Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: The Ripple Effect

May 28, 2017

The end of the legislative session each spring is rarely the end of the story. The ripples from the fall of the final gavel keep traveling for weeks, either in the form of bills that make their way to the governor’s desk, or things left undone.

Both of those kinds of consequences led to disappointment or confusion in two substance-related industries that backers paint as trying to move forward. Big-box retailers that supported the right to sell liquor alongside groceries saw their efforts rebuffed by Gov. Rick Scott, who vetoed a hard-fought measure aimed at tearing down the state’s “liquor wall.”

http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgMeanwhile, disputes continued over the state’s medical-marijuana market, a reminder that the system of nurseries is just as much of a business as corner drug stores, even if the legal footing for the latter is firmer in the eyes of federal officials.

And with plenty of uncertainty about just how final the Legislature’s decision on the state’s annual spending plan will be, one departing state official announced he would stay on the job a bit longer — even as the churn of agency heads continued.


After hours of debate and House approval that rested on a dubious one-vote margin, there was no final victory toast for those who supported getting rid of a decades-old law requiring hard spirits to be sold in separate facilities from groceries and other retail goods. Scott might be a Republican, but he saw no reason to tear down this wall.

In typical Scott fashion, he attributed the decision to one thing: jobs, and specifically those that small-business owners said would be lost if the bill was approved. The veto was a victory for independent liquor-store owners, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and Publix Super Markets, which fought the bill during the legislative session that ended May 8.

“I carefully reviewed this bill and I have met with stakeholders on both sides,” Scott said. “I listened closely to what they had to say and I understand that both positions have merit. Nevertheless, I have heard concerns as to how this bill could affect many small businesses across Florida. I was a small business owner and many locally owned businesses have told me how this bill will impact their families and their ability to create jobs.”

Left to cry in their beers — which, along with wine, can already be sold in big-box stores — were supporters of the proposal (SB 106) like Target, Costco and Walmart. They had banked on a free-market and convenience argument that came up short, even as the bill got closer to becoming law than it has in earlier attempts.

“We have made tremendous progress in the last four years, and there is a clear momentum in Florida for this common-sense approach to liquor sales,” said Michael Williams, a spokesman for the group Floridians for Fair Business Practices, which supported the repeal. “While Governor Scott ultimately chose to veto Senate Bill 106, we look forward to working with state leaders in the future to finally put an end to this outdated, Prohibition-era law.”

It was Scott’s first veto of the year, but if the Tallahassee rumor and speculation mill is to be believed, it probably won’t be his last.

The governor also gave approval to some big-ticket or even medium-sized items this week. He signed a tax-cut package that was much smaller than the one he requested but includes some consumer-friendly items like tax-free holidays for back-to-school shopping and hurricane gear and a repeal of the “tampon tax.”

“Since I’ve been in office, I’ve fought to cut taxes and reduce burdensome regulations to help boost Florida’s economy and ensure our children and grandchildren have the opportunity to succeed in our great state,” Scott said in a prepared statement. “Every time we cut taxes, we are encouraging businesses of all sizes to create opportunities for families across the state, and more money is put back in taxpayers’ pockets.”

The savings are projected to reach $180 million over two years due to some permanent cuts. Scott had requested $618.4 million in cuts before the legislative session, and an initial House package approached $300 million. But the package was scaled back substantially as the House and Senate negotiated a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Business groups also got some goodies, including a reduction in the commercial lease tax from 6 percent to 5.8 percent. That’s projected to save businesses $25.4 million next fiscal year, with that total growing to $61 million when the cut is in effect for a full year.

Business groups have long argued that the state should repeal the tax, and Scott had asked for the lease tax to be dropped to 4.5 percent.

“The most significant steps are often the first ones we take on an issue, and this cut opens the door for future reductions of this burdensome tax,” said Maria Wells, Florida Realtors president, in a release following the signing of the tax-cut package.

Scott also signed a bill establishing state criminal charges for engaging in or supporting terrorism or terrorist activities that result in death or injuries, and legislation authorizing the payment of $3.75 million in the child-abuse case that resulted in the death of Nubia Barahona.

Lawmakers said the Florida Department of Children and Families failed to prevent abuse of Nubia and her twin brother, Victor. Nubia Barahona’s decomposing body was found in February 2011 in the bed of her adoptive father’s pickup truck. Victor Barahona was convulsing in the truck, as both children had been doused with toxic chemicals, authorities said.


Lawmakers might not have passed a measure during the session to implement the constitutional amendment allowing full-fledged medical marijuana that voters approved last year, but the nascent ganja industry keeps rolling.

In a long-awaited decision, an administrative law judge Tuesday called for the state to issue two new licenses to medical marijuana operators, saying competing businesses — which lost out to another operator selected by Florida health officials in 2015 — were virtually tied.

Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham’s recommended order came months after a hearing in the matter and long after he decided that the winning licensee, Alpha Foliage, known as Surterra Therapeutics, should have been ineligible to apply for a license because of changes in ownership.

Van Laningham’s order could boost from seven to nine the number of operators licensed by the state to grow, process and distribute marijuana and derivative products to patients. Licenses have been awarded in five different regions of the state.

On Tuesday, Van Laningham recommended that the Department of Health issue new licenses to Tornello Landscape, also known as “3 Boys Farm,” and Plants of Ruskin. The two nurseries, both based in Ruskin, challenged health officials’ decision to issue a “dispensing organization” license in the Southwest Florida region to Surterra.

Under administrative law, Van Laningham’s recommended order will have to go back to the department for final action. If the agency decides not to authorize two licenses, then 3 Boys should win because it received the highest score, “if only by a mathematically insignificant margin,” Van Laningham wrote.

Whether the agency will issue two new licenses is questionable; state officials have maintained in the past that current state law restricts the Department of Health to granting only one new license in each of the state’s five regions, based on administrative or court rulings.

The challenges are rooted in a 2014 law that initially called for one license to be awarded in each region of the state for nurseries to grow, process and distribute medical marijuana. That law allowed limited types of non-euphoric cannabis for some patients and was expanded last year to allow full-strength pot for people who are terminally ill.

But the already coveted licenses are even more desirable after the passage in November of a constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana for a broad swath of patients with debilitating conditions. Under every scenario envisioned thus far, the current license holders will automatically be eligible to grow and sell pot products for an exponentially larger patient base in Florida, which experts predict could quickly become one of the nation’s biggest markets.


Departing Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater knows what he’s going to do next. When he’s going to do it is still up in the air.

When he originally announced that he would step down to take a job at Florida Atlantic University, Atwater said he would leave at the end of the legislative session, which came on May 8. The week before that, he released a farewell letter. But Atwater said this week he’s waiting until action on the budget wraps up.

“We had a responsibility, when we said to finish session, maybe I should have been more clear about that, that all the work is completed, and not put it in the hands of someone who will be coming in for just a couple of days, to try to learn the systems and get it uploaded to start the fiscal year,” Atwater said. “Hopefully, it comes in for a landing soon.”

Atwater said Florida Atlantic University officials are “being very patient” and made clear he expects to switch jobs before the start of the school year.

“Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, absolutely,” he said.

Atwater was on hand for the meeting Tuesday of Scott and the Cabinet, where Noah Valenstein was named as Florida’s next environmental secretary.

Valenstein, a former Scott aide who is executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, will take over at the Department of Environmental Protection on June 5. Unlike most agency heads who answer only to the governor, the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection falls under Scott and the Cabinet.

Valenstein said after the meeting he wants to bring the “philosophy I’ve had at Suwannee River” to the state department.

“The issues are the same everywhere,” said Valenstein, who grew up in Alachua County. “All Floridians care about the environment, it’s the underpinning of what makes the state such a great place to live.”

Environmental groups, who haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with Scott and other Republicans, seemed optimistic. Anna Upton, outside general counsel for the Everglades Foundation, said she expects Valenstein to do well because of his background with environmental law and the inner workings of state agencies.

“He understands that people come to the state of Florida for our beaches, for our springs, for our national parks, our state parks, and of course the Everglades,” Upton said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott vetoed hard-fought legislation that would have torn down the state’s “liquor wall,” a defeat for retailers that had hoped to sell hard spirits alongside groceries and other goods.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Walmart has a competitive edge. They buy in such large quantities, that there is no way the person with two or three liquor stores can compete with them price-wise.”— Mike Doolan, a manager at Market Square Liquors in Tallahassee, arguing against the “liquor wall” repeal.

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida


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