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Black clouds loom over this year’s gambling bills

Ed. Note: A version of this story ran previously in Saturday’s “Takeaways from Tallahassee” email.


It’s long been a Capitol cliché, but there are few pronouncements on a piece of legislation as inauspicious as calling something “a heavy lift.”

Saying a bill is “a heavy, heavy lift” sounds even more portending of defeat.

Yet that’s how House Speaker Richard Corcoran referred to the omnibus gambling bills now on their way to conference. They include a new agreement for continued exclusive rights for the Seminole Tribe of Florida to offer blackjack in return for $3 billion over seven years.

“It’s got a long way to go,” the Land O’ Lakes Republican said in a press conference after Thursday’s floor session.

Generally, the House holds the line on gambling expansion; the Senate is open to some expansion, including allowing slot machines at pari-mutuels in counties that approved a slots referendum.

Having blackjack money for the upcoming $80 billion-plus state budget could mean an extra $340 million-$350 million.

“It’s a heavy lift. There’s a reason it hasn’t been passed in decades,” Corcoran said. “But this is the first time, probably that anyone can recall, where you have two bills moving … That puts them in a posture to see where a negotiation goes.

“But I would still say it’s a heavy, heavy lift … We’ll see how it unfolds.”

Another sign: Neither chamber factored gambling revenue share from the Seminole Tribe to the state into their respective budgets, he said.

“I think it’s generally considered an irresponsible budgeting practice to budget money” that you don’t know you have, Corcoran said.

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who’s the Senate’s point man on gambling, said any gambling revenue—assuming a deal is struck—”would come in at the back end.”

The Senate passed its gambling package (SB 8) Thursday; the House Commerce Committee cleared its bill (HB 7037) later that day. It’s set to be discussed next Tuesday on the House floor.

Galvano, speaking to reporters after the Senate’s floor session, said getting both sides to ‘yes’ won’t be easy.

“I told the members here today that I couldn’t guarantee we’ll ultimately have a final resolution,” he said. The House is “interested in seeing something move …  My conversations with the Seminole Tribe have been positive.”

The Tribe had sent a letter to Corcoran, Gov. Rick Scott and Senate President Joe Negron saying “neither (bill) would satisfy the requirements of federal law nor satisfy fundamental tribal concerns” and called them “not acceptable.”

The Tribe’s concern was that it would be financially squeezed by the Legislature’s current proposals without getting enough in return. It offers blackjack at five of its seven casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa.

When told his warning to his colleagues “sounded ominous,” Galvano said, “I have to manage expectations,” adding the chambers were still “light years ahead of where we’ve ended in the past.”

That is, nowhere. And still in wait is a state Supreme Court decision on whether Florida dog and horse tracks outside South Florida can have slot machines. That could add additional revenue to state coffers, but would cross the Seminoles, who have slots exclusively outside South Florida.

Moreover, a Leon County circuit judge recently ruled that slot-machine looking games known as “pre-reveal” (one example is here) can’t be legally defined as slots.

The Tribe has disagreed, saying such games also violate the existing agreement, the Seminole Compact, between the Seminole and the state. That would entitle them not to pay any more slots money. Galvano said he doesn’t believe the games violate the Compact.

Still, “if we can’t get to where we have the votes in each chamber to pass, then we have to walk away,” he said.

Dana Young, environmentalists still hold hope for fracking ban in 2017

House members now say the possibility of a fracking ban is dead for the 2017 Legislative Session.

Sen. Dana Young thinks it’s premature to administer last rites, at least just yet.

“You never say never, but now we’re saying it looks like that will be next year,” Rep. Mike Miller, an Orlando Republican, told the Naples Daily News about his bill (HB 451) as the first month of Session ended this week.

The reason for the impasse is the desire by some House Republicans for a scientific study to determine the potential impacts of fracking. That echoes the 2016 legislation seeking to impose a two-year moratorium on fracking while a Florida-specific study was commissioned to assess the possible implications of the drilling technique used for extracting oil or natural gas from deep underground.

That’s a bill Young supported a year ago.

And while the Tampa Republican maintained that it was, in fact, an anti-fracking bill, environmental groups and Young’s opponents in the Senate District 18 race hit her hard on the issue in 2016, prompting her to declare that she would introduce a clean proposal banning hydraulic fracking in 2017.

It was then Young sponsored SB 442, which immediately gained support from those same environmental groups who opposed her.

And with more than 80 Florida cities and counties already adopting ordinances or resolutions in support of a ban, momentum looked strong for such a ban coming into Session.

But Miller and House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues say that a scientific study is required. Rodrigues has previously said that it would be “foolish” to ban the practice without any scientific evidence (neither Miller or Rodrigues returned calls for comment).

On Friday, Young said that she hadn’t spoken with House leadership; if they are interested in a study, she says they should still go ahead and push the legislation forward.

“What I would say is, move a bill in your chamber that has a study and a ban in it,” Young says, “and then let’s let other members in on that and see where we end up.”

Miller’s bill is co-sponsored by Tampa Democrat Janet Cruz, who said she thought with “Republican muscle” behind the bill this year, it has to pass.

“It’s absolutely incredible and amazing that the citizens of Florida, if you look at the numbers, overwhelmingly support a ban on fracking,” Cruz says. “Yet once again, we have a Legislature that continues to ignore the wills and the wants of the people to serve big business.”

With more than half the session to go, though, some environmental activists are refusing to throw in the towel on the prospect of finally getting a ban in the Sunshine State.

“The House bill that bans fracking may not survive, but the fight is long from over,” says Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters. “Nearly half the Florida Senate – Republicans and Democrats alike – have already cosponsored Senator Dana Young’s good legislation. Now Senator Rob Bradley has the opportunity to teach the House a lesson about how to best protect our water and tourism economy by keeping the ban moving in the Senate.”

With 18 co-sponsors of her bill in the Senate, Young says she’ll have no problem getting the bill passed through the Legislature’s upper chamber. She said then it’s up to the House to respond in kind.

Other environment groups are keeping the heat on as well.

On Friday, the environmental group Food & Water Watch held a press conference in House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s district, where they called on him and Senate President Joe Negron to follow “the will of the people,” says organizer Michelle Allen.

“I think towards the middle of Session, they start to say things like that,” Allen says of Miller’s comments that the bill was dead in the House. “We’re going to keep pushing.”

Food & Water Watch will hold another media event in Key Largo Saturday, calling on to bring Republican Holly Raschein to support the House bill the Natural Resources and Public Lands Subcommittee she chairs.

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Senate passes 2017 gambling bill

As expected, the Senate on Thursday passed its gambling overhaul for this year, including a renewal of exclusive rights to blackjack games for the Seminole Tribe.

Sen. Bill Galvano, the chamber’s shepherd of this year’s legislation, told fellow lawmakers he couldn’t promise that “we’ll reach a state of resolution” this session.

That said, he expects the House and Senate to go to conference on their respective bills, which are significantly different.

Galvano later told reporters the bill represents $340-350 million in potential revenue for the 2017-18 budget, and this year, every bit helps.

Senate President Joe Negron, in a statement, said he was “pleased” that the bill “honors the will of our fellow citizens in the eight counties that have approved referenda to expand the availability of gaming options.”

Those counties –Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington – approved slot machines through a ballot question.

Below is a Periscope of Galvano answering questions from reporters after Thursday’s Senate floor session:

Glades landowners double down on Joe Negron to reveal his ‘willing sellers’

Joe Negron recently visited Pahokee High School for a town hall meeting to discuss his plans for taking farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA).

During the meeting, the Senate President said he is in discussion with “many owners of land south of the lake” in the effort to acquire 153,000 acres of productive land to set up a reservoir for Lake Okeechobee runoff.

That claim didn’t go over well with farmers and landowners.

In a letter to Negron sent Monday, owners of more than 2,500 acres of farmland in the EAA each reaffirm that they will not support any government acquisition of lands south of Lake O.

Negron argues the land is necessary to store water to avoid discharging into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Last summer, discharges were connected to a rash of blue-green algal blooms in regional waters, leading the state to declare a four-county state of emergency.

Nevertheless, many in the Glades area communities insist taking such productive farmland would result in widespread job losses. They are unwilling to sell private property to the government under Negron’s SB 10, which seeks to buy the land from “willing sellers.”

At the town hall held March 17, state Rep. Rick Roth asked, “If we find no willing sellers, which I believe is the case, you are not going to find any, sir, what does the second part of the bill say and what is going to happen if the bill becomes law?”

Negron replied: “Well, first of all, with all due respect, I do not agree with you that we will not be able to find sellers. And there are many owners of land south of the lake that are in discussion with us to try to solve this problem once and for all.”

Negron’s claims forced landowners in the EAA to reassert their position, calling the senator to reveal these so-called “willing sellers.”

For Negron’s plan to work, said John Scott Hundley, of EAA Farmers, Inc., it would require the “participation of landowners who own larger tracts of contiguous land.”

“If Senator Negron is in discussion with landowners south of the lake, he should make it clear who he is referencing because they are not the co-signers of this letter,” Hundley said.

EAA Farmers stands for a coalition of farmers and supporters in the Everglades Agricultural Area, which they point out is one of the nation’s most vital farming regions and the largest supplier of winter vegetables — sweet corn, radishes, green beans, lettuce and other leafy greens.

According to Everglades farmers — who strongly oppose Negron’s SB 10 — the EAA region is the largest producer of rice in the Southeast and the nation’s top producer of sugar cane.

Feds say ‘stay the course’ with Everglades, rejecting Joe Negron’s land buy

Joe Negron’s controversial plan to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges is not going over well with federal officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Last week, many of those involved in Everglades restoration called for Florida to stay the course on federal restoration projects; many were critical of the Senate President’s plan to build a reservoir south of Lake O.

At least two of them suggested using taxpayer money to buy land is not a priority.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Negron’s plan would probably not get federal support “anytime soon.” Buying up land could devastate farming communities, the Florida senator added, possibly turning them into “ghost towns.”

“It’s not that I’m for or against it, it’s that there’s no federal money for it,” Rubio said to a conservative blogger Wednesday. “We’re going to end up with nothing. And that’s been my argument from the beginning, and that’s my message to him, and he understood it.”

Congressman Tom Rooney, himself a longtime representative Treasure Coast representative, told USA TODAY he resists Negron’s plan, which is opposed by Florida Sugarcane Farmers, a group of Everglades Agricultural Area landowners refusing to sell approximately 60,000 acres in the scheme.

“Costly land buys from unwilling sellers have been unsuccessful,” said Rooney, who prefers the government fund projects with proven success.

As for a proposed task force to consider the feasibility of Negron’s plan, U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney also believes that a non-starter, at least right now.

Rooney, whose 19th Congressional District includes much of the Everglades, declined to sign a letter urging Donald Trump to act quickly on Everglades restoration.

What the Naples Republican most disagreed about the bipartisan letter — signed by Reps. Brian Mast, Charlie Crist and others in Florida’s Legislative Delegation — was a call for the president to appoint a federal Everglades task force to make the plan a priority.

Although Rooney is a member of the bipartisan Congressional Everglades Caucus, which works to educate Congress and staff on issues affecting the Everglades, he believes another governmental task force would distract from the current federal plans for wetlands restoration.

“I certainly applaud and am thankful for the work that Brian Mast and Gov. Crist are doing to help advance the ball, getting funding for the Everglades project. There’s no doubt about that,” Rooney told FloridaPolitics.com. “But I didn’t sign on to the letter, and I told the same thing to Brian, because the last thing I think we need in government is more task forces, advisory commissions and things like that.

“I actually think that could be an excuse for the feds not doing what I’ve been pushing them to do,” Rooney added, “to come up with the money to fund the projects that have been authorized.”

Another call to stick with the current federal plan comes from the Army Corps of Engineers, which partners with the state of Florida to protect and preserve water resources in the Everglades, central and southern Florida.

Col. Jason Kirk, commander of the Corps’ Jacksonville district, points to successes in the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration (SFER) program, which includes the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP). SEFR represents the world’s largest ecosystem restoration program.

“I want to be clear that the South Florida Everglades restoration Integrated Delivery Schedule is the optimal sequence of projects moving forward,” Kirk said in a conference call last week, a declaration clearly countermanding Negron’s proposal and rejects buying more land for a reservoir.

A federal lawmaker who supports Negon’s proposal is Palm City Republican Brian Mast.

“One of the most important things that we can do to save our coastal waters and our coastal estuaries is making sure we find ways to move the water south,” said Mast, who represents Florida’s 18th Congressional District. “That’s why I support SB 10 and it’s why the first action I took when I got to Congress was securing a spot as Vice Chairman of the Water Resources and Environment subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In this role, I am pushing to secure the federal support and funding needed to restore our environment and protect the economy.”

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.

___

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.”

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