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Senate advances voucher expansion bill, goes to House for final vote

Florida senators, including some reluctant Democrats, voted to expanded two of Florida’s de facto education voucher programs that aid low-income students and those with disabilities.

The Tampa Bay Times reports HB 15 passed 27-11 Friday morning, on a vote where four Democrats joined Republicans. The bill returns to the House this afternoon for final approval of the Senate language before it reaches Gov. Rick Scott‘s desk.

The bill’s passage represents another victory for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who made the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship a priority in 2017. The scholarship, designed to help low-income, mostly minority students obtain private school scholarships, gives dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to businesses that donate to the program.

HB 15 raises the award amounts, allowing students in the program to advance to higher-priced private high schools.

Those Democratic senators signing onto the bill were hesitant about “diverting” more money to tax credits — which could instead go to public schools — but also did not want to vote against the Gardiner Scholarship, a program helping children with disabilities. Since both programs were put in a single bill, linking the Gardiner Scholarship to tax-credit awards, lawmakers were forced to vote on both at once.

“The Gardiner Scholarship program is a fantastic program, so I want desperately to be able to support this bill because of those provisions,” Lake Worth Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens told the Times. “But I am philosophically opposed to corporate tax vouchers and diverting money away from our general funds, which could be used to improve our public-school system.”

Supporters of HB 15, like Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young, defend tax credit scholarships as helping children “who have no hope without it.”

Democrats breaking with the caucus to approve HB 15 include Daphne Campbell of Miami Shores, Bill Montford of Tallahassee, Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Linda Stewart of Orlando.

 

Senate approves amended medical marijuana bill, sends back to House for final vote

The Florida Senate voted 31-7 to approve an amended version of a medical marijuana bill, sending it back to the House for a final vote on Friday.

But with the clock running out on the 2017 Legislative Session, the fate of the proposal remains unclear. The Senate amended the House bill (HB 1397) to limit the number of retail facilities licensed growers can have and remove a provision that would have made medical marijuana exempt from sales tax.

Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who carried the Senate’s implementing bill (SB 406), acknowledged the change marked a difference of opinions between the two chambers.

“I will tell you, this is a disagreement we have at this time,” he said.

The bill approved Thursday initially caps the number of retail facilities a licensed medical marijuana treatment center can have at five. The bill allows growers to add one additional store for every 75,000 patients that registers with the medical marijuana use registry.

Bradley said the Senate believes the new language dealing with caps strikes the right balance of allowing access, but making sure there “won’t be a dispensary on every corner.” Under this scenario, Bradley said once there are 300,000 qualified patients in the state, there will be more than 280 dispensaries across the state.

The House bill did not include caps, and Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the House sponsor, has spoken out against caps.

The amendment also removes a provision included in the original House bill that would have made medical marijuana and medical marijuana delivery devices tax exempt. Rodrigues has long said the House measure would not include a tax on medical marijuana, saying he wanted to honor advocates requests to treat “medical marijuana like medicine.”

The revised version of the bill also calls on the state to issue 10 additional license this year. The state would then be required to issue five additional licenses within 6 months of 75,000 patients registering with the compassionate use registry.

While the bill passed, some members continued to express concern about the measure. Sen. Jeff Clemens, who voted for the bill, was among those who expressed concern that the bill prohibits patient from smoking, noting that it is the only way some patients can get relief.

“This has been the issue I probably struggled with the most,” said Bradley, who said research has shown inhaling smoke into the lungs is not a healthy act. “We shouldn’t slow walk it, because that’s not the Constitution demands, but we should proceed cautiously. It is a feature of pacing.”

The bill could be taken up by the House on Friday. Although session has been extended, legislative leaders have said the only issue to be discussed on Monday will be the 2017-18 budget.

That means Friday is likely the last chance lawmakers will have to pass implementing language this Legislative Session. The House is scheduled to go into Session at 1 p.m.

“All of this effort is about the patients, and too much time and discussion and focus has been about other things,” said Bradley. “At the end of the day, what this is about is some of our sickest, fellow citizens getting something they are entitled to receive.”

medical marijuana

Rob Bradley files amendment to House medical marijuana bill to add retail caps, 10 new licenses by Oct. 1

With just days left in the 2017 Legislative Session, the Senate appears poised to take up and amend the House version of a bill to implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment.

The Senate placed the House bill (HB 1397) on Thursday’s Special Order calendar on Wednesday evening. The Senate proposal (SB 406) was on Wednesday’s calendar, but was temporarily postponed. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rob Bradley, spent most of the day at the rostrum presiding over the day’s business.

Bradley filed a 70-page, delete everything amendment to the House bill at 11:24 a.m. Thursday. The amendment, among other things, initially limits growers to five retail facilities, but allows for new retail facilities to come online as the patient population grows; calls on the Department of Health to issue 10 new licenses no later than Oct. 1; and issues five new licenses for every 75,000 patients.

“Sen. Bradley’s amendment to HB 1397 moves much closer to the House’s position than I wanted to see, but nevertheless has the full support of Florida for Care. Anyone who would say Bradley’s proposal is anything but a fair reasonable compromise between the two chambers are being unreasonable themselves,” said Ben Pollara, the executive director of Florida for Care in a statement. “This legislation must be headed to Gov. Scott by the end of the day tomorrow. Hundreds of thousands of sick and suffering Floridians are counting on it.”

The House voted 105-9 on Tuesday to approve its version of the bill, sponsored by Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues. As it stands right now, the House bill allows pregnant women to use low-THC cannabis, allows patients to use low-THC cannabis in public, and allows the use of edibles and vaping.

It also quickens the pace by which the state issues licenses, grandfathering in current license holders and calling on the Department of Health to issue a license to any applicants denied a license, if the applicant was awarded “a license pursuant to an administrative or legal challenge.”

It then calls for the DOH to issue more licenses no later than July 1, 2018. Under the bill, one of the applicants in each region must be the “next-highest scoring applicant after the applicant or applicants that were awarded a license for that region; was not a litigant in an administrative challenge on or after March 31; and is not licensed in another region.” It also needs to issue a license to a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association.

The bill currently requires the department to issue four four additional licenses within six months after the registration of 100,000 active, qualified patients in compassionate use registry.

Bradley’s amendment seeks to change that. His amendment calls on the state to issue 10 additional license by Oct. 1, 2017. The state would then be required to issue five additional licenses within 6 months of 75,000 patients registering with the compassionate use registry.

The House bill currently does not include caps. Bradley’s amendment adds language that would initially cap the number of retail facilities a licensed grower can have at five. Under the proposed amendment, however, licensed growers can add one additional store for every 75,000 patients.

The most recent version of the Senate bill caps retail facilities at three facilities per grower, and does not allow for a growth as the patient population grows.

Pollara said he is in favor of the “number of dispensaries per license.”

“The last thing that I want is litigation, and I can assure you that I will not pursue it as a result of these caps,” he said in a statement. “Bradley’s proposal would allow for the marijuana industry to grow alongside the patient population, providing competition and reasonable access.”

Pollara urged the Senate to “adopt this amendment and send this legislation back to the House as soon as possible.”

The Senate could take up the proposal later this afternoon.

Rick Scott says lawmakers inability to finish budget on time ‘doesn’t make any sense’

Gov. Rick Scott chastised state lawmakers for being unable to complete the 2017-18 budget on time, but once again stopped short of saying whether he would veto the entire spending plan once it reaches his desk.

“You would expect that when people have a job to do they’d get it done. I’ve been in business all my life, and that’s what you expect if you have a deadline,” said Scott following a stop in Naples on Thursday morning. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.’”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron announced Wednesday they had reached an agreement on a final 2017-18 state budget. Both legislative leaders told their chambers the plan was to reconvene in Tallahassee at 1 p.m. Monday to consider the budget and budget bills.

“It would be my goal that we would conclude our session at a reasonable time on Monday evening, to allow members to travel home if they chose to, or stay until Tuesday and go back then,” Negron told members Wednesday.

The budget needs to be finalized 72-hours before the final vote. While Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Carlos Trujillo met Wednesday to publicly finalize several parts of the budget, there are still a few pots of money that need to be publicly closed out.

Much of the $83 billion budget was crafted in secret, something that Scott has pounced on in recent days. The Naples Republican — who launched a three-day, 10-city tour to make a last minute push for his priorities Wednesday — chided lawmakers for working on the budget behind closed doors during his stop at Best Home Services in Naples.

Scott encouraged Floridians to call their legislators and ask them what was in the budget and why there wasn’t more of an opportunity for public input. He also said voters should ask lawmakers “why can’t you get it done on time?”

“They’re supposed to vote on this budget on Monday, and I have no earthly idea what’s in this budget,” said Scott. “Remember what Nancy Pelosi said about … Obamacare a few years ago: ‘You won’t know until you vote for it.’ It’s similar to this. I don’t know anyone is going to know (what’s in it).”

“On an annual basis, there’s 4,000 lines in the budget. It takes us a long time to review them,” he continued. “How is someone going to vote on Monday on a budget, 4,000 lines in a budget, that they haven’t seen?”

Scott is scheduled to hit five cities Thursday, where he’ll urge Floridians to call their lawmakers to ask them to support his top priorities — $100 million Visit Florida and $200 million to fix the dike around Lake Okeechobee. The governor also wants money for Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency, to help lure businesses to the Sunshine State.

It’s unlikely he’s going to get much of his requests. Legislators have agreed to set aside $25 million for tourism marketing, and don’t have money for the Herbert Hoover Dike in the budget.

Although Scott declined to say whether he would veto the entire budget when it gets to his desk, he did note it was an option.

“When I get the budget — when I finally get to see it, because I haven’t see the budget — then I’ll make the decision whether I veto the entire budget or look at any lines and see if they are a good use of your money,” he said. “Because remember, it’s not the Legislature’s money. It’s not the state’s money. It’s your money.”

_The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permissions.

Senate adds slot machine provision onto House bill

The Senate on Wednesday tacked language onto a professional deregulation bill that could lead to the expansion of certain kinds of slot machines.

The provision came under the guise of trying to move fantasy sports into the non-gambling realm before the end of the Legislative Session. Lawmakers failed to agree on comprehensive gambling legislation this year, ending their efforts Tuesday.

Sen. Dana Young, a Tampa Republican, offered an amendment to a House bill under consideration, a “Deregulation of Professions and Occupations” measure (HB 7047). 

Though Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, raised a question as to whether the language was germane to the main bill, the amendment was adopted and the bill passed 36-0, sending it back to the House.

The first part of the amendment addresses fantasy sports, saying “winning outcomes reflect the relative knowledge and skill of the participants.” It also exempts fantasy sports play from state regulation, which companies like FanDuel and DraftKings favor.

But the second part of the amendment also authorizes certain veterans’ organizations to “conduct instant bingo.”

The language includes an allowance for “electronic tickets in lieu of … instant bingo paper tickets.”

That refers to what are known as “Class II gambling” bingo-style slot machines. 

“Think of it like a scratch-off lottery ticket,” gambling blogger Greg Elder explained. “The tickets are sold and there are a certain number of winning tickets. The same holds true for Class II machines. They are programmed to pay off at certain times.”

Opponents of ‘liquor wall’ bill have begun veto effort

The Governor’s Office now has received nearly 500 emails asking Gov. Rick Scott to veto a contentious bill that allows retailers to sell distilled spirits in the same store as other goods.

A tally shows 491 emails urging a veto and none in support of the measure (SB 106), according to Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis.

The bill passed both chambers on close margins: 21-17 in the Senate and a razor thin 58-57 in the House. Also, five House members who missed the vote voted ‘no’ after the roll call.

The clock has not started running for Scott to consider the bill, however, because the Legislature still hasn’t delivered it.

During the Legislative Session, the constitution gives the governor “seven consecutive days” to act, or 15 days after the session ends once he has a bill.

The liquor wall bill is now one of 80 bills listed as passed but “not received” in the Governor’s Office as of Wednesday morning. His office has said Scott will “review” the legislation when received.

Lewis said Scott’s office also received five printed letters in support of the measure from:

— The Distilled Spirits Council, “the national trade association representing America’s leading distillers and nearly 70 percent of all distilled spirits brands sold in this country.”

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Pernod Ricard USA, makers of Absolut vodka, Glenlivet single malt scotch whisky, Jameson Irish whiskey, Kahlúa coffee liqueur, Beefeater gin and others.

Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

— The Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The Wilton Manors City Commission also sent a copy of a resolution opposing the bill. (Those are below.)

The “whiskey and Wheaties” bill, filed every year since 2014, removes the 82-year-old ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other items enacted in Florida after Prohibition. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles.

Among other things, the bill requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in. It further calls for employees over 18 to check customers’ ID and approve sales of spirits by cashiers under 18.

Big-box chains such as Wal-Mart and Target have pushed for the bill, while independent owner-operators—playing on Scott’s reputation as a job creator—say the legislation will kill jobs and even put some small businesses out of business.

Florida’s own ABC Fine Wines & Spirits also opposes the measure, as does the Publix supermarket chain, because of its investment in its many separate liquor stores.

Senate passes compensation for deceased FSU player’s family

A bill to compensate the family of a freshman Florida State football player who died after a workout 16 years ago is heading to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott.

The Florida Senate on Tuesday voted 34-2 for a claims bill (HB 6515) paying $1.8 million to the family of Devaughn Darling. Florida State agreed to settle the case in 2004 after a lawsuit alleging negligence by trainers in Darling’s death. But state law prohibits the university from paying more than $200,000 without legislative authorization.

Darling, who had the sickle-cell trait, died after doing indoor drills during off-season training in February of 2001. The trait can make people vulnerable to illness from exertion.

This is the 13th year that a claim bill for the Darling family had been filed.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

House passes medical marijuana implementing bill, sends to Senate

The House overwhelming approved its version of a medical marijuana implementing bill, setting the bill up for final negotiations with the Senate later this week.

The House voted 105-9 to approve a bill (HB 1397) that would implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment.

“Understanding the level of pain and the level of need patients have … there is no way I would block this type of legislation,” said Rep. Amy Mercado, who voted against the bill in its first committee stop. “I stand here not at 100 percent, but because it will help patients.”

Sponsored by Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the House amended the bill Tuesday to, among other things, allow pregnant women to use low-THC cannabis, and allow the use of low-THC cannabis in public.

The amended version of the bill also quickens the pace by which the state issues licenses for medical marijuana treatment centers.

Under the amendment approved Tuesday, current license holders would be grandfathered in and receive a license to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana, as well as low-THC cannabis. The amendment also calls on the department to license any applicants denied a license, if the applicant was awarded “a license pursuant to an administrative or legal challenge.”

It then calls on the Department of Health to issue 10 more licenses “as soon as practicable, but no later than July 1, 2018.” Under the bill, one of the applicants in each region must be the “next-highest scoring applicant after the applicant or applicants that were awarded a license for that region; was not a litigant in an administrative challenge on or after March 31; and is not licensed in another region.” It also needs to issue a license to a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association.

 The department is then required to issue four additional licenses within six months after the registration of 100,000 active, qualified patients in compassionate use registry.

Rodrigues said “95 percent” of the changes adopted as part of the amendment have been negotiated with the Senate. The House bill does not include caps on the number of retail locations growers can have, something the Senate bill includes.

“We do not believe 21 storefronts would provide necessary access,” said Rodrigues about the Senate’s proposal to allow growers to have three retail locations from which they can dispense medical marijuana. There are currently seven licensed growers in Florida.

The bill prohibits patients from smoking medical marijuana, although it allows edibles and vaping. But those limitations, among other things, is what prompted Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith to vote against the bill.

“I believe there are hundreds of thousands of people who are using smokeable cannabis to help mitigate their pain,” said Smith. “Who are we to tell legitimate patients they can’t smoke?”

In a statement Ben Pollara, the executive director of Florida for Care, said the House bill puts “profits over patient access.”

“The Senate should make significant amendments before sending what is currently a fatally flawed bill back to the House,” he said.

Floridians won’t have to wait too long to see what the Senate does on the bill. With just a few days left until the scheduled end of the 2017 Legislative Session, the Senate is begin discussions of its version of the bill (SB 406) on Wednesday.

House medical marijuana amendment could quicken pace for new licenses

After months of discussion, the House appears ready take steps to open up the medical marijuana industry.

Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues filed an 82-page, delete all amendment on his medical marijuana implementing bill (HB 1397) early Tuesday morning. The amendment comes just hours before the House is scheduled to vote on the bill.

The amendment, among other things, appears to quicken the pace by which the state issues licenses for medical marijuana treatment centers.

Under the proposed amendment, current license holders would be grandfathered in and receive a license to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana, as well as low-THC cannabis. The amendment also calls on the department to license any applicants denied a license, if the applicant was awarded “a license pursuant to an administrative or legal challenge.”

While that language was contained in the amended version of the bill lawmakers discussed on Friday, the amendment put forth Tuesday calls on the Department of Health to issue 10 more licenses “as soon as practicable, but no later than July 1, 2018.”

According to the amendment, one of the applicants in each region must be the “next-highest scoring applicant after the applicant or applicants that were awarded a license for that region; was not a litigant in an administrative challenge on or after March 31; and is not licensed in another region.” The department must also issue a license to a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association.

The amendment then calls on the department to issue four additional licenses within six months after the registration of 100,000 active, qualified patients in compassionate use registry.

The bill as it currently stands doesn’t bring new licenses online until 150,000 qualified patients register with the medical marijuana use registry.

The House is scheduled to take up the bill when it meets at 10:30 a.m. today.

After delay Florida will finally hand out oil spill money

After keeping the money locked up for nearly a year, Florida legislators have finally agreed on a plan to hand out millions of dollars given the state for damages related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Florida Senate on Monday voted unanimously for a bill that would guarantee that $300 million be distributed to eight Panhandle counties hardest hit by the spill. The bill heads back to the Florida House, which is expected to approve it before the annual session ends Friday.

“This 300 million is finally at long last going to get to Northwest Florida,” said Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

In 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, leased by energy giant BP, killed 11 workers and caused a blowout that began spewing an estimated 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. It took nearly three months for the well to be capped.

Under a settlement reached with BP, Florida is to receive $2 billion for economic losses related to the spill over a 17-year-period. Legislators previously passed a law that created a nonprofit corporation — Triumph Gulf Coast — that was supposed be in charge of handing out any money received as a result of the oil spill.

Last July the first payment came in, but the fate of the money remained in limbo for months and into this year’s session. House and Senate Republicans have been in a tug-of-war over who could get the money — and what it could be spent on.

House leaders, for example, were adamant that the money could not be used as an incentive to lure new businesses to the region. House Republicans are opposed to business incentives and have labeled them “corporate welfare.”

State senators said they wanted to make sure that the final proposal guaranteed that all eight counties got some share of the initial $300 million. They also pointed out that the bill (HB 7077) guarantees that any future payments must go to Triumph Gulf Coast and cannot be held by the Legislature.

“We won’t be here in 15 years, and we did not want to see our colleagues in the future to have the same debate,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, a Gulf Breeze Republican.

The final bill allows the money to be spent several different ways, including letting counties use the money to reduce local property taxes. The money can also be used on tourism ads, construction projects such as new roads and worker training programs.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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