Florida Legislature Archives - Page 2 of 38 - Florida Politics

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.

Jack Latvala, Jeff Brandes will help control the purse strings in Tallahassee next year

When the dust cleared in Tallahassee on Tuesday, one thing was clear: Pinellas was on top when it comes to the state’s funds.

Republican Sens. Jack Latvala and Jeff Brandes, who represent parts of Pinellas, landed some plum appointments. Latvala will be the chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and alt. chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Commission. Brandes will have a seat on the Appropriations Committee and be the chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development.

The news was welcomed by local elected officials who expect to ask Tallahassee for money in 2017.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office issued a statement, saying, “Their appointments are great news for the city of St. Petersburg, and the Tampa Bay Region.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, who will chair the commission in 2017, agreed, saying, “I’d like to think it would be very good for Pinellas County.”

Long said the county has just begun work on its legislative package for the coming year.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has also begun work on its legislative package. St. Petersburg council member Darden Rice, the PSTA chair, said two projects high on the agenda are rapid transit from the Tampa airport to Clearwater and Clearwater Beach and a bus lane on the Clearwater causeway.

Both Latvala and Brandes are aware of the need for the projects, she said. And Brandes, in particular, has already been supportive of innovative PSTA programs that involve partnerships with companies like Uber and Lyft.

The PSTA, Rice said, “is very fortunate to have two such strong senators. I think this will be very helpful.”

That help, she said, can extend to other issues. One such is the sewer and infrastructure problems facing Pinellas. Although St. Petersburg has taken the brunt of criticism after dumping thousands of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage in the bay during two storms this year, the problem with infrastructure is countywide. Latvala has called two delegation meetings for fact finding.

“I think they had a very clear picture of St. Petersburg’s struggles,” Rice said. “We need help from the state to fix our fragile infrastructure.”

Rice said she’s not talking only about St. Petersburg’s infrastructure. It’s the entire county, she said. That’s another place that the senator’s appreciation for regional solutions will be helpful.

Rice noted that Latvala is known for fighting for what he believes in. That’s good for the county.

“He’s a bruiser,” Rice said. “He’s not afraid to go in and fight for what’s right.”

Richard Corcoran: In the House, “We are very, very conservative”

The Capitol Press Corps got its first scolding, albeit a gentle one, from Richard Corcoran last week.

The new House Speaker was repeatedly asked during a news conference about how Senate President Joe Negron‘s priorities during the coming legislative session might conflict with his own.

“You people are so conditioned and trained. But so are we — I don’t fault you,” he said after the House’s Organization Session.

“There are 160 legislators. We’ve got to move past, ‘this is a speaker’s priority; this is a Senate president’s priority.’ They ought to be corporate priorities of both chambers.”

The old way of doing things — powerful legislative leaders imposing their will on the Senate and House — is over as far as Corcoran is concerned.

And everybody — his members, the Senate, lobbyists, the press — is going to have to learn that.

When asked whether he could support Negron’s goal of boosting higher education funding, Corcoran objected: “We are trying to transform and move away from a top-down system in the House.”

Corcoran appointed committee chairs, but wants to let them chose committee members and subcommittee chairs, and let all of them decide upon priorities together.

Does even he know what this system will produce?

“You never do,” Corcoran replied. “There’s not a single person in the history of the Legislature who can predict what it’s going to look like come May, whatever it is, at this point in time.

“I’m encouraged, though. I think there is a vast difference between the House and the Senate. We are very, very conservative. You can see that just in the rules, and how it’s going to play out over the next two years.”

He did allow that “Sen. Negron … has always behaved, in my opinion, as a great statesman. He’s a great communicator. That’s why he’s Senate president.”

To Corcoran, there are “good” compromises, in which parties accept less than they’d hoped for in the normal run of governing.

“Bad compromise is when you’re violating your principles that you know — you know — will lead to a worse environment, a worse Legislature, a worse outcome in education, a worse outcome in health care,” he said.

“If you’re just going to capitulate to the special interests and the mainstream media and all the powers that be because you’re afraid or somehow it’s not worth the fight, there’s nothing honorable about that. And there’s nothing dogmatic about that.”

Corcoran intends his ethics reforms as a cudgel to enforce good behavior. He hopes they will provide data points with which to embarrass wayward lobbyists and public officials.

“Hopefully, coming soon is the Top 10 list of everything you can imagine,” he said. “Top 10 biggest spenders. Top 10 lobbyists who got taxpayer money. Top 10 county commissioners who let lobbyists do their jobs because they stink. All of that’s coming soon.”

Consider what he said about the Florida Education Association over its legal challenge to the state’s tax-credit scholarships, which steer poor kids into private schools: “evil,” “disgusting,” “repugnant,” and yes, even “crazy-ass.”

The teachers union later tweeted from its official account “we invite @richardcorcoran to have a serious & civil discussion about all of our students’ needs.” FEA president Joanne McCall also personally tweeted, “Slamming us in a speech is one thing, solving problems is another.”

“Feel free to call me,” she added, even listing her phone number.

At the press conference, Corcoran said that “any way we can force more innovating, more risk taking, more competition in our education environment, all the studies suggest that’s what gives you a better outcome with students.”

He added: “If you guys have studies that suggest that kind of competition produces worse results, then we’ll certainly evaluate those studies. But they don’t exist.”

Yet he insisted his “rhetoric is not against anybody.”

“My rhetoric is not against lobbyists; my rhetoric is not against members; my rhetoric is not against the union,” he said. “My rhetoric is for the truth. And that’s a knowable thing. That’s an objective thing. And then you fight for the truth.

“If you don’t, why are you even in the process?”

Tampa International Airport

Guns-in-airports bill resurfaces for 2017 Legislative Session

A Florida House member has reintroduced legislation that would allow people to carry firearms inside airport terminals.

State Rep. Jake Raburn, a Lithia Republican, filed HB 6001 on Wednesday.

The measure would eliminate the words “passenger terminal” of airports from a list of places where state law forbids people to carry guns.

The measure also would eliminate language requiring that guns be “encased for shipment” in aircraft baggage holds.

Raburn submitted his proposal for the 2017 legislative session. He proposed similar legislation during the 2016 session, but no committee ever debated the measure.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved a version of the bill introduced by Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican.

This year’s bill would take effect July 1.

People still would be barred from carrying guns in “any place where the carrying of firearms is prohibited by federal law” — generally defined as the “sterile area” beyond security checkpoints, according to Florida Carry, the gun rights organization.

The organization says that 44 states allow guns inside other areas in airport terminals, but Florida is not one of them.

Florida House Democratic caucus elects first Latina leader

Florida House Democrats formally elected Janet Cruz of Tampa as their leader Monday, but the vote hadn’t even happened before she faced her first setback — reportedly placing Minority Staff Director Joe McCann on leave for unspecified reasons.

Cruz is the first Hispanic leader of the caucus and will serve through 2018. The Democrats elected Rep. Bobby Dubose of Broward County as minority leader pro tempore.

Anders Croy, a spokesman for Cruz, said following the ceremony that she would have no comment about a report by POLITICO Florida that McCann had been disciplined or explain why.

“Tonight is about her family,” Croy said, adding that Cruz might have more to say on Tuesday.

Several caucus members said they knew nothing about the situation.

“I don’t know anything about that,” said Larry Lee, from Fort Pierce. “You’ve got my curiosity now.”

Cruz announced on Aug. 10 that she had hired McCann after letting go 17-year House veteran Durward Brewer and communications director Paul Flemming. McCann was a lobbyist and former senior VP at the Ballard Partners lobbying firm and a campaign manager for past Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

“It looks good from up here,” Cruz said following the caucus vote from behind the podium at the front of the chamber that’s normally occupied by the speaker of the House, which long has been dominated by Republicans.

The Democrats picked up a seat this year, when Robert Ascencio was finally declared the winner Sunday night over Republican David Rivera in Miami-Dade County’s HD 118. That made the breakdown 79-41, and costs the GOP its veto-proof majority.

Still, caucus members acknowledged being dispirited at the results of the recent elections, in which Republicans retained their dominance in Tallahassee and Congress, and with Donald Trump headed to the White House in part on the strength of white working class disaffection.

Cruz spoke of her upbringing as the daughter of a single mother within an extended family of immigrants.

Her grandmother, she said, “wore a hard hat and steel-toed shoes” to her job at a gypsum plant. Cruz herself relied on her family for support as a teenaged mother while working and attending college.

Cruz praised Richard Corcoran, elected leader of the House Republicans, and therefore speaker, earlier in the evening, for listening to Democratic ideas.

“I take him at his word that good ideas — not just Republican or Democratic — will continue to be what we debate here in this room.”

She listed her priorities — helping working families get ahead; public education; safe drinking water; environmental protection; legal protections for LGBT people.

“Rest assured. On these values we will stand and fight for the hardworking families of this state,” Cruz said.

The caucus observed 49 seconds of silence in memory of the 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12.

For Ben Diamond, Wengay Newton, a time of learning and outreach

Tuesday is an important day for freshman members of the Florida Legislature.

They’ll be sworn in and have to start making good on those campaign promises. However, there’s a lot to do before they start filing bills.

Wengay Newton
Wengay Newton

“It’s going to be a learning session for me,” said Wengay Newton, who represents House District 70, which covers portions of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota, and Manatee counties.

Ben Diamond, who won the race for House District 68, which covers a portion of Pinellas County, agreed.

“I’m still taking it all in,” Diamond said. But that doesn’t mean Diamond isn’t busy.

As a Democrat, he’s in the minority party, and that’s going to make it harder to get his proposals passed. The way to do that, he said, is to build relationships. And that’s what he’s started doing already.

“I’m spending today reaching out,” Diamond said. He’s meeting other legislators, talking with them and asking questions. It’s all part of the learning process.

Ben Diamond
Ben Diamond

“I think the more time I can spend getting to know the other members,” the better, he said.

He said he hopes that will help when it comes to getting good committee assignments.

Fellow Democrat Newton said he’s also hoping for good committee assignments.

He’s also concerned about Tuesday’s vote on the rules, especially a proposed rule that would impose a six-year ban on lobbying once House members leave the chamber.

“I thought that’s kind of extreme,” Newton said.

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