Florida Legislature Archives - Page 5 of 40 - Florida Politics

Personnel note: Doug Holder to serve on Sarasota Manatee airport board

Former Florida House member Doug Holder fell short in a Senate bid this year, but his consolation prize is a seat on the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority’s board.

Gov. Rick Scott announced the appointment to a vacant position Thursday.

Holder served in the state House between 2006 and 2014, but finished second in a crowded race for the GOP nomination in Senate District 23.

He also serves on the board of directors of The Florida Center for Early Childhood and the Historic Spanish Point, a museum in Osprey.

The Middle Tennessee State University graduate will serve through Nov. 17, 2018.

State agencies outline spending hopes with tight budget looming

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation is having trouble retaining actuaries, aides to Gov. Rick Scott learned Thursday, as a raft of state agencies presented their budget requests for the next fiscal year.

The office is asking for $31.6 million for FY 16-17, including $488,651 to boost its actuarial firepower, agency budget director Richard Fox said. This would pay for a new analyst in its property and casualty insurance actuary unit, and reclassify eight staff actuaries as senior analysts in that and the life and health unit.

Additional promotions would bring the total to around $1.2 million, but the office would save in the long run by reducing a high turnover, Fox said.

“We’re trying to get these people promoted to senior actuary so they can remain with the department and create a career path,” he said, and “hopefully reduce the costs of training for these positions.”

Saving money would be a good thing. The requests come at a time when the state’s general revenue fund is expected to run on razor-thin margins next year and into the red in subsequent years.

The public hearing “gives the public an opportunity if they want to come and ask questions,” said Laurie Grasel, a senior budget aide to the governor. The agencies will make similar presentations to Florida House and Senate leaders.

The Florida Fiscal Portal contains links to the agency budget requests.

The Department of Financial Services wants $42.5 million to continue work on its financial and cash management systems upgrade. The agency seeks $325.8 million overall, a 21 percent increase over existing spending.

One key item for the Division of Hotels and Restaurants, part of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, was $141,000 to boost training for alcohol and tobacco enforcement agents. The department’s request totaled $152.9 million.

The Florida Lottery wants $761,000 to create a sales incentives program that agency budget director Travis Ervin said would generate revenue, and $837,000 to “streamline primary business functions.”

The Department of Revenue’s $552.6 million budget request includes $1.3 million in a federal grant that will allow its child support program to install technology to make sure people seeking information through its telephone and web chat systems are who they say they are.

The Agency for State Technology — state government’s IT department, in other words — hopes to spend $3 million to store more data on the cloud, and $343,000 to study the feasibility of leasing instead of buying desktop computers for state workers.

In other legislative budget requests, the Department of Corrections is asking for $147.3 million for increased staffing, to replace old buildings, and for new vehicles, including transport vans.

The Department of Juvenile Justice has a request in for $577.9 million, with no additional new full-time employees. That includes $5.3 million in funding for intervention programs.

The Department of Law Enforcement seeks $20.9 million, a 7 percent increase from the current year.

Commissioner Rick Swearingen has said he wants 46 new positions to create counterterrorism squads across the state.

Swearingen also wants to increase the base pay for FDLE agents from $46,000 a year to $56,000, he said in September.

2nd try at medical pot amendment gains support in Florida

A proposed amendment to the state constitution to legalize medical marijuana has gained widespread support in Florida two years after falling just shy of passing.

Most state polls have support for Amendment 2 above the 60 percent threshold needed for approval. A similar measure was on the 2014 general election ballot and received 58 percent.

Supporters say they have listened to concerns from two years ago and changed the amendment’s wording to tighten oversight over the industry and protect children from harm.

In the meantime, the Florida Legislature has passed two measures allowing limited use of medical marijuana, though delays in implementing them have fed support for an amendment that would make it more broadly available.

Opponents say there still isn’t enough research proving the benefits in medical treatment. They also warn that the state will be overrun with pot shops and that children could illegally gain access to the drug.

If approved, Florida would be the 26th state along with the District of Columbia to legalize the marijuana plant for medical use. Florida is one of 16 states where only part of the marijuana plant is used.

“The legislature has failed to expand and open up the entire plant to use and only a narrow scope,” said Dennis Deckerhoff of Tallahassee, who says he will vote yes. “If the Legislature doesn’t want to do it, now it will be up to the voters.”

CURRENT STATUTE

The Florida Legislature approved the use of medical marijuana for patients suffering from cancer, epilepsy, chronic seizures and chronic muscle spasms in 2014 along with five distributing organizations. It was expanded earlier this year to include patients with terminal conditions under the Right to Try Act, and three more licenses were authorized once the patient registry reaches 125,000.

The amendment would widen the list of illnesses eligible for marijuana prescriptions, adding such ailments as post-traumatic stress disorder, AIDS and glaucoma.

So far, only three organizations have received distribution authorization. Two dispensaries are open in Tallahassee and Clearwater but home delivery is available statewide. Some counties and cities have passed zoning moratoriums on allowing dispensaries to open until they can do further research.

The state registry now has authorized 129 doctors and 470 patients, Department of Health spokesman Brad Dalton said.

SUPPORTERS SAY LOOPHOLES HAVE BEEN CLOSED

John Morgan, who leads United for Care, notes that the latest amendment allows marijuana to be prescribed only for debilitating medical conditions. It also adds provisions that require parental written consent for patients who are minors, and requires caregivers to register with the Department of Health.

The measure mandates identification cards for caregivers and patients and puts the department in charge of regulating medical marijuana – as the state law also has done.

A lot of the rules and regulations – from how the marijuana is grown to regulations on how it can be transported for in-home delivery – were passed by the Legislature this past March would also apply under the constitutional amendment.

Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care, said that the state’s two-year delay in getting low-THC cannabis to consumers has pushed support for the amendment.

“If anything the benefit of the past two years is that public opinion has moved forward a lot,” he said.

OPPONENTS: “THIS IS A LEGISLATIVE MATTER”

Dr. Jessica Spencer, who is the Policy Director for No on 2, says there is no evidence that marijuana works as medicine and that the industry would be more difficult to manage if it is endorsed under the Florida Constitution.

“We need to be careful when we’re looking at constitutional amendments that they are perfect. This is not perfect,” Spencer said during a recent debate in Orlando.

Anti-amendment literature by opponents depict medical marijuana as candy and note that pot shops could be set up near schools.

Kenneth Bell, a former Florida Supreme Court justice, said he is not opposed to medical marijuana but that it should be handled by the legislative branch.

“The Legislature has already acted a couple times and this does not take into account some unintended consequences that could take place,” he said.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Will ‘fair districts’ in Florida lead to a fairer outcome?

Six years ago, Florida voters approved constitutional amendments with the catchy title of “Fair Districts” that promised to end the political games that surrounded drawing legislative and congressional districts.

Due to expensive court battles and standoffs in the Florida Legislature, this year’s election will mark the first time the full effort to end gerrymandering will be in place.

As Election Day nears, however, it’s becoming apparent that the changes have not caused any major disruptions politically. Republicans are expected to retain control of the state Legislature. The gap between Democrats and Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation will probably shrink, but the GOP will likely remain in the majority.

“We never expected this to be a revolutionary change, it was an evolutionary change,” said Pamela Goodman, president of the Florida State League of Women Voters, whose organization challenged in court how legislators enacted the standards.

There have been some shake-ups as a result of the amendments finally kicking in: Two incumbent members of Congress, both Democrats, will be leaving office this year due in part to their reshaped districts. And several Republican members are also in tight battles that could result in their defeat Tuesday.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was once a Republican but is now running as a Democrat, may revive his political career if he wins a redrawn Democratic-leaning seat in Pinellas County.

Florida has long been divided politically, and has emerged again as a key battleground in the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

President George W. Bush, a Republican, carried the state in 2004, but President Barack Obama, a Democrat, won the next two elections. Critics have long complained that the districts don’t reflect the close divide of the electorate.

Florida voters in 2010 overwhelmingly approved the “Fair Districts” amendments which mandated that legislators cannot draw districts intended to help incumbents or a member of a political party. The group that backed the amendment was financed largely by unions and donors aligned with Democrats.

Legislators adopted new maps in 2012 that they said followed the guidelines, but a coalition of groups sued. The legal battles resulted in several key rulings, including one where the state Supreme Court ruled that GOP operatives had “tainted” efforts to draw up congressional districts.

Legislators deadlocked over how to respond, leaving the final map put in place by the court. A separate battle over state senate districts also resulted in a circuit court judge saying that legislators had acted with “partisan intent.”

The final result, which came after the Legislature spent more than $12 million in taxpayer money fighting the lawsuits, means that congressional and state senate districts were put in place by judges not legislators. State House seats adopted by legislators were not challenged.

Matthew Isbell, a data consultant who tracked redistricting and has worked for Democratic-leaning organizations, said while the changes “have put more seats in play” it will not result in Democrats taking back either chamber in the Legislature. Currently the GOP holds a 26-14 edge in the 40-member state Senate that could narrow some. Isbell predicts the 17-10 split in the congressional delegation will also shrink, but Republicans will still be in the majority. Part of it, he said, is due to the GOP’s fundraising advantage in the state.

“It’s a long game for Democrats,” Isbell said.

Ellen Freidin, a South Florida attorney and one of the main architects of Fair Districts, said she is satisfied with the outcome. She said because of the power of incumbents “you can’t judge the merits on one cycle.” But Freidin maintains there has been more competition for legislative and congressional seats this year and more people have chosen to run for office.

“This idea has always been about the rights of people of the state of Florida to choose their representatives instead of representatives choosing voters,” Freidin said.

Top Republicans, however, don’t share the enthusiasm.

State Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who led House redistricting efforts last year, says that the “Fair Districts” amendments are nearly impossible to implement and that all it has done has shifted power over to judges who can also act in a partisan manner.

“Anytime something has ‘fair’ in it, it’s anything but fair,” said Oliva, who is line to become House speaker in 2018. “The only thing we did with Fair Districts is we diluted one branch of government.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Insurance regulators provide additional details of legislative priorities

Cracking down on shady contractors and attorneys is the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation’s top priority for the 2017 legislative session, but officials made clear Wednesday they intend to protect consumers’ rights in drafting their proposals.

“It’s our No. 1 priority, but we would like to fix it in a surgical way,” Caitlin Murray, the department’s director for government affairs, said during the office’s biannual industry conference in Tallahassee.

She was referring to assignment of benefits contracts, a way for property insurance policyholders to sign away their insurance rights to contractors or attorneys in exchange for quicker repairs.

Critics contend they are easily abused, leading to inflated or shoddy repairs and rising premiums. For example, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. blamed these deals for a 6.4 percent rate hike that takes effect Feb. 1.

Fully 72 percent of rate filing increases were for increases thus far this year, Murray said, suggesting much of the blame falls on these so-called AOBs.

As with its other legislative priorities, the office plans to confer with all interested parties in drafting a legislative solution, she said.

“We want to make sure we hone in on the real problems and simply get it done,” Murray said. “As the saying goes, pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered.”

She stressed: “I want to make it clear that the office is absolutely intending on proposing legislation to address this issue. Our No. 1 priority has been and continues to be to hold consumers harmless. With that, we are still looking into attorney fees provisions, however with a consumer-centric plan to fix it.”

Another priority is shoring up the health maintenance organization industry, where revenues have increased significantly but profits have declined, apparently due to higher loss ratios.

“Medical expenses are increasing faster than revenues, and HMOs are running very tight margins,” she said. “So any unexpected increases in losses could challenge solvency.”

Long-term care insurance is in a similar pickle. Notwithstanding premium increases, the business is suffering and the numbers of carriers is declining, leading to “a serious loss in consumer confidence.”

Continuous care retirement homes provide for 30,000 Floridians, and need additional oversight, Murray said.

“Changes to the business model have outpaced statutory changes that are necessary to maintain efficient and effective regulation of the industry, leaving a very vulnerable segment of the population without adequate protections,” she said.

“We are looking at ways to strengthen and streamline the licensing and acquisition process. We want to establish stronger consumer protections and any other revisions that may be necessary to clarify statutory requirements and provide the office with adequate regulatory authority.”

The office plans to monitor legislative proposals on workers’ compensation and personal auto insurance, but not propose fixes itself. It does plan to propose a regulatory clean-up bill.

“This is strictly for the purpose of regulatory efficiency, and is not intended to be an omnibus or catch-all insurance bill, or vehicle to throw on unrelated insurance issues,” Murray said. “We hope.”

December hearing set for environmental Amendment 1 lawsuit

A pivotal hearing in a lawsuit over the state’s environmental funding is coming up in December.

Lawyers for the Legislature and environmental advocacy groups are set to argue over a summary judgment motion Dec. 5 before Circuit Judge Charles W. Dodson in Tallahassee.

Granting such motions allows parties to win a case without a trial.

Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and others had filed suit over the “Water and Land Legacy Amendment,” the constitutional change approved by voters in 2014 that mandates state spending for land and water conservation.

“Plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment because (the amendment) prohibits the Legislature from appropriating land acquisition and restoration funds for any other purpose, but the Legislature appropriated most Amendment 1 monies to salaries and ordinary expenses of four state agencies,” their motion says.

Those agencies are the Department of Environmental Protection, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Department of State, and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Attorneys for state lawmakers responded: “While plaintiffs might have struck a different balance than that struck by the Legislature … the Constitution commits that policy decision to the Legislature. Within constitutional limits, the Legislature alone is responsible for the appropriation of public funds.”

Amendment 1 requires state officials to set aside 33 percent of the money from the real estate “documentary stamp” tax to protect Florida’s environmentally sensitive areas for 20 years. This year, that number is expected to total more than $740 million.

The amendment, which needed a minimum of 60 percent to pass, got a landslide of nearly 75 percent, or more than 4.2 million “yes” votes.

 

State’s DHSMV seeking permission to use drones

The state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) will ask lawmakers next session to consider legislation to “allow law enforcement to use drones for traffic crash management.”

The proposed bill is part of a “legislative concepts” package Executive Director Terry Rhodes plans to present at Tuesday’s Florida Cabinet meeting.

The state law governing drones, the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, already includes an exception for “aerial mapping.” But a DHSMV spokeswoman says it doesn’t apply to the agency.

The department reports to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet: Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The document explains that state law now prohibits law enforcement agencies from using drones “for surveillance and evidence gathering.”

Lawmakers in Florida and across the country have been passing laws related to drone aircraft in recent years. In Florida, the concerns have been mostly about invasions of privacy.

But the Florida Highway Patrol, which falls under the DHSMV, wants to use the remote-controlled flying machines “for complex traffic crash scenes where aerial photos and scene mapping can aid in clearing roads.”

Most commonly, drones are small helicopter-type craft used by hobbyists and others, and often equipped with cameras.

In 2013, Florida first enacted a measure limiting law enforcement from using drones to gather evidence in criminal cases. Two years later, the law was amended to prohibit using drones to photograph private property without the owner’s consent.

The law, however, says it “does not prohibit the use of a drone … for aerial mapping, if the person or entity using a drone for this purpose is operating in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.”

DHSMV spokeswoman Beth Frady explained that “state law … is more restrictive than federal law.”

“This means FHP is currently unable to collect aerial photos or aerial scene maps from traffic crashes, which can aid in clearing Florida’s roads more expeditiously,” she said in an email. “The legislative concept … could create a pilot program with specific criteria and measures that could be reported to the Legislature to determine the recommendations of the program.

“The pilot seeks to allow law enforcement the ability to use drones for traffic crash management and clearance in hopes of partnering with the (Department of Transportation’s) traffic management operations.”

 

Insurers hope for drug price transparency legislation — at a minimum

An insurance lobbyist hopes at least to win legislation next year allowing the state to negotiate drug prices for Medicaid patients, and requiring drug companies to disclose more information about their pricing, as a means to control pharmaceutical costs.

Price controls, said Paul Sanford of the Florida Insurance Council, would be a much bigger lift, and would have to happen on the national level.

But requiring price transparency as a condition of doing business in Florida might be realistic within a year or two, he said.

“If you really want to cut costs, you’re going to have to take some draconian steps,” Sanford said during a panel discussion on high drug costs sponsored by the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing, a national group just beginning to work in Florida.

“Transparency in drug pricing – I think that’s the key,” said campaign representative Christina Johnson, who chaired the talks. She said the campaign itself does not support price controls.

“When an EpiPen goes from $50 to $500, that’s the problem,” she said. “It happens overnight, without warning,” forcing patients “to make a decision between medicine and a mortgage.”

Also represented on the panel were the Florida Association of Health Plans, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Elder Care Services in Tallahassee, and Tallahassee Memorial Health Care.

The coalition comprises 23 organizations that provide health care in some form, including the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Neurology, the AARP, the Federation of American Hospitals, and Wal-Mart.

Prescription drug spending represents nearly 20 percent of health care costs, according to the campaign, and is growing faster than any segment. Spending increased by more than 13 percent during 2014, the largest annual increase since 2003, and by another 12.2 percent in 2015, the campaign said.

Largely driving the trend are the costs of specialty medications — drugs for conditions including cancer, multiple sclerosis, and hepatitis C — that require special handling.

These expenses exceed the consumer price index and are expected to comprise 44 percent of spending on drugs by next year. They account for 73 percent of spending on medicine.

Spending on 10 breakthrough drug therapies will cost the government nearly $50 billion over a decade, the campaign said.

Regarding Medicaid drug price negotiations, Sanford said following the panel discussion: “That’s not a stick in the eye to drug manufacturers like transparency, filing your prices.”

Yet it might seem attractive to lawmakers facing a tight budget next year.

If we can say, ‘We’re going to save some half-billion dollars by negotiating,” they’ll become very interested in doing it.”

Speaking for consumers was David Rothschild, a Parkinson’s patient who lives in Tallahassee. He said his out-of-pocket costs for one medication would hit $700 per month, if he didn’t buy it for $45 online.

“I wasn’t going to give my retirement entirely to the drug companies,” he said.

Even then, he has problems with misdirected deliveries.

“If I take the medicine, I don’t have to go to a nursing home, or I don’t have to go to a hospital. But if I couldn’t take the medicine, if I couldn’t afford it, I would be forced into one of these facilities. I think you’re well aware of the costs to pay for me in one of those facilities.”

“Rising prices drive up health care costs for all of us,” Johnston said.

“Businesses are forced to raise costs and cut wages. Consumers are forced to chose between paying for medicine and paying their bills. Workers delay care, live sicker and are less productive.”

Panel finds no easy answers on costs of voter rights restoration

A state panel struggled Monday to figure out a price tag for the proposed Florida Voter Restoration Amendment, which would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.

The Financial Impact Estimating Conference heard testimony from a variety of state criminal justice agencies indicating it might be hard to nail down what the amendment would cost. The panel planned to reconvene next week for additional study.

Amy Baker, coordinator for the Legislative Office of Economic and Demographic Research, the Legislature’s policy-analysis arm, said lawmakers might have to clarify the meaning of key terms.

“We’ve got several issues we are struggling with,” Baker said during a break in proceedings.

The proposed amendment’s ballot summary says: “This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case-by-case basis.”

State elections officials certified in September that supporters had collected 71,000 petition signatures to place the initiative on the ballot, pending review by Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Supreme Court. It could go on the ballot in 2018.

The budget implications could prove significant, particularly if the amendment applied retroactively. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says the state has returned more than 1.1 million felony convictions since 1950, not including federal convictions and those in other states against offenders now living in Florida.

The Florida Commission on Offender Review, which monitors offenders following their release, says roughly 375,000 already have secured reinstatement of their civil rights.

That leaves perhaps 600,000 potential applicants under the amendment, less offenders who have died or moved away, Baker said.

The conference estimates that perhaps 35 percent of those offenders might seek reinstatement of their voting rights, based on academic research.

That would still leave a sizeable “bubble” of offenders, she said.

“There’s a lot of caveats about these numbers,” Baker said. “We think it gives a good order of magnitude.”

One question is whether to pre-clear offenders regardless of whether they seek the right to vote. Another, cheaper, alternative is to wait until they file voting registration cards. But the Legislature “would not necessarily gravitate toward the low-cost solution,” she said. “They’ll do whatever policy decision they think best.”

Additional questions involve legal definitions for felony sexual offenses or murder — might that latter include manslaughter or attempted, members of the panel wondered.

And does “complete all terms of their sentences” include victim restitution? Orders to repay court costs and fees? And what if those orders have been converted into civil judgments for nonpayment — would that bar an ex-felon from recovering his or her voting rights?

“It is likely the Legislature is going to have to get involved in determining what the different terms mean,” Baker said.

Florida Court: Jury must unanimously agree on death penalty

The fate of convicted killers on Florida’s death row – as well as the fate of people awaiting trial for murder – was put in limbo Friday after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that death sentences require a unanimous jury.

By a 5-2 vote the court struck down a newly enacted law allowing a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 out of 12 jurors recommend it. The court added that the new law can no longer be applied to pending prosecutions in the state.

Meanwhile, in another important decision Friday, the court opened the door to inmates already on death row getting their sentences reduced.

By a 5-2 vote, justices concluded that Timothy Lee Hurst — convicted of a 1998 murder at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant- deserves a new sentencing hearing.

A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved the death penalty, but a judge imposed the sentence. The state Supreme Court initially upheld his sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court this past January declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional and forced the state court to reconsider.

That ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court led the state to halt two pending executions. State legislators responded by overhauling the law and requiring that at least 10 out of 12 jurors must recommend execution for it to be carried out. Florida previously required that a majority of jurors recommend the death sentence.

But justices said that change didn’t do enough.

“If “death is different,” as this Court and the United States Supreme Court have repeatedly pronounced, then requiring unanimity in the jury’s final recommendation of life or death is an essential prerequisite to the continued constitutionality of the death penalty in this state,” wrote Justice Barbara Pariente in a concurring opinion with one of the rulings.

Justices in their ruling did reject a request that all 385 inmates on Florida’s death row have their sentences reduced to life in prison. But based on the court’s decision in the Hurst case other inmates may wind up seeking new sentences.

Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott, said the governor’s office was “reviewing” the ruling and did not have any further comment.

The court’s decision means the Florida Legislature will have to overhaul the death penalty law once again. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol for a one-day organizational session in November, but they are not scheduled to hold a regular session until March.

 

Reprinted with the permission of the Associated Press

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