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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.

Senator’s proposal to boost funding for clemency case backlog withdrawn

As the Senate motored through a long list of budget amendments on Wednesday, a proposal to boost funding to deal with the mounting clemency case backlog was tossed.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Pinellas County Democrat, withdrew his own amendment, which would have given the Florida Commission on Offender Review $500,000 in ongoing state funds to tackle its 10,000-plus clemency case backlog. The Senate is proposing the same amount in its 2018-19 spending plan, but as a one-time, nonrecurring sum.

“If anyone of these citizens wants to earn back their fundamental right to express themselves in government, they must plod through a gauntlet of constitutionally infirm hurdles,” Rouson said. “The federal court said no more.”

Rouson’s proposal comes after a federal court ruled last week that the state’s voter-restoration process for ex-felons is unconstitutional.

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has helped shape the system in which political bias usually determines whether an ex-felon can have their voting rights restored, according to the court ruling prompted by a lawsuit against the state.

Since Scott was elected in 2011, there have been 2,976 felons granted clemency. Rouson told senators that number has “plummeted” since Scott took office.

“As the body of the Senate we should make a strong statement before November that we care about restoring the rights of those who have paid their debt, done their time and deserve through redemption an opportunity to participate in the process,” he said.

In November, Floridians will have the chance to vote on a ballot initiative that could automatically restore the voting rights of 1.5 million citizens, a move that could impact the political climate in the nation’s largest swing state.

“I cannot tell you the number of times I have campaigned, like you have, knocked on doors and met people in community halls who said ‘I wish I could vote but my rights have not been restored,” Rouson said.

Senate leaders press for change in hospital funding

A proposal to redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars away from safety-net hospitals and toward increasing base Medicaid payments at all hospitals drew opposition Wednesday in the Florida Senate.

But Senate Republican leaders were able to beat back a proposed amendment by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, that would have scrapped the plan and maintained current law, which directs upward of $318 million in enhanced Medicaid payments to 28 hospitals with Medicaid caseloads of 25 percent or greater.

Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairwoman Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, said the budget plan is a fair redistribution of what she called “special project funds” and said it’s something the Legislature should have done years ago.

“I am very hopeful that this is the year we pass a budget that actually does this,” Flores said of the Senate’s plan.  “Where we actually say, “Hospitals thank you for opening your doors, for not asking questions.”

Flores said every hospital in the state provides Medicaid care and charity care.

“The fact remains that under today’s system that there are hospitals across the entire state that we represent that don’t ask (about ability to pay), that don’t get any of that money and still provide the care,” she said.

Specifically, the Senate plan would eliminate automatic rate enhancements paid to the 28 hospitals and use the money, instead, to beef up base Medicaid rates for all hospitals.

The Senate budget plan also would provide $50 million in general revenue, which, when matched with federal Medicaid dollars, would total $130 million. The plan would redirect that funding to base rates. As a result, the Senate plan would increase Medicaid base rates from $3,426 to $4,049 for each hospital admission.

Because the base rates would be increased, the Senate plan would benefit any system that owns more than one hospital, such as HCA, Tenet, Community Health Systems, BayCare, and Adventist Health System. HCA, which owns 43 facilities in the state, could see nearly $40.5 million in Medicaid increases under the Senate plan.

Conversely, Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami faces more than a $59 million reduction, UF Health Shands in Gainesville faces more than a $20 million hit and Tampa General Hospital could lose nearly $14.7 million.

The Senate is expected Thursday to approve its proposed budget, setting the stage for negotiations with the House in the coming weeks on a final spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Senate’s proposed changes in hospital funding could be a key issue in negotiations.

House budget chairman Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican, already has indicated that the Senate’s proposal could face an uphill battle in the House, telling reporters last week that Jackson Memorial and other facilities are “essential to the well-being of our residents. As for some of the for-profits, we’re much less sympathetic.’’

Before the floor debate Wednesday, staff members from the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida met with members of the Senate Democratic caucus to discuss the impact of the redistribution plan on its members. The alliance represents public, teaching and children’s hospitals.

Lindy Kennedy, executive vice president of the alliance, told Senate Democrats that it’s been long-standing policy to give additional payments to hospitals that provide large amounts of charity care. The policy, she said, is a recognition that Medicaid pays just 60 cents of every dollar hospitals spend caring for Medicaid patients and that hospitals treating large numbers of Medicaid patients can’t afford the loss.

Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida President Tony Carvalho said three of the four largest teaching hospitals would be cut $94 million under the Senate plan.

But Senate Minority Leader Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat, reminded his members and the Safety Net Hospital of Florida lobbyists that the Senate has stood behind the industry for the last four years.

In 2015, for example, the Senate championed a Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, which would have increased the amount of federal funding flowing to the state. The Senate also was able to secure additional state funding for hospitals after the federal government reduced the amount of supplemental Medicaid dollars coming to the state.

“It’s amazing now that all of a sudden the House is a hero after they cut you all for almost half a decade,” Braynon said during the meeting. “I want to keep it in that frame of mind. That the people that we seem to have a slight problem with … are the people that have been for the most part trying to fight to keep hospitals” from getting cut.

His comments may have resonated with some Democratic members. Sen. Kevin Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat, and Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St Petersburg, opposed Rodriguez’s amendment.

The hospital financing issue isn’t the only difference between the Senate and House budgets, but it is one of the larger differences. During debate on the Rodriguez amendment, Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Rob Bradley, an Orange Park Republican, told senators that it was “is an important issue as we move into conference.”

Among other health-care spending differences, the Senate has included $130 million in additional funding for nursing homes and it also has proposed cuts to Medicaid HMOs, reducing the amount of premiums paid to the health plans from $312 per member per month to $304 per member per month.

Plans sought for hurricane fuel reserve

After runs on gas stations as people tried to flee Hurricane Irma, a Senate committee Thursday approved creation of a task force to develop plans for stockpiling fuel across the state.

The proposal (SB 700) would set up the Florida Strategic Fuel Reserve Task Force within the Florida Division of Emergency Management. The task force would recommend a strategic fuel reserve plan to meet private and public needs during emergencies and disasters.

Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said the proposal came from people who couldn’t get away from areas that were expected to be hit by Hurricane Irma in September.

“You remember how during Irma drivers were stranded and coming up from the Keys and other areas in the state from where fuel was running out,” Torres said. “I think this bill gives an opportunity now for the state to prepare better in the future so we can have those fuel locations up and ready in case a disaster comes.”

Florida strained to keep up with fuel demand as Hurricane Irma neared the state. As 6.5 million people were ordered to evacuate their homes, others scrambled for last-minute hurricane supplies. Motorists reported spending up to 12 hours on routes that typically are covered in six or seven hours.

The situation grew worse as ports, where fuel is delivered to the state, were closed due to storm winds.

Rushing fuel to South Florida before the storm, the Florida Highway Patrol served as escorts for tanker trucks.

A month later, when Hurricane Nate threatened the Gulf Coast, Gov. Rick Scott acknowledged that Florida was better prepared for Nate than Irma because there weren’t concerns about fuel shortages.

In October, Scott directed the Florida Department of Transportation to work with other state agencies, ports, law enforcement and fuel retailers to determine how to increase fuel capacity during emergencies.

The agency was supposed to produce recommendations by last month for fuel distribution and availability to consumers. Neither the agency nor Scott’s office responded by 5 p.m. Thursday when asked about the status of the report.

The nine-member task force, appointed by the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker, would be required to make recommendations by April 30, 2019. The proposal has a one-time cost of $569,000 for contractor and staff expenses.

The Senate bill doesn’t have a House version, but it is similar to a recommendation from the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness. That recommendation called for the Department of Transportation to contract for an independent study on the feasibility of establishing strategically located petroleum distribution centers.

Other select-committee recommendations included considering the use of railroads to speed fuel delivery into areas affected by storms.

The Senate bill drew unanimous support Thursday from the Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee. It would need to get approved by two more committees before it could go to the full Senate.

House alters child marriage bill to allow some minors to wed

A proposed change to a House bill that would have made it legal for some adults to have sex with children as young as 14 was tossed on Thursday after it drew criticism from a top senator.

But a House panel still pushed forward a proposal that would allow certain minors to wed, moving away from the strict ban on all child marriages it had originally.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, who championed the companion bill in the Senate, said it was “appalling” that state Rep. Kimberly Daniels filed an amendment that would have changed the House bill to “give a non-criminal violation to any adult having sexual relations with a 14 or 15-year-old.”

Hours after Daniels filed her amendment, she asked to withdraw it because it was “not germane to the bill,” state Rep. Chris Sprowls said.

“We are going to show the amendment by Rep. Daniels — we have spoken to her —we are going to show that amendment withdrawn,” Chair Sprowls told members of the Judiciary Committee.

The criminal statute Daniels wanted to tweak was the same one that makes it a criminal act for adults to entice “any person less than 16 years of age to engage in sadomasochistic abuse, sexual bestiality, prostitution, or any other act involving sexual activity.”

After tossing that proposal, the House panel adopted a change to the bill that would permit certain minors to wed under the law. Under the modified House bill, a 16-year-old who gets pregnant would be able to marry the father if he is 18 or younger. A written statement by a licensed physician would be required for a marriage license to be issued.

Despite the change, Republican state Reps. Julio Gonzalez and George Moraitis voted against the bill. Moraitis suggested changing existing law would encourage minors who get pregnant to get abortions if they can’t get married and Gonzalez said banning all minors from marrying would be an “overreach of legislative authority.”

Current state law permits minors ages 16 and 17 to marry with parental consent. But if a child of any age is pregnant, a county judge can use their discretion to authorize the marriage.

More than 16,000 children — one as young as 13 –have been granted marriage licenses in the state between 2000 and 2015. Supporters of the bill said the passage of legislation prohibiting all child marriages is a “victory for the thousands of Florida women who were forced and coerced into marriage as girls.”

The woman who inspired the legislation this year, Sherry Johnson, was forced to marry her rapist when she was 11. Her representative, Ryan Wiggins, said they were “thankful” for state Rep. Jeanette Nunez‘s leadership in the House, but “disappointed” that House Judiciary passed an amendment that “may be well-intentioned, but is equally ill-informed and based on assumptions.”

Nunez’ bill (HB 335) now heads to the full floor for consideration.

Senate approves $100 million for Florida Forever land-buying program

In an effort that would comply with voters’ wishes, the Florida Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a proposal that would direct $100 million to the Florida Forever land-buying program every year.

“This is one of the things we can be proud of not just when we go back home, but for many years to come,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, the sponsor of the bill.

The measure is a top priority for Bradley this legislative session and said lawmakers have a responsibility to make sure the state’s “amazing ecosystems” are preserved for future generations. The measure passed on a 37-0 vote.

Now that the measure has been pushed through the Senate, all eyes are on the House, which has yet to hear its companion bill in committee. The measure has three stops before it can head to the House floor for a vote.

Bradley’s proposal would comply with the wishes of voters who approved a constitutional amendment back in 2014 that would set money aside for land and water conservation efforts. The Fleming Island Republican says his bill will ensure the constitutional amendment money is used for conservation efforts and not administrative and technical costs at agencies.

Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, questioned how the state would make sure the land is maintained and not just acquired.

“How are we going to keep our commitment to those amendment 1 dollars to keep the environment pristine?” Garcia said. “At the end of the day, for all of us in the chamber, it is not just about purchasing land, but maintaining it.”

Bradley agreed with Garcia and assured him the money for the program should also go toward land maintenance.

The environmental appropriations committee chaired by Bradley has also proposed an additional one-time $50 million for the Florida Forever Trust Fund, which would be a $150 million total for the 2018-19 budget.

The Legislature last session approved $0 in funding for the trust fund.

Florida Senate unanimously votes to ban child marriages in state

Inspired by the story of a woman who was forced to marry her rapist at 11 years old, the Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would ban the marriage of all minors in the state.

“It closes a loophole so that children can’t be used and abused by persons who under normal circumstances would go to jail,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the sponsor of the bill.

Under state law, minors age 16 and 17 can marry with parental permission. But if a child of any age is pregnant, a county judge can use their discretion in authorizing the marriage.

Sherry Johnson, who Benacquisto said is the “spirit” of the legislation, was 10 years old when she was raped and 11 when her religious parents forced her to marry her abuser. Johnson was present in the chamber with her six children as senators voted 37-0 to pass the legislation.

“Ms. Johnson has struggled her entire life because her parents forced her into a marriage as a child,” the Fort Myers Republican said.

More than 16,000 children — one as young as 13 —were granted marriage licenses in Florida between 2000 and 2015, according to state Vital Statistics data. Overall, state data shows 80 percent of minor who marry are girls wed to adult men.

Benacquisto championed the measure in the Senate, which rocketed through committee assignments. The effort in the House has one more committee stop before it can head to the full floor for consideration.

The Tahirih Justice Center, a national advocacy group that fights violence against women and girl, applauded the Senate on passing the bill.

“The passage of this legislation today is a victory for the thousands of Florida women who were forced and coerced into marriage as girls, whose ‘marriages’ were cover-ups for heinous crimes,” said Jeanne Smoot, a senior counsel for policy and strategy for the advocacy group.

Smoot urged the House to do the same as the Senate, saying the Legislature would “set an example for the rest of the country.”

Senate committee forwards bill preempting local control of vacation rentals

In a battle over how far to roll back local control and regulation of vacation rental homes, state Sen. Greg Steube won a key victory Tuesday.

The Senate Committee on Community Affairs approved the Sarasota Republican’s bill, advancing a comprehensive preemption of local laws regulating services provided by companies like Airbnb.

That ended a legislative showdown Tuesday between Steube’s industry-friendly proposal and a rival proposal from state Sen. David Simmons, a Longwood Republican who sought to grandfather in some existing local vacation rental regulations and laws, and to allow for local inspections of building and safety codes of some rentals.

Simmons’ proposal, Senate Bill 1640, ultimately was ruled out-of-order and withdrawn without a vote. He vowed to pick up the fight at a future stop for the bill.

Steube’s proposal, Senate Bill 1400, became a strike-all amendment to a committee substitute, and then was voted favorably by a 4-2 tally.

“It was my intent to try to preempt the regulation of vacation rentals up to the state so that there was some continuity across the state, and also allow the state to be able to do inspections and licensure that are important, just as motels and hotels are regulated at the state level,” Steube said. “So I wanted some uniform policy across the state, and that’s where we started.”

But as was the case the past couple of years as similar bills moved through the Legislature before stalling or dying, not everyone was seeing uniform policies. Local government officials and representatives for the hospitality industry argued that hotels are regulated by local governments along with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, while Steube’s proposal would essentially forbid any local control over the vacation rental home industry, a rapidly rising rival of hotels.

There was little passionate testimony Tuesday to the type heard in the past, which included complaints of outrageous tenants creating public sanitation, noise, and public safety problems for neighborhoods – what Committee Chairman Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican, called the “parade of horribles” — or complaints of cities with laws so strict that they essentially banned vacation rentals.

Steube said although the state would regulate vacation rentals, the properties would be subject to other local government restrictions.

“Local governments will still be left with the ability to preserve the integrity of their neighborhoods by passing ordinances to address noise, trash, parking or any other behavior that would tend to disturb their neighborhoods,” Steube said.

But there was frequent and general talk of how rogue vacation rental homes could depreciate surrounding property values, and how those concerns might be balanced against the property rights of the vacation rental homeowners to make a little money.

Both Steube and Simmons said they were seeking as little regulation as possible, especially from the local side.

Yet Simmons warned of potential calamity and liability nightmare — like a scenario when stretched-thin regulators might not have resources to inspect or do something about a bad vacation rental home, while local authorities would be left legally powerless. Simmons said the regulations he pushed for would protect the owners of the vacation rental homes by at least assuring regular safety inspections.

“This idea of zero regulation is going to end up, one of these days there is going to be someone who is a consumer who is going to rent one of these vacation rentals and he, she, or their families, are going to die. They’re going to be hurt. They’re going to be injured,” Simmons said. “The end result of [Simmons’ proposal] is there is a reasonable amount of protection. I’m asking as we go through this that local governments be able to deal with fire codes, with safety codes, just like they do with hotels.”

Even a dispute over how often or how little the state might inspect and audit vacation rental homes got testy. Steube’s bill called for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, in addition to responding to consumer complaints, to randomly review 1 percent of the licensed vacation rental homes each year. Simmons argued that was too little oversight. When state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, offered an amendment to make the requirement read “at least” 1 percent, there was argument that might create too much oversight. Ultimately Rodriguez’s amendment was adopted to the bill.

A wary-sounding Lee, who had seen previous vacation rental regulation reform bills fail, cautioned that a lot lay ahead for this proposal, which still has at least two more committee stops (Regulated Industries and Appropriations) and which already looks very different from any House bill. With that in mind, he sided with Steube’s proposal and advised Simmons to take up his views at some other stop.

“What I worry about is time is not the ally of reform,” Lee said. “If we continue to slow down the train we’re going to get to where we can’t get the train to the finish line. And that’s one of the tactics that gets used around here, not by yourself, but by industry who doesn’t want reform.”

Lori Killinger, representing the Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, supported Steube’s bill and said a proliferation of local ordinances regulating vacation rentals is thwarting their development.

“This all started because of the morass of local ordinances adopted since 2014 that have caused significant unpredictability around the state,” Killinger said.

She said Steube’s bill “clears the deck a bit” and “puts back clear, appropriate regulations.”

A House bill (HB 773), sponsored by Rep. Mike La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican, would also pre-empt local regulation of vacation rentals and is awaiting its first hearing.

Some material from the News Service of Florida was used in this article.

Senate at odds with House, governor on proposal that limits tax hikes

A Senate panel on Monday pushed forward a bill that would make it harder for future lawmakers to raise taxes, but also put the upper chamber at odds with the House and Gov. Rick Scott.

The proposal by Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel is less stringent than the version passed by the House last week. Under Stargel’s proposal (SB 1742), the Legislature would require a three-fifths vote to pass any type of tax or fee hike.

“If there is an emergency, we are going to pass something easily,” the Lakeland Republican said.

In the House, the supermajority vote proposal (HJR 7001) is stricter and would require a two-thirds vote before any tax increase can pass through the Legislature.

Both proposals, if passed, would be a change to the state constitution, meaning it would need 60 percent voter approval in November.

Opponents of the measures say the Republican-controlled Legislature would “hamstring” the state if it faces any financial emergency in the future. Others slammed the proposal as a “campaign bumper sticker.”

Gov. Rick Scott, who will be pushed out of office this year by term limits and is expected to run for the U.S. Senate, has been a strong proponent of the fiscally-conservative proposal. He has pushed for the plan in both the Legislature and the Constitutional Revision Commission.

Scott is in favor of the House version and hopes the Senate will adopt it, said McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for the governor.

Some Republicans wary of Dennis Baxley after gun bill redraft

A Senate panel on Thursday pushed forward a redraft of a bill that would allow people to bring guns to churches with attached schools as long as there are no school-sponsored activities going on.

Before changes to the bill were approved, two Republicans in the Judiciary Committee expressed concern that the Republican sponsor of the bill, Sen. Dennis Baxley, would “violate” their trust if he decides to abandon the Senate’s effort for the House version.

“Our concern is that changing the spirit of what is being discussed in this committee, of agreeing to changes to this bill, would violate a certain level of trust that we have amongst each other as colleagues,” Sen. Anitere Flores said.

Sen. Rene Garcia was also weary that Baxley’s proposal could morph into something else as the legislative process moves forward.

“If the House sends something back that does not meet the spirit of this committee’s work, would you kill your own bill at that point? Or would you go with the House version?” Garcia asked.

Baxley said his intent is to “fully honor” the Senate-approved changes to his bill.

“I’m just hesitant to say things that I can’t control in the rest of the process when many times I am not the decider of those things,” Baxley said.

Baxley’s bill would allow those with concealed carry permits to bring guns into churches if they have permission from the property owner. Under the amended version, though, a firearm could not be brought into a church attached to a school during school hours.

Along party lines, the measure cleared the Judiciary Committee which has been a main roadblock for gun legislation in the Senate. Last year, Flores came out strongly against Sen. Greg Steube’s many gun bills.

The House version of the bill does not include the new Senate provision. State Rep. Lawrence McClure, a Hillsborough Republican championing the House effort, said he would not comment on the Senate added language — or whether he would support it — until he got a chance to read it.

Both the Senate and the House measures have a single committee hearing left before they can head to the full floor for consideration.

Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said the effort to allow people to carry firearms in churches with permission would help individuals “protect each other and their children.”

Current state law broadly prohibits a person, including those with concealed weapon licenses from having a gun on public or private school property. Doing so is penalized as a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Baxley said his hope is to get his firearm bill to a place that everyone can agree to. Last year, the Senate proposed the same compromise on guns at religious institutions. But the House rejected it.

“If we can’t nip it in the bud a bunch of people are going to get hurt,” Baxley said.

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