Joe Negron Archives - Florida Politics

Bill would protect religious expression in schools

Students, their parents and school employees would be guaranteed wider rights to publicly pray and express their religious beliefs in public schools under a far-reaching bill approved Thursday by the Florida Senate.

Backers of the legislation, including Senate President Joe Negron, contend that the measure is needed because schools have unnecessarily clamped down on free speech rights, including prohibiting students from wearing crosses as jewelry, or chiding students who want to include religious figures in their academic work.

The school superintendent in Broward County in 2014 apologized after a student was told he couldn’t read the Bible during a free reading period.

The bill (SB 436) says school districts may not discriminate against any student, parent or school employee because they shared their religious viewpoint.

But those opposed to the bill say it could open the door from everything from cracking down on science teachers who teach evolution to allowing Christian students to intimidate those of other faiths.

“Could it be provoking? Could it be concerning? Yeah, that’s healthy thought. That’s what happens in a free world,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican and sponsor of the bill. “This isn’t protecting a faith, it’s protecting all people’s freedom to express their hearts.”

The Senate passed the bill 23-13 following a wide-ranging debate. A similar bill is now moving in the Florida House.

Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale said the bill could lead to students proselytizing in school.

“We don’t need it. It should be sufficient that during the school day, you can pray to yourself,” Farmer said. “We all have our own personal relationship with God or Allah or whoever we believe in, but to force that on other people is just not necessary and it can be harmful and it can be disrespectful.”

The bill, which is backed by several Christian groups, says that students can wear clothing or jewelry that conveys a religious message. Negron has agreed that this would also allow followers of Islam to wear hijabs in schools.

The legislation also says students can express their religious viewpoints in coursework or artwork without being penalized. It also makes clear students can pray and organize religious groups to the same extent as other clubs and groups are allowed to meet on school grounds.

School districts must give religious groups access to school facilities and they must grant students the right to speak on religious topics at public forums.

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Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington contributed to this report. Reprinted with permission of the AP.

Joe Negron would ‘prefer’ to use gambling money in budget

Senate President Joe Negron wants to use gambling money sitting in the state’s treasury for spending next year, but said it won’t spell disaster if lawmakers can’t.

The Stuart Republican, speaking to reporters after Thursday’s floor session, said he was “optimistic” that the Legislature will finally pass an omnibus gambling overhaul that includes a renewed blackjack agreement with the state’s Seminole Tribe.

Despite ongoing litigation over its right to offer blackjack, the Tribe continues to pay gambling revenue share to the state, nearly $40 million for just the first two months of this year.

That money – expected to total $306 million this year – is deposited but not marked for spending into the General Revenue Fund.

Meantime, a new deal that would guarantee exclusive rights to keep offering the card games in exchange for a $3 billion cut to the state over seven years is included in this year’s House and Senate bills.

“We also have money – as I call it, ‘sitting in trust’ – that is available if we need it,” Negron said. “It could be purposed this year for tax cuts, for expenditures. So it’s important for the budget for a gaming bill to pass.”

That said, Negron quickly added, if nothing passes this year, it won’t be “a disaster.”

He favors expanding some gambling, including allowing counties that passed local referendums to have slot machines. The House generally wants gambling opportunities held in check.

“We can pass a budget with a gaming bill or without, but my strong preference … is to be able to use those revenues for good purposes,” he said.

As House Commerce Committee chair Jose Felix Diaz put it Wednesday, “Gaming is one of those bills that’s left for the end.”

“It’s too important to too many people, and it has too many repercussions for the budget,” the Miami-Dade Republican said. “There’s a lot of money at stake.”

Negron said he expects his chamber’s working version of a 2017-18 state budget to come together by next week.

The main stumbling block has been “items and expenditures in the budget that, while defensible, aren’t as much of a priority … I see members juxtaposing one project against another and then having to make tough decisions.”

He also said he wouldn’t unlink his tax swap plan that repeals a subsidy for the state’s insurance companies and applies the funds to a cut in the business rent tax. Business interests and the insurance industry oppose the plan.

Report: Marco Rubio says ‘there’s no federal money’ for reservoir south of Lake O

A top priority of Senate President Joe Negron’s took a hit this week, after Sen. Marco Rubio said a plan to build reservoirs wouldn’t get federal money and would wipe out farming communities.

According to POLITICO Florida, Rubio said “there’s no federal money” for Negron’s proposed reservoirs.

“We’re going to end up with nothing,” he said according to the report. “And that’s been my argument from the beginning and that’s my message to him and he understood it.”

Sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, the Negron-backed proposal would authorize the state to buy 60,000 acres of land and build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. The reservoir could hold 120 billion gallons of water, about as much water that was discharged into the St. Lucie Estuary between January and May of 2016.

Supporters say the reservoir would add significant storage capacity south of the lake, which would help to manage lake levels during periods of high rainfall.

The bill gives the South Florida Water Management District until the end of the year to find a willing seller. But in February, a group of landowners in the Everglades Agriculture Area said they are “not willing sellers of their property to the government.”

Under the proposal, the state can choose to buy 153,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar under an existing contract signed by the state and company in 2010.

While Rubio has warned about what could happen if the state changes the timetable for Everglades projects, POLITICO Florida noted Rubio’s warning about the economic impact to farming communities around Lake Okeechobee is new. Rubio, according to POLITICO Florida, said if the state buys all the land “that means there’s no farming, that means these cities collapse, they basically turn into ghost towns.”

Negron met with constituents last week at Pahokee High School to talk about the plan, but there have been concerns about the economic impact of his proposal in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon has said he was concerned about lost job; he was the only member to vote against the bill in the Senate Appropriations Environment and Natural Resources Subcommittee Committee earlier this month.

A bill (HB 761) by Rep. Thad Altman has been referred to three committees, but has not received its first committee hearing.

AIF, Florida Chamber, other business groups join forces to oppose Senate tax proposal

A bevy of business groups have joined forces in opposition to a Senate proposal to lower the tax commercial rents by eliminating a tax credit benefiting another industry.

Eight of the state’s leading business organizations — including Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the Florida United Business Association — sent a letter to Sen. Anitere Flores on Wednesday urging here to “support lowering the sales tax currently charged on all business leases without removing the insurance premium tax credit as proposed.”

Flores, a Miami-Dade Republican who serves as Senate President Pro-Tempore, is carrying the legislation (SB 378). The proposal initially would have paid for a cut in the state’s communications service tax by repealing a tax break for insurers. The move has been a priority for Senate President Joe Negron.

But on Tuesday, the Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee approved an amended version of the bill that would repeal the tax break for insurance companies, and use the money to reduce the tax business pay on their commercial rents. Gov. Rick Scott has long advocated for the reduction, as have business groups.

“The business rent tax is a heavy burden to say the least. It discourages new business start-ups and is subjecting existing Florida businesses to disproportionate regulatory burdens, creating instances of double taxation, and stifling business expansion — ultimately costing Florida jobs,” reads the letter to Flores.

“However, eliminating the insurance premium tax credit as a way to reduce the business rent tax does not solve the problem. In fact, it will likely make the problem worse as insurance companies increase insurance premiums on all Florida insurance holders, including homeowners and business owners,” it continues. “In Senate Bill 378 you are effectively swapping a tax cut for a tax increase that will end up costing Floridians more in the end.”

The letter was signed by Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida; Scott Shalley, the president and CEO of Florida Retail Federation; Mark Wilson, the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce; Lance Lozano, chief operating officer Florida United Businesses Association; Bill Martin, CEO of the Florida Realtors; Nancy Stephens, executive directors of Manufacturers Association of Florida; Carol Dover, president and CEO of Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association; and Bill Herrle, Florida executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

The group said it sent an identical letter to Negron.  The bill now heads to Senate Appropriations.

tax cuts

Senate tax cut proposal OK’d — with one big switch

A tax cut that would have helped a broader swath of Floridians, including the middle class and working poor, was changed Tuesday to instead benefit the state’s business owners.

With no debate, the Senate’s Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee cleared the bill (SB 378) by a 4-0 vote. 

As initially proposed by Miami-Dade Republican Anitere Flores, it would have paid for a cut in the state’s communications services tax (CST) on mobile phone, satellite and cable TV service by repealing a tax break to insurers. The move has been a priority of Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

But the panel approved an amendment—brought by Kelli Stargel, the Lakeland Republican who chairs the panel—to reduce the tax that businesses pay on their commercial rents, a cut that Gov. Rick Scott has long called for.

“She felt strongly about it,” Flores said later. “It’s her committee.” Stargel wasn’t immediately available after the meeting.

Negron himself seemed to create a loophole when he discussed the bill with reporters last week: Funds from taking back the insurance tax credit “would much be much better spent providing tax relief to Floridians, to businesses, rather than subsidizing the labor cost of one particular industry.”

Meantime, insurance interests jealously guarded their 15 percent tax credit on the salaries that they give their full-time workers here in the state.

After Flores had referred to the 30-year-old state subsidy as “corporate welfare,” a representative of FCCI Insurance Group told the panel to “remember we are a highly taxed industry to begin with.”

Thomas A. Koval, the company’s general counsel, also said they take the gains realized from the tax break and “reinvest it in our company, (to) hire more people.”

But he also warned that if taken away, firms may start leaving the state, a sentiment echoed by banking and insurance lobbyist Gerald Wester.

“People are easier to move than buildings,” and “with today’s technology people can be anywhere,” he told the panel.

Sen. José Javier Rodríguez of Miami-Dade County, one of two Democrats on the 5-member panel, asked Stargel why not apply the money from repealing the subsidy to other causes, such as funding education. (He later was out of the room when the vote was called.)

Stargel said the tax break to insurers was an “incentive to bring businesses to Florida.”

“But I agree, this is a discussion that could be ongoing,” she added. The bill next moves to the full Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Updated 12:30 p.m. — Negron, in comments to reporters after Tuesday’s floor session: “The committee had a choice to make on what relief to provide with the money that would be freed up from the insurance tax break … I thought Sen. Flores did a good job providing examples of dry cleaning businesses, food delivery businesses, and other small businesses. So that’s where we are today. There’s a much better case for the commercial lease tax to be reduced.”

Dorothy Hukill cancer-free, will miss remainder of 2017 Session out of ‘abundance of caution’

Sen. Dorothy Hukill has been deemed cancer-free, but will miss the remainder of the 2017 Legislative Session out of an abundance of caution.

In a letter to Senate President Joe Negron, the Port Orange Republican said her team of physicians informed her that “post treatment tests show no remaining cancer and they are optimistic of a cancer-free full recovery.”

While Hukill said she hoped that would signal the end of her treatment, her doctors recommended “one more round of radiation treatments in an abundance of caution.”

Hukill disclosed in November she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and was undergoing treatment. At the time, she said it was in its early stages and her medical team advised the “prognosis for a full recovery is good.”

In her letter to Negron on Monday, she said additional radiation treatments will, unfortunately, mean she “will be unable to return to Tallahassee before the completion of the 2017 Regular Session.

“During this time, I will continue to be part of the legislative process from the District and I look forward to returning to Tallahassee soon,” she wrote.

Negron informed members of Hukill’s prolonged absence Monday, telling them he was pleased to hear that Hukill’s “treatment was successful and her doctors have determined that she is cancer-free.”

Negron said Hukill will continue to manage her “district offices, staff, bills, and committee responsibilities remotely during this time.”

“He will evaluate whether he needs to make additional appointments to account for her absence,” Negron aide Katie Betta said.

“Senator Hukill asked that I convey her sincere thanks for the ongoing support of the Senate family during her treatment,” said Negron in a memo to senators. “While we certainly miss Senator Hukill in Tallahassee, we are delighted that she is on the road to a full recovery and look forward to the day when she can return to Tallahassee.”

“My thoughts are with Sen. Hukill and I hope she gets better soon,” Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon said through an aide.”

Senate tax cut proposal, as is, may be on the ropes

A tax cut that’s a priority of Senate President Joe Negron is running into resistance from his fellow senators.

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami-Dade Republican and Negron’s right hand in the chamber, is running the bill (SB 378) to pay for a cut in the state’s tax on mobile phone, satellite and cable TV service by repealing a tax break to insurers.

On Friday evening, Flores said “there have been conversations” among some senators—she didn’t say whom—who want to  restructure the bill, still taking the tax credits from the insurance industry but instead applying them to another cost driver.

School funding was one example bandied about this week, she added.

“My point is, many senators—if not the majority of senators—are still in favor of getting rid of this break that benefits only one industry to provide (tax) relief for more Floridians,” she said in a phone interview.

The bill was to be discussed Wednesday by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Finance and Tax, but was pulled off the agenda by chair Kelli Stargel, who later said she didn’t want to take up the bill because only three of the panel’s five members were there.

“That’s a decision that was made by the chair,” Negron told reporters later Wednesday. “I wasn’t involved in that decision but I think it’s perfectly reasonable and I support (it).” No one said a lack of votes was the problem.

Flores, however, still is advocating the original tax swap, taking away a 15 percent tax credit on the salaries that insurers give their full-time workers here in the state for a reduction in the state’s communications services tax (CST).

Other colleagues of hers aren’t sure that’s the best use of the money.

When asked if a compromise could be struck, Flores said she wanted the legislation “to be a collaborative bill, so right now this is a work in progress.”

A coalition of Florida business groups—including Associated Industries of Florida (AIF), the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Florida Insurance Council (FIC)—already has publicly opposed taking away the insurance industry’s tax credit.

In 2013, Negron tried to get rid of the now 30-year-old tax break to insurance companies, now worth around $435 million, to decrease automobile fees. The insurance industry helped kill that effort in the House. Fees were later reduced without scuttling the tax break.

Earlier this year, the Stuart Republican said he was again looking to eliminate the insurance deal.

“Those funds would much be much better spent providing tax relief to Floridians, to businesses, rather than subsidizing the labor cost of one particular industry,” he said Wednesday.

House committee OK’s proposal to keep BP oil funds in Northwest Florida

A House panel has approved legislation to make sure settlement money from the 2010 BP oil spill stays in the Florida Panhandle.

The House Select Committee on Triumph Gulf Coast passed a proposed committee bill that, among other things, requires 75 percent of all payments that Florida receives from the settlement agreement between the five gulf states and BP be transferred from the general fund to the Triumph Gulf Coast Trust Fund.

Under the proposal, the Triumph Gulf Coast corporation can award funding for several things including:

— Public infrastructure projects to enhance economic recovery, diversification, and enhancement in the disproportionately affected counties;

— Grants to local governments in the counties to establish and maintain equipment and trained personnel for local action plans to respond to disasters;

— Early childhood development and educational programs; and

— Grants to support programs to prepare students for future occupations and careers at K-20 institutions that have campuses in the communities.

The proposal requires Triumph Gulf Coast to give 14 days’ notice its intent to make an award, and requires the corporation make sure each of the eight disproportionately affected counties directly benefit from the awards.

The committee also approved a bill establishing a trust fund.

Millions of barrels of oil surged into the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 after an oil well ruptured under BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. Eleven workers died, and 17 others were injured.

In the weeks and months that followed, tarballs and oil washed up on 1,100 miles of coastline, keeping away the usual summer tourists. Hotels, restaurants and other tourism related businesses were the hardest hit. It took until July to cap the well.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee passed its bill tackling payments earlier this week. Senate President Joe Negron has said he’s committed to getting the settlement money to affected communities.

Florida prison chief: State losing corrections staff to ‘Wal-Mart,’ creating insecurity in system

More than three-quarters of Florida’s corrections officers have less than two years’ experience. In some state prisons, a single CO will be left alone to supervise 150-200 inmates in a jail block.

Contraband has become so bad, one random search of (just half) a Dade facility turned up $15,000 in street value of cocaine, seven knives, 46 cellphones and an array of other drugs and illicit materials, said Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones Thursday.

The state’s prisons chief was in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee, having to explain just how bad the situation was, even though the state’s inmate population dropped by 3,000 from the year before.

Three main problems, she said, were safety, recidivism, and operational deficiencies — all due to a lack of funding. Corrections officers are paid so little, and have such a high stress in a dangerous job, she can’t keep them on the payroll.

“I’m losing state and local officers to state and local businesses — even to Wal-Mart,” she told the committee. “We hire thousands of new corrections officers every year. We’re a hiring machine. The problem is we can’t keep them.”

She said turnover for COs has increased 95 percent since 2009.

Entry-level base pay for a corrections officer before completion of on-the-job training hovers around $29,000. It goes up, slightly, when a combination of certifications and on-the-job training are completed, but for working 12 hour shifts — sometimes doubles due to the lack of staffing, especially at correctional facilities specializing in mental health issues, Jones said — it’s no wonder why she can’t keep anyone on for more than a year or so.

That tempts some COs to earn a little extra money on the side.

Jones said, unfortunately, some of the ones securing the facility are the ones bringing in the contraband or are looking the other way in exchange for bribes. And with career field numbers so low — with a current vacancy rate of 13 percent statewide, she said — security issues become a factor. Drugs and weapons are stashed in trash cans or simply tossed over fences by friends or loved ones working in cahoots with inmates.

When a random search of a prison, or part of a prison, takes place, inmates caught with illegal materials, products or drugs face more charges, leading to high recidivism rates.

Since 2009, the introduction of contraband into the prisons system has increased more than 400 percent.

Inmate on inmate attacked have increased 68 percent during the same period, she cited.

To boot, she admitted, when questioned by Sen. Jeff Brandes, facilities are falling apart. Fencing at some prisons is so old, or dilapidated, the department doesn’t have a way to mend it without tearing it all down and rebuilding or renovating, and there simply isn’t the money to do that, she said.

Without a new and increased pay package, she said she doesn’t any change for the better coming. She’s requested more money and according to the chair of the appropriations committee, Jack Latvala, the cavalry is coming.

“I am pleased to report, in consultation with Sen. [Joe] Negron … help is on the way from the Florida Senate,” he said. “Our budget will include some substantial help on this issue. … Let’s go to work and make it happen.”

House committee OK’s bill requiring septic tank inspection during home sales

A bill that would require septic tanks to be inspected when a home sells advanced through its first House committee Tuesday.

HB 285, sponsored by Brevard County Republican Rep. Randy Fine, originally applied to all home sales, but was amended during the House Agriculture & Property Rights Subcommittee to apply only to regions listed as impaired watershed areas by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Fine contends that 10 percent, or 200,000 to 300,000 homes, are leaking septic wasted into Florida’s waterways. Fine’s view is shared by parties opposed to the Lake Okeechobee land buy being pushed by Senate President Joe Negron.

The first-term Republican compared the proposed inspection to other procedures during a typical home sale, such as a roof inspection, but said more than just the homebuyer can get burned by a bad septic system.

“If your roof leaks and you choose to buy the house that only affects you. But if your septic tank leaks, that not only affects you, it affects your neighbors,” he said.

The bill does not require sellers to fix a septic issue if one is uncovered during the inspection.

HB 285 now moves on to the Natural Resources & Public Lands Subcommittee.

Orlando Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart has filed similar legislation in the Senate. Her bill, SB 1748, would require homebuyers to make the necessary repairs within six months of the sale.

That bill, filed March 3, has yet to receive committee references.

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