Hurricane Irma – Page 3 – Florida Politics

House backs rule for nursing home generators

A House committee on Tuesday agreed to take steps to ratify a rule requiring nursing homes to have backup-power sources but didn’t endorse similar requirements for assisted living facilities because of concerns about the costs.

Gov. Rick Scott in recent months has pushed for nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators that can keep buildings cool if electricity goes out.

McKinley Lewis, Scott’s deputy communications director, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday that assisted living facilities need to be “included” in the mix and that the governor’s office is “continuing to work with the Florida Legislature to make sure this gets done.”

The House Health & Human Services Committee voted unanimously to introduce a bill that would ratify a rule issued by the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates nursing homes. The proposed rule, which was hammered out by the Scott administration and the long-term care industry, would require nursing homes to have alternative power sources, such as generators, on site and 72 hours of fuel. The generators would need to be able to keep cool an area of no less than 30 square feet per resident at a temperature of 81 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for at least 96 hours.

The rule is estimated to cost nursing homes $121.3 million over the first five years, and about $66 million can be offset by Medicaid, according to a staff analysis. Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Justin Senior told committee members that about $25 million of the $66 million Medicaid tab would be borne by the state.

Since 2010, Florida law has required legislative ratification of any rule that would increase the costs of doing business by more than $1 million over a five-year period.

House Health & Human Services Chairman Travis Cummings, a Fleming Island Republican, has repeatedly expressed concerns that requiring assisted living facilities to abide by backup power rules would result in an unfunded mandate on some of Florida’s smallest businesses.

The 2,951 assisted living facilities in the state would have to spend more than $243 million to comply with the requirements.

Scott’s administration has pushed for generators at ALFs and nursing homes since the deaths in September of residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, a Broward County nursing home that lost its air-conditioning system in Hurricane Irma. But long-term care providers have raised repeated concerns about issues such as costs and requirements to store fuel.

Assisted living facilities are designed to provide services in a less-restrictive and more home-like environment than nursing homes. They range from one resident to several hundred residents and offer various types of personal and nursing services.

Senior told members of the House committee that in the days following Hurricane Irma, the state emergency operations center had nightly phone calls with long-term care providers and that the Agency for Health Care Administration sent facility-surveyor staff across the state to get a gauge on what was occurring.

Senior said 1,677 assisted living facilities reported that they lost power during Hurricane Irma. Senior said facilities without backup power tended to have what he called employee abandonment, or staff not showing up for work.

He said that the “lack of staffing really put some frail elders at risk.”

Moreover, Senior said, the state “saw ALF residents, in particular, dumped inappropriately at special needs shelters and hospital emergency rooms.”

Cummings then asked Senior to focus what was in the bill and not on ALFs, which weren’t included in the bill.

As lawmakers tiptoe to budget negotiating starting line, state revenue estimate is cut by $167 million

With less than two weeks before the end of the 2018 Legislative Session, the pot of money lawmakers must work with in order to craft a state budget is shrinking rapidly.

At work are two factors: one is a revised estimate for state tax and revenue collections, the second is the estimated cost of the proposals crafted in response to the mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County

State analysts met Friday and reduced their previous estimate by $167 million, citing a continued decline in corporate income tax collections.

“While the data for February is still preliminary, it appears that only a small fraction of the expected total was actually received,” the new forecast said.

The analysis places the blame on the delayed payments on Hurricane Irma, which had prompted the Florida Department of Revenue to extend the due dates for corporate income tax filers.

The Revenue Estimating Conference cut its projection for corporate income tax collections in 2017-2018 by $94.3 million and by $73.1 million in 2018-2019, resulting in the $167 million decline in the overall estimate. Analysts projected the shortfall would be negated when the delayed payments began coming in, but that has yet to happen.

Analysts cut their projection for corporate income tax collections in 2017-2018 by $94.3 million and by $73.1 million in 2018-2019, resulting in the $167 million decline in the overall estimate.

Although lawmakers have not started formal negotiations on a new state budget, House leadership told FloridaPolitics.com Friday night that while allocations are not out, staff for the two appropriations committees have “opened up the columns,” a phrase used to describe when the House and Senate examine each other’s budget columns line by line so that they can match each other’s numbers. This is a necessary preliminary step in the budgeting process that allows legislative leaders to begin to formulate offers on allocations.

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders unveiled proposals to address school safety, gun laws and mental-health issues after the mass shooting in Parkland. House Speaker Richard Corcoran said at a news conference that lawmakers are expected to spend $400 million to $500 million on the issues, though details were still being worked out.

To bottom-line it: Friday was a very expensive day for the state of Florida. The downward revision of the revenue estimate ($167 million) plus the money for the school safety and gun laws ($400 to $500 million) means that lawmakers are working with half-a-billion dollars less than they were a week ago.

As one lobbyist who specializes in budgeting and appropriations described it to us, these new numbers are “game changers.”

The 2018 Session is set to conclude March 9.

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this post.

Help for farmers advancing in Senate

Farmers and other parts of Florida’s agriculture industry could receive about $75 million in post-Hurricane Irma assistance from the state next year under a measure moving forward in the Senate.

The Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday unanimously backed the proposal (SB 1608) by Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican. The proposal, in part, would reduce property assessments on certain enclosed horticultural structures and offer tax refunds on materials used for construction of farm buildings and fences.

“We know from practice that ag typically needs a lot longer to recover from a disaster like Irma than most industries, especially when it comes to moving materials and products,” said Grimsley, who is running for state agriculture commissioner this year.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has estimated that Irma inflicted $2.5 billion in losses on the state’s agriculture industry.

The bulk of relief for the industry is expected to come from a federal spending bill that Congress approved this month. The bill includes nearly $90 billion for disaster relief, with $2.36 billion aimed at assisting the agriculture industry for losses from Hurricane Irma in Florida, Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Grimsley’s measure is moving as the Senate continues to put together a tax package that will have to be negotiated with the House over the next couple of weeks. The annual Legislative Session ends March 9.

The House has included several measures for the agricultural industry as part of an approximately $350 million tax package (HB 7087), which was approved by the House Ways & Means Committee last week.

The wide-ranging House package includes tax refunds on building materials, fencing and gas for farmers. Also, it includes a fuel tax refund on agricultural transportation and a tax break on citrus processing facilities that have been idled by Irma or by the industry’s fight against citrus greening disease.

The citrus industry is down 80 percent from its peak production years in the mid-1990s and faces a projected 33 percent reduction from last year’s harvest. It has been battling citrus greening for a decade and then was slammed by Irma, including in major citrus areas of Southwest Florida.

An amendment Grimsley made to her bill Tuesday would set aside $5 million for the Florida Agriculture Promotion Campaign within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to expand initiatives promoting state agricultural products.

Before the promotional money was added, the state Revenue Estimating Conference estimated the package would cut state revenue by $59.5 million next fiscal year, with local governments facing a combined $15.4 million loss. The savings to taxpayers would fall to a combined $36.7 million a year thereafter.

$130M+ hit for Jacksonville from hurricanes, as financial storm clouds loom

Reimbursements will come sooner or later for the city of Jacksonville from the federal government for Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

Until then, however, the impact of the storms will be felt in the city’s general fund budget.

The Jacksonville City Council Auditor’s quarterly report for the final three months of 2017 puts the figures in sharp relief.

“The latest Hurricane Matthew projection estimates the financial impact will be approximately $45.1 million. As of January 31, 2018, the City incurred expenditures of $28.0 million related to Hurricane Matthew,” the report contends.

“87.5% of the total allowable expenses are subject to reimbursement, leaving the City to fund the remainder. The fiscal year 2017/18 approved budget includes an appropriation of $7.0 million from the GF/GSD to cover the City’s estimated obligation,” the report adds.

Irma is worse: the financial impact will be approximately $86.4 million.

“This could result in an estimated $10.8 million negative impact to the GF/GSD in the future. As of January 31, 2018, the City incurred expenditures of $45.8 million related to Hurricane Irma,” the report contends.

Jacksonville’s general fund budget is $1.27 billion currently. Reserve levels are in the $150 million range.

Even before Hurricane Irma, there was pushback from the Jacksonville City Council in terms of bolstering the city’s reserve levels.

Mayor’s Office staffers cautioned that obligations were coming due and it would pay off to bolster reserve levels.

That ultimately was not convincing to the Council Finance Committee.

In September, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said that he was confident that the city had sufficient reserves to weather a storm with an impact comparable to that of Matthew.

However, Irma’s track created a greater impact.

With slow reimbursements, one wonders if the discussion of reserve levels will be a more forceful one this summer.

The city has already been dinged by analysts for high fixed costs. These, combined with a reluctance to hike taxes, are leading influencers and policy makers to take a hard look at JEA privatization, which could net the city $3 to $6 billion.

Meanwhile, the city has worries regarding increasing interest rates and the equity market volatility of recent weeks.

“Also, a flattening of the yield curve continued throughout the 4th quarter, as the current market expectation is that the Fed will raise rates approximately three times in 2018. The downward shift of the long end of the curve continues to be interpreted as a sign that increased volatility may be on the horizon,” the auditor’s report contends.

House eyes plan for health care during hurricanes

During the next major storm, Florida may turn to university faculty and even students enrolled in health-care programs to help work with some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Sparked by shortages in special-needs shelters during Hurricane Irma, a House panel on Thursday approved a bill that would expand the list of people who could help out in the facilities during emergencies.

The legislation, which will be led by Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican, also would require home health-care providers and nurses to develop emergency management plans for their patients. It also calls on hospitals to enter into contracts with local emergency management agencies to provide shelter for people who require more medical attention than is available at special-needs shelters.

Many of the proposals included in the bill stem from a Jan. 16 report issued by the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

The select committee heard more than 20 hours of testimony on a variety of issues, from shelters to evacuation routes to mitigating future storm damage.

As Irma barreled toward the state last year, 6.8 million people evacuated their homes to flee the storm’s path. Nearly 700 shelters were opened throughout the state, housing 191,764 people. There were 113 special-needs shelters in 53 counties. Those shelters served 10,452 people with special needs and 4,490 caregivers.

Legislators heard testimony that the shelters were inadequately staffed. To that end, the bill requires the Florida Department of Health to establish a statewide special-needs shelter registry form by October.

Currently, the Division of Emergency Management maintains a special-needs registry, and local emergency management agencies also have their own registries. The differing lists, plus a surge of last-minute registrations, made it difficult for local agencies to find enough people to staff the shelters.

The Arc of Florida is one of the organizations that will work on the form with the Department of Health. In testimony before the House Health & Human Services Committee, Arc of Florida Executive Director Deborah Linton said several recommendations from her group are in the bill, including allowing flexibility for health-care professionals during mandatory curfews.

Despite the mandate on hospitals to have agreements with local emergency-management agencies — and the possibility of facing fines for not doing so — Florida Hospital Association CEO Bruce Rueben said the proposal provides a “comprehensive approach to managing care for the special needs population during emergencies.”

“We support efforts that improve Florida’s emergency management plans and coordination with providers,” Rueben said in a statement to The News Service of Florida.

Not all recommendations in the bill are new, though. Some just put teeth into existing law. For example, health care facilities are required to have comprehensive emergency-management plans. The bill would amend the existing law to make clear that they could face $500 fines if they don’t have plans and could be subject to disciplinary action for not abiding by details of the plans.

The House select committee made several recommendations that weren’t ultimately included in the bill (PCB HHS 18-02) approved on Thursday. For instance, the select committee recommended that the state provide funding so 42 domestic violence shelters could qualify for a federal grant that would allow them to buy generators. The bill didn’t include that proposal.

The select committee also recommended that nursing homes be required to have adequate emergency power to protect residents from unsafe temperatures. The recommendation also was for additional requirements on assisted living facilities, but nothing specific was enumerated.

The bill is silent on those issues, though Health & Human Services Chairman Rep. Travis Cummings, a Fleming Island Republican, told the News Service that his panel will consider a bill next week about the ratification of a pair of emergency generator rules for nursing homes and ALFs. Cummings said the House has concerns with the potential fiscal impact of requiring ALFs to have generators.

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.”

Lawmakers get revenue boost ahead of budget talks

A surge in hurricane-recovery building and a change in the way the state collects gambling payments from the Seminole Tribe will give lawmakers a little fiscal wiggle room as they negotiate a new $87 billion state budget.

State analysts on Friday adjusted estimates for revenue collections upward by about $462 million, including $181 million this year and $280.5 million for the fiscal year that will start July 1.

The bulk of the increase is one-time, non-recurring money, which will limit its use in the state budget. But it can be a positive factor as Senate and House members work out differences in their budget bills, which were passed Thursday.

“It was money they weren’t expecting,” said Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research. “It’s going to be nonrecurring, which comes with all the issues associated with that. It’s good news.”

But she also said, “it doesn’t really alter the shape” of the longer-term fiscal challenges facing the state.

A major factor in the increase is explained by the economic cycle Florida goes through when it is hit by a major hurricane like Irma, a powerful storm that impacted the majority of the state in September.

In the immediate aftermath of such a storm, state spending increases and sales-tax collections drop. But then recovery begins and residents, aided by insurance payments, rebuild and repair their property. That increases sales taxes, the state’s single-largest revenue source.

“Hurricane Irma suppressed collections during the initial emergency in September while boosting collections in the recovery months as rebuilding began in earnest,” according to the new estimate.

The adjusted forecast shows an increase in sales tax collections this year of $189 million, with about two-thirds of that related to recovery activities. The sales tax estimate increased by $171 million in 2018-19, with 69 percent attributed to recovery.

The recovery activity is projected to end next year, and an analysis done by Baker and other state economists in 2017 showed the long-term financial effects of a major hurricane or a hurricane season are likely to be negative for the state budget.

The report showed after the 2005 hurricane season, the state spent $626 million while reaping only $422 million in increased revenue.

Baker said she anticipates a similar result from Irma where “the state ends up spending more money than it brings in, by a good bit.”

Another positive in the new forecast is an adjustment in the way the Seminole Tribe of Florida makes payments from its casino operations.

Starting next year, the tribe will make monthly payments based on its annual estimate of gambling activity. That replaces a system where the tribe paid a fixed monthly amount and then made a one-time adjustment in the subsequent year.

The net effect will be an increase of more than $100 million in state revenue from the casinos next year, most of which will be a one-time increase.

The new forecast noted a major negative factor in that corporate income tax collections were $113 million below the estimate this year through December. It was likely caused by the state decision to let businesses impacted by Irma hold off on tax payments until Feb. 15.

The report predicts the shortfall will be negated once the delayed collections begin coming in next month.

After passing their proposed 2018-2019 budgets on Thursday, the House and Senate will begin negotiating their differences in the next few weeks. The legislative session is scheduled to end March 9, with a new budget taking effect July 1.

Takeaways from Tallahassee — ‘Terrible ten’

A list of 10 amendment proposals, dubbed “the terrible ten,” is making the rounds as the Constitution Revision Commission nears a May deadline to submit its final report.

The left-leaning advocacy group, League of Women Voters of Florida, has come up with its “worst of the worst” list compiled of what they say are proposed changes to the state constitution driven by a “clear agenda that mirrors the agenda of the Legislature” and not an independent body.

Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, offers a list of ‘terrible ten’ proposed constitutional amendments.

Thirty-seven proposals remain under consideration by the CRC. If they go on the November ballot, 60-percent voter approval would be needed for the constitution to be changed.

Pamela Goodman, the Florida LWV president, says the proposals in the list “restrict citizen rights rather than expand them” and considers them an attack on public education, home rule, privacy rights, immigration and tax reform.

“Some are outdated concepts brought back again after already being voted down by the public,” Goodman says, “I call them ‘zombie proposals.’”

Goodman sent the list in an effort to fundraise money to lobby and keep CRC members from putting those measures on the ballot. Here is their “terrible ten” list. (Note: Proposal 22 and Proposal 95 are no longer under consideration.)

Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Ana Ceballos, Jim Rosica, Danny McAuliffe, Andrew Wilson and Peter Schorsch.

But first, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Gambling in the Senate — The Senate made some big moves Friday in the annual legislative dance that is the negotiation for an omnibus gambling bill. The biggest move: The chamber now includes a renewed 20-year deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida for $3 billion in revenue share over seven years in return for exclusive rights to blackjack and slot machines outside of South Florida. That was in the House bill, but not the Senate’s first bill filed for this year. Moreover, the Senate would OK adding roulette and craps to the Seminoles’ offerings at its casinos in the state. The Senate bill will next be heard Monday. For all the changes read the full story here.

Omnibus education bill passes — A priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran that would create a voucher program for students who are bullied in school passed the Florida House Friday. The bill is attached to the chamber’s budget, which could bring problems for it as the Senate has said it will not be part of final budget negotiations and would have to go through the scrutiny of Senate committee hearings. The bill includes a requirement for teacher unions to disband if membership is not half of the people they represent, a provision critics describe as “union-busting.”

Budgets ready for final talks  — The Florida House and Senate have both passed their spending plans of about $87 billion, marking the starting point of final budget negotiations. The difference between the budgets is about $100 million, something Senate President Joe Negron told reporters makes “life a lot easier.” But the chambers still have to find common ground on health, the environment and education. Negron said the budget negotiation process is more than a week ahead of schedule.

Corcoran on child marriage While a strict ban on all child marriages has passed in the Senate, House Speaker Corcoran says he is in support of his chamber’s version of the bill that would allow “high school sweethearts” to marry if they are at least 16 years old and pregnant. The Associated Press reports that Corcoran is defending controversial exceptions in a bill that would let 16- and 17-year-olds marry if they are pregnant and the father of the baby isn’t more than two years older. Minors would need parental consent and paternity tests to have a marriage license issued.

State-funded pro-life clinics — A bill that would permanently set aside $4 million in taxpayer money for pro-life clinics to operate across the state has passed both chambers, and now it is up to Gov. Rick Scott to turn it into law. Scott has not yet said whether he will sign the legislation, but the bill would codify into the statute a state-funded program that has been in place since 2006. Democrats oppose the measure, arguing the state should not fund clinics that can contract with faith-based organizations.

Scott-backed deal will fast-track Monroe County cleanup

Gov. Scott announced a deal with this week that’ll fast-track marine debris cleanup in Monroe County with the state temporarily picking up the tab.

“Since Hurricane Irma impacted our state, communities across Florida have been working tirelessly to clean up and recover from this destructive storm. The Florida Keys undoubtedly experienced significant damage when the storm made landfall at Cudjoe Key,” Scott said.

Rick Scott is fast-tracking Monroe County hurricane cleanup.

“We’re doing everything we can to help Monroe County and the Florida Keys as they continue to recover from Irma and I am proud to direct DEP to enter this agreement and immediately get to work removing debris. In Florida, we know that our pristine environment is a big part of what drives our booming tourism industry and this is especially true for the Florida Keys.”

The agreement will see the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, with assistance from the Florida Division of Emergency Management, shell out $6 million and oversee cleanup efforts in Monroe.

The state money will be reimbursed by the county once they receive their disaster cleanup reimbursements paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The week in appointments

Gov. Scott announced the following appointment and reappointments:

Florida Historical Commission

J. Michael Francis, 50, of St. Petersburg, is the chair of the department of history and politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge.

Francis will fill a vacant seat and is appointed for a term ending Dec. 31, 2018.

Judy Bense, 72, of Pensacola, is a professor and President Emeritus at the University of West Florida. She received her doctorate from Washington State University.

Bense succeeds Kathy Fleming and is appointed for a term ending Dec. 31, 2019.

Lawson’s full court press for VISIT FLORIDA funding

VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing arm, is facing a major cut in the 2018-19 budget, but President and CEO Ken Lawson hasn’t given up the fight for a $100 million appropriation.

Lawson met with leaders and residents from Monroe County during Florida Keys Day at the Capitol this week to discuss the importance of fully funding VISIT FLORIDA, especially after disasters such as Hurricane Irma.

Ken Lawson is going all-out for VISIT FLORIDA.

“The Florida Keys is one of our state’s most iconic destinations for visitors all across the world. Tourism impacts Monroe County like no other place in our state, supporting nearly 40,000 jobs,” Lawson said.

Lawson said VISIT FLORIDA’s help over the weeks following the storm, from public relations campaigns to Facebook live videos, “helped get the message out that the Keys were open for business and ready to welcome visitors back,” but without getting a full $100 million from the Legislature, the tourism marketing arm won’t be able to pitch in at that level anymore.

Monroe County Rep. Holly Raschein agreed.

“Tourism is our No. 1 industry in the Florida Keys and VISIT FLORIDA gives my constituents a marketing reach they may not be able to achieve on their own,” she said. “… It is my hope both chambers will come together and understand funding VISIT FLORIDA is an investment that is beneficial to our state.”

CRC’s Ft. Lauderdale stop draws in 700 people

The Constitution Revision Commission held kicked off its “Road to the Ballot” public hearing tour this week with a stop at Nova Southeastern University’s Rick Case Arena in Ft. Lauderdale.

Approximately 700 Floridians showed up and 330 of them picked up the mic during the eight-hour meeting to let commissioners know their feelings on more than three dozen proposals the CRC are considering for the 2018 ballot.

More than 700 people came to Ft. Lauderdale to speak their minds to the Constitution Revision Commission.

The full public hearing was filmed and is available to stream through the Florida Channel’s CRC page. The next stop for commissioners is a Feb. 19 meeting at Eastern Florida State College in Melbourne.

The full slate of CRC meetings, as well as appearance forms and a list of proposals under consideration, can be found FLCRC.gov.

Pritchett honored with humanitarian award

The Democratic Women’s Club of Florida awarded state Rep. Sharon Pritchett with the 2017 Humanitarian Award.

“I remain committed to being a voice that works to help improve quality of life issues on the road toward progress,” Pritchett said in a statement.

Sharon Pritchett was named Humanitarian of the Year by the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida.

Pritchett was nominated by the Democratic Women’s Club of Miami Gardens, which is her district.

The organization said Pritchett’s “excellence in advocating on behalf of thousands of Floridians has set her apart as an effective leader.”

Flores celebrates FIU day at the Capitol

Florida International University had its day in the spotlight this week and the university’s delegation got to spend part of it with Republican Sen. Anitere Flores — an alumna whose district includes the University Park campus.

“[Thursday], I proudly welcomed leaders from my alma mater, Florida International University, to our state’s Capitol. Together, we celebrated FIU’s continuing excellence in higher education and the many success stories the university is testament to,” Flores said.

Anitere Flores celebrates her alma mater at Florida International University Day.

“We discussed the growth and progress of the campus’ expansion, the institution’s research agenda, as well as the advancing resources for the high-skilled graduates entering the workforce.

“As an FIU Alumna, I am honored to advocate in Tallahassee for such an exemplary higher education establishment and serve the university that opens countless doors for its students and faculty.”

House Democrats still keeping track

The House Democratic Caucus updated its “running count” of bills heard in committee or on the House floor to include the fifth week of the 2018 Legislative Session.

To the surprise of few, the caucus found Republican bills in the House are still getting substantially more attention that Democrat-sponsored one.

The breakdown on the “What’s the agenda?” site shows that during Week 5, nine Democrat-sponsored bills were heard, compared to 73 Republican-sponsored bills. Another eight bills heard in committee had both Republican and Democrat sponsors.

The “keep track” effort also recorded 9 Republican bills making the House floor during the week, while zero Democrat-sponsored bills made the grade.

Legislative Progressive Caucus spotlighted by national group

Ultra-liberal reform bills typically don’t get far in the state Legislature, but that doesn’t stop Orlando Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith from at least making some noise.

Smith, the founding chair of the newly minted state House Legislative Progressive Caucus, appeared this week in a social media video explaining the caucus’ role in #FightingForFamilies, an initiative put forth by the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a progressive resource and strategy network.

View the video by clicking the image below:

“Our agenda is squarely focused on helping working families,” Smith said in the video. He said the caucus has thrown its support behind bills that would universalize health care and increase the minimum wage.

Smith also said the caucus is fighting against bills he described as “anti-working families.” He gave the example of HB 25, which seeks to decertify teachers unions if dues-paying membership falls below 50 percent. He said it was a “union-busting” bill.

At the conclusion of the video, Smith said, “We are fighting for you every single day, working families.” The bit aired on the SiX Facebook page and was included in a news release sent to media around the country. According to its website, SiX seeks to “equip state legislators with the tools needed to shape effective policy” and bridge them with “the progressive movement’s unmatched grassroots organizing power.”

Instagram of the week

Florida Communities come to Tallahassee to oppose offshore drilling

Dueling meetings to discuss the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management five-year plan to open federal waters to offshore drilling were held in Tallahassee this week.

BOEM’s meeting was part of the 60-day public comment period on the Trump administration’s plan to rev up oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. the seafloor claimed by the U.S. that doesn’t fall under state jurisdiction, while Environment Florida held what it called the “People’s Hearing on the Federal Offshore Drilling Plan.”

Environment Florida didn’t mince words on the BOEM meeting.

Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch is one of the speakers in Tallahassee to oppose offshore drilling in Florida. 

“Not only is it far from the coastal communities it will affect but it does not provide any opportunity for the public to provide meaningful input on the plan in a public setting,” the group said in an email.

The group then pitched their meeting, “which seeks to give voice to Floridians who vehemently oppose this dangerous drilling plan” and promised “public testimony to a brick wall, a 15-foot blow up whale, signs, posters and more” with a speaker list including

Speakers included Escambia Commissioner Grover Robinson, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, FSU Oceanography professor Ian MacDonald, Tampa Tile president Jerry Difabrizio and Captain Adam Morley of Genung’s Fish Camp and Marina.

FSU gets record number of applications for 2018 class

Florida State University said it received more than 48,000 applications from prospective 2018 freshmen before it made its first round of decisions at the end of January, 7,000 more than last year’s record high.

“The tremendous interest in Florida State University reflects our growing national prominence,” FSU President John Thrasher said. “Word is out that FSU offers the education of a top research institution in a warm, welcoming and diverse academic environment.”

John Thrasher is boasting record freshman enrollment at FSU.

The university said it’s not just getting more applications, but better ones as well – FSU said the middle 50 percent of students accepted so far this year had a grade-point average in the range of 4.1 – 4.5 with a 1290 – 1400 total SAT score and 28-32 ACT composite score.

FSU pointed to its 10-spot jump to No. 33 in U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” rankings over the past couple of years as one reason interest in the school has spiked.

New radio segment to focus on aging-related trends

Want to hear more about the challenges of aging? WFSU-FM has you covered.

Starting Feb. 6, a weekly “Aging Today” segment will be played on 88.9, WFSU-FM, highlighting critical aging-related trends, issues and policies, with an emphasis on social science research.

FSU-FM will take on aging issues in a new segment.

The one-minute segments are sponsored by the Florida State University’s Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy and the Claude Pepper Center, along with support from the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at FSU.

“We’re hoping this initiative will spark more discussion not only about the challenges but also the possibilities of an aging society,” said Anne Barrett, director of the Pepper Institute.

The segments are scheduled to air on Tuesdays at 3:04 p.m. Recordings will be archived at wfsu.org/agingtoday.

Now for this week’s edition of Capitol Directions:

 

Farm aid on the way after Irma’s devastation

State lawmakers continue to craft tax relief for Florida’s storm-battered citrus industry, as President Donald Trump signed off Friday on billions of dollars in much-anticipated federal disaster relief.

A spending bill approved by Congress and Trump includes nearly $90 billion for disaster relief, with $2.36 billion aimed at assisting the agriculture industry for losses from Hurricane Irma in Florida, Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

“The passage of this spending bill is a critical first step to finally getting Florida’s farmers, ranchers and growers long-awaited and desperately needed relief,” state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a prepared statement. “Without this emergency assistance, Florida agriculture cannot fully recover from the unprecedented damage caused by Hurricane Irma.”

The federal funding — a state breakdown wasn’t immediately available — comes as Florida Senate President Joe Negron, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican, and incoming President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, work on tax-relief measures for the citrus industry. The package could also help other parts of the agriculture industry impacted by Irma.

“I think it’s appropriate for the state to help mitigate some of those losses,” Negron said Thursday.

The state House Ways & Means Committee, which is putting together its own tax package, has reviewed a proposal that would offer one-time tax refunds on fencing and building materials for non-residential farm buildings. Also, a proposal would offer refunds on state and local taxes applied to fuel used to transport agriculture products from farms to processing and packaging facilities.

The Senate proposal, still being drafted, will be part of a broader tax-cut package, Negron said.

Gov. Rick Scott has requested $180 million in tax and fee cuts as lawmakers work on a budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Negron said the overall Senate package could feature a reduction in a business-rent tax and include aspects of Scott’s proposal. Scott is seeking reductions in driver’s license fees and to provide tax “holidays” on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies.

Putnam’s department has estimated that Irma inflicted $2.5 billion in agriculture losses, ranging from $761 million in damages in the citrus industry to $624 million in the nursery industry and $237.5 million in the cattle industry.

Scott, Putnam and members of Florida’s congressional delegation have called for months for federal help for the state’s farmers. Irma hit the state Sept. 10 and caused heavy damage in areas such as citrus-growing regions of Southwest Florida.

Florida Department of Citrus Executive Director Shannon Shepp said the newly approved federal money will help growers “reinvest in their groves and look forward to new seasons ahead knowing that help is, indeed, on the way.”

The approval of the federal money came shortly after the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday lowered its projection for the current season’s Florida orange crop by 2 percent from a January estimate. That would put the harvest 34.5 percent below the last season’s five-decade low yield.

The industry also has battled deadly citrus-greening disease for a decade. But before Irma, Shepp said the industry was counting on growers increasing their orange output by nearly 10 percent.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson called the federal relief package “a big win for all those who are still struggling to recover from last summer’s devastating storms.”

Scott, expected to challenge Nelson for the U.S. Senate seat in November, said that in addition to helping with recovery of the citrus industry, the federal funding will “better prepare our communities as they continue to welcome families displaced by Hurricane Maria and aid in Puerto Rico’s recovery.”

Among other things, the federal funding also provides $17.39 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including funding to repair damage caused by natural disasters, construct flood and storm damage-reduction projects and potentially to speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

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