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Panel: Amendment 2 firing up big bowl of who-knows-what

Medical marijuana champion John Morgan has said repeatedly recently that the “now-what?” questions regarding Amendment 2 are in the hands of lobbyists, lawyers, and legislators; but on Thursday a lobbyist, a lawyer and a legislator told told the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce they don’t really  know what’s next at this point.

Lobbyist Louis Rotundo who represents the Florida Medical Cannabis Association, lawyer Wade Vose who counsels several cities, and state Rep. Jason Bordeur, all agreed that the Florida Legislature, the Florida Department of Health, cities and counties, and businesses and entrepreneurs wanting to go into the medical marijuana industry, all have a lot of unanswered questions to sort through. And just saying no isn’t going to work in most cases.

In particular Brodeur, the Sanford Republican who has professional background in working with the Food and Drug Administration on drug approvals, outlined a long list of uncertainties from regulating where seeds can come from, to limitations on who can work in the industry, to disposal of unused parts of the plants, to how law enforcement deals with situations involving people with medical marijuana referrals.

All of that, he cautioned, is with a background of federal law that still make medical marijuana a Schedule 1 drug. That means if the federal government decided to enforce the laws, people could go to federal prisons for things authorized by the state legislature and Amendment 2.

“There are 100 decision points that we still need to do,” he said. “The answer is, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

The same may be true with how local governments might consider regulating local facilities, particularly retail outlets, known as dispensaries in state regulations and as pot shops in opponents’ language. Rotundo cautioned that cities ought not try to zone them into industrial areas only. He drew an image of a woman taking a child to a dispensary in an industrial area – a dark and creepy location. And she’s carrying cash, because marijuana medicines can only be purchased with cash. If she’s robbed or worse, the city is going to look really bad, he cautioned. Another alternative to tough zoning restrictions – which is happening right now – involves marijuana medicine being delivered to homes in unmarked delivery vans and cars, a method he suggested most neighborhoods would found unacceptable if they knew it was happening.

Vose conceded the points, but said cities and counties still must receive, from the legislature, direction and authority to regulate where the shops can go.

“It was a big wake-up call for cities and counties that they need to get in gear to get ready for these organizations, particularly for the retail,” Vose said of Amendment 2’s passage. “That’s where the big focus is for local government. Getting in gear and getting in place appropriate regulations… so they can adequately regulate where these products are going to be sold.”

Rotundo said the growth of the industry remains unpredictable. So far, it’s small, and he expressed doubts about the high estimates some have cited, that it could grow to a billion dollar industry in Florida. As long as it’s small, with seven licensed marijuana medicine producers and a handful of others that may win court challenges to join them,  there won’t be much to regulate.

“You can’t suspend the laws of economics,” he said. “The patient base is very limited right now.”

 

New laws target cough-syrup abuse, opioid abuse, legal process

A law taking effect on New Year’s Day will make it more difficult for kids to abuse over-the-counter cough medicine to go “Robo-tripping.”

SB 938 makes it illegal for manufacturers, distributors, or retailers to supply medicines containing dextromethorphan, or DXM, to anyone under 18. Anyone who looks younger than 25 would have to supply proof of age.

The law forbids local governments from setting up their own restrictions.

The law is among a number approved during 2016 that take effect on Jan. 1. The others have to do with opioid prescriptions and the technical details of suing financial institutions.

Under the DXM law, anyone who possesses or receives a product containing the drug with the intent to distribute would face civil penalties of $100 for each violation.

An employee who makes the sale could receive a written warning, but the employer could have to pay $100 per violation. Employers could escape the penalty by showing a good-faith effort to comply with the law.

More than 120 products, including Robitussin, Coricidin, and Vicks 44, contain DXM, making it the most frequently used cough medicine in the United States. It is safe if used as intended, but its abuse via consumption in large doses or in combination with alcohol or other drugs can be deadly, according to a legislative analysis.

The kids call it “robo-tripping” or “skittling.”

Another new law, SB 422, is intended to increase the availability of “abuse deterrent” opioids. Addicts often crush opioids, such as Hydrocodone, so they can snort, smoke, or inject them. New manufacturing techniques deter abuse by making them very difficult to tamper with.

The new law would prevent health insurers from requiring pre-approval to substitute abuse-deterrent drugs for those more liable to abuse.

SB 1104 allows financial institutions to designate a central location or a person as the place or agent for the service of process — that is, for delivery of subpoenas, summonses or writs in lawsuits.

The law was a response to a 4th District Court of Appeal ruling invalidating a writ of garnishment on Bank of America. A process server had served a bank teller in West Palm Beach, but the court said that wasn’t good enough unless every superior officer in the bank was unavailable.

Finally, under a constitutional amendment the voters approved in 2004, Florida’s minimum wage will increase by a nickel — from $8.05 to $8.10 per hour.

The amendment requires the state to tie the minimum wage to the federal Consumer Price Index.

TaxWatch Christmas gift: 15 ways to save Florida taxpayers money

Florida TaxWatch chief Dominic Calabro conceded Thursday that legislators might balk at spending money next year to improve government efficiency, but pointed to 15 innovations that wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime.

They include prison reforms and requiring the governor and Legislature to pass specific legislation every year directing agency chiefs to find ways to operate more efficiently.

“Revenue projections going into the 2017 legislative session suggest there will be just enough money to fund a continuation budget. A lot of it depends on the vagaries of the national economy and the like — particularly how tourism goes,” Calabro said during a news conference.

“If ever there was a time to have an efficiency gift to the taxpayers of Florida, this is it.”

Standing in front of a Christmas tree in the government watchdog organization’s Tallahassee headquarters, Calabro undid colorful wrapping paper containing a report the Government Efficiency Tax Force released in June, which included the recommendations he emphasized Thursday.

Together with ideas that would require some up-front investment, they would save a projected $2 billion annually.

State economist project taxes will just about pay for existing programs during the fiscal year that begins July 1, although Florida faces additional demands including fighting citrus canker and replenishing beaches scoured clean of sand by Hurricane Matthew.

And that’s before lawmakers consider state leaders’ spending priorities.

What’s more, the state faces deficits of at $1.3 billion one year from now and $1.9 billion the year after that.

The efficiency task force, on which Calabro served, proposes ways to streamline government every four years. Calabro said the group’s proposed Florida Government Efficiency Act would promote efficiency every year.

The law would require governors and lawmakers to identify cost savings when proposing and approving annual state budgets. State agency leaders would provide quarterly progress reports.

The law would have to pass each year before the state budget could.

“Let’s make use of this crisis” to create “something that’s structurally beneficial year after year after year,” Calabro said.

“What we need is a mechanism that prompts them to act and has consequences if they don’t. If they don’t implement it, that means we’re not able to do the kind of cleanup of Lake Okeechobee that we would like; we’re not able to make improvements to higher education we would like; we’re not able to make some of the reforms that the House likes or the governor likes.”

The freebie list includes a number of items involving criminal justice — including changing eligibility standards to allow the release of non-violent elderly inmates to save as much as $80 million annually.

Deploying risks and needs assessments during sentencing, to identify offenders who require less supervision, would save $2.8 million every year. And it might ease overcrowding that has contributed to scandals within the Department of Corrections, Calabro said.

“We’re trying to say, ‘Let’s make sure the sentence fits the crime, and that it will actually be beneficial to us. A lot of prisons are nothing more than crime colleges,” he said. “We can reduce crime, save money, and really improve people’s lives by helping to avoid it.”

You can download the task force report, containing a complete list of the recommendations, here. Appendix A features draft language for the proposed efficiency legislation.

Joe Negron envisions block grant system for Medicaid in Florida

Senate President Joe Negron wants to start preparing for a day when Congress turns the Medicaid system into a block-grant program administered by the states.

“What I’d like to see the Legislature do … is to start building the framework of what a block grant program would look like now that there is a reasonable chance that that could happen,” the Stuart Republican told reporters Tuesday during a briefing in his Capitol office.

“I don’t want to wait until the federal government acts and Congress acts and we go into the next session and try to build it. I would like to fill out the model of what a Florida-run Medicaid would look like, and then — if and when Washington acts — Florida would be ready to go.”

Republican President-Elect Donald Trump has proposed switching Medicaid, which mostly covers low-income people, from an entitlement program largely paid for by the federal government into block grants that would allow states to exercise more control. They could save money by providing care to fewer people.

Negron cast his proposal in more generous terms.

“Rather than treating Medicaid as a program where even the vocabulary that we use is disparaging, in my opinion — we say someone is on Medicaid, as if it’s an addiction; no one says, ‘I’m on health insurance’ — use an ownership adjective,” he said.

“I would like to see a system that empowered our friends and neighbors, millions of them, who get their health care from Medicaid.”

In other words, Medicaid no longer would represent “second-tier medical care,” Negron said.

“That’s what I aspire to. Part of that would come if the state is given the opportunity to build a program that looks like Florida and addresses our issues.”

Such a system also might address the “Medicaid gap” — a problem for people in states, like Florida, that passed on Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Many people make too much to qualify for Medicaid but don’t quality for insurance subsidies through that law’s federal insurance exchange.

“I would hope that we would address that,” said Negron, who opposed expanding Medicaid under the ACA, which he would like to see repealed.

“If there’s a block grant program to the state, that opens an opportunity to a new discussion,” he said.

As for the loss of insurance subsidies if Republicans in Congress repeal the ACA, “that’s an issue we would have to address if and when that happens.”

Personnel note: Steve Crisafulli joins Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida board

Former House Speaker Steve Crisafulli will serve a three-year term on the board of directors of the Fish & Wildlife Commission of Florida.

“Steve has been an extraordinary leader in all of his community, business and legislative endeavors,” chairman Rodney Barreto said in a written statement Tuesday.

“His thoughtful pragmatism, deep ties to the land, and dedication to preserving Florida’s natural heritage and traditional outdoor pastimes make him an ideal addition to our board.”

The nonprofit foundation supports the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission in protecting the state’s natural resources.

“As someone who enjoys Florida’s outdoors, I look forward to being part of the discussion as to how we best preserve the environment in which our state’s wildlife and fishing resources thrive, protecting them for the generations to follow,” Crisafulli said.

Crisafulli served as speaker of the Florida House during the 2014-16 Legislature. His business background is in agribusiness — he directed the Brevard County Farm Bureau from 2003 to 2005, and the Florida Farm Bureau from 2003 to 2005.

You’ll find more information about his background here.

Health insurance board bracing for Donald Trump, Congress, to act on Obamacare

Members of a state insurance advisory panel called Friday for legislation fixing a regulatory “family glitch” that can make health insurance unaffordable to dependents of employees of small businesses.

The Florida Health Insurance Advisory Board declined additional proposed recommendations, however — in part because of uncertainty about what Donald Trump and the Republican Congress would do about the Affordable Care Act.

Board member Bill Herrle, Florida director of the National Federation of Independent Business, asked Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier, who chairs the panel, to begin bracing for whatever changes might be in store.

Herrle noted suggestions that Congress might set the ACA, sometimes referred to as “Obamacare,” to expire following the 2018 elections, and come up with a replacement plan in the interim.

“While that sounds like a long time, that could leave Florida with potentially only one legislative session in which to account for these changes,” Herrle said.

“Many of which may be ministerial, but some of which will not be as simple as going back to pre-ACA Florida statutes and plugging them back in. The market has changed very much.”

Altmaier agreed, saying his Office of Insurance Regulation has already started studying the situation.

“I think it would be prudent on the board’s part to initiate some of these dialogs,” Altmaier said.

The panel advises state leaders about health insurance matters and includes representatives of the industry, business interests, and state agencies. It needs a consensus to send recommendations to the Legislature.

Members agreed only once Friday: On the family glitch.

Louisa McQueeney, who manages an ACA navigator project for Florida CHAIN in Boynton Beach, argued that small group plans sometimes don’t cover employees’ family members. Depending on how much the family earns, the dependents might not qualify for ACA premium subsidies.

Other proposals failed, including to make health savings accounts available through high-deductible plans requiring policyholders to pay high out-of-pocket expenses; and to repeal a state law offering coverage through small-group plans to employees’ dependents until age 30. The ACA covers them until age 26.

Another idea that didn’t get off the drawing board involved improving coverage for sufferers of “maple syrup urine” disease, a genetic malady. State law mandates coverage through age 24 — a level established years ago when patients frequently died young.

Now they can live much longer, but have trouble paying for the expensive drugs that help keep them alive.

Often, board members cited uncertainty about what Republicans in Washington would do to the health insurance market.

“There are undoubtedly going to be some changes, maybe some substantial changes to the marketplace and how it functions, said John Matthews, southeastern general counsel for UnitedHealthcare.

“I question the wisdom of us making firm statutory mandate recommendations in light of what could be rather substantial changes to the ACA in general,” Matthews said.

Jack Latvala not keen on raiding oil spill fund to balance state budget

Senate budget chairman Jack Latvala isn’t interested in balancing state government’s books on the backs of counties hit hard by the BP oil spill. And he believes the state might have to let local property taxes increase along with home values.

All in the name of meeting pressing needs in a state in decent financial shape now, but facing scary long-term deficits.

“We made the commitment, and I believe in keeping my commitments,” Latvala said of the BP money.

Of local taxes, he said: “It’s clear to me that if we can’t capture the new property values, there will be slim of any increases for K-12.”

Latvala spoke to reporters following a briefing for Appropriations Committee members by the state’s top economist. They learned that Florida government is in decent financial shape — if you don’t count projected delicits projected at $1.3 billion one year from now and $1.9 billion the year after that.

And unless the state wants to meet its commitment to give 75 percent of its earnings from the BP  spill disaster to the counties worst affected. That would take $300 million away from state-level projects.

And unless you consider the state’s liability in class actions arising from its citrus canker eradication program, now worth nearly $95 million in penalties, interest and legal fees, with additional claims over 540,000 trees in Miami-Dade County still pending.

Also unless the Legislature wants stiff post-hurricane beach restoration.

Those are among the pressures on the state’s finances projected during the next three years, according to Amy Baker, coordinator for state Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

“We’re building a structural imbalance,” Baker said. “Our budget is growing faster than the underlying revenue pieces.”

Latvala said the Legislature will have to cut some programs if lawmakers want to approve Gov. Rick Scott‘s requested increases for economic development, House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s desire for tax relief, and Senate President Joe Negron‘s hopes to boost education spending.

“To do any increases, we’re going to have to find areas to cut. That’s a certainty,” Latvala said.

“Just my luck to be chairman in a year like that.”

Baker and other state economists have estimated that lawmakers will have nearly $142 million more than expected to spend in the fiscal year that begins next July 1. But the Florida Constitution requires the Legislature to plan three years into the future, and that’s where the problems crop up, Baker said.

The good news is that the tourism economy is doing well. And although construction is lagging, there’s a large “shadow inventory” of distressed homes left over from the foreclosure epidemic that followed the Great Recession. They’d likely have to be torn down and rebuilt, and that would mean jobs, according to a report Baker’s office prepared for the committee.

Additionally, it’s been more than seven years since the post-recession bankruptcy wave, meaning those borrowers might again qualify for housing loans.

 

Tallahassee lobbyists have a learning moment about ethics reform

House ethics guru Don Rubottom wrote a poem to explain what the chamber’s new ethics regime is all about:

“If you propose it, it should be disclosed before you discuss it,

“Before it shows up in any draft of a bill or amendment,

“Long before it is filed in the House.

“If others propose, disclose by number.”

OK, it’s not for the ages, but it captures the spirit of the thing.

Rubottom, staff director of the Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, was among the House aides who briefed lobbyists Tuesday evening on the arcana of the new ethics rules imposed under Speaker Richard Corcoran.

It was part of an ongoing re-education program for the lobbying corps.

Such was the interest that the gathering was moved to a massive hearing room that takes up most of the second floor of the Knott Building, adjacent to the Capitol. It was standing room only, with a television audience submitting questions via email.

Budget committee staff director JoAnne Leznoff explained the process for pushing an appropriations line item. It entails filling out a detailed form describing the amount sought, where the money should come from, and who would benefit.

Lobbyists must deliver the forms electronically to a House member. Members alone are allowed to enter the data into the House’s IT system, which will spit out a bill containing the relevant details.

Rubottom explained the ethics angle, including lobbyists’ obligation to promote a professional and ethical environment even if that means “supporting honorable behavior by members” and discouraging the other kind.

The House has tightened disclosure requirements for lobbyists — they must report in advance any issues, bills, amendments, specific appropriations. Once per year will do the job — no need to refile on a particular topic if the Legislature goes into special session, although you ought to update your disclosure filing to reflect changed bill numbers.

“We are going to apply common sense,” Rubottom said. The point is that interested parties should receive sufficient notice.

Say hello to a member at a bar or a meet-and-greet? No need to disclose. Monitoring or tracking legislation without advocating for it? “You don’t have anything to report,” Rubottom said.

And if a member buttonholes you in a hallway and demands to know what you think about a proposal? You’ll have wanted to disclose already if there was any chance you intended to lobby the issue, he said.

“If it surprises you, let the member know you are not free to discuss it because of the requirements” of the new ethics rules, Rubottom said.

“If your member is impatient with your respect for the rule, feel free to let chairman Oliva or chairman Metz know of the discourtesy.”

That’s Rules Committee chairman Jose Oliva and Ethics chairman Larry Metz.

A lobbyist, speaking confidentially, found the exercise worthwhile and said the rules may help undisclosed client conflicts emerge into the sunshine.

“We’re dealing with transparency,” this lobbyist said. “Transparency helps people in our business.”

Another lobbyist thought meeting the new requirements is “doable. But as they say, there may be speed bumps on the way.”

This lobbyist chafed a little that the rules don’t apply to people not accepting money to influence the Legislature — including the cadres of activists who barnstorm the Capitol on particular issues.

“They’re lobbying their guts out — it’s not casual stuff. It’s 50 activists going from meeting after meeting.”

And registered lobbyists are no longer allowed to text members during meetings, but these activists can.

“We all want a level playing field,” the lobbyist said.

Janet Cruz highlights diversity in picking Democratic leadership

Florida House Democratic chief Janet Cruz announced her leadership team Wednesday, saying she strove for diversity in their selection.

“In order to build consensus on how to confront the difficult issues facing our state, we must take into account the many varying stakeholders whose futures will be affected by the decisions we make in the Legislature,” Cruz said in a written statement.

Leading on policy will be Evan Jenne and Cynthia Stafford.

Jenne, of Dania Beach, had served in leadership before — he was minority whip during the 2010-12 Legislature and was policy chair during 2014-16.

Stafford, a Miamian who was an aide to former Congresswoman Carrie Meek, is a member of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus. An attorney and adjunct college professor, she was first elected in 2010.

Floor leader is Lori Berman, a Lantana attorney who served as Deputy Democratic Whip during the 2012-14 Legislature.

Serving as whip is Joseph Abruzzo, of Wellington. He served in the House between 2008-12 before moving to the Senate. He won re-election to the House this year and has a reputation for working well with Republicans.

Deputy whips are John Cortes, Katie Edwards, Shevrin Jones, and Richard Stark.

Cortes is a retired corrections officer from Kissimmee first elected in 2014.

Edwards, an attorney from Plantation first elected in 2012, comes from a political family (her father served on the Plantation City Council, and a distant cousin was in the Nixon administration). Her affiliations include the Broward County Farm Bureau and Les Dames d’Escoffier.

Jones, a research specialist in the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, served as deputy whip in the 2014-16 Legislature.

Stark is an insurance broker from Weston. He was first elected in 2012.

AIF emphasizes job-killing aspect of Florida’s workers’ comp increases

Business leaders emphasized the risk rising workers’ compensation costs pose to Florida’s economic competitiveness during an Associated Industries of Florida-sponsored discussion Monday.

“There are other governors competing against our governor for the next plant, the next manufacturing facility, the next high-tech jobs,” said Tom Feeney, president and chief executive officer of the business lobby.

“They are suddenly able to use our workers’ compensation situation against Florida, the same way our governor uses high taxes and high regulations that other states have to attract businesses,” Feeney said. “It’s putting us at a competitive disadvantage.”

Bill Herrle, Florida director for the National Federation of Independent Business, agreed and emphasized that the repercussions will travel throughout the economy.

“We know that this is going to be debilitating to small business,” Herrle said. “But we need to carry the message out there that this is affecting every layer of employment, including our very important public sector.”

AIF organized the discussion during its annual conference in Tallahassee.

The event coincided with a trial judge’s final order refusing to stay her ruling that a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation premiums were illegal, on the ground that they were reached in violation of Florida’s open-government laws.

Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers had issued an oral preliminary ruling on Friday refusing to stay that decision. On Monday, she put it in writing.

The legal issue remained alive, however, because the 1st District Court of Appeal had blocked Gievers’ order before she even issued it. Proceedings will determine the increase’s legality before that appeal court.

The increase promises to feature prominently during next spring’s legislative session, when AIF, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business groups will press lawmakers to do something.

The increase began to take effect on Thursday and will hit employers as their policies come up for renewal over the next 12 months.

Many critics blame Florida Supreme Court rulings striking down business-friendly reforms the Legislature approved in 2003. One ruling in particular — Castellanos v. Next Door Co., striking limits on attorney fees in workers’ compensation disputes — accounts for some 10 percent of the increase, according to the state Office of Insurance Regulation.

Those reforms pegged attorney fees to benefits actually won for workers, regardless of the time attorneys spent in winning them. That eliminated incentives for plaintiffs’ lawyers to litigate over small details, said Jim McConnaughhay, of the defense-side workers’ compensation law firm McConnaughhay, Coonrod, Pope, Weaver & Stern.

“Unquestionably, that’s where the savings were,” he said.

“What the Castellanos decision really creates is an environment where a mechanized and industrialized legal industry can gear up and begin to make these very small, garden-variety cases very, very profitable,” Herrle said.

“They have given license to file as many pleadings, nuisance claims, and run up bills, and then are able to go and ask a friendly judge in court for as much of an hourly rate and they can get for as many hours as they can find an imaginative way to create,” Feeney said.

The post-2003 environment “has been great for growth and in helping Gov. (Rick) Scott and our legislators in making us one of the fastest growing economies,” Feeney said, but the Supreme Court rulings threaten to undo that.

By contrast, the situation now might chase insurers out of the Florida market, he continued.

“Workers’ comp insurers can’t work efficiently and in a cost-effective manner unless you have insurance companies willing and able to engage in the business and turn a profit,” Feeney said. “Otherwise, they will just deploy their capital in some other line of business or in some other state.”

As for a legislative fix, Feeney estimated an AIF task force likely would release its proposals in late December.

He didn’t pretend a fix would be easy.

“If we’re going to address workers’ comp, it’s likely to be an all-out war in the Legislature,” Feeney said.

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