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Lawmakers getting closer on higher ed overhaul

The House and Senate moved closer Tuesday to agreement on a major higher-education bill, while the House added a provision to ban “free-speech zones” on university and college campuses.

In an 18-1 vote, the House Education Committee approved the bill (HB 423), sponsored by Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican. The bill includes many of the higher-education initiatives (SB 4) unanimously endorsed by the Senate during the first week of the 2018 Session.

The provisions include a permanent expansion of Bright Futures merit scholarships to cover full tuition and fees for top students, known as “academic scholars,” and 75 percent of tuition and fees for “medallion” scholars. It would also allow the scholarships to be used by students attending summer classes.

It also would expand some need-based aid programs, including doubling the state match for scholarships awarded to “first generation” college students and establishing a scholarship program for students from farmworker families.

It would make permanent a “world-class” scholars program for universities, with the aim of attracting top-level professors and researchers. It would establish another program that rewards top-performing law, medicine and professional schools.

The legislation also would require the state university system to use a four-year graduation rate as part of its performance funding formula, instead of the current six-year measure.

Rodrigues, who is employed by Florida Gulf Coast University, said other states will look to “emulate” the higher-education initiatives.

“What we’re going to do is change the game for higher education here in Florida,” Rodrigues said.

The House backed off a plan that called for the university system’s Board of Governors to create a performance-funding system based on individual school performance, rather than ranking the schools against each other, with the bottom three losing out on state performance money.

The bill would require the Board of Governors to develop a plan to move universities to a funding method based entirely on performance, rather than the current system, which has partial performance funding.

As part of that effort, Rodrigues said he expects the university system to look at a performance model that rewards “continuous improvement” by the schools regardless of how they are ranked against each other.

“That is my vision. We will see what comes to us in the study,” Rodrigues said.

As part of an amendment adopted by the education panel, the House bill now contains a measure that would ban “free-speech zones” on college campuses and allow state universities and colleges to be sued if students or others disrupt campus speakers.

It would allow universities and colleges to be sued for injunctive relief if students or others “intentionally and significantly hinder” a campus speaker or advocate. Schools would have to cover “reasonable” attorney fees and court costs if they are found in violation.

Marshall Ogletree, representing the United Faculty of Florida, a union that represents university and college faculty, called the measure “a poison pill” in the higher-education bill, saying it would “chill” free expression on the campuses.

Rodrigues rejected that argument, saying it was intended to allow more free speech.

“You don’t go to a university or a college to be sheltered from ideas. You go to be exposed to multiple ideas so that you can seek truth for yourself,” Rodrigues said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee defeated a similar campus “free speech” measure (SB 1234) this month.

The House bill, which next moves to the chamber’s floor, also contains a provision that could lead to the consolidation of the University of South Florida’s main Tampa campus with branch campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee.

Senate pushes gun, school safety proposals without assault weapon ban

Following a chaotic and emotional two-hour debate at the Senate Rules Committee on Monday, dozens of gun control advocates left the meeting angry and disappointed when senators voted down a ban on assault weapons.

“Vote them out! Vote them out!” protesters chanted after Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto announced the failure of on an amendment filed by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez that would have barred the sale and transfer of all assault weapons in the state.

Sen. Anitere Flores was the only Republican who voted with Democrats in support of the ban. Republicans on the panel did not debate their reasons for voting against the ban of weapons such as the AR-15 rifle, which 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used to gun down 16 of his classmates and two of his teachers at a Parkland high school.

NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and Eric Friday, the president of Florida Carry, did go before the panel to express their opposition though, arguing that it would punish “law-abiding citizens” for the actions of “one criminal.”

“They don’t like how a criminal used the weapon,” Friday said in reference to the protesters, “but that’s not how they are widely used.”

“It is time for the Legislature to realize this is an attempt to punish law-abiding citizens for the actions of one citizen,” he said.

The assault weapon ban amendment was one of several amendments filed by Democrats that were batted out of a Senate package that would have a wide range of impact on school safety, gun regulations and mental health services in the state.

The Senate package is similar to the one proposed in the House, and would allow for local government to choose whether to arm their teachers with weapons and train them to respond in case of an active shooting on campus.

The package passed the Senate Rules Committee on a 9-4 vote, with Democratic Sens. Lauren Book and Bill Montford voting with Republicans.

Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky told senators that it was not a “perfect bill,” but that at least it was action by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, which has for years been against passing gun control measures. This package includes provisions to raise the legal age to purchase an assault weapon to 21 years old and a three-day waiting period for gun purchases.

Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon said he could not vote for the package because the “marshal program” that would give guns to trained teachers was a “step too far.”

“I cannot support a bill that puts guns in the hands of the people that are supposed to be educating,” Braynon said.

The package now heads to the Appropriations Committee for its final stop before it can hit the Senate floor.

Senate President-designate Bill Galvano said an appropriations amendment will be ready Tuesday that will explain how the proposal, with a $400 million price tag, will be paid.

All nominations clear Senate Ethics and Elections Committee

With little opposition raised — except for Democrats’ votes against three recent appointments to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee recommended Monday that the chamber back all 89 appointments and nominations awaiting confirmation.

The committee’s favorable recommendations include Florida Secretary of Environmental Protection Noah Valenstein, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Phillip Eric Sutton, Secretary of the Department of the Florida Lottery Jim Poppell, Florida Secretary of Management Services Erin Marie-Geraghty Rock, and Florida Secretary of Transportation Michael Dew.

Of them, Valenstein received a bit of grilling from Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami on Everglades restoration and from Democratic Sen. Victor Torres on fracking; and Dew was grilled by Torres and Rodriguez on local projects, and particularly hard by Republican Sen. Tom Lee on longterm funding plans, given concerns about trends in transportation. But both earned unanimous recommendations of approval, as did almost every nomination before the committee Monday.

For a while, Lee laid into Dew, all but accusing the transportation head of not convincing him that the department was doing enough to prepare for rising popularity of electric cars, the ensuing decline of gasoline taxes, and the consequential potential for major revenue and budgetary crunches for Florida’s transportation systems.

As Lee questioned him on the technology and consumer trends toward less gasoline, and the state’s population and transportation trends, Dew kept assuring that those were items that his staff kept track of, but that he could not offer the committee any specifics.

Lee pressed for the department’s projections, and Dew responded, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Lee pressed for whether and when gas tax revenue might fall below increasing Florida needs, and Dew responded, “I’d have to plot that out.

Finally, Lee seemed to lose all patience when Dew appeared to hedge on even accepting what Lee was proposing, that trend lines meant there is or will be an inevitable disparity between the state’s tax revenue and transportation expenses.

“So you don’t know there is a dramatic disparity? You’re the secretary of the Department of Transportation, and you you’re telling don’t know that there has been a disparity in the amount of gas tax raised per capita over the past 20 years in this state?” Lee challenged.

“Senator, I know that trend is there, I just don’t want to quote you a figure incorrectly,” Dew offered.

“So, again, what is it you recommend we do?” Lee demanded.

‘”My recommendation is that we continue to watch the problem,” Dew responded. “It’s something we have to watch for right now, but it is not going to be a ‘tomorrow’ problem.”

With that, Dew got an 8-0 vote recommending his confirmation.

The only nominees who did not get unanimous support were three recent appointees to FWC, who previously had been flagged for criticism in a report in the Tampa Bay Times because none of them appeared to have any previous background in wildlife conservation.

The panel’s three Democrats, Torres, Rodriguez, and Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens all voted against supporting the appointments of Gary Lester, vice president of community relations at The Villages; Gary Nicklaus, 48, son of golfing great Jack Nicklaus; and Sonya Rood, 53, wife of developer and former Bahamas ambassador John Rood, who is also former chief financial officer of the Republican Party of Florida. They each got 5-3 approvals from the committee.

Money could go to trauma centers after mass shootings

Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon wants to create a $10 million program that would reimburse trauma centers for care provided to victims of mass shootings, and Senate President Joe Negron said he will support the effort.

Braynon wants to create a fund in the Attorney General’s Office, with money coming from a portion of fees collected from new or renewed concealed-weapons licenses. The program would reimburse trauma centers that treat victims of mass shootings, such as the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 people dead.

Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat, initially wanted to attach the proposal to a bill (SB 1876) that is a carefully constructed deal that could end years of litigation between hospital systems about approval of trauma centers. But Braynon withdrew a proposed amendment to the bill Thursday, saying the proposal could be included in gun policies the Senate will consider in the coming weeks and that he didn’t want to affect what he called the “tenuous” trauma bill.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, said earlier in the day he supported Braynon’s efforts but didn’t want to include a funding request in a bill that focused on trauma center regulation.

The Legislature has wrangled for years over whether to continue with current trauma-system regulations or to allow a more competitive environment that would increase the number of trauma facilities.

The legislation moving ahead is a compromise between long-standing trauma providers and the for-profit HCA Healthcare, which has sought in recent years to open trauma centers at many of its hospitals. The House is advancing similar legislation.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, an Orange Park Republican, thanked Braynon for understanding that the trauma compromise “deals with so many issues that all of us, Republicans and Democrats agree” should occur.

The Appropriations Committee voted 17-3 to approve the bill, with opposition from Braynon, Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, and Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican.

Negron told reporters earlier in the day he met with two Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who sustained grievous injuries but had survived because of the quality of the care they received following the shooting.

“I am very impressed and gratified by the incredible quality of our trauma units, our surgeons, what they’ve been able to do to save lives, which they’ve done,” Negron said when asked whether he supports Braynon’s request.

“Those kinds of heroic efforts should certainly be rewarded because they are extremely expensive but worthwhile,” Negron said.

The school attack was the fourth mass shooting in Florida in the past 20 months where trauma centers were activated.

Following the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, for example, Orlando Regional Medical Center treated 35 patients at its trauma center.

Lee Memorial Hospital activated its mass-casualty trauma team in response to a shooting at Fort Myers’ Club Blu in July 2016, and Broward Medical Center activated its mass-casualty team in response to the January 2017 mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami is also home to South Florida’s only freestanding pediatric trauma center.

But bill sponsor Dana Young, a Tampa Republican, said the bill provides “much-needed certainty that we need to make sure that excellent level of care is available as we move forward as a state as we grow.”

Easing drug trafficking mandatory minimums headed to Senate floor

Someone caught with oxycodone pills weighing at least 7 grams can be sentenced to a mandatory three-year sentence and fined $50,000 under Florida drug trafficking state laws.

That could soon change for non-violent offenders who are not involved with a criminal organization under a Senate proposal that would allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences, but not fines.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes and Democrat Sen. Randolph Bracy, cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 15-5 vote and now heads to the Senate floor for consideration.

The proposal would impact those criminally charged under the drug trafficking statute, whether it be sale, delivery, importation, manufacturing or possession of large quantities of a controlled substance. That would include cocaine, marijuana and opioids such as fentanyl.

A Democrat-sponsored House effort that would seek to reduce sentences for certain drug offenses has not moved in the chamber though. This could show signs of trouble for the proposal with two weeks left in the 2018 legislative session.

The Senate and the House have pushed a series of criminal justice reforms this year, but those seeking to loosen mandatory minimum sentences requirements have not been too welcome in the House. Lobbyist Barney Bishop has also been critical of the measure, saying that it would not help drug addict, but instead aid those with “so much drugs” on them.

Brandes, however, has pushed back on that claim.

“Our point here is largely low level people who are addicts and get involved with heroin and they may purchase heroin that is mixed with fentanyl,” Brandes said.

Senate diverges from House on tax ‘supermajority’

In an issue that could be part of the mix of end-of-session negotiations, a Senate panel Tuesday approved a proposal that would make it harder to raise taxes — but didn’t go as far as House leaders and Gov. Rick Scott want.

The House last month overwhelmingly approved a proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 7001) that would require two-thirds votes of both legislative chambers to raise taxes or fees in the future, up from the usual majority votes.

But the Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee took up the measure Tuesday and effectively replaced it with a Senate proposal that would require three-fifths votes of both legislative chambers — an easier standard to meet than two-thirds — to raise taxes. The Senate proposal, among other things, also would not require such “supermajority” votes to raise fees.

Senate Finance and Tax Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, pointed to potentially wide definitions of fees that could apply to such things as college tuition and amounts charged to state employees for their health insurance.

“Fees was rather broad, so we have decided not to include fees in the Senate proposal,” Stargel said.

In the closing weeks of legislative sessions, it is common for the House and Senate to take differing positions on priorities of legislative leaders. Those issues then become part of the deal-making that helps end the Session.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, and Scott have pushed for the proposal to require two-thirds legislative votes to raise taxes or fees. The 60-day Legislative Session is scheduled to end March 9. If the House and Senate can reach agreement on the proposed constitutional amendment, the issue would go on the November ballot for voters to decide.

While the Republican-dominated House and Senate differ on the details of the proposal at this point, they appear to agree on the direction of making it harder to raise taxes. But many Democrats and groups such as the Florida AFL-CIO oppose the idea, as was evident in a 4-2 party-line vote Tuesday in the Senate subcommittee.

Opponents said, in part, that Florida is already a low-tax state and that the proposal could make it harder to meet future needs. Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, pointed to a need to address climate change and sea-level rise.

“If we are barely, if at all, taking any action, why would we, before we even start taking action to address these critical long-term needs, hamstring future legislatures on being able to address that and other critical needs that are going to be coming down in the future?” Rodriguez asked.

While the Senate plan wouldn’t go as far as the House, Stargel said it “does maintain the goal of a supermajority” vote.

“The goal of this bill is the same of my ideology, and I believe some (others), which is to require a supermajority if you are going to raise the cost of doing business in the state of Florida on the citizens of the state of Florida,” she said.

House readies ‘across the board’ tax package

Farmers, nursing homes and property owners impacted by Hurricane Irma could receive tax relief as part of a $332.7 million package that will be introduced Wednesday in the Florida House.

The package (PCB WMC 18-03), which will be rolled out in the House Ways & Means Committee, will be built on education-related tax credits, a reduction in a commercial-lease tax and sales tax “holidays’ on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies.

Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, said Tuesday the goal is to offer “across the board” savings, without hurting the budget.

“There are many people that are interested in tax cuts, tax credits, but we tried to look at what is the most effective way from a public policy standpoint to benefit Floridians,” Renner said.

A Senate tax-cut proposal is still in the works.

Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, said the Senate has not set a “bottom-line number” for its package.

Stargel said the package might include a number of the House proposals, from hurricane relief for agriculture to the sales tax holidays. But she said the numbers might not exactly align.

“There are several things that they’ve included that I think that we can agree on, that we like that they’re doing,” Stargel said. “There’s a couple of things we’re not really sure. It’s ambiguous. We’re having to look into a little more detail as to how it’s supposed to work out.”

Stargel said she’d like to support a further reduction in the commercial-lease tax, while she needs more information about the educational tax credits.

With a hit to local government revenue accounting for $37.6 million of the House package, the overall proposal tops the $180 million in cuts approved last year and a $180 million request by Gov. Rick Scott for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Scott’s proposal includes shopping tax “holidays” and a request to cut fees on driver’s licenses.

But the House package differs, proposing an 18 percent reduction on civil penalties for non-criminal traffic infractions — such as speeding within 30 mph over the posted limit — if motorists attend driver-improvement school.

The House package also includes a $6.7 million cut by providing a sales-tax exemption for generator purchases by nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Scott’s administration has pushed for nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators after the deaths of residents of a Broward County nursing home that lost its air-conditioning system in Hurricane Irma.

The largest part of the House package, an estimated $154 million a year reduction in state revenue, would come through sales-tax credits that businesses could take to fund voucher-like scholarships in the Gardiner Scholarship Program and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Stargel said her committee may workshop the proposal.

“It’s something different that we’ve not ever seen,” Stargel said. “The proposal has not run through any of our discussions.”

Another $34.1 million next year in the House package would come from reducing the commercial lease tax from 5.8 percent to 5.5 percent starting Jan. 1. That reduction would affect half of the state’s 2018-2019 fiscal year, and the savings to businesses would grow to $81.1 million when implemented for a full fiscal year.

Long a target for elimination by business-lobbying groups, lawmakers dropped the lease tax from 6 percent to 5.8 percent a year ago.

The House would offer a 10-day back-to-school tax holiday in August that would allow families to avoid paying sales taxes on school supplies, clothes costing $60 or less and personal computers and accessories up to $1,000. The package also would offer three separate seven-day periods in May, June and July when Floridians could buy hurricane supplies without paying sales taxes. The holidays are collectively projected to total $74.5 million.

The package also would offer post-Irma tax refunds on agricultural building materials, which would be a projected $8.8 million savings for farmers; on agricultural fencing, $2.7 million; and fuel used to transport agricultural products, $3.7 million.

Another $13.1 million would be available to cover losses when citrus processing equipment went idle because of Irma or because of the industry’s decade-long battle against citrus greening disease.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has estimated farmers and ranchers incurred $2.5 billion in losses from Hurricane Irma.

Most of the losses are expected to be covered through a federal spending plan signed by President Donald Trump that included $2.36 billion for agricultural impacts from Irma and hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Maria in Puerto Rico.

Among other proposals, the package also would provide a property-tax abatement for homeowners forced out of their residences for at least 30 days due to damages from hurricanes Hermine, Matthew and Irma in 2016 and 2017.

Darren Soto: State lawmakers need to unite on policy

After contentious weeks at the U.S. Capitol, Congressman Darren Soto has turned his attention toward Tallahassee, where he believes legislators face “big challenges” and should seize the opportunity to unite on major issues facing the state.

The Orlando-area Democrat gave his take on the state’s Session on Monday during a press conference with several Hispanic Democratic state lawmakers.

Soto told Florida Politics that his time in Tallahassee will be spent advocating on “issues that are critical for not only the Hispanic community, but all Floridians.” He said he hopes his experience as both a state senator and representative will lend him credibility as he attempts to guide legislators through “key issues that may get caught in the noise right now.”

According to Soto, there are a number of hurdles ahead in the wakes of hurricanes Irma and Maria. He suggested state legislators should model the Session with Congress in mind.

“With these major challenges, [Congress] saw a historic budget, where Democrats and Republicans came together in Washington to pass real solutions,” Soto said. “Tallahassee needs to take a page from that book and work together on issues that unite us, rather than divide us.”

Soto ran through line items on the newly approved federal spending bill that are expected to aid institutions and individuals affected by the hurricanes.

Some of those remedial allocations include $2.7 billion for schools and $2.3 billion for Florida citrus. Both spends are being praised by Florida politicians.

Soto, who has been a consistent voice on addressing the disaster in Puerto Rico, also indicated he was happy with the $2 billion secured for rebuilding power systems on the island and the $4.9 billion in Medicaid funding heading to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

But with the midway point of Session behind lawmakers, Soto’s main message on Monday was that there needs to be bipartisan support at the state level in order to follow through on aid from Washington. 

Soto gave the example of the Sadowski Trust Fund, which sets aside funding for affordable housing but has historically had dollars swept out of it. Several state lawmakers claim Florida faces a housing crisis as a result of years of sweeps to the fund. Many also expect the crisis to be exacerbated by the influx of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria.

Budget proposals from the House and Governor this year suggest sweeping dollars from the Sadowski Trust — though much less than in previous years — and a proposal from the Senate suggests fully funding the trust.

Soto said the intake of Puerto Rican migrants has led to a “tipping point” in the state’s affordable housing crisis and that it will be “one of the biggest issues” facing the state. He implored the House to take the Senate’s position.

Soto also brought up the issue of sanctuary cities, which has grabbed attention after the House ushered a bill that would penalize local officials who engage in sanctuary city practices. House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum will debate the issue Tuesday night.

But no local ordinances in the state have formally adopted sanctuary city policies, and Soto said talk of the issue only leads to divisiveness.

“Nothing characterizes the senseless division that we face here than this non-debate over non-issue sanctuary cities,” Soto said. He said the House bill was a “solution in search of a problem.”

“We are a state of diversity, of immigrants. This is our strongest attribute,” Soto said. “And this debate only poisons the well.”

Vacation rentals bill approved by Senate Regulated Industries Committee

A bill to once again roll back local regulation of vacation rental homes got approval Thursday from the Florida Senate Committee on Regulated Industries, its second committee success.

The bill, a committee substitute that combined Senate Bills 1400 and 1640 introduced by Republican state Sens. Greg Steube and David Simmons, drew a long list of opponents Thursday among representatives of cities, counties and hotel interests, who do not want to see the state pre-empting local laws and regulations. But it also drew strong statements of support from proponents of vacation rental homes who want them open for business anywhere, including the big vacation rental marketing firms Airbnb and HomeAway, and also a bipartisan cross-section of senators.

At issue is whether the cities and counties that have tried to regulate vacation rental homes in the past six or seven years will be able to enforce anything, a concern that centered most on local governments’ desire to conduct safety and building-code inspections prior to state licensure.

The bill would allow local regulations on vacation rental homes that apply to all other homes, a position Steube and other proponents have argued should take care of the most significant concerns many opponents raised, about houses converted into a vacation rental that turn into party houses, in the middle of otherwise residential neighborhoods.

“We’re pre-empting back to 2011, so if you had an ordinance in place prior to 2011, this bill is not going to affect you,” Steube said. “This bill allows counties and cities to do anything they want to do to regulate noise, to regulate traffic, to regulate parking, to regulate trash, to regulate how many people you want in a home. So if you want to limit occupancy, if you want to limit how big the houses are in a certain community, you can do that. You just have to pass the law so it applies uniformly to the entire jurisdiction.”

That led Steube, the Republican from Sarasota, to recount how when he was growing up, his family couldn’t afford the expensive hotels along the beach, but could afford to rent out a portion of someone’s house for a vacation.

“There are a lot of families out there that are blue-collar families, families that live in Florida, that look forward to being able to take advantages of places like Airbnb,” Steube said.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Democrat from Jacksonville, said something similar before committing her vote for the bill. “I look at … the opportunity of families to be able to go to places where they may not ever have an opportunity to go, and at a cost they could actually afford,” she said.

There was opposition. Sen. Dorothy Hukill, a Republican from Port Orange, expressed concern that cities and counties, trying to bring order to what some said were chaotic situations with vacation rental homes, have been pushed back and forth in recent years, as the Florida Legislature has pre-empted local control before, and then partially restored it, and now is pre-empting it again.

Gibson and two other Democrats, Sens. Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale and Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, were particularly interested in seeing that the bill addressed potential discrimination by vacation rental home operators. Thurston offered an amendment that would require vacation rental home operators to maintain a log of potential guests who’d been turned away for whatever reasons, as hotels do. However, after opposition to that amendment, and contentions that federal and state law already strongly prohibit discrimination, he withdrew it, saying he would pursue the concerns later.

The bill still must go through the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Rob Bradley

House, Senate tee up differing budget plans

The House and Senate on Wednesday advanced separate versions of an $87 billion-plus state budget, with the two chambers taking different courses on health-care spending and a plan to link education policy to the budget process.

After initial debate on the bills, the Senate is poised to pass its $87.3 billion bill (SB 2500) on Thursday, and the House is expected to pass its $87.2 billion spending plan (HB 5001). After the floor votes, the chambers will be able to begin negotiating the 2018-2019 budget, facing a March 9 end-of-Session deadline.

Although the two bills are only $100 million apart overall, details differ. One major hurdle facing negotiators is a House plan to directly link the $21 billion public-school portion of the budget to passage of a separate 198-page “conforming” bill (HB 7055), which contains dozens of education policy changes, including voucher-like scholarships to let bullied students transfer to private schools.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who leads the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, acknowledged that if the House budget bill passed, but the separate policy bill failed, lawmakers would have to return to Tallahassee to pass a budget to fund Florida’s 67 school districts for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat, offered an amendment seeking to sever the link between the education-policy bill and the budget.

“I think this is a bad precedent,” he said, saying there has not been enough public review of the massive education conforming bill, which was only heard by one committee.

But his proposal was defeated in a 72-39 vote, along party lines, with the Republican majority opposing the effort.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said the Senate is taking the position that major policy bills should be handled through the normal committee process and not included in a budget-linked bill. A conforming bill cannot be amended and would only be subject to an up-or-down vote if it is approved in the House-Senate negotiating process.

“Our conforming bills this year are skinny, for the lack of a better word,” Bradley said. “They do only what is a bare necessity to make sure the budget is done in a legal manner.”

But Bradley also said many House education proposals would likely receive Senate support if the measures are handled through the normal bill process.

“Our objections are on procedure, not policy,” Bradley said. “I think as those issues move through the Senate process that they will be receiving favorable votes because there are many of us who are supporters of the parental-empowerment, school-choice movement.”

Another potential sticking point in budget negotiations is a Senate plan revamping the way Medicaid payments are distributed to Florida hospitals. It would replace an existing system that favors facilities that serve a greater percentage of poor and disabled patients with a plan that would increase base Medicaid payments for all hospitals.

House leaders say they favor the current system, noting major hospitals like Jackson Memorial in Miami would face a funding cut in excess of $59 million. House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican, said he supports helping major not-for-profit hospitals, like Jackson, while he is more skeptical of for-profit hospitals.

Bradley acknowledged the Senate and House plans “are wildly opposite,” but the Senate proposal is designed to spur a policy debate.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Bradley said. “But this is a debate that is long overdue in this building. Don’t fear the debate, we look forward to the debate over how we handle Medicaid payments for our medical providers moving forward.”

In floor action Wednesday, the Senate adopted dozens of amendments to its budget bill, most related to funding local projects across the state.

One of the amendments, sponsored by Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and several other senators, would boost operational funding for Florida A&M University by $6 million. FAMU lost some $11.5 million in state performance funding this year because it finished near the bottom of annual rankings for the 12 state universities.

The House and Senate budgets would boost state and local funding for public schools by more than $500 million. The House has a $100 increase in per-student funding, while the Senate has a $110 increase.

Neither budget has a general pay raise for state workers. But the Senate bill would increase pay for state law enforcement officers by at least 7 percent, if the officers have 10 or more years of experience. The Senate also would provide a $2,500 pay raise for state firefighters.

The Senate bill would increase salaries for state Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges by 10 percent.

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