Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: Choosing Sides

January 31, 2016

This is the part of the legislative session where the House and the Senate’s honeymoon — especially one as dubious as this year’s — begins to face its first serious test. The opening weeks and the easy compromises have been sent to the governor for his signature. It gets harder from here.

The biggest fight is always how to divvy up tens of billions of dollars in state spending in a way that makes as many people as possible happy. Already, battle lines on a spending plan are becoming clear and revolve around Gov. Rick Scott’s two priorities. The House has fully embraced Scott’s call for $1 billion in tax cuts, though the chamber has reconfigured them a bit; the Senate has taken up the governor’s proposal to create a $250 million “Florida Enterprise Fund” to boost economic development incentives.

http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgMeanwhile, lawmakers are finally taking votes on bills that could become bargaining chips later in the process. Legislation dealing with guns, transportation services like Uber, and a controversial method of drilling for oil and natural gas advanced out of the House or the Senate this week.

And Floridians themselves will face a high-profile question this November, in addition to that pesky question about which presidential candidate will win the nation’s largest swing state: whether or not to allow patients with a variety of illnesses to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.


Technically, legislative budget-writers had less to work with when they sat down to craft spending plans than Scott did when he released his proposal months ago. Economic forecasters recently lopped nearly $400 million off the amount they expected to be at the Legislature’s disposal.

Because of the vagaries of the state budget process, though, House and Senate spending plans released Friday were heavier than the proposal Scott put forward. The governor’s plan for the budget year beginning July 1 checked in at $79.3 billion. The House landed just short of $80 billion. The Senate overshot that by nearly $1 billion.

In addition to the split over Scott’s priorities, the two chambers were apart on whether to ease up on local education property taxes — which provide the bulk of the increase allowing state leaders to promise record school funding this year — and an array of other issues, ranging from hundreds of millions of dollars to relatively small projects.

One of the biggest differences, though, would be Scott’s ideas on incentives. Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee dealing with economic development, announced early in the week that he would back the governor’s proposal.

“I think it’s important that we acknowledge the priority of creating jobs and that we all try to work in that direction and we acknowledge that we do it collaboratively,” Latvala said.

For its part, the House was busy trying to figure out how to provide about $1 billion in tax relief to Floridians — a joyous chore in an election year.

Several House Democrats expressed concern about the size of the package, but some of the same members also pitched additional items — lifting the sales tax on bear-proof trash cans and gym memberships — that they’d like added to the legislation, which is expected to swell to more than $1 billion as it advances in the coming weeks.

The proposal unveiled by House Finance & Tax Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, matches Scott’s price tag but includes less in permanent, or recurring, cuts than Scott proposed. It would meet Scott’s call for a 1 percentage-point reduction in a tax on commercial leases starting July 1, 2017 and would permanently eliminate a tax on manufacturing machinery that is set to return in 2017.

Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, expressed concern with the $1 billion figure, as state revenue projections have changed.

“I do think it’s quite a lot of money, and I think we have to balance this against making sure we’re funding our education, our health care, our safety,” Berman said.

Gaetz said while he shared Berman’s “caution,” he views past cuts as having helped the growth of the state’s economy, which has seen tourism and home building grow the past six years.

“We do continue to cut taxes, we continue to be aggressive in cutting taxes, by $1 billion, but we do so within this tax package for finite periods of time, so that if the revenue position does change, or oscillate, or dip, that we have the opportunity to have that revenue to come back into the picture,” Gaetz said. “But for now I want to put $1 billion back into the pockets of Floridians because I think that is the best way to stave off some of the leveling we see in this state.”

There could be even more changes coming to the tax-cut proposal. Gaetz’s father — Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville — floated the idea this week of lowering local education property taxes as part of the same discussion.

“If we do nothing and simply allow the formula to take effect and approve the governor’s proposal, there’s a $500 million property tax increase in the state of Florida,” Gaetz said. “Pretty hard to sustain that kind of an increase when we’re talking about tax cuts.”


There was no shortage of controversial legislation on the House and Senate floors this week. House members approved a bill that would bar local governments from imposing moratoriums on the oil and gas drilling method known as “fracking” while requiring the state Department of Environmental Protection to undertake a wide-ranging study that would include looking at potential risks and economic benefits of the process.

Fracking has been blamed for everything from poisoned water supplies to earthquakes. All the more reason to have a state agency look at it and decide what needs to be done, Republicans said.

“Wishing for a zero-risk process or some absolute safety is not possible,” said Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park. “I acknowledge that oil and natural-gas production is an untidy process. So is all of mining, so is farming, so is industry, yet our society needs energy, we need food and we need the finished products made from natural resources.”

Democrats were more skeptical.

“Why would we even want to consider a bill that is going to potentially poison our drinking water? What we’re doing is we’re injecting toxic fluids in the ground,” Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton said. “What’s wrong with us here? I mean, something’s going on. And you know what’s going on, this fracking bill is really called the anything for money bill.”

The House bill dealing with ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft also spurred debate, but passed fairly easily.

The Senate, meanwhile, spent a chunk of its floor time this week on guns. By a 24-12 vote, members signed off on a measure (SB 344) that would alter the burden of proof in “stand your ground” self-defense cases. Democrats contend the proposal will put an end to cases before all of the facts are fully revealed.

“It potentially stops an investigation cold after the last man standing tells his side of the story,” said Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa. “The dead do not have the opportunity to rebut the tale told by the survivor. In cases where there are no witnesses, this bill stacks the deck against the justice for the dead.”

The bill stems from a Florida Supreme Court ruling last year that said defendants have the burden of proof of showing they should be shielded from prosecution under the “stand your ground” law. In “stand your ground” cases, pre-trial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants should be immune from prosecution. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, would place the burden of proof on prosecutors in the evidentiary hearings.

“I think it’s simply incorrect to suggest that this bill will result in an otherwise guilty individual going free,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said. “If the state has sufficient evidence to successfully prosecute a defendant in a jury trial, the state will prevail in the immunity hearing before a judge, and the judge will permit the case to go to trial.”

The Senate unanimously passed a second measure (SB 130) — dubbed the “backyard range” bill — intended to restrict the recreational discharge of firearms in certain residential areas.


It wasn’t really a surprise that backers of a medical-marijuana citizens initiative got enough petition signatures to get on the ballot again this year, but it became official this week. Prominent Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who has pushed the constitutional amendment, sent an email to supporters Wednesday announcing that the petition drive was successful.

“This effort cost millions of dollars — but it needed to happen. … Medical marijuana is coming to Florida,” Morgan wrote in his email.

But opponents quickly promised to wage another campaign to deny the measure the support of 60 percent of Florida voters, the remaining hurdle for getting the language added into the Constitution. A 2014 initiative led by Morgan failed to reach 60 percent.

“It legalizes pot smoking in Florida under the cynical guise of helping sick people. Marijuana is not medicine, it is an illegal and dangerous drug,” said Tre’ Evers, a spokesman for the anti-marijuana “No on 2″ campaign, in a press release. “The fact is that wherever pot smoking has been legalized under the guise of ‘medical marijuana’ it has proven to be a farce, a ruse, de-facto legalization.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: The House and Senate rolled out spending plans for the budget year that begins July 1, setting the stage for completing the one duty lawmakers are required by the Constitution to fulfill every year.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I can recall as a youngster that if you misbehaved or disobeyed you’d often hear, ‘You’re going to end up in Marianna.’ You sort of grew up thinking that must be one hell of a hellhole.”—Former Gov. Bob Martinez, talking about legislation that would establish a memorial and allocate $1.5 million for the reburial of bodies removed from the site of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, where students allegedly suffered brutal abuse.

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida


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