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Back-to-back committee weeks scheduled for November

Continuing to prepare for the 2018 Legislative Session, Florida lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Nov. 6 for the start of back-to-back committee weeks.

The House and Senate on Thursday wrapped up their second week of committee meetings leading up to the January beginning of the annual Session. They also will hold meetings during the weeks starting Nov. 6Nov. 13 and Dec. 4.

The Senate is slated to hold four days of meetings the week of Nov. 6, including an Appropriations Committee meeting on Nov. 9.

The House, meanwhile, is slated to hold meetings Nov. 7 through Nov. 9, including a meeting of its Appropriations Committee on Nov. 7, according to schedules posted online.

Race for Senate presidency gets underway, but at stately pace

Could a third woman serve as president of the Florida Senate?

That’s one of the intriguing questions at the core of behind-the-scenes maneuvering now fully underway within the Senate’s Republican caucus (currently at 24 members) as the race to succeed Bill Galvano and Wilton Simpson has quietly begun.

Galvano was designated Tuesday as the next president of the Senate by a unanimous vote by his Republican colleagues. Simpson has locked up enough support to follow the Bradenton Republican. Galvano and Simpson’s successor will come from the class of lawmakers elected last November.

But, unlike in the Florida House, where future Speakers begin soliciting support before winning their first election, the upper chamber prefers to take its time and pick a leader after members have had a session (or two or three) to evaluate the chops — and collegiality — of those who seek to lead.

Despite this stately pace for deciding a Senate presidency, two members of the 2016 class are emerging as leading contenders to hold the gavel beginning in 2022.

The two front-runners are St. Augustine’s Travis Hutson and Tampa’s Dana Young, according to more than a dozen sources, including several members, who spoke to Florida Politics on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to appear favoring one senator over another.

Florida Politics brings a well-established record of exclusive, accurate reporting on legislative leadership races.

For example, Florida Politics was first to report about the conclusion of the race between current Senate President Joe Negron and one-time rival Jack Latvala, as well as the eventual outcome of the recently concluded contest for House Speaker beginning in 2022.

It was the (unseemly, some say) pace of the most recent House Speakership race that, in part, influenced the Senate Republican caucus’ consensus decision to take its own damn time before choosing another leader.

Another difference between the House and the Senate: it’s not a given Republicans will still hold a majority come 2022.

While most capital observers, even Democrats, concede that it would take no less than a political tsunami to end Republican hegemony in the House by 2022, it’s not impossible to envision Democrats winning the four seats needed to force a power-sharing scenario with Republicans.

This is especially true after Democrat Annette Taddeo defeated Republican Jose Felix Diaz in the September Senate District 40 special election.

However, until that change comes, the action rests within the Republican caucus.

Although Hutson and Young are the probably the leading contenders to win the support of colleagues, other state senators could be in the mix.

Beyond Hutson and Young, sources say Dennis Baxley and Greg Steube should be seen as dark horses. And just because senators would like to hold off selecting a leader, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some movement in the Hutson-versus-Young scrum.

Sources close to both Hutson and Young say an unofficial coalition of as many as five freshman senators are serving as a bulwark against any rush to choose a leader prematurely.

Names most often associated with this coalition of the, um, unwilling: Baxley, Doug Broxson, Kathleen Passidomo, Keith Perry, and Steube.

Then again, another handful of sources say Perry has already thrown his support to Hutson, joining Debbie Mayfield as key supporters.

Just the whisper that Perry has accelerated the race has led many of his colleagues to say “slow down” — and let the contest unfold at a pace more befitting the upper chamber.

Another factor at play: Unlike the House, senators are not as bound to class as their colleagues across the rotunda.

Whereas Paul Renner was elected Speaker-in-waiting via a vote of exclusively freshmen House Republicans, all members of the Senate in the chamber at the time of the designation vote will decide a Hutson versus Young contest. That vote won’t happen till 2020.

For six years, Young represented South Tampa and western Hillsborough County in the House, before graduating to the Senate to represent roughly the same geography. Before crossing the rotunda, Young rose to become House Republican Leader.

Young and Hutson are both former House members.

After winning a contested battle for HD 60 in 2010 against the late Stacy Frank, Democrats failed to put up a candidate to oppose Young in her 2012 and 2014 re-election bids, before recruiting attorney Bob Buesing to face her in the Senate District 18 race.

Young defeated Buesing — as well as independent candidates Joe Redner and Sheldon Upthegrove — in what was a bruising campaign.

Now chair of the Senate’s Health Policy Committee, Young is also vice-chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Pre-K-12 Education. Most recently, she filed a ban on fracking for the 2018 Legislative Session.

She’s a political scion: Her grandfather, Randolph Hodges, served in the Florida Senate from 1953-63, rising to Senate President in 1961-63. And her uncle, Gene Hodges, was in the House of Representatives from 1972-88.

Hutson, chair of the Regulated Industries Committee, was in the House from 2012-15 before being elected to the Senate in April 2015.

That was when John Thrasher quit the chamber to become Florida State University president. Hutson then took Thrasher’s seat.

The St. Augustine Republican, who last reported a $7.2 million net worth, works for his family’s business, The Hutson Companies. According to its website, the company developed “more than 40 communities, encompassing more than 20,000 home sites, throughout the northeast Florida and south Georgia region.”

Jeff Brandes’ bill would allow tourist taxes for public works to support tourism

A new bill filed Thursday morning by Sen. Jeff Brandes would expand the field of projects that local governments can spend tourism tax dollars on to include public works infrastructure that would assist tourism.

Filed SB 658, the bill would open the door for local governments to spend tourism dollars on roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, and possibly public transit systems — but only if the local tourism development council recommends the projects as necessary to promote tourism, and the county commission agrees.

Currently state law allows bed tax dollars collected by hoteliers to be spent on a limited number of concrete venues such as publicly-owned convention centers, sports arenas and auditoriums, as well as a few privately-owned facilities such as aquariums and museums.

The law also allows improvements of a limited number of tourism amenities like beaches.

Brandes’ bill would expand that to public works infrastructure, making expansions of tourism districts possible. It allows the money to be spent to acquire, construct, extend, enlarge, remodel, repair, improve, maintain, operate, or finance capital improvements with life expectancies of five years or more for projects including transportation, sanitary sewer, solid waste, drainage, potable water, and pedestrian facilities, along with possible others.

Senators angry at delays in medical marijuana licenses

Frustrated senators grilled Florida’s pot czar Tuesday, demanding explanations for why his office missed a legislatively mandated deadline to issue new medical-marijuana licenses and why ailing patients are stuck waiting for state-issued ID cards.

Christian Bax, executive director of the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use, blamed one of the delays on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of part of a new law that required health officials to issue 10 new marijuana licenses by Oct. 3.

But Senate Health Policy Chairwoman Dana Young, a Tampa Republican, rejected Bax’s explanation.

“I’m not buying that just because there’s litigation out there you can’t fulfill your statutory duty to issue these additional licenses,” Young, a lawyer, scolded Bax.

The new law, passed during a special session in June, was intended to carry out a constitutional amendment, approved by voters in November, that broadly legalized medical marijuana in Florida.

The lawsuit cited by Bax deals with a portion of the law that reopened the application process and ordered the Department of Health to grant five licenses by Oct. 3, after it approved five other new licenses in August. One of the licenses in the second batch must go to a grower who had been part of settled lawsuits, known as the “Pigford” cases, about discrimination against black farmers by the federal government.

But weeks after the deadline has passed, Bax has yet to hire a vendor to score what could be hundreds of applications for the highly coveted licenses in potentially one of the nation’s most robust marijuana markets.

Bax has maintained that the lawsuit filed by Columbus Smith, a black farmer from Panama City, has temporarily put the application process on hold.

Smith’s challenge alleges that the new law is so narrowly drawn that only a handful of black farmers could qualify for the license. The lawsuit contends that the measure is what is known as an unconstitutional “special law.”

Smith is asking a Tallahassee judge to stop the Department of Health from moving forward with the application process, something Bax said has prevented him from obeying the Legislature’s directive.

“The prospect of moving forward of accepting licenses with the injunctive hearing looming creates both a logistical and legal problem,” Bax, a lawyer, told the committee Tuesday morning.

But Young wasn’t satisfied with Bax’s justification.

“I hear what you’re saying, but doesn’t it seem a bit complacent for you to simply throw your hands up and say, `Oh, we cannot issue. We’ve been sued. Oh no.’ You all get sued all the time,” an exasperated Young said. “You have a duty under our state laws to issue these licenses, regardless of whether some plaintiff files a lawsuit.”

Bax insisted he is hamstrung by the pending court decision regarding the temporary injunction.

“I don’t think there is anyone in this room who would like to get these licenses out and growing more than I do. We want to move this process as quickly as possible forward,” he said.

But, he added, “If this process gets struck down, we would have to start from the beginning.”

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who is also a lawyer, piled on, putting Department of Health General Counsel Nicole Gehry on the hot seat.

“What valid reason could you have for ignoring a statutory directive? Just saying that you’re afraid of an injunction or litigation has been filed. … I mean, almost every time we pass a law, somebody files a lawsuit, and we still continue to pursue it,” Passidomo said, asking Gehry “what is the down side” of issuing the licenses.

“Once we get an idea of the scope of how the judge views the case, I think the department would be in a better position to evaluate how best to move forward,” Gehry said. “It’s difficult to articulate at the moment because we don’t know what the judge is going to do with the temporary restraining order.”

The new licenses aren’t the only source of frustration for lawmakers.

Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, is among numerous legislators whose constituents have sought help getting state-issued identification cards. Patients must have the cards to purchase marijuana, once their doctors have ordered treatment.

“I’ve had constituents’ families call because they’ve died waiting to get their card and could not get their medication,” Book said.

Bax said it currently takes his office 30 days to issue the ID cards, if applications are complete.

But Book disputed that.

“I went on a fact-finding mission … and I tried the process as an experiment. It took three months to get a patient identification card. That is not unique. That is something that I have heard time and time and time again,” she said.

Bax said he is finalizing negotiations with a vendor who will take over the ID-card system; the outsourcing was another requirement included in the new law. The deal should be finalized in a few days, Bax promised.

Book asked how the contractor would handle the backlog — which Bax said is up to 6,000 patients at any given time — of people waiting for ID cards.

“Flushing that backlog out … is a priority for us,” he assured the panel. “That will be the first thing that’s addressed.”

Bax’s answers did little to quell committee members’ concerns.

“I feel like I know less now and am more confused after your presentation,” Sen. Bobby Powell, a West Palm Beach Democrat, said.

But it’s unclear what disgruntled lawmakers can do to force the health department to act.

“We’re going to have to continue to look into that, but I will tell you that many of the committee members commented during the meeting that they’ve never seen anything like this. And I will tell you that I have never seen anything like this in the eight years that I’ve served in the Legislature. A complete disregard for a legislative mandate,” Young told The News Service of Florida after the meeting.

Ailing patients, who have “already waited too long” for medical marijuana to be legalized, “deserve their government to act appropriately” to make sure they get the treatment they need, Young said.

Senate panel hears values of vacation rentals, mulls regulations

After hearing a cavalcade of criticisms of short-term vacation rental homes in Florida two weeks ago, the Florida Senate Community Affairs Committee heard many positives Tuesday morning, while deliberating whether there need to be any state regulations.

The committee’s workshop on vacation rental homes was extended from its initial hearing of the 2018 Florida Legislative Session due to an overwhelming number of speakers requests, and many of those who came forward Tuesday were owners of vacation rentals who testified that their properties were great for their communities and great for themselves.

The issue is whether people who rent out a bedroom, or a house or condominium unit, for a few nights at a time to visitors need to be held to the same standards as businesses that operate commercial bed and breakfast inns, hotels, and motels. In the 2017 Florida Legislative Session the Legislature restricted local regulations under the argument that municipalities were getting unfairly out of hand cracking down on vacation rental homes. But now the issue of statewide rules emerges.

State Sen. David Simmons, a Republican from Altamonte Springs, particularly seemed interested in developing some statewide codes to keep vacation rentals from becoming so commercial that unlicensed facilities compete directly with licensed and heavily-regulated facilities such as bed and breakfast inns. He inquired about whether there could be an objective standard of amount of nights, 30, 45, or some other number, in which a vacation rental would be considered a commercial property.

But Simmons, too, appeared swayed by numerous stories of vacation rental hosts such as Lisa and Mark Robertson, who rent out bedrooms in their Destin home through the Airbnb vacation rental marketing company.

Lisa Robertson disputed claims made by critics that unregulated vacation rental homes offer the prospects of such problems as bedbugs, party houses, trash problems, parking violations, and safety concerns, saying those are politically-motivated, disingenuous allegations aiming to “stomp out this innovative, forward-thinking industry.”

She and others testified that Airbnb and like vacation rental marketing companies such as HomeAway have created commitments to excellence, and any hosts who don’t live up to those standards can expect to be punished with bad reviews, when the hosts’ operations thrive or whither based on reviews.

“We are in fact the good neighbors who want to share our world, and actually want to make the world a better place to live,” Robertson said. “We know our community and we want our visitors to love our community also.”

She, like several others, argued that state rules might be acceptable, provided they are fair and reasonable.

Simmons and others focused some attention on Flagler County, which has administered regulations of single-family homes and duplexes, which Flagler County Commissioner Greg Hansen called “a very workable set of regulations which everybody in Flagler County agrees with. They like what we are doing.”

Those regulations require vacation rentals to obtain county certificates and pay bed taxes, to obtain a Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation license as a transient public lodging establishment, and to meet various standards for swimming pools, sleeping rooms, parking, and various services.

“I think we’re doing it right,” Hansen said. “And if you talk to the people who are regulated in our county, I think they agree.”

Senate withholding secret emails linked to website

The Florida Senate is refusing to turn over dozens of emails involving a state budget website that was shuttered despite taxpayers paying $5 million for it so far.

The contractor that built the website has sued the Senate for a final payment of $500,000. While the case moves along, attorneys for both sides are arguing over what information should be turned over in the case.

Attorneys representing the Senate are withholding more than 50 emails sent between Senate employees, as well as some Republican senators.

The emails deal with a website that was supposed to help the public understand the state budget. Legislative officials say it didn’t work as intended and never went online.

In court filings this month, Senate attorneys contend the emails are privileged information or work product.

Joe Henderson: Dennis Baxley’s misdirection play

State Sen. Dennis Baxley just couldn’t resist.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday to investigate the 14 deaths of elderly patients at a Hollywood Hills nursing home, Baxley made the reasonable point that the tragedy was “outrageous.”

But then, as Scott Powers reported for Florida Politics, Baxley ventured into what-is-he-talking-about land.

“We keep getting new deaths attributed to the storm, because they came from the nursing home, when in fact, look at the population you’re dealing with: they’re 90-somethings,” Baxley said.

“Some of these deaths would have naturally occurred, storm or no storm. So, to automatically pushing these over to the medical examiner as part of this case that they’re are studying, I think could be a bit unfair on the other side of the equation.”

This would be a good time to note that Baxley received a $3,000 donation from the Florida Heath Care Association to his 2016 Senate campaign. That group describes itself as “Florida’s first and largest advocacy organization for long term care providers and the elderly they serve.”

The group’s president, John C. Simmons, wrote a commentary for Florida Politics earlier this week where he slammed media reports about the tragedy. Maybe it’s just a coincidence (or not) that Baxley took the cue and gave his own swipes on that topic, saying there was “a lot of drama of course with media coverage and dramatization of what did happen.”

If reporting that 14 elderly people are dead and all of them lived in a nursing home where the cooling system failed and temperatures rose to an intolerable level qualifies as drama, well, OK.

Baxley’s backhanded snark at the media wouldn’t be such a big deal normally, but there is context that makes his remarks especially disturbing.

Efforts in 2006 to require backup generators capable of dealing with emergencies like the one in Hollywood Hills died in the Legislature following intense lobbying from the long-term health care industry.

If bringing up that unpleasant reminder qualifies as media drama, so be it. Gov. Rick Scott is pushing for a law similar to the proposal from 2006. Simmons says his organization agrees with Scott about the need, but said it can’t be accomplished as quickly as the governor would like.

But back to Baxley’s remarks.

Yes, everybody is going to die sometime and older folks have a greater risk. No doubt he knows that. He was a founder of the Hiers-Baxley funeral home in Ocala.

But it wastes time and is disingenuous to suggest, paraphrasing here, “Well, they might have died from something else.”

In football, we call that a misdirection play.

Senator, please. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to conditions like inside that nursing home. A lot of them died. One of them had a body temperature of 109 degrees. What part of this escapes you? If someone died during this of other causes, how would that possibly matter to the bigger issue of protecting our most vulnerable citizens?

We have a situation that needs, as the governor has said, rapid attention. Playing the “media” card as a reason to take it slow is shabby at best. At its worst, it’s disrespectful to the victims and their families.

Stop trying to confuse the issue.

Joe Negron’s class act: ‘Here, Dorothy Hukill, take my spot’

Session hasn’t even started, and we already have a winner for “Legislative Nice Guy of 2018″—Senate President Joe Negron.

Negron, who we’ve already reported as having found a new gear as he enters his last year in leadership, gave up his primo parking spot in the Capitol garage so that his colleague, Dorothy Hukill, can use it.

Hukill missed the entire 2017 Legislative Session due to cancer treatments. But she returned this week to a round of applause from her colleagues during roll call in the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee.

The Port Orange Republican spent the 2017 Session watching the session on a pair of screens — a home computer and an iPad — at her home while recovering from cervical cancer. Radiation treatments ended just as the 2017 Session was coming to a close.

“It’s very exciting to be in the (committee) room,” Hukill told Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida. “It’s lovely to watch it on the wonderful Florida Channel, which I was very, very happy to have. But I’d rather be here.”

Undoubtedly, Hukill still is recovering from her treatments. And because every extra step walked can be a chore, a few hundred feet saved by having the Senate President’s parking spot has to be a relief.

Still, Hukill told reporters she expects the welcome-backs and hugs from her colleagues to quickly give way to legislative normalcy.

“It’s exciting to be back,” she said. “People are giving give me a breather for a day or two.”

Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee plans hurricane talk

The Florida Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee will take up hurricane effects and recovery efforts across the business community in Florida at its first meeting of the 2018 session, Chairman Bill Montford announced Wednesday.

That is assuming the committee’s hearing is not postponed because of a hurricane. Very early projections of Tropical Depression 16 forming off the coast of Central America on Wednesday afternoon have it becoming Hurricane Nate and hitting Florida — right near Tallahassee — Sunday.

Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat, set the discussion with Hurricane Irma in mind, taking place roughly a month after that storm hit Florida.

“Hurricane Irma was a catastrophic storm, the likes of which Florida has never seen,” Montford stated in a news release issued by the Senate Democrats’ office. “We continue to face the long and complicated process of recovery statewide, from our businesses and tourist industry, the school systems, to agriculture and infrastructure, there was not an entity left untouched.”

“It is important that we focus on fully understanding the impacts so that the Legislature can stand with local governments, businesses and citizens on the road to recovery,” he continued. “I have invited several representatives from the business community, as well as the governmental entities that focus on commerce and economic development to our first meeting. I also welcome all of my Senate colleagues to attend and participate in the panel discussion if they have questions specific to their districts. Vice Chair [George] Gainer [a Panama City Republican] and I are committed to ensuring that Hurricane Irma will not stunt economic development in Florida.”

The panel Montford assembled for Monday’s hearing will consist of representatives from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida United Businesses Association, CareerSource Florida, Visit Florida, Florida Small Business Development Center Network, and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee will meet at 3:30 p.m. Monday.


Dana Young files ‘fantasy contests’ bill

Sen. Dana Young has again filed a bill to exempt fantasy sports play from regulation under the state’s gambling laws.

Young, a Tampa Republican, filed her measure (SB 374) Friday afternoon. She introduced similar legislation this past session.

The bill for the 2018 Legislative Session would prohibit a fantasy contest operator from offering “contests based on the performances of participants in collegiate, high school, or youth athletics.”

That was a concern of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), she said in a phone interview: “I thought it appropriate that it be in there, so we added it.”

Otherwise, Young said her language came from last session’s conference committee on a proposed omnibus gambling bill that failed by that session’s end.

A House bill last session also would have excepted fantasy contests from regulation as gambling. Around 3 million Floridians say they play some sort of fantasy sports.

In sum, “we’re just confirming that fantasy sports are not illegal,” she said. 

Session begins Jan. 8.

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