Florida Legislature – Page 2 – Florida Politics

House, Senate reach budget deal with $90m in last-minute spending

Legislative leaders closed out the largest proposed budget in state history Thursday that included nearly $90 million in last-minute spending for projects that largely have to do with education.

As the House and Senate finalized differences on the roughly $88 billion 2018-19 budget, the supplemental funding — informally known as the “sprinkle fund” — was unveiled in a 10 a.m. budget meeting.

The 21 last-minute spending list includes $30 million for charter school maintenance projects, $20 million for performance-based incentive in the state university system and $3.3 million for the University of South Florida.

From that list, a dozen items are hurricane-related costs and contingent on reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Another budget item negotiators agreed to pay in the end is a member project championed by state Rep. Mike La Rosa, a Republican whose district includes Polk County.

La Rosa wanted to get $1.3 million in funding to repair major damage caused to a Polk County charter school by Hurricane Irma last year. Lawmakers decided to give $1.2 million to the school to help with building repair costs and costs associated with school supplies and relocating students to an off campus location. From those funds, $700,000 are subject to federal reimbursement.

Throughout budget negotiations budget writers said members projects were cut and priorities were reshuffled to fund the $400 million “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Act,” which included $67 million for a controversial program to arm school personnel and more funding for mental health services in schools across the state.

Lawmakers have yet to vote on the budget, which is the largest proposed budget in state history. They will have to wait until at least Sunday afternoon to give it final approval.

Early start approved for 2020 Session

Continuing a trend, the Florida Senate on Thursday gave final approval to a bill that would start the 2020 Legislative Session in January.

Under the state Constitution, Legislative Sessions typically start in March. But the Legislature can decide to start Sessions at other times during even-numbered years.

The Legislature voted to start the 2016 and 2018 Sessions in January.

The bill (HB 7045) approved Thursday in a 34-3 vote would start the 2020 Session on Jan. 14. The House has also approved the bill, which means it is now ready to go to Gov. Rick Scott.

Three South Florida Democrats — Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat, Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, and Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat — opposed the bill Thursday.

“It’s too cold in Tallahassee during the winter so I cannot support this bill,” Braynon said.

That drew a reply from Senate bill sponsor Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican.

“It’s, frankly, too hot later, so I would ask you to support it,” Galvano said

Legislative leaders reach budget deal, Session extension looms

Florida lawmakers will extend their annual session for several days to pass a new $87 billion-plus state budget, which will include a $101.50 increase in per-student funding in public schools.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced early Wednesday afternoon that legislative leaders had reached agreement on the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. One of the last issues to be resolved was funding for hospitals and nursing homes.

His announcement came after House and Senate negotiators failed to finalize a budget before a Tuesday deadline, forcing an extension of the 60-day legislative session, which had been scheduled to end Friday.

“We do believe that as of right now we have agreement on the budget,” Corcoran told the House, drawing applause from the members.

But Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron said they have not worked out the timing of the session extension, which will likely mean a final vote on the annual appropriations bill Sunday afternoon or Monday.

The budget bill must be published, and then lawmakers must wait 72 hours before the final vote under a constitutionally mandated “cooling off” period.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley said the last major issue settled was a deal securing $40 million in state funds, which can be matched with $60 million in federal funding, for nursing homes.

“It was very important to us in the Senate,” Bradley said. “We have a $100 million to help our elderly, our frail, vulnerable citizens who are in our nursing homes.”

Lawmakers also settled a dispute over a funding formula distributing Medicaid payments to Florida hospitals.

“I tell you I’ve spent the last 36 hours watching a lot of heavily lobbied special interests fight like hyenas over a static amount of money,” Bradley said. “At the end of the day, what is important to us is creating new money to help vulnerable Floridians rather than worrying about how these special interests work out their fights among themselves.”

Although the specific details had not been released early Wednesday evening, Bradley cited a number of accomplishments in the new budget, including $100 million for the Florida Forever environmental land-buying program and $400 million for a school-safety initiative, which will provide more mental health services and security officers for schools.

He said the budget will include a tax-cut package, which is expected to be in the range of $80 million, and will include more than $50 million to address the opioid crisis.

Although state workers will not receive a general pay raise, the budget includes pay hikes for state law enforcement officers, assistant state attorneys, state firefighters, assistant public defenders and probation and detention officers in the Department of Juvenile Justice, Bradley said.

He said there would be “record” funding for the state university system and public schools. The $21 billion public school budget will include a per-student funding increase of $101.50, Bradley said.

The budget includes a permanent expansion of Bright Futures scholarships for students at universities and state colleges, including allowing the merit aid to be used to attend summer classes.

However, without the appropriations bill actually being published, the budget deal technically remained “open” for adjustments on Wednesday, with some lawmakers speculating that it was being used as leverage to sway some reluctant House members as they debated a contentious school-safety bill (SB 7026). The House passed the bill 67-49 early Wednesday evening.

“In my opinion, it’s because they are wrangling votes over there” in the House, Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon said about the delay on finalizing the budget.

Bradley said he could not speculate on the House, while saying “there were no carrots or sticks with regards to the budget” in the Senate debate over the school-safety bill, which passed in a 20-18 vote earlier in the week. He said the budget delay was caused by differences over the health-care spending.

Sen. Tom Lee, a former budget chairman and Senate president, said he believed there were real budget differences between the two chambers “but maybe they weren’t working on it very hard — they weren’t in a big rush.”

He said using spending initiatives in the annual budget bill to motivate individual members is “a real management tool.”

“They’ve used every tool that I have ever seen used in this building to try to whip the votes for this (school-safety) bill,” Lee said.

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this post.

House passes Adam Putnam’s priority without contentious gun provision

The Florida House Tuesday passed a priority bill for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam without a toxic gun provision and without considering a contentious bill tied to puppy mills.

The language in the House plan was causing heartburn, but state Rep. Jake Raburn, who is sponsoring the House bill, decided to consider the Senate plan, which was much less contentious.

“We’re taking up the Senate bill in place of the House bill. That language has been removed,” Raburn said.

The House bill came under fire by the House Democrats during a caucus meeting Tuesday morning after members saw the House bill would be on special calendar. State Rep. Sean Shaw said the bill, which covers a wide-range of policy issues overseen by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, was “insidious” because of the gun provision.

That language would have allowed the state to process gun licensing permits within 90 days even if there was an incomplete criminal background check.

Putnam, a Republican candidate for governor who has made gun rights the centerpiece of his campaign, asked for the language to be included in both the House and Senate bills early on in the 2018 Legislative Session. But the provision came under fire after the Parkland school mass shooting.

Earlier Tuesday, Corcoran’s office indicated they would put their language on the Senate bill, a move that ultimately did not happen.

A day after the massacre, the Senate stripped the language from its bill due to a “timing and sensitivity” issue. The upper chamber passed its version last week.

If the House did not take out the gun provision, it would have been extremely unlikely for the proposal to pass the Legislature this year.

Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel, the sponsor of the Senate bill, told Florida Politics she would not take up the bill with the gun provision.

In addition to the gun provision, a contentious amendment by state Rep. Halsey Beshears,which was opposed by animal rights advocates, was tossed Tuesday.

The Monticello Republican filed an amendment under the House bill Monday, which would have voided any local ordinances in the state that ban the sale of dogs from USDA-licensed breeders. This could have limited the local government’s ability to crack down on puppy mills and rally animal rights advocates against the bill.

Putnam’s priority bill easily passed the House and is now headed to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

Pixabay (free download)

Senate, House reach compromise on controversial child marriage bill

The Florida Senate gave initial approval Monday to a compromise with the House on the controversial child marriage bill, which would allow 17-year-old to wed in the state.

The Republican-controlled House initially wanted to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry in cases where there is a pregnancy and the older partner is no more than two years older than the minor.

A new amendment filed by Republican Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the sponsor of SB 140, was adopted on a voice vote. With that the Senate moved from an outright ban on minor marriage, to allow minors who are 17 to wed if there is parental consent and the partner is no more than two years older. Benacquisto wanted to get rid of the pregnancy requirement added by the House.

With the amendment, the bill passed the Senate unanimously.

“Proud that our bill to have the strongest #EndChildMarriage laws in the nation passes unanimously in the Senate and I look forward to the House taking it up and passing!” Benacquisto tweeted.

The Senate bill now repeals a state law that allows a court to issue a marriage license to a girl or boy under the age of 18 if both parties swear under oath that they are the parents of a child. This loophole in the law has led to some children, as young as 13, to be forced into marriage.

Florida Senate narrowly passes watered-down school safety proposal

In a bipartisan effort, the Florida House narrowly passed a watered-down school safety proposal with a $400 million price tag that will provide students with more access to mental health services and allow school districts to participate in a program that arms school staff.

“This bill will make a difference, and when it becomes law, things will start changing,” Sen. Bill Galvano said.

SB 7026 passed on a 20-18 vote with the help of Democratic Sens. Lauren Book and Kevin Rader.

Republicans who voted against the measure, most notably Sens. Greg Steube and Dennis Baxley, were against provisions with gun restrictions such as a ban on bump stock and raising the age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21.

Before the final vote, senators debated the bill for more than two hours and approved an amendment that scaled back a controversial program that would have allowed teachers to carry concealed weapons on campus to fight off active shooters.

The change better aligns the Senate’s proposal to what Parkland students and Gov. Rick Scott want: Not arming teachers.

But even with the tweak, Democrats argued the bill still allows teachers who also work as librarians, coaches or psychologists to sign up for the program.

The amendment filed by Republican Sen. Rene Garcia, who admits to not being the biggest fan of the school safety package, said the intent is to make sure the “instructional personnel who are in the classroom cannot participate in the program.”

Garcia’s amendment also changed the name of the contentious program to the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program in honor of a beloved coach who died trying to protect students from a hail of bullets on Valentine’s Day. He said Feis’ wife was “very supportive” of naming the program after him.

The measure now heads to the House for consideration.

“I don’t know if they’re going to continue to work on this in the House,” said Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who voted against the bill. “I can’t imagine them bouncing this back and we have to go thru this all over again … God help us if they send it back.”

The latest summary of the legislation, provided by the Senate communications team, is below.

Tax supermajority proposal heads to voters for approval

Despite concerns raised by Senate Democrats that it would “tie the hands” of future legislators facing emergencies, the Florida Senate passed a measure Monday that would make it harder for the Legislature to increase taxes and fees in the future.

“This can tie the hands of future legislators in difficult times,” said Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez in reference to the costs that climate change and rising sea levels could bring in the coming years.

The legislation would mandate a two-thirds vote in both chambers before any tax and fee hike can be imposed on Floridians. Because the change would amend the Florida Constitution, it will need 60-percent voter-approval to take effect. They will vote on it in November.

“It’s the people’s money, not ours. Yes, two-thirds is hard to get. It should be hard to raise taxes because it is the people’s money, not ours,” Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley said.

The upper chamber pushed through the proposal on a 25-13 vote, with three Democrats — Sens. Lauren Book, Linda Stewart and Bobby Powell — voting with Republicans. Republican Sen. Tom Lee voted with Democrats.

The proposal has been a big priority of Gov. Rick Scott, who has also tried to push the supermajority vote mandate through the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.

Upon passage of the bill, Scott praised the Legislature.

“We have cut taxes more than 80 times since I’ve been in office because we know that Florida families and businesses succeed when we put their tax dollars back in their pockets,” the governor said.

“I look forward to this important amendment being on the ballot to protect families from unfair tax increases.

The Senate had originally been at odds with the House and Scott by proposing a three-fifths vote to pass tax increases, but later took the House version of the bill.

Post-Parkland Senate bill primed for floor vote

The Florida Senate took the better part of eight hours during a rare Saturday session to work through 128 amendments — only one of which passed the floor — on a single bill.

And even with the amendment’s approval, partisan spirits haven’t changed on the proposal designed to address issues unearthed in the wake of the recent school shooting in Broward County.

Dubbed the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,” or SB 7026, the sweeping proposal provides for stricter gun control laws, including a three-day waiting period to buy any firearm, and a new age limit — 21 (up from 18) —  for firearms purchases, along with an all-out ban on bump stocks.

It also creates a commission to make recommendations on school safety and invests millions in mental-health and school safety initiatives, which include a program that would train and arm teachers on a voluntary basis.

Of course, not everyone is happy.

Democrats, along with Parkland survivors and victims’ families have criticized the proposal for its lack of an assault-weapons ban. The charged Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was equipped with an assault rifle when he killed 17 people at the school on Feb. 14. Gov. Rick Scott also has come out strongly against the idea of arming teachers.

These points of criticism set the stage for the Senate’s eight-hour floor session on Saturday. Members of both parties filed hundreds of amendments, withdrawing some and heavily debating others. Arguments over an outright ban on assault weapons took an entire hour in the chamber. Other Democratic-backed amendments lent to lengthy discussions, but the Senate refrained from adopting anything that would fundamentally change the legislation. 

At one point, Democrats experienced something particularly Sisyphean. Senate President Joe Negron had approved through a voice vote the adoption of an amendment providing a two-year moratorium on assault weapons sales. After a few minutes, a motion to reconsider brought the language to a failing board vote.

Pro-gun Republicans filed their fair share of amendments, too.

Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs argued for an amendment that would’ve changed the firearms age requirement to only apply to assault weapons sales. In other words, the age limit for purchasing rifles would remain at its current level, 18. 

“It’s a rational solution to a significant problem,” Simmons said. He said he feared that raising the age limit on gun purchases could bring constitutional challenges in court.

Galvano, who sponsored the strike-all amendment approved by the chamber on Saturday, often had to explain to members that law enforcement would iron out the details of the plan to arm teachers. At one point it was asked whether teachers would be able to carry assault rifles and display them in classrooms, to which Galvano said would be up to the sheriff’s design of the plan.

“The sheriffs will describe the protocols,” Galvano said. Referencing the possibility of teachers having assault rifles, he added: “That’s, in my opinion, a far-fetched hypothetical.” He said someone from the Office of School Safety likely would not approve such a policy, as they can exert judgment on program designs.

The Senate will vote on SB 7026 on Monday. 

Final budget items start getting ‘bumped’

Budget conference chairs are now ironing out funding differences between the House and Senate dealing with a wide-range of policy issues.

Chairs Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Carlos Trujillo are figuring out funding for beach restoration, land acquisition and water projects. Currently, the state Legislature is split over nearly $172 million on appropriations for programs funded through Florida Forever.

In the higher education arena, most of the issues sent to budget chairs relate to member projects and implementing bill issues that amount to about $70 million. There are also other money differences revolving around PreK-12 bills that are tied to the budget.

In criminal justice, some issues that have yet to sail through deal with private prison operations and whether a reentry program at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office should get $200,000 in funding.

Bradley and Trujillo have until 10:30 a.m. Sunday to resolve the ‘bumped’ issues before they head to Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Bill Hager’s battle with Broward Sheriff spills over into Florida budget talks

After leading the charge to oust Broward Sheriff Scott Israel in the wake of Florida’s worst school shooting, Republican state Rep. Bill Hager tried to gut funding from a program run by the Sheriff’s Office.

Hager oversees the House’s criminal justice budget, which gives him large sway over funding for law enforcement-related projects and issues. This year, that included an inmate re-entry program at the Broward Sheriff’s Office with an initial $521,000 price tag.

The Palm Beach County Republican was the first lawmaker to call for Israel’s suspension, citing the Sheriff’s “neglect of duty and incompetence” when responding to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in which a 19-year-old gunman shot down 17 people. Soon after, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and 73 other Republican House members followed suit and sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking to remove Israel from office.

Democrats quickly defended Israel, who is the top cop in a predominantly Democratic county. The clash set a partisan tone around the mass shooting involving a former troubled student armed with an AR-15 rifle, an assault-style weapon that Hager voted to ban along with Democrats in the House.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office program that was zeroed out by the House would fund salaries of those who help offenders with counseling, mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as assistance when trying to find a job or housing upon finishing their sentences.

“I don’t know if it is political or not, but if it is political I am not here to punish addicts for the actions of the sheriff in that county,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who was tasked with negotiating the criminal justice budget with Hager.

The sheriff’s office last November requested a one-time $521,000 payment for the program, but on Wednesday when criminal justice budget talks started both the House and the Senate agreed on giving the department $200,000.

A day later things changed: the Senate kept its offer and the House removed all funding, bumping the item to the budget chairs.

Hager through his aide declined requests for comment on his reasons for cutting the program, but House Budget Chair Carlos Trujillo said that while he is not familiar with the issue, slashing a project is sometimes part of the budget process.

“Once we start trading priorities, 50 or 60 percent of the projects fall out,” Trujillo said.

Some Democrats, however, see it as a clear sign that GOP lawmakers are trying to attack a high-profile Democrat after staggering rounds of bad national headlines.

“If that’s the case, they should be ashamed of harming a county in their quest to publicly ruin one person,” state Rep. Evan Jenne.

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