Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: Halfway Home

February 11, 2018

Optimists had cause to celebrate, but glass-half-empty types hung their heads as the 2018 legislative session reached the halfway point this week.

The middle of the 60-day session marks the time for “bills are dying” plaints to begin. And it also sets the stage for horse trading — “negotiation accompanied by shrewd bargaining and reciprocal concessions,” according to Merriam-Webster — to kick into overdrive between legislators, the governor and lobbyists.

http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgThe ideological differences and political aspirations of those involved have been playing out inside the Capitol since the first week of the session, when the House passed a number of bills over which Republican base voters are certain to lick their chops. GOP House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who’s mulling a run for governor, has orchestrated the efforts.

For example, the deeply divided House passed a proposal to ban “sanctuary cities” in the state, a Corcoran-backed effort that drew criticism from Democrats and helped lead to a scheduled debate next week between the speaker and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat who’s already in the governor’s race.

But a number of high-profile issues remain in flux as the countdown clock begins to tick.

Gov. Rick Scott and House and Senate leaders have made the opioid epidemic a top priority this session. The House and Senate both have earmarked more than $50 million to address prescription and street drug addiction, a national phenomenon that’s caused overdoses to skyrocket.

But Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, has twice postponed a vote by the Rules Committee on her opioid proposal (SB 8). Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who’s slated to take over as president of the upper chamber after the November elections, said this week he’s in talks with Scott’s office about the bill.

The governor has pushed to restrict doctors to prescribing a maximum of three to seven days’ worth of narcotics, such as oxycodone, for acute pain.

But cardiac surgeons and orthopedists have repeatedly told lawmakers that’s not enough medication for patients who’ve undergone major operations, such as open-heart surgery. The doctors say the Legislature needs to leave decisions about their patients’ care to the experts.

Galvano indicated a deal might include some exceptions to the seven-day limit, an idea Scott’s office balked at during the first half of the session.

While the opioid legislation is still under construction, the House and Senate advanced their budgets this week, more than a week ahead of schedule, according to Senate President Joe Negron.

Those words ought to make even pessimists pleased, especially after everyone was dragged back to Tallahassee for a special session on education spending last year.

Let the shrewd bargaining and reciprocal concessions begin.

‘RANSOM’ DOLLARS FOR SCHOOLS

The House and Senate on Thursday approved separate versions of an $87 billion-plus state budget, with the two chambers taking different courses on health-care spending and a plan to link education policy to the budget process.

Although the two plans are only $100 million apart overall, a major hurdle facing negotiators is a House plan that directly links the $21 billion public-school portion of the budget to passage of a separate 198-page “conforming” bill (HB 7055), a move one Democrat branded as “ransom.” The conforming bill contains major education policy changes, including voucher-like scholarships to pay for bullied students to transfer to private schools.

Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, said the bullying scholarship provision, which would divert more than $40 million in sales taxes, is another example of shifting public funding to charter and private schools.

“These programs are slowly killing our traditional public schools,” Ausley said. “The proverbial death by a thousand cuts.”

But the proposal, along with other attempts to expand school choice, are a priority for Corcoran and his leadership team. House Education Chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said the policy changes in the bill are aimed at helping students and their parents, rather than relying on the existing school system.

“Nowhere are we telling parents what to do. We are opening up the choices for them,” he said. “It’s the greatest accountability system we have in the world.”

Negron and Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, reiterated their position that the Senate is willing to consider the numerous education policies proposed by the House, but the Senate leaders want to keep policy and budget issues separate, the leaders said.

“It doesn’t offend me that a bill is 10 pages or 200 pages, as long as it goes through a proper process of vetting and people have an opportunity to amend, take out, put in, change language,” Bradley said.

RED-LIGHT CAMERAS IN THE CROSSHAIRS

Across the street from the Capitol, the Florida Supreme Court took up two high-profile cases this week, hearing arguments on red-light cameras and a challenge to the state’s anti-hazing law by a former member of Florida A&M University’s “Marching 100” band who’s now behind bars.

Dante Martin was sent to prison in the November 2011 death of Robert Champion, a Marching 100 drum major. Champion died after participating in a decades-old ritual known as “crossing Bus C,” in which band members are hit and slapped as they cross from the front to the back of a bus.

Martin, who was the “president” of Bus C, was charged with manslaughter, felony hazing resulting in death and two counts of hazing related to Champion’s death, which drew international attention and resulted in the ouster of the historically black university’s then-president, James Ammons, and long-serving band director, Julian White. An Orange County jury convicted Martin on all counts and a judge sentenced him to 77 months in prison.

But on Wednesday, Martin’s lawyers tried to convince the Supreme Court that the fatal hazing ritual was a “competition” authorized by state law.

Under Florida law, hazing “does not include customary athletic events or other similar contests or competitions or any activity or conduct that furthers a legal and legitimate objective,” Martin’s lawyer, Rupak Shah, told the justices.

But justices seemed skeptical of Shah’s arguments.

“What ordinary, customary competition is there (in) beating of someone?” Justice Peggy Quince asked.

“There are customary events, where beatings, boxing is recognized,” Shah answered.

Justice Barbara Pariente was even more pointed, asking if “hazings are competitions to see who can stay alive and who dies.”

But Shah said the hazing rite met one dictionary’s definition of “competition,” which requires “perseverance and endurance to overcome an obstacle.”

Shah’s rationale did not appear to satisfy Pariente.

“The idea that you’re advancing a theory of competition, that you’re equating this with a boxing match or a football game or hockey that gets out of hand, but that’s not what this was,” she said later.

The justices, meanwhile, seemed just as doubtful about a challenge related to the city of Aventura’s system of processing red-light camera citations.

Lawyers asked the court to quash a ticket issued to Luis Torres Jimenez after a red-light camera captured an image of an illegal right turn.

Wednesday’s arguments in the case centered on the role that American Traffic Solutions, Inc. — a major player in the industry — has in handling red-light traffic violations.

Up to 35 percent of the images, which are sorted by ATS employees, are rejected, according to court documents. The rest are given to city traffic enforcement officials, who decide whether to issue citations or not.

Stephen Rosenthal, who represents Jimenez, told the court that a state law, passed in 2010, allows third-party contractors to review the images, but only traffic enforcement officers can actually issue citations.

Aventura’s system is unlawful because no city official “reviews” the images the vendor’s employees deem are not violations, meaning that the private company ultimately decides which drivers not to ticket, Rosenthal argued.

“Mr. Jimenez was subjected to unauthorized screening by the vendors,” he said.

But several justices appeared skeptical of Rosenthal’s position.

“Is it a misery-loves-company argument?” Justice Charles Canady asked. “I’m struggling. If he violated the statute, I don’t see what he has to complain about because … other people who might have violated the statute don’t get dragged into the net.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: The House and Senate passed competing versions of the state budget, setting up negotiations over the $87 billion spending plan.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “At some point I would hope the department would stop looking for a scapegoat and just do its job.” Sen. Kevin Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat who helps chair the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, scolding Office of Medical Marijuana Use Director Christian Bax about delays in implementation of a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana in Florida.

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

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