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Legislative leaders strike deal to write state budget

House and Senate leaders have tentatively brokered a rules deal to avoid a meltdown over how requests to fund hometown projects get into the state budget.

Released Friday, the proposed joint rule follows Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala telling his chamber’s Rules Committee in February that House leaders had agreed to compromise to streamline the process.

“I think this is a big potential problem that’s been dodged,” the Clearwater Republican said following an event in Naples on Friday. “The only thing you have to do in the Constitution during the session is do a budget, and by having a game plan and a joint approach to that before we start out is a big deal.”

The new rule first defines an appropriations project identically to the House Rules. It also stipulates that no appropriations project “may be included in a budget conference report unless the project was included in the House or Senate general appropriations act,” according to a memo to House members from Speaker Richard Corcoran.

In the memo, Corcoran goes on to say that the “Senate has agreed to collect and post online specific detailed information on each appropriations project prior to the passage of their proposed general appropriations act.”

“The House is getting something that is important to them … written documentation of a request, so they’re not just in the middle of the night, on a napkin, or whatever they want to say. We’re getting what we wanted, in that we still have until we pass our budget the right to put in our requests, and it’s not arbitrarily cut off four or five weeks before session starts,” said Latvala. “Could this have been done before the process started this year? Yes. But I’m glad it’s done now.”

The new rule further grandfathers in existing recurring projects as long as they do not receive additional funding. New money must be non-recurring, meaning not required in future budgets, and “the project must be clearly identified in the conference report.”

The House requires each funding request to be filed separately. But the House’s method also required any senator’s project request to have its companion filed in the House or that chamber would not consider it.

The rationale behind the House’s system stems from Corcoran‘s desire for greater transparency in the budget process, particularly on local project funding.

“Today’s announcement that the House and the Senate achieved an agreement on the strongest, most transformational joint budget rules in Florida history, demonstrates that people of good will, negotiating in good faith, can make government better,” said Corcoran in a statement. “The joint rules, agreed to by President Negron and I, are unprecedented in both accountability and transparency. … I believe deeply that we’ve produced a paradigm shift in how budgets are made and it should become a model for other legislatures.”

An existing Senate rule, however, limited what the Senate can consider in conference, when members of both chambers get together to hammer out a final state budget to present to the governor.

“Establishing a joint rule to govern the budget conference process assures fidelity to the Constitution and preserves the autonomy of both Chambers,” said Senate President Joe Negron in a statement. “Both the House and Senate will be able to represent our constituents throughout Session as we construct a budget that reflects our values and priorities.  I look forward to a vibrant budget process in both the House and Senate as we make tough choices on how to allocate the revenue entrusted to us by the citizens of Florida.”

As of Friday, there were over 1,100 requests filed in the House, worth nearly $2.5 billion, according to a running list on LobbyTools.

__Reporters Jim Rosica in Tallahassee and Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster in Naples contributed to this report.

Email insights: Sugarcane farmers blast Everglades Foundation for ‘fake economics’

Florida Sugarcane Farmers are the latest group to give its take on the hottest buzzword in American politics – “fake news.”

In this case, however, the group – which represents the $3.2 billion-a-year industry and employs more than 12,500 people – is blasting the Everglades Foundation for using “fake economics” and “fake science” to bolster Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to purchase up to 153,000 acres of what they call “job-sustaining farmland.”

Florida Sugarcane Farmers

A new email from Ardis Hammock, the owner and operator of Moore Haven’s Frierson Farms, says that it’s only fitting that a group “funded almost entirely by out-of-state billionaire special interests” will turn to an outside economist to defend the Everglades Foundation and its “dishonest” affiliates.

Hammock says “fake science” and” fake economics” are being used to make a case that most reputable scientists and economists cannot support.

“Despite the best attempts by environmental activists to use scare tactics that could harm Florida’s economy,” Hammock notes, “2016 was a record year for tourism in Florida, where the state saw a 5.9 percent increase over 2015.”

Florida’s real estate market is doing better, too.

Hammock also cites a report by Florida Realtors saying “the state’s housing markets clearly got healthier in 2016 due to a major decline in the number of distressed properties for sale.”

With that, a “small reservoir” south of Lake Okeechobee simply will not have any real impact on the very real harm experienced on coastal estuaries.

To suggest otherwise, Hammond says, is “blatantly dishonest.”

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the Everglades Foundation would go to these lengths to push misinformation to sell this economically disastrous plan,” Hammock concludes, adding that Senate Bill 10 is a “job killer that spends too much, relies on fraudulent science, and gets very little in return.”

Fake news, fake science, fake economists – be prepared to see a lot more of these labels as the 2017 Legislative Session begins in earnest.

Joe Negron, Pulse mother and doctor, a DREAMer, among Trump address to Congress guests

As is traditional, Florida’s congressional delegation is using its invite tickets to President Donald Trump‘s first address to a joint session of Congress mostly to make points, although U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is maybe making his points with his wife.

Each member of Congress gets one SOTU invitation to pass out. Democrat Nelson’s goes to his wife of 44 years, Grace Nelson.

Republican U.S. Sen Marco Rubio‘s bringing Florida Sen. President Joe Negron, who is in Washington this week for meetings with Rubio and other state legislators regarding federal-state issues.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando is bringing Christine Leinonen, mother of Christopher Leinonen, who was one of the 49 victims killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Leinonen has been sharply critical of Trump for using the June 12, 2016, Pulse shooting to justify an immigration crackdown, particularly on Muslims.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park is bringing Dr. Marc Levy, Orlando Regional Medical Center surgeon who saved the lives of victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting last summer. Levy has called for more scientific and medical research on gun violence – from root causes to improved medical treatment.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando is bringing a potential DREAMer, a recent graduate of the University of Florida named Jose who migrated from Honduras to the United States at the age of 11 with his parents. Jose is seeking to avoid deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policies of former President Barack Obama, which Trump stated he intends to rescind.

No word yet on what Republican U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis, Bill Posey and Daniel Webster intend to do with their tickets.

 

Richard Corcoran, Rick Scott still holding on constitutional panel picks

With the 2017 Legislative Session fast approaching, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott still have not released their appointees for the upcoming Constitution Revision Commission.

It’s the panel that meets every 20 years to suggest rewrites and additions to the state’s governing document.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Senate President Joe Negron have already announced their combined 12 picks. (Those appointments are here and here.)

Corcoran last week said he planned to disclose his nine picks next Monday, the day before Session begins. Scott’s office has not said when he plans to announce his 15 selections. His received applications can be seen here.

The state constitution says the commission must be “established … within (30) days before the convening of the 2017 regular session of the legislature.”

The “commission shall convene at the call of its chair, adopt its rules of procedure, examine the constitution of the state, hold public hearings, and, not later than one hundred eighty days prior to the next general election, file … its proposal, if any, of a revision of this constitution or any part of it,” it says.

As governor, Scott will choose 15 of the 37 commissioners, and he also selects its chairperson. Corcoran, as House Speaker, gets nine picks, as does Negron as head of the Senate.

Republican Pam Bondi is automatically a member as the state’s Attorney General.

The commission has met twice before, in 1977-78 and 1997-98, but this will be the first to be selected by a majority of Republicans, virtually ensuring it will propose more conservative changes to the state’s governing document than previous panels.

The nonprofit Partnership for Revising Florida’s Constitution has suggested several issues the commission could address this year, including transportation, natural resources, crime and justice, representation, and “youth, elderly & the underserved.”

Any changes the commission proposes would be in the form of constitutional amendments, which would have to be approved by 60 percent of voters on a statewide ballot.

 

 

Anitere Flores wants to replace one tax cut with another

In a move sure to ire the insurance industry, state Sen. Anitere Flores is proposing a cut in the state tax on mobile phone and satellite and cable TV service by repealing a tax break to insurers.

Flores, the Senate President pro Tempore, on Friday said she was filing legislation (SB 378) to swap the insurance break for a 2 percent reduction in the state’s communications services tax (CST). The proposal is a priority of Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

The move also aligns with Gov. Rick Scott‘s and the Florida House’s appetite for continued tax relief. Flores’ proposal “could provide $300 million in recurring tax relief for families and businesses,” according to a news release.

“Florida’s CST is one of the highest in the nation,” said Flores, a Miami-Dade Republican. “In 2015, we made great progress by permanently reducing Florida’s CST by 1.73 percent. This year, we can reduce this burdensome tax even further and provide additional monthly savings to every Floridian with a cell phone or cable or satellite TV.”

The state’s communications services tax charges “direct-to-home satellite service” at a total rate of 11.44 percent. Cable TV, however, is taxed at a total of 7.44 percent; the state reduced the CST on that two years ago.

In 2013, Negron tried to get rid of the now 30-year-old tax break to insurance companies, at the time was worth around $225 million, to decrease automobile fees.

The insurance industry helped kill that effort in the House. Fees were later reduced without scuttling the tax break.

But Negron earlier this year said he was again looking to eliminate the insurance deal this year, a 15 percent tax credit on the salaries that insurers give their full-time workers here in the state. “The same benefit is not provided for other industries.” he said in a statement.

“When originally put in place thirty years ago, this taxpayer-funded subsidy for insurance companies was well intentioned, but times have changed and we need to reprioritize,” Negron said. “We can take the revenue we save from eliminating a tax credit that only benefits one industry and use it to provide a meaningful, monthly, and permanent tax cut for Florida’s families and businesses.”

We’ll add reaction from the state’s insurers when we receive it.

Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition pushes for statewide bill to get passed this year

Last year in the Florida Legislature, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to create statewide regulations regarding ridesharing, but the bill died ignominiously in the state Senate.

Similar bills are winding their way through committees in both chambers already in 2017, and on Wednesday, the group Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition announced their support for that legislation, being sponsored in the House by Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls and Tampa Republican Jamie Grant and in the Senate by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes.

“We fully support legislation that embraces innovation, and legislation that creates predictable regulatory climate across the entire state for ridesharing companies,” said Frank Walker, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce on a conference call.

Florida is one of only 12 states in the nation that has yet to create a statewide law regarding ridesharing, or transportation network companies (TNC’s) as they are also known.

In 2016, the drama was in the Florida Senate, where Uber blamed Senate President Andy Gardiner for the inability for the ridesharing legislation to advance. He’s been succeeded by Palm City Republican Joe Negron, who has praised the current legislation.

“I think you’ve got two different bodies then you had last year,” said Walker, when asked why he’s more optimistic that the bill will pass this year. He also said that there is simply more demand for Uber and Lyft. “Environment plays a big role, and so does demand,” he said.

No region of the state has more interest in seeing a ridesharing bill passed than in the Tampa Bay area. That’s because of the large unpopularity with the body charged in Hillsborough County to regulate Uber and Lyft, the Public Transportation Commission.

Over the years, PTC officers have cited numerous Lyft and Uber drivers for operating illegally. Those actions ceased after the PTC finally passed a bill last fall bringing the two companies into compliance.

“Local regulations at best have been problematic and dysfunctional, and have not been helping to foster and grow the local economy, and that’s why we need a statewide regulation,” said Bob Rohrlack, President/CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Rohrlack blamed “the status quo,” meaning the taxicab industry predominantly, for putting up roadblocks to protect, and not grow markets. “The local regulations penalize entrepreneurs. That’s something that none of us should be accepting,” he said.

In previous years, there has been criticism that the ridesharing companies have not been accommodating towards the disabled. But Kim Galban-Countryman, Executive Director of Lighthouse of the Big Bend, says the TNC’s are helping people with disabilities, especially those living with vision loss.

“Convenient transportation options are an absolute necessity for people with vision loss, and ridesharing introduces a simple affordable means to get around,” Galban-Countryman says.”Through various voice activated systems and services, individuals with visual impairments who otherwise would not have access to convenient transportation options can maintain their independence, and call a Lyft or Uber driver to take them where they need to go.”

Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition was formed before the 2016 Legislative Session.

 

 

Impressive roster of GOP leaders line up for Ed Hooper fundraiser

Clearwater Republican Ed Hooper is assembling an impressive number of high-profile state lawmakers for a Tallahassee reception next month. Hooper, a former state representative, is seeking the open Senate District 16 seat currently held by Jack Latvala.

Hooper’s campaign fundraiser will be Monday, March 6, from 2:30 p.m. – 4 p.m. at the Governors Club, 202 South Adams Street.

The host committee reads like a Who’s Who of GOP state leaders, including Senate President Joe Negron and nearly all the Pinellas County/Hillsborough delegation: Sens. Latvala, Bill GalvanoWilton SimpsonDana Young and Jeff Brandes.

Republican senators from beyond the Tampa Bay area will be there, too: Lizbeth BenacquistoGeorge GainerDenise GrimsleyFrank ArtilesDennis BaxleyAaron BeanTravis HutsonDebbie MayfieldKathleen PassidomoKeith PerryRobert BradleyDoug BroxsonDavid SimmonsKelli Stargel and Greg Steube.

The House will also be well represented, with Larry AhernBen AlbrittonChris Latvala and Kathleen Peters.

A former Clearwater firefighter who served four terms in the House before term limits forced him out, Hooper ran for Pinellas County Commission in 2014, losing to Democrat Pat Gerard after a contentious campaign.

Smith Gaetz

Don Gaetz, Chris Smith among Joe Negron’s constitutional review panel picks

Former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and former Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith are among those tapped by current Senate President Joe Negron to sit on the state’s Constitution Revision Commission.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, announced his list Wednesday in a press release.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican in the Senate 2006-16, and Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who served 2008-16, were selected along with seven others. Under the constitution, Negron gets nine picks as the president of the state Senate.

“Florida is fortunate to have so many private citizens willing to take time away from their families and careers to serve the public in this important capacity,” Negron said in a statement.

“My goal in selecting the nine Senate appointees was to choose individuals who represent a diverse cross-section of our state in terms of their personal, professional, and political life experiences,” he added. “The most serious and important issue for me, and a common thread among our Senate appointees, is a fervent commitment to individual liberty and personal freedom guaranteed by our state and federal constitutions.

“The Senate appointees are all women and men of good judgment.” Besides Gaetz and Smith, they are:

Anna Marie Hernandez Gamez, a Miami lawyer who practices real estate and commercial litigation, and a past president of the Cuban American Bar Association.

 Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), the school choice organization founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

 Sherry Plymale, a past chair of the State Board of Community Colleges, chief of staff to state Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, a trustee of Florida Atlantic University and St. Leo University.

 William “Bill” Schifino Jr., the 2016-17 president of The Florida Bar.

— Bob Solari, an Indian River County Commissioner, former Vero Beach City Council member and retired businessman.

— Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a former teacher “with years of classroom experience instructing middle and high school students” who also was mayor of Sewall’s Point.

— Carolyn Timmann, the Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller for Martin County. She also has been a legislative assistant to former state Rep. Tom Warner, worked in the Governor’s Office, and was a judicial assistant.

They now join former Florida Bar president Hank Coxe of Jacksonville; former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat; and former federal prosecutor Roberto Martinez of Miami, who are Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga‘s three picks to the commission.

The commission is supposed to hold its first meeting in the 30-day period before the start of the 2017 Legislative Session on March 7.

Representatives for Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran have not yet announced their decisions.

As governor, Scott will choose 15 of the 37 commissioners, and he also selects its chairperson. Corcoran also gets nine picks. Republican Pam Bondi is automatically a member as the state’s Attorney General.

The commission has met twice before, in 1977-78 and 1997-98, but this will be the first to be selected by a majority of Republicans, virtually ensuring it will propose more conservative changes to the state’s governing document than previous panels.

Any changes the commission proposes would be in the form of constitutional amendments, which would have to be approved by 60 percent of voters on a statewide ballot.

 

House, Senate trying to avoid budget showdown over rules

The Florida Senate and House have agreed to work together on a joint rule to avoid a “who blinks first” approach to this year’s budget negotiations. 

Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who heads the Appropriations Committee, Thursday told the Rules Committee he was “pleased to report” House leaders had agreed to consider what’s known as a “joint rule” to streamline the process.

The Naples Daily News reported Wednesday the Legislature could be headed to “a partial state government shutdown” over a disagreement on how requests to fund hometown projects get into the state budget.

The House now requires each request to be filed separately; those were due Tuesday. But the House’s method also required any senator’s project request to have its companion filed in the House or that chamber would not consider it.

Latvala called that an “unprecedented situation” at the Rules Committee meeting Thursday.

He said he consulted with Senate President Joe Negron, who agreed the Senate “could either pass a budget and see who blinked first, or be proactive and try to resolve the situation.”

The compromise offered to the House would allow, among other things, “funding of projects (to) be included in a conference committee report if the information … is provided to the public at the time the funding is proposed … and the conference committee has provided time for public testimony.”

The rationale behind the House’s system stems from House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s desire for greater transparency in the budget process, particularly on local project funding.

At deadline, 381 House project bills had been filed, worth over $796 million.

“I think this approach will bear fruit,” Latvala told the panel. 

Corcoran previously told the Daily News that the House’s “concerns in regard to member project openness, project accountability and other central issues still remain, (but) we are always willing to work with our Senate counterparts, and we hope we can have a constructive dialogue.”

An existing Senate rule, however, limits what the Senate can consider in conference, when members of both chambers get together to hammer out a final state budget to present to the governor.

“A conference committee, other than a conference committee on a general or special appropriations bill and its related legislation, shall consider and report only on the differences existing between the Senate and the House, and no substance foreign to the bills before the conferees shall be included in the report or considered by the Senate.”

 

Florida Sugar Union blasts Joe Negron’s ‘job killing’ Lake O reservoir plan

Florida sugar workers are the latest to come out strongly against Joe Negron’s Senate proposal to create a $2.4-billion, 60,000-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee for Everglades water storage.

In a joint letter sent Wednesday from Sugar Labor Management Committee, IAMAW District 166, Florida State Council of Machinists, and Local 2152 (Osceola & Okeelanta), union representatives expressed “strong opposition” to Senate Bill 10, which seeks to purchase private sugar industry land for storing Lake O runoff.

On Tuesday, the Florida Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation unanimously passed the bill, one of Negron’s top priorities, which gives the South Florida Water Management District until Dec. 2018 to purchase land from “willing sellers” in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) for a water storage reservoir.

The union letter was addressed to SB 10 sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley, signed by Frank Ortis of the Sugar Labor Management Committee; John Walker, representing IAMAW District 166; Florida State Council of Machinists president John Gall; and Edward Garcia, president of Local 2152.

About the land grab, union reps say: “Simply put, this bill is a job killer which would put hardworking men and women in our union on the unemployment line and is a serious threat to the economic health of the Glades-area communities where they live.”

If the state cannot find enough willing sellers, SB 10 provides for the exercise of a 2010 option to buy 153,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land.

That option, the union letter says, “would have devastating impacts on our members, who are employees of both U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, among other agricultural companies.”

The union letter also comes on the heels of another objection from 14 EAA landowners — U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals among others — which firmly stated they are “not willing sellers of their property to the government.”

The 6-0 committee vote — the bill’s first Senate stop — also drew the ire of former North Florida Congressman Steve Southerland, chair of Stand Up North Florida, a group vocal in its opposition to the Bradley-Negron plan.

“Today’s committee meeting made clear that the interests of North and Central Florida are being ignored. There is no way that the Negron-Bradley Plan outlined in SB 10 does not negatively impact North and Central Florida, as it sets up for billions of dollars to be spent in South Florida on a single project while leaving North and Central Florida’s taxpayers holding the bag,” Southerland said in a statement.

Southerland, a Panhandle Republican, notes that as a fellow North Florida lawmaker, Bradley “should have firsthand knowledge of the needs we have for important restoration of our lakes, rivers, springs and beaches that will be hampered by sending even more of our limited conservation funds South.”

The Bradley-Negron plan would take money for the land purchase from a $100 million bond of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund — created in 2014 through amendment one — which comes from state real estate transactions. The plan will require $1.2 million between 2017-19. According to South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Pete Antonacci, current land values in the EAA are an estimated $11,000 to $13,000 per acre.

Southerland said that South Florida received more than 94 percent of Land Acquisition Trust Funds allocated for water projects last year.

“In order to protect the waters of North and Central Florida,” Southerland says, “these and other dollars should be equitably shared across the state, rather than having a majority of funds dedicated to one region or area.”

The union letter concluded with an urge for Bradley to visit Everglades communities and “speak directly to our members and others who would be harmed by your bill.”

And if the Bradley can’t fit in such a visit on a schedule, union members — angry that EAA farmers are being made “scapegoats” in a “self-serving political agenda” — would be happy to travel to Tallahassee for a face-to-face meeting.

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