From palace intrigues to pot, 2015 brought a plethora of material to the Capitol Press Corps. Trying to pick the top 10 state government stories is a subjective pursuit, to say the least, but here are the FloridaPolitics.com picks for the passing year:
No. 1: The “firing” of Gerald Bailey
Gov. Rick Scott actually forced out the state’s top cop in December 2014 but the repercussions of that move spilled well over into the new year.
Scott originally announced Bailey’s departure as voluntary at a Florida Cabinet meeting. As head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Bailey was one of a handful of top state officials whose position required the governor to consult with the rest of Cabinet before a firing.
Bailey himself soon contradicted Scott’s account, saying the governor’s staff had told him to “retire or resign.” He also said Scott’s staff asked him to state falsely that acting Orange County Clerk of Court Colleen Reilly was under investigation for a high-profile prison break that embarrassed the state’s corrections department.
News organizations and open government advocates soon filed a lawsuit, since settled, alleging that Scott staff members violated the state’s open meetings law by acting as back-channel “conduits.” That led to a weeks-long round robin of finger-pointing and question-raising as to whether Scott had orchestrated an end-run.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told The Tampa Tribune “what we were told and what happened were not the same” regarding Bailey’s leaving, adding that the governor’s staff “were not forthcoming about their timeline and intentions regarding Commissioner Bailey.” Finally, at a February Cabinet meeting in Tampa, Scott said, “I could have handled it better … The buck stops here.”
Scott, Putnam, CFO Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi then agreed to overhaul the way state agency heads are hired, evaluated and fired.
No. 2: Health care funding disputes sink session
The Florida Senate bet nearly all its political capital on Medicaid expansion during the 2015 Legislative Session, then lost big to the Florida House. The disagreement over taking federal dollars to expand Medicaid eventually contributed to a $5 billion budget divide between the two chambers.
The Senate wanted to help about 800,000 working poor Floridians, who make too much for traditional Medicaid but not enough to take advantage of tax credits under the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 federal health care law championed by President Barack Obama. House leadership opposed the plan, saying the state would be on the hook should the feds fail to follow through.
Also at issue was how much to pay for hospitals’ charity care through a joint federal-state fund known as the Low Income Pool, or LIP. The disagreement at one point caused controversy when House Republicans held a closed-door caucus meeting to rally their side against expansion. Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout pressed his ear against the meeting room door to overhear snippets of conversation, during which Speaker Steve Crisafulli told members to “stand like a rock” in opposing the Senate.
Finally, an exasperated House quit three days before the scheduled end of session and went home, forcing Senate Democrats to rush to the Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to coerce the other chamber back into session. Five justices, however, agreed that the House’s move was unconstitutional. The Legislature had to reconvene in Special Session in June to complete the state budget.
No. 3: Florida becomes last state to legalize growlers
Not all was lost that session, as lawmakers approved and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure legalizing the half-gallon size of beer container known as a “growler.” Previous efforts to legalize that size had failed, making Florida the last state that outlawed such containers. Craft beer aficionados now can fill up 64-ounce growlers, the most favored size to take home tap-drawn beer.
No. 4: Court says online travel sites don’t have to charge tax
Ending a decade-long court case, the Florida Supreme Court in June ruled that Expedia and other travel websites don’t have to charge hotel tax on the fees they charge when customers use them to book rooms.
Alachua and 16 other Florida counties had argued that they were losing millions in tax money. The court said in a 5-2 decision that the tourism development tax counties get from hotel guests should apply only to the amount actually paid for the stay, not for the service used to book it. Furthermore, the majority opinion slammed state lawmakers for knowing about the taxing dispute for years and choosing to do nothing about it.
The issue isn’t unique to Florida: The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank, estimated in a 2011 study that local and state governments were taking in $275 million to $400 million less in tax revenue yearly. Florida was losing out on $31 million to $45 million a year.
No. 5: Economic development czar starts war of words with lawmakers
It was the shot heard ’round the Capitol when Bill Johnson, CEO of Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development agency, teed off during a conference call this summer.
Johnson was steamed that lawmakers had brushed off his request for $85 million more in business incentive funding during the Special Session for the budget. Senate President Andy Gardiner in particular said the organization was asking for more money than it was likely to dole out.
An audibly irate Johnson told his board members, “For the third most-populous state in the nation, and a leader in economic development, that’s shameful … There’s no need for (Enterprise Florida) to exist if we cannot garner the support of our Florida Legislature.”
Johnson told them to call legislators on their mobile phones, if necessary, to convince them of the need for funding. “This is not the time to back down,” he said.
The outburst stuck in the craw of key senators months later, and had Johnson eating crow: He apologized for the comments when he appeared before a Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee meeting in September. Johnson may yet have the last laugh, though. His boss, Gov. Rick Scott, is pressing for a new $250 million incentive fund and may threaten his veto pen on members’ favored projects as leverage.
No. 6: Court redraws Florida’s congressional districts
The Florida Supreme Court in December finally OK’d a redrawn version of the state’s 27 congressional districts three years after a court challenge said they were unconstitutional.
The League of Women Voters of Florida, Common Cause and others had sued over the current congressional lines, redrawn after the 2010 census, saying the existing map violates a state constitutional prohibition against gerrymandering, the manipulation of political boundaries to favor a particular incumbent or party. Voters in 2010 had passed the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments to prohibit such gerrymandering.
The case worked its way to the high court, which ruled that the current map was “tainted by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents” and ordered a do-over. The Legislature tried but failed to agree on a redrawn congressional map in a Special Session this summer, and the matter bounced back to Circuit Judge Terry Lewis.
Lewis was charged to take evidence and figure out a new map. He recommended the plaintiffs’ plan. The justices agreed with Lewis in a 5-2 decision.
Among the big changes, the court agreed with shifting Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown‘s current Jacksonville-to-Sanford district “in an east-west manner,” stretching it into what is now Gwen Graham’s territory in the Big Bend and Panhandle. That eviscerates Graham’s Democratic base in Gadsden and Leon counties. Brown reportedly had been mulling a move to Orlando to run for Republican icon Daniel Webster’s district, redrawn to become a virtual Democratic lock. She’s since decided to make a stand in her own redrawn district.
No. 7: Judge to recommend State Senate redistricting
Later in December, Circuit Judge George Reynolds began a week-long trial to work out the makeup of the state’s 40 senatorial districts.
Similar to the congressional case, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Common Cause and others had sued the Legislature, alleging the current Senate district map was rigged to favor Republicans and incumbents. The Senate settled the case by admitting fault – a rarity – and agreeing to redraw the lines with the House. Both chambers, however, came to an impasse over the best way to do that during a recent Special Session, ensuring that the courts would have to figure it out.
Reynolds now must figure out a configuration that also abides by the state constitution’s Fair Districts amendments. He has said he will likely pick one of five suggested maps, one submitted by the Senate and four from the plaintiffs, rather than combine elements or try to draw his own. Whatever Reynolds picks, it will have to go back to the Florida Supreme Court for final approval.
The judge also allowed the state’s elections supervisors to intervene in the case. Their attorney told him elections officials need to know the new Senate district map by mid-March 2016: Qualifying for state Senate seats begins June 20, and candidates have to know what district they’re in to run.
No. 8: Negron overcomes Latvala for Senate presidency
In November, the long, bitter race between Jack Latvala and Joe Negron for the 2016-18 Florida Senate presidency came to an end. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, withdrew his name from consideration, deferring to Negron, a Stuart Republican.
Republicans control the 40-member chamber by 26-14. Latvala’s consolation prize was a promise that Negron would name him the Senate Appropriations committee chair. Negron had said in August that he had captured a majority of votes from the Senate’s Republican caucus to become head of his chamber for 2016-18, succeeding current President Andy Gardiner of Orlando. Latvala’s move, though, finally put a definitive end to the neck-and-neck and often contentious race.
No. 9: Scott clinches $3 billion blackjack deal with Seminole Tribe
After months of back and forth, Gov. Rick Scott announced in December a new deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to allow it to continue offering blackjack at its casinos in return for a $3 billion cut of the take over seven years. Scott called the agreement the “largest revenue share guarantee in history.”
However, the new Seminole Compact must be reviewed and approved by federal officials and state lawmakers, some of whom blanched at the gambling expansion provisions tucked inside. The agreement would let the Seminoles add roulette and craps tables, as well as permit the Legislature to OK slot machines at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and allow blackjack at some South Florida racetracks “with some limitations.”
House Republican Leader Dana Young of Tampa tried pushing her own gambling overhaul legislation last Session that would have, among other things, allowed two destination resort casinos in South Florida. The legislation failed.
Young and other lawmakers soon gave mixed reviews on the compact’s chance of passage: “Any time you pick winners and losers, it is a very heavy lift in the Legislature,” she said.
No. 10: Medical marijuana finally gets moving in Florida
The state last year approved a mild strain of marijuana last year for children with severe epilepsy and patients with advanced cancers. But bureaucratic and legal delays have held up the process of getting the drug to those who need it.
For instance, the awarding of licenses to nurseries that will grow the medicinal pot was challenged. Officials with the Department of Health first proposed awarding the licenses through a lottery. That was struck down by a judge.
A three-person committee was then established to screen applications and select the nurseries. But another hiccup struck that panel when one of its members picked for her financial background stepped down because her certified public accountant license was inactive. That board finally named the five nurseries on Nov. 23.
But by a December filing deadline, 13 challenges to the license awards had been lodged with the state Department of Health. Undeterred, Orlando trial attorney John Morgan is trying again for a constitutional amendment for medical marijuana. Also, bills have been filed for next Legislative Session that would allow stronger varieties of prescribed marijuana than the “Charlotte’s Web” strain.
Jim Rosica heads the Tallahassee Bureau of FloridaPolitics.com.