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Lawmakers will need overtime on budget

Florida lawmakers will need to go into overtime because of an impasse about hospital spending in final negotiations over a new state budget.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, told House members Tuesday night that lawmakers will have to extend the Session, scheduled to end Friday, or hold a Special Session.

“Make preparations because that’s kind of where we are headed,” Corcoran said after a day of behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Senate.

Corcoran said a “best-case scenario” would be finishing the Session Saturday. But he also said it was possible the Session would be extended to Monday or that Gov. Rick Scott could call a Special Session that might start as soon as Monday.

It will mark the second year in a row that the Legislature was unable to complete its annual Session in the allotted 60 days.

Last year, lawmakers extended the Session for three days to vote on the budget and then had to return for a Special Session after Scott vetoed the public-school portion of the budget, which he deemed inadequate.

Corcoran did not detail the reasons for being unable to reach agreement.

But earlier, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said the House and Senate were continuing to negotiate payments to Florida’s hospitals and whether to scrap a long-standing system for a new one that would increase base Medicaid rates paid to every hospital, regardless of Medicaid patient load.

Late Tuesday morning, Bradley said it was “too early to tell” whether lawmakers would be able to reach agreement on an $87 billion-plus spending plan by midnight. Meeting the deadline would give lawmakers enough time to adhere to a mandated 72-hour cooling-off period before a final budget vote on Friday, the last scheduled day of the 2018 Session.

But when Corcoran spoke to House members about 8:15 p.m., he made clear the budget wouldn’t be done in time.

Hours later, there was still no signs of an agreement. If lawmakers fail to pass a budget by midnight Friday, it would mark the second year in a row that the Legislature was unable to complete its annual Session in the allotted 60 days.

The House’s proposed spending plan for hospitals in the upcoming year is essentially a continuation of the current year’s budget. But the Senate has proposed redistributing $318 million in Medicaid “automatic rate enhancements” currently paid to 28 hospitals with large Medicaid caseloads and use it to increase the rates paid for all hospitals.

The Senate budget also includes $50 million to offset the recurring effect of the current year’s budget cuts on hospitals. The Senate plan has been endorsed by some rural hospitals that say the additional $50 million in the Senate plan is what they need.

But the Senate proposal would reduce Medicaid payments to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami by as much as $58 million and Orlando Health by nearly $9 million. House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican, said the House would not let safety-net facilities such as those face steep reductions.

HCA Healthcare, a for-profit chain that owns 43 facilities in the state, could see nearly $40.5 million in Medicaid increases under the Senate plan. Tenet, which owns nine hospitals in Florida, would see a nearly $4 million increase in Medicaid payments under the Senate plan, and Community Health Systems, which owns 23 hospitals in Florida, would see as much as a $7.7 million bump in Medicaid payments.

The Senate budget also includes an additional $130 million increase in Medicaid payments for nursing homes that aren’t included in the House budget.

Bradley said Tuesday that once the chambers agree on the hospital spending they will discuss nursing homes.

Negotiations have been completed on a $21 billion public school budget and a $7.9 billion budget for state universities and colleges, including financial aid, Bradley said. But as of Tuesday evening, lawmakers had not released the details of the agreement.

Based on earlier public negotiations, lawmakers will not increase state performance funding for universities and state colleges. That funding would remain at $245 million for the universities and $30 million for the 28 state colleges.

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, said Monday night he expects the university system to receive an additional $20 million that would be shared by schools that have reached “pre-eminent” status, including the University of Florida and Florida State University. The University of South Florida is also expected to achieve that status in the coming year and would share those funds.

Negron also said he expects a $20 million increase in the “world class” program, which is money shared by all the universities to attract top-level professors and researchers. Another $10 million increase would go to rewarding high-performing medical, law and professional schools.

In the public-school system, lawmakers have agreed to roughly a $500 million increase in the funding formula for the 67 school districts, which should yield a per-student increase in the range of $100 in the new academic year.

School funding was impacted by the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, with lawmakers agreeing to spend an additional $400 million on school-safety and mental-health initiatives.

School-safety legislation (SB 7026) debated Tuesday in the House includes a $97.5 million increase for the “safe schools” program in the funding formula. It would boost the program, which helps the 67 school districts hire school resources officers, to $162 million in the 2018-2019 academic year.

The legislation also would provide $67 million to the school districts in a new mental-health category in the funding formula.

But one of the impacts of shifting more state funding to school safety may be Gov. Scott’s call for an $18 million increase in funding to help teachers buy classroom supplies. The increase sought by Scott would have boosted the annual support to $350 for each teacher, although it appears the program is likely to remain at its current level of $45.3 million, which provides $250 a year.

Hurricane housing programs axed from budget

State funding is absent for affordable housing programs tailored to those affected by last year’s hurricanes.

The reason? Unforeseen constraints created by a high-profile $400 million school safety and mental health proposal designed to prevent another school shooting.

Budget chiefs Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Carlos Trujillo told Florida Politics on Saturday evening that the Legislature’s budget will not fund the Hurricane Housing Recovery Program (HHRP) and the Rental Recovery Loan Program (RRLP). Instead, dollars dedicated to affordable housing will go to the State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) and the State Apartment Incentive Loan Program (SAIL).

“We have limited funds,” Bradley said. “Post-Parkland, everybody is taking a haircut. We agreed that SHIP and SAIL are going to be our focus when it comes to affordable housing.”

The cut to HHRP and LLRP walks back on the intentions of the House and Senate when they first passed their budgets — which happened weeks before the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In its chamber-backed spending plan, the House appropriated $45 million and $64 million for HHRP and LLRP, respectively. The House initially did not fund SHIP and SAIL, instead sweeping $182 million from the affordable housing funding source, known as the Sadowski Trust.

The Senate had prioritized funding this year for all four affordable housing programs. Its first budget appropriated $30 million to HHRP and $60 million to LLRP, along with a little more than $104 million each to SHIP and SAIL. The Senate’s first spending plan did not propose any Sadowski sweeps.

The Legislature now intends to dole out just $109 million on affordable housing through SHIP and SAIL. The Sadowski Trust is expected to have an estimated $308 million to $322 million for the upcoming fiscal year. Close to $200 million from the trust will be spent on other projects.

HHRP and LLRP were spawned in the Legislature following the 2004 Hurricane season, when Gov. Jeb Bush and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings requested $98 million for HHRP and $177 million for RRLP.

The two programs mimicked SHIP and SAIL, but specified that the money be spent on projects to house those who lost their homes in hurricanes. Both were never codified by statutes and eventually were removed from the budget.

Rep. Bob Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican, filed HB 987 this Session to breathe life back into the hurricane housing programs. The popular measure passed the House last week. A similar bill (SB 1328) is up for consideration in the Senate and had widespread support in committees.

The bills include a reactivating clause, meaning the programs could be funded when future hurricanes hit the state. According to Trujillo, that provision can still be signed into law — even if the hurricane housing programs aren’t funded this year. 

Gov. Rick Scott asked the Legislature in November to appropriate $65 million to HHRP and $25 to RRLP as part of a $100 million Hurricane Irma affordable housing relief package

But again, that was before Parkland.

The Legislature’s budget will be finalized Tuesday for a vote on Friday.

Budget negotiators face $7.8m gap over transportation, economic development issues

Florida budget leaders Saturday were still grappling with a $7.8 million funding difference on ‘bump’ issues that impact transportation, tourism and economic development.

The House and Senate met Saturday night in conference, revealing a $6 million funding gap on Department of Transportation-related items and a $9 million difference on economic opportunity projects.

The House and Senate have reached a compromise over funding for Visit Florida though, which has been an annual fight between Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature.

This year, the Legislature has agreed to fund it at $76 million even though Scott initially requested $100 million for the mostly taxpayer-funded tourism marketing agency.

When asked why it was not set at the amount the governor wants, Trujillo said money has been moved around to pay for school safety initiatives in wake of the Parkland mass school shooting.

“I think the governor will be the first to tell you that post-Parkland we have had to sacrifice priorities,” Trujillo said.

Budget leaders agree to more than $100M for Florida Forever

The state is one step closer to restoring funding to its premier land-purchasing fund.

On Friday night, budget chiefs Rep. Carlos Trujillo and Sen. Rob Bradley agreed to fund Florida Forever at $100.8 million for fiscal year 2018-2019 — a big jump from last year, when the Legislature did not appropriate anything to the trust.

The provision will be included in the Legislature’s budget, which is expected to be completed by its Tuesday deadline. Should the budget pass, the Department of Environmental Protection will have to distribute the funds to “state agencies and programs to purchase public lands in the form of parks, trails, forests, wildlife management areas and more,” according to the DEP website.

In negotiations, the House proposed about $36 million for programs funded by Florida Forever. The Senate offered $208 million ahead of Friday’s ‘bump’ deadline. Not a full day later, the House’s $100.8 million bump offer was accepted.

The budget appropriates $95 million to land acquisition subprograms overseen by DEP. The remaining $5.8 million is set aside for a land protection easement program administered by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The agreement marks a legislative success for Bradley, who in October filed a bill (SB 370) that provided for a $100 million yearly spend on Florida Forever.

Bradley’s other environmental initiatives, however, did not secure the funding the Fleming Island Republican originally wanted.

Bradley’s SB 204 sought up to $75 million for springs restoration projects and $50 million for restorations to the St. Johns River and Keystone Heights area lakes. The budget conferences agreed to fund springs restoration at $50 million. The St. Johns River and Keystone Heights area lakes are set to receive almost $5.9 million, which will be coupled with the $5.5 million in the program’s base.

Florida Conservation Voters commended Trujillo and Bradley for funding Florida Forever, and are pushing the chambers to pass measures, including Bradley’s SB 370, that would commit future Legislatures to funding the land-buying trust.

The other bill the group is backing is Rep. Matt Caldwell‘s HB 7063, which would each year increase funding to Florida Forever, appropriating $200 million to the trust by 2029.

“FCV remains hopeful these two good ideas can come together to put the ‘forever’ back into Florida Forever, so that our most treasured natural areas will be protected for future generations,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the organization.

Lawmakers will vote on a unified budget on Friday.

Final budget items start getting ‘bumped’

Budget conference chairs are now ironing out funding differences between the House and Senate dealing with a wide-range of policy issues.

Chairs Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Carlos Trujillo are figuring out funding for beach restoration, land acquisition and water projects. Currently, the state Legislature is split over nearly $172 million on appropriations for programs funded through Florida Forever.

In the higher education arena, most of the issues sent to budget chairs relate to member projects and implementing bill issues that amount to about $70 million. There are also other money differences revolving around PreK-12 bills that are tied to the budget.

In criminal justice, some issues that have yet to sail through deal with private prison operations and whether a reentry program at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office should get $200,000 in funding.

Bradley and Trujillo have until 10:30 a.m. Sunday to resolve the ‘bumped’ issues before they head to Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Senate OKs new rules for payday loans

The Florida Senate on Saturday approved revamping regulations for payday loans.

Senators voted 31-5 to pass a measure (SB 920) that would allow payday lenders to make larger loans for longer periods of time.

The industry-backed proposal also has sailed through House committees, though it has drawn opposition from some consumer advocates.

The bill would allow the businesses to make “installment” loans up to $1,000, with repayment over 60 to 90 days. Current law limits the high-interest loans to $500 for periods of seven to 31 days.

Supporters say the proposal was prompted by potential changes in federal regulations that could affect the types of smaller-dollar, shorter-term loans made by payday lenders in Florida.

Also, supporters contend that payday loans play a key role for many low-income people who don’t have access to other types of credit.

During brief comments on the Senate floor Saturday, sponsor Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, alluded to those issues, saying the bill would ensure the “short-term credit market” would survive amid the potential federal changes.

But some consumer and religious groups have fought the proposal, arguing that payday loans can put borrowers in a “debt trap.”

“We have seen members of our congregations and those in the communities around them fall victim to the debt trap that this type of loan supported by this bill creates,” Rachel Gunter Shapard, of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida, said in a statement this week.

The bill was opposed Saturday by Miami-Dade lawmakers: Democrats Daphne Campbell, Jose Javier Rodriguez, and Annette Taddeo; and Republicans Anitere Flores and Rene Garcia.

The issue now goes to the House, with the 60-day legislative session scheduled to end Friday.

Senators met Saturday primarily to take up a school-safety package stemming from the Feb. 14 mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. The Senate on Saturday morning began what was expected to be hours of discussion about the package.

Takeaways from Tallahassee — Ethics reform in peril

There is “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment in the Legislature, leaders say, but an ethics reform package that would create new rules and penalties for sexual harassment may not become law this year.

The Florida House unanimously passed the proposal this week, but Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley is blocking the bill in the Senate because he wants to discuss the issue in more detail.

Dennis Baxley is blocking new sexual harassment policies, calling for more discussion ‘in detail.’

“I think we need more time and contemplation of what to do with this issue because it is so sensitive,” Baxley said. “I don’t want to rush on something that serious.”

The proposals were filed with the Legislature right before the start of the 2018 legislative session after back-to-back sex scandals rocked the state Capitol — the most prominent ones in the Senate.

The bills filed in the Legislature had the early backing of Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who said the legislation passed in the House is “the strongest in the nation.”

If approved, HB 7007 would require Florida government agencies to set new policies preventing, prohibiting and punishing sexual harassment, which includes language that would keep the identities of accusers confidential to protect them from retaliation.

Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat leading the effort in the Senate, added language to her bill that incorporates any type of sexual contact — whether engaging in it or directing others to do it — into the state’s gift ban.

Baxley said he is concerned the bill would affect too many people in the state and that there is too little time to discuss the consequences.

“When you address all employees in the state, that is a lot of people you are affecting, and I wanted to be more cautious when dealing with that,” Baxley said.

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:

Senate calls rare Saturday Session — In a rare move, the Senate will meet Saturday to consider school safety legislation. With the Session clock ticking down, Senate President Negron announced the weekend sitting Friday morning in a memo to fellow senators. The 2018 Legislative Session is scheduled to end Friday. A floor session is planned for 10 a.m.-1 p.m. to hear the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.

Budget conference kicks off The House and Senate formally kicked off final budget negotiations this week and on Friday all unresolved issues were bumped to Budget Chairs Rob Bradley and Carlos Trujillo. If they don’t resolve the issues in question before 10:30 a.m. Sunday, those items will go to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron to decide. Still in question is how to fully fund the school safety initiatives. Other lingering issues include a $172 million difference over Florida Forever funding and $4 million over private prison operations.

Gaming bills brought back to life — With a week left in session, the House and the Senate heard their gambling proposals on Friday. A strike-all amendment has been OK’d on the Senate’s legislation (SB 840) which is ready for the floor. Later Friday and the House bill (HB 7067) was discussed and rolled to third reading. Senate President-designate Bill Galvano has said he hopes to get the bills into conference next week. The two chambers—as is usually the case in gambling—are still far apart on policy. That includes differences on one provision that authorizes slot machines at pari-mutuels in counties where voters previously OK’d them in local referendums. That was added to the Senate bill Friday; it’s not in the House’s bill.

Scott makes rare plea to Legislature — In a rare political move, Gov. Scott and the father of a 14-year-old Parkland shooting victim jointly addressed the House and Senate floors Thursday and asked legislators to set aside differences and ensure schools are safe sans armed teachers. “I want to make sure there is law enforcement in our schools,” Scott told reporters upon exiting the chambers. “I don’t believe in arming teachers.” While talking to each chamber, Ryan Petty, the father of Alaina Petty, who was gunned down on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, told legislators he is in support of the governor’s proposal, which does not include arming teachers. Petty said he supports Scott’s proposal without the assault weapon ban because he wants action now.

Omnibus education bill gets bigger — The Florida Senate sent House Speaker Richard Corcoran back his priority education bill with a bunch more language added into it on Friday. The Senate included a provision that would make financial literacy courses a high school graduation requirement and increase the amount someone can give to the Hope Scholarship program meant to give vouchers to bullied students. Negotiations happened behind closed doors, according to the Times/Herald. HB 7055 will now go back to the Florida House for final approval before it can go to Gov. Scott.

Scott urged to veto crisis pregnancy center bill

More than a dozen organizations including Planned Parenthood signed on to a letter this week urging Gov. Scott to veto HB 41, which was passed by the Legislature in early February.

The bill, sponsored by Tampa Republican Rep. Jackie Toledo, would require the Department of Health to work with the Florida Pregnancy Care Network to up the availability of pregnancy and wellness care by subcontracting out to centers that “solely promote and support childbirth.”

Jackie Toledo (l) is behind a crisis pregnancy bill that Planned Parenthood wants to be vetoed.

“This bill attempts to establish Pregnancy Support Services (also referred to as Crisis Pregnancy Centers or CPC’s) as legitimate wellness centers and codify permanent taxpayer funding for what are in reality, fake women’s health centers,” the letter says.

“These anti-abortion, often faith-based centers are not required to be staffed by licensed, qualified medical personnel. Furthermore, CPCs have a documented history of imitating legitimate women’s health clinics, falsely posing as medical providers, and purposely leading women away from accessing the full range of reproductive health care services.”

The following organizations signed onto the letter: Broward County National Organization for Women, Broward Women’s Emergency Fund, Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, Florida Interfaith Coalition for Reproductive Health, Florida NOW, League of Women Voters of Florida, National Abortion Federation, National Council of Jewish Women, Organize Florida, Pro-Choice Coalition of Broward County, Progress Florida and the Space Coast Progressive Alliance.

Cabinet considering $660K conservation plan for Spanish mission site

Gov. Scott and the Cabinet will decide next week whether to shell out $660,060 to conserve a Madison County site that is home to a 15th-century Spanish mission.

The plan would have the state purchase a conservation easement on the property, owned by R.N. and Charlene Koblegard, which allows the land to continue being used for certain activities, such as agriculture, but blocks new development.

The Koblegard project is part of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Rural & Family Lands Protection Program. According to the meeting agenda, the project’s approval would mark 42,276 acres preserved under the RFLPP.

The 772-acre site is situated on the south of Interstate 10 on the southern edge of Sampala Lake. The Spanish mission, San Pedro y San Pablo de Protohiriba, is one five missions established by the Spanish in the 1600s.

The week in appointments

Florida Real Estate Appraisal BoardDawn Warren is a property manager for Altamonte Heights Condos and Lake Tyler Condos and will succeed Tamara McKee.

He will serve a term ending Oct. 31, 2020, and is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Toni Appell of Marathon, is a retired paraprofessional for the Monroe County School District, is reappointed for a term ending Dec. 30, 2020.

David Ritz, of Key Largo, is the president of Ocean Reef Community Association and is reappointed for a term ending Dec. 30, 2020.

Robert Dean, of Key West, is the owner of Dean Lopez Funeral Home and is reappointed for a term ending Dec. 30, 2020.

All three appointments are subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

DOH doles out $16 million to research smoking-related diseases

The Florida Department of Health announced this week that it is handing out $16.2 million to fund 20 research projects focused on developing treatments and cures for cancer and other smoking-related diseases.

The money was awarded through the Bankhead-Coley Cancer Research Program and the James and Esther King Biomedical Research Program. DOH said the selections were made based on “rigorous peer review” and the application process included 224 researchers seeking funding.

Florida Department of Health is coughing up $16.2 million for smoking-related disease research.

“Florida is at the forefront of cancer research and innovation, and I am proud to announce the recipients of more than $16.2 million for cancer research grants,” Gov. Scott said. “These 20 new projects will assist Florida’s world-class researchers in discovering more about how to prevent and treat these terrible diseases. Cancer impacts so many lives, and I am proud of the work of our incredible research institutes as we fight to find a cure.”

The University of Miami topped the list with $5.5 million in grants for seven projects plus another $57,000 for a joint project with the Miami Veterans Affairs. The H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute followed with $4.5 million for five projects. UF will receive $3 million for three projects; UCF, USF and the Mayo Clinic will each get a single project funded at $815,000; and FAU will receive $708,000 for one project.

FWC law enforcement division reaccredited

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said this week that its Division of Law Enforcement was reaccredited.

“The FWC Division of Law Enforcement continues to maintain the highest standards of credibility, effectiveness and professionalism,” FWC director Eric Sutton said. “Our staff worked diligently to uphold these important standards each and every day. Reaccreditation by the Commission validates the hard work they do, and provides a strong vote of confidence in their ability to protect the public and conserve Florida’s natural resources.”

The division has held accreditation through the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation since 2009 and has now gone through the reaccreditation process four times.

Florida Wildlife Commission director Eric Sutton.

Accredited law enforcement agencies must consistently meet or exceed 240 prescribed standards over a three-year period to maintain their status.

“Accreditation is a voluntary but important process intended to hold an agency to a higher level of accountability by an external source,” said Col. Curtis Brown, who heads up the division. “We are very pleased with the CFA’s determination that reaccreditation of the Division was earned.”

Florida Lottery celebrates 30 years

It’s been 30 years since the Florida Lottery began and it’s celebrating the milestone with a heap of new scratch-off games.

At the $30 level is “FLORIDA 100X THE CASH,” which features eight top prizes of $15 million. The Florida Lottery said 100X was only the second $30 game it’s put out.

Florida Lottery marks three decades of cash prizes.

The $5 game, “MONEY MACHINE,” features 16 top prizes of $250,000 and over $58 million in total cash prizes; the $2 game, “$30,000 LUCKY WIN,” has a total prize pool of $32 million; and for a buck, players can pick up “TRIPLE PAYOUT” which features 84 $3,000 prizes and a total prize pool of $12 million.

The lotto said the new games would start hitting retailers by the end of the week.

Voters approved the constitutional amendment creating the lottery in November 1986 by a 2-to-1 margin. The Florida Lottery started operating a little over a year later in January 1988.

Reinsurance surcharge repeal advances in Senate

Legislation to repeal a reinsurance surcharge on consumers is advancing in the Florida Senate. St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes’ SB 1454 has cleared the Banking and Insurance Committee and is headed for the Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government.

“This is a welcomed development for Florida’s insurance consumers,” said Jay Neal, President and CEO of FAIR, The Florida Association for Insurance Reform. “This bill would offer a significant 8 percent to 10 percent rate reduction for homeowner’s insurance consumers.”

The surtax was designed to replenish the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund following bad storm seasons in 2004 and 2005, but the account now has enough money to cover similar losses twice over.

Senate celebrates Military Appreciation and National Guard Day

The Florida Senate considered a string of bills helping active duty military, veterans and their families this week in honor of Military Appreciation and National Guard Day at the Capitol.

“My Senate colleagues and I are committed to enacting policies that keep Florida the No. 1 state for active duty members of our armed forces, veterans and their families,” said Senate President Negron. “The legislation we discussed today sends a clear message that Florida is truly the Welcome Home State.”

Audrey Gibson is honoring the Florida National Guard for their service during last year’s hurricane season.

Among the bills heard by the chamber were SB 100, which waves driver’s license fees for veterans; SB 460, which allows Florida colleges to waive fees for students who are active duty military and using military tuition assistance; SB 440, which would establish the Florida Veterans Care Program, an alternative to Veterans Affairs; and SB 330, which would rename a portion of State Road 10 in Walton County as the “Lieutenant Ewart T. Sconiers Highway.”

Also on the docket was a resolution by Jacksonville Democratic Sen. Audrey Gibson to honor the Florida National Guard for their service during the 2017 hurricane season.

“When Floridians are facing some of the most challenging times, the Florida National Guard is at its best springing into action at a moment’s notice to help Floridians in need,” she said. “We are so grateful for their courageous service to our state during the recent hurricane season.”

Coastal management bill clears Senate

A bill aimed at helping preserve and maintain Florida coasts cleared the Senate this week with a unanimous vote.

SB 174, by Port Orange Republican Sen. Dorothy Hukill, revises the criteria used to help the Florida Department of Environmental Protection prioritize coastal restoration projects based on need and importance.

Dorothy Hukill is pushing coastal preservation. 

“This is a bill for all Floridians, and the millions of visitors to our state annually, to preserve and maintain our state’s most unique, natural assets — our beaches,” Hukill said. “Coastal management is beneficial for conservation, recreation and tourism.

“I would like to thank my Senate colleagues and all of the support we’ve received from around the state. This legislation will ensure that our beautiful state and its unique natural resources are properly maintained and protected.”

SB 174 now moves to the House where a similar bill, HB 7063, is also prepped for a floor vote.

Loomis named FTC member of the year

The Florida Technology Council this week presented ISF CEO Cyndy Loomis with its “2018 FTC Member of the Year” award.

“I’m honored to receive the FTC Member of the Year Award, and I’m proud to advance FTC’s mission to champion the priorities of the technology industry in the State of Florida to our state government leaders,” Loomis said.

Florida Technology Council Member of the Year Cyndy Loomis.

In addition to running the Jacksonville-based software company, Loomis has served as the FTC board chair since 2016.

The award was presented by James Taylor, the executive director of the tech company trade association, at the FTC Legislative Reception in Tallahassee.

FTC said Loomis was “recognized specifically for her outstanding service in driving the effectiveness, reach, and membership growth of the Council.” A half-dozen others were presented with awards at the event.

Applications open for AmeriCorps funding

Volunteer Florida this week announced the 2018-19 criteria for getting proposals funded through AmeriCorps.

AmeriCorps funding is granted to address critical community needs including education, disaster services, economic opportunity, environmental stewardship, healthy futures, and veterans and military families.

Sample activities include tutoring and mentoring youth, response to local disasters, restoring natural habitats and job training/placement. AmeriCorps members also mobilize community volunteers and strengthen the capacity of the organizations where they serve.

Funding requests can be sent in through April 5. Those who have a proposal but don’t know the ins and outs of the application process can log in to the “AmeriCorps Budget 101 Webinar” March 15. Technical assistance conference calls are also available for new and continuing applicants.

To register for a call or the webinar, fill out the RSVP form online. More information on the formula funding rules is available through the Volunteer Florida website.

Detzner announces March of Museums round two

Secretary of State Ken Detzner kicked off the new month by announcing the second annual “March of Museums,” a celebration of the variety and versatility of Florida’s museums.

“As Florida’s Chief Cultural Officer, I am proud of the success of last year’s ‘March of Museums’ and I am excited to expand this initiative statewide Detzner said. “From art to animals, from sports to science, and from history to horticulture, Florida has an incredible array of museums that encourage exploration and learning.”

Secretary of State Ken Detzner kicks off the ‘March of Museums.’

The Department of State encouraged Floridians — and visitors — to use “March of Museums” as an opportunity to spend some time at a Florida museum, whether nearby or off the beaten path.

To help facilitate, the department is hosting a website that lists museums by region and highlights the mission and collections of the institutions, as well the events each is holding this month.

Instagram of the Week

Volunteer Florida, Uber collect 3,540 items for #SuitsForSession

Volunteer Florida and Uber said the third annual #SuitsForSession at the Capitol collected 3,540 donations of professional attire for job-seekers statewide. Also, Uber drivers picked up items across Leon County for free this past Tuesday.

Here are the highlights:

— Number of suits collected: 373 (237 women’s, 136 men’s).

— Number of women’s items collected: 2,270.

— Number of men’s items collected: 743.

— Other items (shoes, belts, etc.) collected: 527.

— Number of bags of clothing donated through the Uber app: 27.

— Number of participating organizations that collected clothing: 26.

Volunteer Florida CEO Vivian Myrtetus said in a statement, “The people of Tallahassee matched these donations by bringing and sending in their own business apparel. Uber has been a tremendous partner to Volunteer Florida and we are so thankful for their participation in another successful year of #SuitsForSession.”

Added Senate Republican Leader Wilton Simpson, “It was great participating in another #SuitsForSession clothing drive. My staff and I are always proud to support this service project that helps job seekers throughout our state.”

Donated items will be delivered to Chapman Partnership in Miami, Dress for Success Tampa Bay, ECHO Outreach Ministries in Tallahassee, Bridges of America (statewide locations), and the Florida State University Unconquered Scholars program in Tallahassee throughout the coming days.

Capitol halls lined with Florida student art

The lower level of the Florida Capitol got a bit of a makeover this week as it began hosting the second annual Art in the Capitol Competition.

The competition, hosted jointly by the Department of Management Services and Department of Education, is aimed at encouraging middle school students to try their hand at art. The only rules are the art has to be 2D and original.

Then-Florida DMS Secretary Chad Poppell views the 2017 Art in the Capitol Competition artwork with Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

“As the custodian of the Capitol complex, DMS is proud to host this event and share these inspiring works with Capitol visitors,” said DMS Secretary Erin Rock. “These are our future leaders, and that is what makes it such a joy to be able to get a glimpse at the soul and spirit of these kids through their art.”

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart added that the competition wonderful way to recognize Florida students’ creativity.

Making it to the walls this year were 35 middle schoolers, each of whom was paired up with a lawmaker to sponsor the artwork. The artwork is viewable online via the Art in the Capital webpage.

Tallahassee airport aces FAA inspection

Tallahassee International Airport said it landed a perfect score during its annual Federal Aviation Administration airport certification and safety inspection.

“The Airport is extremely proud of this accomplishment and remains committed to ensuring the highest levels of safety and security for our patrons, visitors and tenants,” said David Pollard, interim director of aviation at TLH.

Tallahassee International is aces with the FAA.

All airports that offer commercial service go through the test yearly. The multiday inspection covers everything from airport safety to firefighting to the markings on the tarmac.

TLH said acing the FAA inspection is icing on the cake after a string of victories over the past month, including the maiden flight of between TLH and Reagan Washington Airport in D.C. and the successful opening of a Transportation Security Administration pre-check enrollment center.

Now for Capitol Directions:

House, Senate face $172M difference in Florida Forever funding

The state Legislature is split on appropriations for programs funded through Florida Forever — by nearly $172 million.

The House wants to fund projects under the state’s land-buying trust at $36 million. A Friday budget offer from the Senate proposed close to a $208 million spend on the same programs —  just ahead of the conference committee morning deadline.

That’s an issue for budget chairs Rep. Carlos Trujillo and Sen. Rob Bradley, who now are tasked with negotiating to a common ground before Sunday morning, when unfinished budget issues ‘bump’ to Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

In negotiating with Trujillo, Bradley likely will make the case for Florida Forever. Funding the program is one of his major priorities.

In October, before he assumed chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Fleming Island Republican filed a bill (SB 370) that provided a $100 million yearly spend on Florida Forever. He cited then that Florida voters had “overwhelmingly” approved funding for the conservation program in 2014 through the passage of Amendment 1.

Taking over as budget chief for former Sen. Jack Latvala, Bradley came into unexpected power in the chamber. He saw SB 370 move through committees and receive unanimous approval on the Senate floor in January.

The bill was included in the Senate-backed budget, which initially proposed a $150 million transfer into Florida Forever. The House budget appropriated nothing for that transfer but proposed $43 million for programs associated with Florida Forever.

Those differences have been exacerbated in budget conferences, as each chamber has moved in opposite directions with land acquistion appropriations. The Senate upped their transfer to Florida Forever to around $198 million, using a $10 million residual to get a $208 million total. Almost $195 million of that figure is spent on land-buying programs administered by the Department of Environmental Protection.

The House proposed $16 million for the same DEP programs, and $20 million for a Florida Forever-funded conservation easement program administered by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Bradley’s plan to increase funding for the programs has drawn support from environmental activists throughout Session. Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, commended the chamber and Bradley for continuing the effort through the budget conference process.

“We are excited to see that the Senate is holding strong on robust funding for Florida Forever,” Moncrief told Florida Politics.

Seeking support from Trujillo, Moncrief’s organization has asked its supporters to call his office and express their support for more Florida Forever funding. She’s optimistic that the two chambers will find a healthy compromise.

“I feel like where we’re going to land is somewhere in between where the House started and where the Senate started,” Moncrief said.

Along with Florida Forever, Bradley also had prioritized restoration projects for springs and the St. Johns River this Session. He also sought $50 million to construct a water pipeline to replenish lakes in the Keystone Heights area.

Those projects appear to be funded in budget conference negotiations — but with much less than what was provided for in Bradley’s bill (SB 204).

Instead of appropriating $75 million this year, both chambers have kept springs restoration funding at $50 million, according to a Senate staffer familiar with the budgeting process. St. Johns River and Keystone Heights area projects currently sit at $10.5 million, instead of Bradley’s original $50 million ask.

Being financially disadvantaged doesn’t mean you can’t do math

Looking back on the challenges of her own youth, Rep. Janet Cruz hit the nail on the head when she defended the need for short-term loans.

“Being financially disadvantaged does not mean you can’t do math,” she scolded. “It just means you don’t have enough money to pay a particular bill.”

And that’s why in the final week of Session, the Legislature must pass HB 857/SB 920, proposals that use “deferred presentment transactions” to strengthen Florida’s established system of offering financial choice and consumer protections.

The bills will enhance the state’s current policies, ensuring Floridians have access to the credit options they need — including those in financial circumstances that do not give easy options of strolling into a bank or credit union and walking out with a quick loan.

While some decry such loans, many Floridians hail them as a godsend and rely on them in emergencies.

Last Thursday, the new proposal on short-term loans using deferred presentment transactions — which some call “payday loans” — passed the Commerce Committee unanimously. Cruz and Tampa Republican Rep. James Grant are sponsors of the House bill.

Meanwhile, in the Senate is SB 920, co-sponsored by Sens. Rob Bradley and Oscar Braynon, which breezed through four committees with overwhelming support.

Now, both versions are on the floor of their respective chambers.

There is a strong push to protect this significant consumer credit option, which impacts the more than 1.2 million Floridians who use the products.

Critics argue the state needs to do more to protect consumers from these loans, which they say carry outrageous fees and become a debt trap.

Cruz wholeheartedly disagrees.

As the Tampa Democrat points out, people who seek these loans aren’t stupid, and certainly not careless. They are good people facing real-life struggles to make ends meet, often finding themselves suddenly in need of cash to cover an emergency car repair or an unplanned trip to their kid’s doctor.

For many consumers who struggle with uncertainties of financial strains, that is the reality.

Customers of short-term loans are well aware of the financial responsibilities associated with small-dollar credit. In fact, thanks to effective consumer protections to limit finance charges, it’s cheaper for a consumer to get a short-term loan than it is to pay bank fees on a couple of bounced checks.

That was exactly the point Cruz made to her colleagues.

Short-term loan users know the costs of such a loan and know what it will really cost them if they don’t. They can do the math.

Fortunately, Cruz was preaching to the choir (for the most part), with several committee members describing the bill’s consumer protections as useful, necessary, and important for the financial future of Floridians.

Clearly, many Florida lawmakers have made it a top priority to find safe, reliable financial options for consumers. The folks Cruz had in mind are doing the math — and are counting on it to add up to a majority.

School safety, prisons draw budget attention

Florida lawmakers continued budget negotiations Thursday night, trying to find $400 million for a school-safety initiative and money to deal with costly litigation targeting the state prison system.

After striking a deal on local property taxes, the House and Senate have agreed to spend $21.1 billion on public schools in the 2018-2019 academic year, which would represent about a $100 increase per student.

But they are still trying to allocate that funding while accommodating a $400 million school-safety package, prompted by the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Broward County high school.

An offer early Thursday evening by the House would provide $67.2 million for mental-health services in the public schools, as well as $162 million for the “safe schools” program, which provides funding for school resource officers and other security measures. The safe schools program currently receives $64.5 million a year.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who is leading the House negotiations on public school funding, said those numbers reflect the ongoing talks between House and Senate leaders on a school-safety package, which is scheduled to be taken up Friday by the Senate.

But at the same time, he said lawmakers have had to adjust funding for other education initiatives. For instance, the new House offer proposed spending $45.3 million on classroom supplies for teachers, down from a $63 million initial offer from the Senate.

“Whenever you spend $400 million somewhere, you’re going to cause some issues. We’re trying to work through this,” Diaz said.

The cost of the school-safety initiatives as well as other recent impacts on the state budget, including a decline in projected corporate income-tax collections and higher Medicaid costs, are impacting other areas of the proposed $87 billion-plus budget.

On Thursday, the Senate backed off a proposal that sought $345 million in state performance funding for the university system, agreeing with the House to leave it at $245 million, which is the current level. Negotiators also agreed on $30 million in state performance funding for the 28 state colleges, which is also the current level.

In the prison system, lawmakers are having to respond to legal settlements in cases alleging prisoners are not receiving adequate treatment for infectious diseases, mental health issues and disabilities.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who is leading the Senate negotiations on civil and criminal justice issues, estimated the new budget will contain about $100 million in response to those legal mandates involving the Department of Corrections.

Lawmakers agreed Thursday to immediately spend $21 million on treatment for prisoners with hepatitis C, an infectious disease that may affect as many as one out of every five prisoners in the system. Treatment can cost as much as $37,000 for a 12-week regimen.

Additionally, the House proposed spending $19.2 million on the treatment during the upcoming 2018-2019 fiscal year, with the Senate offering $15 million.

The House and Senate agreed Thursday to spend another $42.6 million on mental-health treatment, including hiring 289 people.

Lawmakers are also in agreement on spending more than $6 million to care for disabled prisoners under a court settlement that came after advocates alleged the state was discriminating against prisoners who were deaf, blind or confined to wheelchairs.

Despite the overall challenges, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley of Fleming Island said the budget negotiations remain on target for a final deal by Tuesday, which will allow lawmakers to vote on the spending plan on March 9, the last day of the 2018 session.

“We’re having great communications. It’s been a very smooth process,” Bradley said.

In negotiations on agriculture and natural-resources issues, Wauchula Republican Rep. Ben Albritton said lawmakers have agreed to set aside $50 million for the state’s natural springs and $50 million for beach renourishment.

The chambers remain apart on issues such as water projects and the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. The House has proposed $50 million for the federal dike project.

The two sides have also settled at $500,000 for bear-resistant trash containers and $110 million for a petroleum tank clean-up program administered by the Department of Environmental Protection.

In health-care negotiations, House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo of Miami said the distribution of Medicaid dollars to Florida’s hospitals is “one of the big areas of the budget that is left to be negotiated.”

The Senate wants to replace an existing system that favors safety-net facilities that serve a greater percentage of poor and disabled patients with a plan that would increase base Medicaid payments for all hospitals.

“We are much more sympathetic to the safety nets that provide exceptional amounts of indigent care,” Trujillo said. “The Senate is not. So, we are working toward that end of really protecting the safety nets.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers agreed to direct $10 million to provide “transition” payments for nursing homes that will be adversely affected by a new payment system, which the Legislature approved last year and goes into effect in the upcoming year.

“We’re very grateful the Legislature recognized that we needed some transitional help,” said Emmett Reed, executive director of the Florida Health Care Association, a statewide nursing-home group. “It’s huge.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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