carrying a big agenda for them if he’s elected governor but that he’s got some doubts about how much of it could be enacted, short of a Constitutional Amendment.

King, the Winter Park entrepreneur, has embraced the full Democratic platform led by banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and tightening background checks, and has added a few items of his own, such as a bullet tax to help pay for gun-violence prevention programs.

In downtown Orlando Wednesday, a gathering of about 30 activists, which included members of Moms Demand Action, March For Our Lives, the Youth Coalition to End Gun Violence, and some unaffiliated individuals, welcomed much of King’s agenda, and cheered and applauded him more than once, allowing him to declare them and himself to be “soul mates.”

But in anticipation of working with a Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, King also tapped the brakes.

“All of those things that you’ve talked about are going to be, if I win and I have two houses against me, are going to be very hard to pass,” King said.

“We’ve been to Tallahassee. We know all about that,” agreed one of the members of Moms Demand Action, a group that emerged from the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Ct.

“I want to be very honest about that. I’m even feeling there is a flexing of muscle by the NRA. They feel they’ve survived the first blitz,” King picked up. “They’re courage is coming back. You see it in Republican nominees. They’re feeling like the students will dissipate. … And so the way this works in my view is we have to keep the heat on.

“But likely the way it would work is some combination of things would be on the ballot, led by citizens, championed by a Democratic governor, in 2020, a presidential year. I think that’s when could make the strike. That’s how it would happen,” King added. “It certainly would be nice to see it earlier, but that’s probably how it’s going to happen.”

King faces former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene for the August 28 Democratic primary. All of them except Greene, who still is in the dead-silence phase of his campaign since filing last Friday, has made gun control big parts of their campaigns, especially since the Feb. 14 massacre of students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

King has stepped up the agenda with his proposal last week to use sales taxes from guns and bullets, plus an additional “safety fee” tax on bullets, and a couple other sources, to finance statewide gun violence prevention and study programs.

Wednesday’s roundtable discussion also veered often into other areas such as criminal justice reform, mental health funding, and education, allowing King to tout his proposals in those areas, especially his criminal justice reform platform reducing the housing of nonviolent offenders in prisons.

Joe Henderson: Gwen Graham makes stand against conversion therapy quackery

So-called “conversion therapy” is only a thing because a segment of wingnut nation considers it a sacred duty to force its values on everyone. The practice goes on because too many lawmakers look the other way.

But it’s not therapy at all, at least as reasonably educated people understand the practice. It is, instead, medieval quackery on par with bloodletting and lobotomies.

What it does have is a high chance of inflicting real harm on someone who dares to be who they are.

It is outlawed in 12 states, and while Florida doesn’t have a blanket ban it is prohibited in 19 municipalities — including Tampa, Miami, and Palm Beach County. As Florida Politics reported, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham said Legislature should extend that ban to the entire state.

She is correct.  

Conversion therapy seeks to force, er, “convert” gay and transgender people into becoming straight people. What possibly could go wrong?

It usually is linked to conservative religious zealots, not to be confused with many mainline evangelicals who simply believe homosexuals may be born that way but can fight the “temptation.”

Because homosexuality it is not considered a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, treatment to “correct” that not only lacks scientific backup, it can actually be harmful to the person being “corrected.”

The so-called therapy can include electroshock treatments to induce seizures and memory loss, maybe so the one being “treated” will forget what vile people did that to him or her. It relies on basically brainwashing the treated person into hating themselves enough to “change.”

As Saul Levin, the APA’s Chief Executive Officer and Medical Director, American Psychiatric Association, noted, “(the treatment) does come bundled with a real group of potential risks, including depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior.”

This “therapy” is not a new thing, but it gained increased attention when the Republican Party platform in 2016 tiptoed up to the edge of what many believed was an endorsement of the practice, declaring “right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.”

The key word — “therapy” — was seized upon by LGBTQ groups, but party officials denied there was any connection.

But it is a fact that many conservative Christians have a tough time separating the biblical declaration that homosexuality is a sin from the rights of people under the secular law. That may help explain why two attempts by Democrats to push through a law banning conversion therapy through the Legislature got nowhere.

Alas, even if Graham wins and becomes Governor, Democrats will be pressed to have enough legislative muscle to get this past Tallahassee Republicans. She could always try an executive order, as she hinted in a tweet, but opponents could challenge that in court.

Some conversions are a bridge too far, you know?

After all, can’t upset the base by endorsing science.

Medical marijuana regulator: We’ll change our rules—or not

Despite lawmakers’ concerns, the Department of Health has final say over how medical marijuana plays out in Florida, the state’s top regulator suggested.

The agency regulates the drug through its Office of Medical Marijuana Use. The office’s director, Christian Bax, spoke with reporters Thursday after a rulemaking hearing in Tallahassee.

A legislative panel took Bax’s office to task in a letter sent earlier this month, asking whether staff there is “refusing to modify the rules” governing the drug.

The Joint Administrative Procedures Committee (JAPC) ensures that agencies write rules that line up with statutes passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. 

Medicinal cannabis regulators haven’t yet formally responded to the panel’s objections, including one over a $60,000 “nonrefundable application fee” to become a marijuana provider. 

“The proposed rules we issue go in front of JAPC, JAPC responds … There is always give and take, especially with complicated and controversial rules,” Bax said.

He said department staff is still “reviewing” the 2 ½-page letter.

“If the Department believes that we need to make changes, we’ll make the change. If not, we’re going to continue to move forward with the process,” Bax told reporters.

He added: “We certainly respect the Legislature’s prerogative to provide input on this process and we’re looking forward to continuing our work with them.”

For instance, he had clarified in the hearing that the application fee could be refunded before his office “took action” on a given application. 

Bax is trying to finalize rules governing applications to become the state’s next medical marijuana providers.

State law says within six months of reaching 100,000 “active” and “qualified” patients, “the department shall license four additional medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTCs).” That means they must have “a qualified patient identification card.” As of last Friday, there were just over 86,000.

Lawmakers have been upset for months over perceptions of the department’s lassitude in implementing medical marijuana under the 2016 constitutional amendment voters passed by 71 percent.

Moreover, at a meeting this February, JAPC formally approved 17 individual objections and listed more than 40 distinct operations violations “with no standards or guidance … , thereby vesting unbridled discretion in the Department.”

The committee also sent more than a dozen letters to the department since October giving Health officials a heads-up as to concerns—to be met with no response.

The Legislature also included a provision in the 2018-19 state budget that freezes a portion of salaries and benefits for the department’s top brass, including Bax, until they get going on putting new rules in place.

New equipment should boost Lottery revenues, agency says

The Florida Lottery projects an increase in sales from new vending machines and other equipment provided through a new multi-million dollar agency contract.

Lottery representatives on Wednesday presented to the state’s Revenue Estimating Impact Conference, a roundtable of state economists. Lawmakers use their projections to craft the state budget each Legislative Session.

Details on the actual numbers should be available later Wednesday.

Agency officials said it was negotiating a deal with a “big-box retailer,” which it didn’t name, to sell even more Lottery tickets in the state.

That’s part of a push to increase the number of places where people can buy Lottery products, which now stands at 13,000 retailers and has been “stagnant” in recent years.

Lottery proceeds go into the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, which helps pay for public education.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran had sued the Lottery last year, saying the Lottery was guilty of “wasteful and improper spending” and “signing a contract that spends beyond existing budget limitations.”

The contract is for new retailer terminals, in-store signage, self-service lottery vending machines, self-service ticket checkers and an upgraded communications network.

He won and the Lottery appealed. In December, the Lottery agreed to tweak the deal to require legislative oversight and approval. The appeal was later dropped.

The Lottery, which reports to Gov. Rick Scott, disclosed changes in what was originally a contract worth $700 million over an initial 10-year period, with three available 3-year renewal options.

Among others, the changes include reducing the number of “full-service vending machines” and requiring the vendor, International Game Technology (IGT), to “support the Lottery’s marketing efforts” by kicking back $30,000 a month.

Special Session on school funding appears dead

With Republicans lining up in opposition, a Democratic attempt to spur a Special Legislative Session on education funding appeared dead Tuesday.

After a request by Democrats triggered the process, lawmakers are being polled this week about whether they want to hold a Special Session.

Three-fifths of the members of each Republican-dominated chamber must support the request for a special session to be held. For the House, that means support from at least 70 of the current 117 members. The Senate needs 23 yes votes from the current 39 members.

But the Department of State released results late Tuesday afternoon that showed 52 House members opposed to a special session and 36 in favor.

Even if supporters could round up the remaining 29 votes — which is highly unlikely — they would fall short of the 70 votes needed in the House to hold a session. In the Senate, 11 Democrats had supported holding a Session, while nine Republicans had opposed it.

Lawmakers have until noon Thursday to vote.

Tally shows early GOP opposition to Special Session

Early polling shows many Republican lawmakers don’t support a Democratic proposal to return to Tallahassee this summer for a special session to address public-school funding.

The Department of State on Monday released results from lawmakers who had responded to a poll on a special-session request by Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat, and Miami Democratic Rep. Nicholas Duran.

As of 4:30 p.m. Monday, 27 House members had voted in favor of a special session, while 36 had voted against the idea.

Three-fifths of the members of each Republican-dominated chamber must support the request for a special session to be held. For the House, that means support from at least 70 of the current 117 members. The Senate needs 23 yes votes from the current 39 members.

Republicans Reps. Julio Gonzalez of Venice and Kathleen Peters of Treasure Island have joined House Democrats in supporting the proposal.

With just 13 members of the Senate responding as of Monday afternoon, the tally was seven Democrats for the special session and six Republicans opposed, with the opponents including Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, and incoming President Bill Galvano, of Bradenton.

The polling is one of two ways lawmakers can spur a special session. The other is for the Senate president and House speaker to jointly call for lawmakers to return to Tallahassee.

Lawmakers have until noon Thursday to respond to the poll.

TaxWatch stumps for property-tax cap on November ballot

Asked for a 30-second ‘elevator speech‘ on why voters should choose ‘yes’ for Amendment 2 in November, Florida TaxWatch president Dominic M. Calabro didn’t blink.

“If you don’t vote ‘yes,’ either you or your neighbors will see massive tax increases and great deal of property tax dissatisfaction … anger even, if we see property taxes jump by 20 percent,” he said Tuesday, at a press conference in Tallahassee.

The proposed constitutional amendment by the Legislature would cap property tax hikes at 10 percent on properties that don’t have a homestead exemption, such as vacation homes, apartment complexes and undeveloped lots.

“If approved, the amendment removes the scheduled repeal of such provisions in 2019 and shall take effect Jan. 1, 2019,” according to the ballot summary. Voters passed a non-homestead 10 percent tax cap in 2008.

“Failure to make permanent the non-homestead exemption cap could result in Floridians paying as much as $700 million more in property taxes annually,” the organization said in a follow-up press release.

When asked whether that would mean $700 million less in tax revenue for government services, TaxWatch vice president of research Kurt Wenner said a vote for the amendment just means keeping current law intact.

“This is what’s happening now, so it’s not a question of taking money away from government,” he said.

Not passing the amendment “would take money out of the economy,” Calabro added, saying property owners would have less spending power.

The measure also is supported by the Florida Association of REALTORS® and by the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“It allows business owners to plan for the future by having a better grasp on their budgets, so they can expand and create more jobs,” said Carrie O’Rourke, vice president of public policy for the REALTORS, in a statement. “It helps renters continue to afford their housing as they save to one day purchase a home.”

“Before the non-homestead tax cap, nearly three out of four non-homestead properties in Florida had taxes increases of more than 10 percent year to year,” O’Rourke added. “In 2006, 30 percent of non-homestead properties were hit with an 80 percent hike from just the year before. Florida cannot continue to move forward with these kinds of tax hikes.”

TaxWatch’s report on the amendment’s impact is here. It’s one of 13 proposals voters will decide in the Nov. 6 general election.

Democratic lawmakers call for special session on K-12 funding

Two South Florida state lawmakers plan to ask the Legislature to increase the public education budget, which they say was insufficiently funded during the 2018 Legislative Session and anticipate a budget shortfall exacerbated by mandates passed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.

The Legislature officially adjourned in March, but on Monday Democratic Reps. Shevrin Jones, of West Park, and Nicholas Duran, of Miami, said they’re preparing a push for a special session to increase appropriations to school districts statewide.

Schools, the lawmakers claim, were blindsided by provisions in SB 7026, the school safety bill passed in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland.

The sweeping package appropriated $67 million to a program designed to arm non-teacher personnel in schools, resulting in an estimated $101.5 per-student increase to education funding. But the program is optional, and some of Florida’s largest school districts have already opted out of it. That’s led some to claim that the actual increase in base allocation per pupil is closer to 47 cents.

Superintendents, as reported by the News Service of Florida, said in March that they would not be able to staff at least one armed person at each school, another provision included in SB 7026. The Times/Herald bureau reported earlier this month that nearly all of 23 school districts sampled in a survey indicated they anticipate a shortfall in funding.

“School Districts across the state are hurting,” Jones said in a prepared statement. “They are asking us to rectify this egregious oversight. We will not stand idly by as we see the integrity of Florida’s educational institutions crumble because our leadership fails to provide us a proper foundation to build Florida’s future.”

To cover the mandated costs, Jones said schools will be forced to “hemorrhage qualified educators and the resources necessary to function at the most basic level.”

Added Duran: “This is yet another attack on our public schools cloaked under the pretense of good intentions. At the end of the day, leadership did what they wanted to do and not what’s best for Florida’s children.”

Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest school district, expects a .11 percent decrease in its budget, and has cited concerns of teacher retention and maintaining employment levels, according to the news release.

The announcement from the lawmakers echoes concerns raised by school superintendents even before SB 7026 was signed into law. As well, the Florida Teachers Union has consistently pushed for lawmakers to reconvene to unlock funds trapped in the optional armed-personnel program.

Following Jones and Duran, the entire Democratic bench in the race for Governor issued statements supporting a special session.

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said “students and teachers have been shortchanged for decades.”

“If we fail to secure this special session this year, I will push for one next year as Governor,” Gillum said.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, also a Democratic candidate for Governor, made a similar promise.

Cutting corners “to foot the bill is unacceptable,” he said. “A forty-seven cent increase to Florida’s per-student education funding is embarrassing and a failure to our children–as Governor, I will make sure that the Legislature stays in session until they properly fund our public schools.”

On Twitter, Orlando businessman Chris King and former Congresswoman Gwen Graham also chimed in with support.

There are two methods by which lawmakers can reconvene for a special session, per Florida law. Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran can jointly call on lawmakers to come back to Tallahassee, or 20 percent of members can request the two chambers reconvene — though that would have to be approved by three-fifths of the Republican-led Legislature.

Requests for comment are pending with Corcoran and Negron.

Lawmakers’ hobbies amuse and confuse on social media

From karaoke to ballroom dancing to ice sculpting, the hobbies of Florida’s legislators are legion.

A Florida Politics reporter recently noticed and tweeted that Rep. Carlos G. Smith, an Orlando Democrat, listed but one “recreational interest,” karaoke, on his legislative info page.

That sparked a number of responses on social media last week.

TCPalm reporter Ali Schmitz noted that outgoing Senate President Joe Negron declares “courthouse architecture” as an interest. Must be all those columns.

Sun-Sentinel reporter Dan Sweeney chimed in: “You guys have cracked open a never-ending font of amazement. Reviewing the recreational interests of state reps is kind of a hobby of mine,” he tweeted.

“Along with the aforementioned, I’d also point you to the ballroom dancing of @ColleenLBurton and the ice sculpting of @JoeGruters.”

Burton soon defended her honor: “So you know, I competed in 2011. #notnicetohobbyshame

Lara Medley, Burton’s legislative assistant, also tweeted: “I would like a demonstration of Representative @JoeGruters hobby please.” Gruters liked that tweet but did not respond.

Sweeney added: “Not to mention the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu of @AmyMercado and the fact that @JamesGrantFL lists ‘the woods’ as a recreational interest without saying what it is he does there, which leaves a lot to the imagination.”

Undoubtedly after some #FlaPol Twitterati head scratching, Grant took to Twitter to explain: “Lest there be any confusion, bow & bird hunting.

“Fly rods on the water, my bow or Berettas in the woods, & a hockey stick on the ice are the 3 scenarios where I can truly get lost enough to make the world around me stop,” he added. “And no, I don’t get any of the 3 enough. #CarryOn …”

Even POLITICO Florida scribe Marc Caputo weighed in with a memory: The late “Sen. Larcenia Bullard had the best hobby in the clerk’s manual once: ‘collecting butterfly-shaped objects.’ I’m not making this up.”

Indeed, he was not. An old clerk’s manual confirmed that hobby, along with “skating,” “pinochle” and others. Bullard died in 2013 after serving 18 years in the Legislature. 

Outgoing House Speaker Richard Corcoran lists no hobbies. With six kids, he’s busy.

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