Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: Sitting, Waiting, Wishing

February 28, 2016

Lawmakers, reporters and lobbyists spent much of the week waiting for talks between House and Senate leaders to lead to a deal on budget “allocations” — the area-by-area breakdown on where the state will spend around $80 billion in the year that begins July 1.

http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgWord of the deal finally came late Friday afternoon, leading to another waiting game — for the meetings of budget conference committees that will decide how to actually spend the money in each area.

In the meantime, supporters of other legislation are trying to working out the divisions between the two chambers on bills big and small. And even as the two sides are drawing together on some issues, like a fix for the death-penalty system ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, they remain far apart on others.

So, like Jack Johnson in his song a decade ago, everyone at the Capitol appears to be sitting, waiting, wishing. There are two weeks to see if those wishes become reality.


The closing days of the session mean it’s time to strike bargains. And lawmakers either made agreements or moved in that direction on many of the key issues of the session.

The Senate pushed to the floor a bill that would fix a fundamental flaw with the state’s death-penalty sentencing system, which would allow the state to restart its capital punishment process.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee amended the chamber’s death-penalty bill to align it with a compromise already OK’d by the House in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the state’s sentencing scheme.

The committee’s 12-6 approval of the measure (SB 7068) virtually guaranteed that lawmakers will send a bill to Gov. Rick Scott before the end of the legislative session March. 11.

The ruling dealt with the sentencing phase of death-penalty cases after defendants are found guilty, and it focused on what are known as aggravating circumstances that must be determined before defendants can be sentenced to death. A 2002 U.S. Supreme court ruling, in a case known as Ring v. Arizona, requires that determinations of such aggravating circumstances must be made by juries, not judges.

But much of the debate in Florida has focused on whether to require a unanimous decision from juries in order to administer the death penalty. The plan working its way through the Legislature now would require jurors to unanimously find that at least one aggravating factor exists before a defendant can be eligible for a death sentence. At least 10 jurors would have to recommend death for the sentence to be imposed.

“Why don’t we expect unanimity when a life is at stake, when in fact we expect unanimity in other matters before the court?” asked Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat and lawyer. “I know that ultimately we’ll probably end up back before the Supreme Court on this issue, because the way I see it, the trend is toward unanimous jury verdicts.”

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Greg Evers, the bill’s sponsor, said the 10-2 recommendation was a compromise with the House.

Less consequential compromise discussions were also underway. The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would revamp the state’s business incentives process. While lawmakers were still dealing with how much money to devote to the cause, the bill (HB 1325) dealt with one of the bargaining chips in budget negotiations.

The House voted 79-39 to approve the bill, with a mixture of Republicans and Democrats on each side. Among the opponents were House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and House Economic Affairs Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

The bill approved by the House does not specify a level of funding, but it would revamp the process of awarding incentives. Rep. Jim Boyd, the Bradenton Republican handling the legislation, said the bill includes reforms and would help create jobs.

“We’re not giving away tax dollars,” Boyd said. “We’re investing in our communities.”

But some opponents harshly criticized the bill, calling incentives corporate welfare and saying the state would be better off investing in programs such as education.

There was also a continuing push to agree on approving a gambling compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe. House Finance and Tax Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, began crafting changes that would match up a House gambling proposal with an even more-expansive Senate bill.

But aligning the two packages may not be enough to keep the measure rolling in the Senate.

The House’s plan currently complements an agreement, called a “compact,” with the Seminole Tribe, struck by tribal leaders and Gov. Rick Scott. Under the compact signed in December, the tribe would be allowed to add craps and roulette to its casino operations in exchange for $3 billion in payments to the state over seven years.

Scott’s agreement with the tribe would also open the door for slots at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and at a new facility in Miami-Dade County, items included in the House plan.

But Senate leaders remained skeptical about the future of their chamber’s plan, with time running out before the March 11 scheduled end of the legislative session.

“I don’t know how we unwind it. I think it ends up sitting in committee,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday. Galvano was instrumental in hashing out a deal with the Seminoles in 2010.


Other bills — mostly legislation from the House facing long odds in the Senate — seemed on the edge of ending their legislative journeys. The House passed a constitutional amendment Wednesday that would limit Florida appellate court judges and Supreme Court justices to two full terms, but it was widely seen as dead in the Senate.

Supporters of the measure argued that it would provide new blood to the judiciary and prevent governors from using their power to appoint judges — who must run in merit-retention elections every six years — to pack the courts.

“Because of our system of the governor appointing, our system allows for abuse of that gubernatorial privilege, where a governor can appoint very young members of the Bar…that then serve a very long time, in my opinion, in that important policymaking position,” said Rep. John Wood, a Winter Haven Republican who sponsored the proposal.

But Democrats noted that the proposal followed years of efforts to overhaul the Supreme Court amid a series of significant legal defeats for Republican leaders. The court’s more-liberal majority — including the three longest-serving justices — has emerged as the last roadblock in state government for the GOP, which controls the Legislature, all three Cabinet positions and the governor’s mansion.

“If you were to pick a sport, any sport at all, and your team is losing game after game, I am of the belief that your first response should be to practice more, to train more, perhaps even develop better techniques,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. “What you shouldn’t do is complain about the referees and demand new ones.”

Meanwhile, a proposal to allowing “fracking” in Florida stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee, though a procedural move kept the measure alive.

The committee on Thursday voted 10-9 against the measure (SB 318), filed by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples. Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R- Fort Myers, then moved to reconsider the bill, a procedural move that kept it alive.

The bill would set up a state permitting process for fracking, a method of drilling that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground to create fractures in rock formations, allowing natural gas and oil to be released.

Among other things, the bill would require companies to inform the state Department of Environmental Protection of chemicals they inject into the ground, although with some restrictions. Also, the bill would set aside $1 million for a study on the impact of fracking, with a temporary moratorium until the study is completed and the Legislature can act.

“A study removes the emotion and permits science to drive the issue,” Richter said. “I want science driving the issue.”

Opponents, though, were still optimistic after Thursday’s vote.

“There’s a small chance this could come back, but it’s all but dead,” Sierra Club Florida lobbyist Dave Cullen said. “I don’t think the legislators have the stomach for this bill. Voters will remember fracking at the polls.”


Even as the legislative session charged ahead, the political season was in full swing, as Florida’s winner-take-all presidential primary on March 15 drew closer. Lending a little bit of clarity to the crowded field was the withdrawal of former Gov. Jeb Bush, which left the state with one favorite son: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

“Most Floridians, at least in the political world, supported Governor Bush and now, I suppose, will endorse Marco Rubio,” said J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a lobbyist and longtime Bush adviser.

A few days after Stipanovich said that, Rubio rolled out the endorsements of more than 80 high-profile Florida Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Meritt Island.

Not on the list was Gov. Rick Scott, who has largely steered clear of taking sides in the presidential primary. But Scott has had kind words for real estate tycoon Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner, and that led to speculation from a Washington Post political blogger that Scott could be on the mogul’s short list for vice president.

Scott shrugged off the rumors.

“What I’m focused on is my job here,” Scott told a television reporter after speaking at the Take Stock for Children breakfast at the Double Tree Hotel in Tallahassee.”I’ve got three years left in this job.”

The latest poll still showed Trump in front in the Sunshine State. A survey from Quinnipiac University showed Trump with 44 percent of the vote among likely primary voters, to 28 percent for Rubio. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas had 12 percent, Ohio Gov. John Kasich drew 7 percent and physician Ben Carson claimed 4 percent.

“If Sen. Rubio can’t win in his own home state, it is difficult to see how he can win elsewhere,” Peter Brown, assistant director of the poll, said in a prepared statement accompanying the survey results

Rubio’s campaign insisted that the senator would win his home state and with it, 99 delegates — almost one twelfth of the number necessary to claim the GOP nomination.

STORY OF THE WEEK: As negotiations continued on the budget, lawmakers began moving towards resolution on other issues with time running out on the 2016 legislative session.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Once again, you’re loading it down as if that carrot is going to be enough to get us to swallow a stick, and I’m not swallowing the stick today.”—Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, on a pensions bill that combined measures Democrats like and dislike.

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida


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