We liked this lead so much from last week, we’re recycling it: With halftime in the 60-day 2016 Legislative Session on Wednesday, “the theme so far is like a line from a Frankie Valli song: ‘… so close/And yet so far.’ “
With budget votes in each chamber and conference ready to begin, about $1 billion still separates the House and Senate over a variety of spending areas, including economic development, business incentives, tax cuts, education, and health care.
As Gary Fineout put it, “Although Republican legislators stress they won’t have a repeat of infighting that marred their negotiations last year, they concede that it will require some major compromises to end the session by March 11.”
Or maybe sooner? House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford has, you know, “heard” things.
“I’ve heard maybe they’ll pass the budget early and kick it out to the governor and he’ll make his vetoes, then we’ll come back and override,” the West Palm Beach Democrat told reporters this week. “I’ve heard that. Several times, by the way.”
And now, the tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments from the-week-that-was by Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster, Jim Rosica, and Peter Schorsch.
• • •
If you think there are a lot of lobbyists roaming around the state Capitol, you might be right.
Florida averages 25 lobbying entities per lawmakers, and ranks second in the nation when it comes to the average lawmaker-to-lobbyist ratio. California grabs the top spot, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of lobbying registration data.
The organization analyzed lobbying registration from 2010 through 2014 in all 50 states.
It may come as little surprise to Capitol watchers which companies made the Top 5 in the five-year period. AT&T, TECO Energy, The Walt Disney Co., Dosal Tobacco Corp., and the Florida Chamber of Commerce were all on the list.
In case you were wondering, New Hampshire was at the bottom of the list. The Granite State averages one lobbying entity per lawmaker.
• • •
A Senate criminal justice committee OK’d legislation Monday that allows courts to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors.
The proposal (SB 7066) allows the court to depart from mandatory minimums if certain criteria is met, including that the offense isn’t a forcible felony or misdemeanor, it doesn’t involve physical injury, and it doesn’t involve a victim who is a minor. It also changes drug sentencing by requiring courts to send some offenders to nonprison programs, unless they are a danger to the public.
Inmates now have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. The Senate proposal reduces must-serve time to 65 percent for nonviolent offenders. That change would mean fewer nonviolent offenders in state prisons, and according to a staff analysis, would save $1 billion over five years.
“While my board has not had a chance to take a formal position on the bill, I do commend Senator Evers and the rest of the committee for the courage they have shown by critically examining what have become sacred cows in this process,” said Jim DeBeaugrine, who heads the Coalition to Advance Justice. “We look forward to being a part of the dialogue that is sure to continue.”
The Coalition to Advance Justice was recently formed to influence lawmakers on criminal justice issues. DeBeaugrine, a former staff director for the House justice appropriations subcommittee and executive director of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, was tapped to lead the group.
• • •
Gov. Rick Scott announced several appointments to boards of state colleges and universities on Monday.
For the New College of Florida Board of Trustees, he tapped Fermin Miranda of Bradenton and Norman Worthington III of Sarasota. Miranda, 51, is the senior vice president of Cadence Bank. Worthington, 56, is CEO of both Star2Star Communications and Copytalk LLC.
For the Florida International University Board of Trustees, Scott reappointed Dr. Jose Armas of Miami and Claudia Puig of Coral Gables. Armas, 57, is founder and CEO of the MCCI Group. Puig, 63, is senior vice president of Univision Radio and received her bachelor’s degree from Florida International University.
For the University of Central Florida Board of Trustees, the governor named Kenneth Bradley of Winter Park and David Walsh of Winter Springs. Bradley, 54, is CEO of Winter Park Memorial Hospital and was mayor of Winter Park from 2009 to 2015. Walsh, 60, is president and CEO of Mitsubishi Power Systems and is on the board of Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development organization.
• • •
With less then one month until the final day to apply for the Insurance Commissioner Appointment, Adams Street is abuzz with rumors about who will and who won’t throw their hat in the ring for consideration. As of today, 25 applicants have submitted themselves for consideration, but according to the pre-screening score’s on the Cabinet’s website, only two candidates are 100% qualified for the position. Will former interim President of Citizens, Tom Grady jump in? Will State Representative and former Iowa Insurance Commissioner Bill Hager apply? Stay tuned…
• • •
Florida clergy could soon refuse to marry gay and lesbian couples under a bill moving through the Legislature.
The Senate Community Affairs committee voted 6-1 to approve a bill (SB 110) that says clergy, churches and religious organizations aren’t required to marry gay and lesbian couples. The proposal shields the organizations from lawsuits should they refuse to marry someone.
The U.S. Constitution protects religious organizations from performing such ceremonies. In 1998, Florida passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which also offers protections to members of the clergy.
The bill is modeled after a Texas law that passed in 2015. It’s a response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage.
The Senate bill now heads to the Rules committee. A similar House bill (HB 43) is ready to be heard by the floor.
• • •
Florida is expected to produce fewer boxes of oranges in 2015-16.
The USDA citrus forecast for February said the state will likely produce 69 million boxes of oranges in 2015-16. That’s down 29 percent from the total harvest during the 2014-15 season, according to the citrus forecast.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said the report, released Tuesday, “further illustrates that Florida’s citrus industry is on a precipice.”
“Florida is synonymous with citrus, and without immediate and tangible support, as well as a long-term solution, Florida is facing the prospect of losing its signature crop and its more than $10 billion economic impact,” he said in a statement.
The February forecast, Putnam said, marks a decline of more than 71 percent since the 1997-98 season. That year, citrus production peaked at 244 million boxes.
Putnam is pushing proposals in the state Legislature that include a cost-sharing program to remove or destroy abandoned citrus groves. That program would help eliminate materials that harbor citrus greening. The proposal passed the House last week, and has one more committee hearing in the Senate before heading to the floor.
• • •
State Rep. Ed Narain had a rough time last week, but said the support from supporters and constituents helped carry him through.
In a weekly email to constituents, Narain said he experienced “the highs and lows of life all at once last week.” The Tampa Democrat said he spent his Saturday celebrating the “life of our family friend Louis Hoze in Orlando,” before falling ill on Sunday.
On Wednesday, he learned of the death of another friend. He had lost eight pounds in 48 hours, and turned to Rep. Cary Pigman, a physician, to patch him up for a debate on the House’s open carry bill.
Narain said visits from his wife and others, including the Tampa Chapter of the Links Inc., the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and Connect Florida classmates, “lifted my spirits as I ran around Tallahassee ensuring” a successful Black Florida Week.
“Thank you all for your help in making this week a success despite a personally challenging time for me,” he said in his note to supporters.
• • •
The bandwagon continues to roll for ethics measures this Session, with an array of sometimes-opposing political interests hopping aboard.
On Tuesday, folks from Common Cause Florida, Tea Party Network, League of Women Voters of Florida, Progress Florida and others huddled for a news conference with state Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando-area Democrat, to press for a raft of bills.
They include what’s known as the “Gannett bill” (SB 582/HB 7071), which is being pushed by the eponymous newspaper chain that has several properties in the state. It would make it easier to control corruption and pursue cases against wrongdoers.
Other bills (SB 686/HB 593) require city officials to file financial disclosures and prohibit Enterprise Florida board members from lobbying for two years after they leave the board.
Still other bills (SB 892/HB 631), including one backed by Soto, increase transparency in campaign finance reports, such as requiring political committees to more precisely disclose what they spend their money on and which politicians benefit (or are targeted) by such spending.
• • •
A pair of bills that prohibit sports teams and venues from restricting how patrons can resell their tickets is making slow progress in the state Legislature.
The Senate commerce and tourism committee on Monday temporarily postponed taking up the measure (SB 1344), which is sponsored by Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat.
The House bill (HB 1127), sponsored by Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat, cleared its first committee earlier on Feb. 3 and now awaits a hearing in the House regulatory affairs committee.
The measures prohibit venues or their agents from restricting the resale of tickets sold to the public and prohibits venues from denying access to someone because the ticket was resold.
Last month, Moskowitz told the Tampa Bay Times that he is “trying to prevent a monopoly.”
The bill has faced some opposition. Ron Pierce, a lobbyist for the Tampa Sports Authority, and Wayne Malaney, a lobbyist for the Florida Facilities Managers Association, have both said it could be a hindrance to their organizations.
• • •
At a forum organized by the University of South Florida, four former Speakers of the Florida House talked shop in Tallahassee on Tuesday night.
The panel, moderated by Dr. Susan MacManus, featured Speakers Donald Tucker, Ralph Haben, H. Lee Moffitt, and Dean Cannon.
The presiding officers regaled guests with stories of leadership in the highest echelons of state politics. Moffitt and Haben went back and forth on single-member districts, one of the most significant shifts in the statehouse, perhaps even more than term limits.
Haben offered this gem about former Gov. Bob Graham: “He wore that stupid tie and was always scribbling in his little notebook, but he really came around as a good governor.”
Cannon regaled an insider-y audience about the governing through the shift from former Gov. Charlie Crist to Gov. Rick Scott – and a stifling budget shortfall amid the economic downturn – and added he thought history would be kinder to Senate President Mike Haridopolos than the “winners and losers”-inflected treatment journos currently give him.
Tucker left the crowd with a heady, sobering sentiment apropos of the changes to the courts and Public Service Commission he oversaw in the 1970s: “We never really know whether what we’re doing is right or wrong.”
• • •
As lawmakers get ready to consider another early Legislative Session for 2018, this year’s early Session so far has been a mixed bag for Tallahassee’s hospitality businesses.
“We’re not a big fan of it,” said John McCarroll, general manager of the Hotel Duval, saying his group reservations have been dropping out more often this year, as opposed to last-minute additions during usual spring Sessions. The hotel also has a rooftop bar with outside seating area, known as Level 8, that hasn’t seen as much business as it does in warmer weather, McCarroll said.
His sales director, Brett Kolmetz, added that switching the dates of Session every other year hurts his planning because continuity is important. “I just think March and April is better for the city,” he said.
House lawmakers don’t agree. The Government Operations Appropriations Subcommittee cleared the bill (HB 7103) Monday on a unanimous 10-0 vote. This past week the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee also filed its own bill (SPB 7076) to move the start date of the 2018 Legislative Session to Jan. 9.
The state constitution “provides that, in odd-numbered years, the regular Session of the Legislature must begin on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March,” but it “permits the Legislature to fix by law the date for convening the regular Session in each even-numbered year,” according to a bill analysis.
The Legislature moved Session to January-February as a one-off change just for this year. Lawmakers have given a variety of reasons for the change, from wanting to spend spring break with their families, to getting the state budget done earlier so people who rely on state funding can better plan.
Lobbyists offer another rationale: More time to fundraise closer to an election. (Lawmakers are banned from fundraising while the Legislature is in Session.) Otherwise, early Sessions have been only in years when legislators perform the once-a-decade redistricting process to redo the state’s political boundaries based on U.S. Census results.
• • •
One biomedical research facility – Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute – will enter a critical period in determining their funding as members of both chambers come together during budget conference.
The Institute, which is looking to receive $5.6 million for the Florida Translational Research Program, is known for its collaborations with biomedical research organizations and universities across the state.
As members of the House and Senate look at the numbers on paper, it’s essential they don’t gloss over and underestimate what the funding of this biomedical research program means to Florida. Their commitment to reducing health care costs and expanding Florida’s life science industry is evident and a winning combination for Florida.
• • •
The task of getting Jacksonville’s pension tax plan through the House largely fell to state Rep. Travis Cummings … and he’s feeling pretty good about it.
The measure (HB 1297) would allow Jacksonville to “repurpose” a local public-works tax to plug a $2.6 billion hole in the city’s public pension plans. It cleared its final House committee 16-2 on Wednesday and heads to the floor.
“I was very pleased with the successful outcome today in State Affairs, including the healthy discussion by the committee members,” the Orange Park Republican said in an interview. “… There were no surprises.”
Cummings called the city’s pension crisis “dire,” but credited Mayor Lenny Curry‘s frequent round trips to Tallahassee to stump for the plan.
Curry’s presence was a boon on Wednesday, when he answered detailed questions and overcame potential objections of all but two committee members.
“We have tweaked the bill along the way in an effort to both protect taxpayers and achieve the financial solution needed,” Cummings said. He hopes the bill will be passed without amendments in the coming weeks.
Cummings expressed confidence in a card sent to Curry, describing working with the mayor as a “pleasure,” thanking him for his “valuable time and effort,” and saying that he looked “forward to working with all stakeholders to get this critical legislation to the finish line.”
Helping to lobby was the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, which plans a bus trip west on I-10 on Feb. 24 to push for the bill’s passage.
• • •
The state Senate is sending a message to Congress: Condemn efforts to boycott Israel.
State lawmakers on Thursday passed a resolution condemning the boycott, divestment and sanction movement against Israel. The resolution, sponsored by Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Eleanor Sobel, says calls for boycotts are anti-Semitic with the aim to eliminate the Jewish state.
A similar House resolution, sponsored by Rep. Lori Berman, is ready for a vote in the full House.
The resolutions might be sailing through the Legislature, but they have drawn the ire of supporters of a boycott.
Opponents have also been striking out against Sen. Joe Negron. Negron is sponsoring a bill that requires the State Board of Administration to identify and assemble a list of companies that boycott Israel. That list must be updated quarterly, made public and circulated to the Senate President, House Speaker and trustees of the SBA.
Several groups, including CAIR Florida and the Jewish Voice for Peace, have set up a website urging Floridians to call on lawmakers to vote down the bill. Peace House has created several videos, including one where a guy acting like a representative for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee tells lawmakers he would be in the back of a committee room with campaign contributions.
Negron’s bill has cleared all its committees, and now heads to the Senate floor. A similar bill sponsored by Rep. Ritch Workman is in a similar posture.
During the Feb. 4 House State Affairs Committee meeting, several people spoke out against the bill.
As Rep. Kevin Rader closed on the bill, opponents jumped out of their seats, began to unroll a banner as they chanted “not another nickel, not another dime; no more money for Israel’s crimes.” The group was escorted from the committee room.
• • •
The cost of relocating utility lines may be shifted to local governments or the Department of Transportation.
The House appropriations committee on Thursday approved a measure (HB 461) that shifts the cost of relocating utility lines from utility companies to public entities or the Florida Department of Transportation.
The bill requires the transportation department or a local government to pay to relocate utilities if they’re in located in a existing utility easement. According to Lobby Tools Legislative IQ, the Florida League of Cities opposes the bill because it would mean cities have to raise taxes to deal with the mandate.
However, also according to Lobby Tools, AT&T lobbyist Tracy Hatch said the law corrected a 2nd District Court of Appeal opinion that cast “a pall upon private property.”
The bill now heads to the House floor.
• • •
In a Marc Caputo-penned story about a legislator praising the Lord on the House floor on account of her son’s successful appeal on Medicaid fraud charges, Republican Rep. Julio Gonzalez noticed one glaring omission: He wasn’t in it.
Caputo identified Rep. Cary Pigman as the House’s sole medical doctor. “Me, too!” cried Gonzalez, who is a orthopaedic surgeon practicing in Venice.
“Wait. Maybe I’m no longer in the House of Representatives. That must be it. Whew. Don’t cancel my patients. That was close,” was Gonzalez’s initial Twitter riposte at 2:33 a.m. Thursday morning. Stepping it up with an “@” mention to catch Caputo’s attention, Gonzalez added a few minutes later: “If I’m not a member of the House, what do I tell my wife I’ve been doing all this time away from home? I’m sure @MarcACaputo knows.”
Though sometimes it’s easy to miss Gonzalez, a mid-bencher who took office in 2015, Caputo might have known better as the Sarasota County doctor and attorney got his M.D. at Caputo’s beloved University of Miami.
Caputo swiftly corrected his story with the note, “This story has been updated to clarify Rep. Pigman is not the only medical doctor in the Florida House. Rep. Julio Gonzalez is as well.”
Glad we cleared that up.
• • •
The Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics couldn’t have picked a better advocacy day.
Dozens of workers and volunteers showed up to the Florida Capitol in full force Thursday to nail down funding again this year, and, hopefully, avoid the much-maligned veto pen from last year. Those are the places poor, uninsured Floridians go for free, or basically free healthcare.
In 2014 the clinics were funded with $4.5 million and, as a whole have provided $160+ million worth of care. In 2015, they were allotted $9.5 million, before the veto pen struck. This year the Senate is back at $9.5 million and the House seems supportive. Expect this back in front of Gov. Scott in March, and hope like hell his staff properly explains the value of these clinics in providing direct care.
• • •
State Sen. Bill Galvano (center rear) smiles for the camera in this candid shot from the recent Hillsborough Day at the Capitol, sponsored by Visit Tampa Bay. Hillsborough Day was revived in 2014 to great success, drawing members of the local delegation and prominent members of the Tampa Bay community. Galvano’s district includes the southern part of Hillsborough County. Recent highlights include serving over 1,000 authentic Cuban sandwiches. The event was organized by Louis Betz & Associates, Visit Tampa Bay and The Event Planners, with special assistance from Dean Johanesen, state Rep. Jake Raburn, Festive Floats, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, Grand Events of Florida, and Arco Iris Restaurant. This year’s planned exhibitors were Busch Gardens, Early Learning Coalition, The Florida Aquarium, Hillsborough County Child Care Licensing, Lowry Park Zoo, MOSI, The Straz Center, SWFWMD, and Tampa Bay Lightning.
• • •
Lake Okeechobee water releases are once again part of the legislative conversation.
The Army Corps of Engineers recently announced it planned to start releasing water from Lake Okeechobee. A wetter-than-normal January meant lakes levels were higher than usual. The releases into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries have affected the two regions’ economies because of the dirty water that flows from the lake.
This month, Senator Negron proposed adding $750,000 a year and $6.75 million in non-recurring dollars to the state budget for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. That money would go toward purchasing land to help control the discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
This week Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, a Fort Myers Republican, called on Gov. Rick Scott to do what he could to halt the releases. Days later, Scott called on the Corps of Engineers to take “immediate action” help the areas.
The calls for action might not have had an immediate effect, though. The Fort Myers News-Press reported the Corps said Thursday it couldn’t move water south because the land is too wet. The paper also reported the water would continue to be released east and west.