April 28, 2017

Mayors, commissioners urge 'no' votes on homestead exemption

Mayors and commissioners in Tampa Bay are pressing their local senators to oppose a far-reaching proposal to increase Florida's homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.

Lobbying by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman helped convince Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, to oppose the bill, a linchpin in budget negotiations between the Senate and House and a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

"It would be devastating to the Tampa Bay area," Rouson said Friday morning after talking with the two mayors, Pinellas Commissioners Janet Long and Ken Welch and Hillsborough Commissioner Les Miller. Rouson said he believed dire warnings that the higher exemption would result in a sharp decline in public services, including police and fire protection.

The loss of two members of the Senate Republican Caucus adds some suspense to the issue. The GOP has 23 votes in the Senate, with Sen. Dorothy Hukill absent and former Sen. Frank Artiles having resigned a week ago. As a proposed constitutional amendment, the homestead exemption increase needs 24 votes to get on the 2018 general election ballot. 

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, supports the higher homestead exemption, which is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is viewed by counties and cities as a long-time ally. Even if all 23 Republicans vote yes on the Senate floor, one Democrat would have to vote yes for the proposal to pass. Rouson reiterated Friday that his position won't change: He's opposed.

State revenue experts have estimated that passage of the bill would result in a loss of $795 million in annual property tax revenue to counties, cities and special districts. The proposal (HJR 7105) cleared the House on Wednesday on an 81-35 vote.

Read the latest Senate staff analysis of the bill here.

'Schools of hope' compromise hatched -- in secret

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Lawmakers secretly struck a tentative compromise Thursday on one of the most consequential education reforms of the 2017 session — a $200 million program to help students who attend perpetually failing K-12 public schools in Florida.

Specifics of the proposed deal were not released, as some of it was still being finalized, House and Senate pre-K-12 education budget chairmen said late Thursday. But the general description of the agreement was enough to earn initial support from some House Democrats, who had — until very recently — staunchly opposed the concept.

“We’re happy they listened to us and a lot of the ideas we had in committee,” said Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, who helped negotiate the compromise on the Democrats’ behalf. “We’re happy with the direction they’re going in.”

That direction, Jones said, involves the House seeking middle ground with what school superintendents have asked for and with the Senate’s more blended proposal: Provide more financial aid and other resources to failing traditional public schools first, before implementing more drastic options, such as inviting competition from new charter schools.

More here.

Photo credit: Altamonte Springs Republican Sen. David Simmons and Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. -- the Senate and House pre-K-12 education budget chairmen -- talk with reporters after a budget conference committee meeting on April 27, 2017. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau.

House considers letting elected officials have secret meetings


The Florida Constitution and the state’s famed Sunshine Law give residents the right to know about and observe meetings held by the elected officials who represent them and make decisions on their behalf.

But a bill going to the state House floor on Friday would effectively thwart significant aspects of that constitutional guarantee and potentially render it meaningless by allowing local elected officials — from city and county commissioners to school board members — to meet behind closed doors and discuss public matters in secret.

The proposed law (HB 843) from Naples Republican Rep. Byron Donalds would exempt from open meetings requirements any gatherings between two members of a local, county or state agency board or commission. Those officials wouldn’t have to give any notice about their meeting and they wouldn’t have to keep any records of what they discuss. (The exemption would apply to boards or commissions with at least five members.)

Donalds argues that the Sunshine Law needs to be more practical in letting local elected officials conduct public business.

RELATED: “House votes to make secret the applicants for top college, university posts”

“If we’re going to be honest with ourselves and have a balance between proper governance and transparency, it is incumbent on local officials to be able to talk with each other so they come up with the best solutions possible,” said Donalds, whose wife, Erika, is an elected school board member in Collier County.

“This is where we have to be adults about this,” Donalds added. “Not every conversation is ready for public consumption.”

More here.

Watered-down deregulation of trauma care on tap in Florida House

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The Florida House is expected to pass watered-down legislation meant to increase the number of trauma centers in the state on Friday.

Trauma centers, which handle the worst, most time-sensitive injuries like gunshot wounds and violent car crashes, are limited under state law based on the need in each part of the state. State Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, had proposed to get rid of limits statewide.

But following criticism -- including from two doctors who treated Pulse nightclub shooting victims -- the legislation (HB 1077) was narrowed. Instead, the House on Friday will vote to take the power of determining how many centers each community needs away from the Department of Health and give it to the Legislature.

The reason: Supporters say there are parts of the state where there aren't enough trauma centers, including the Jacksonville region.

"To me, this is an access issue," said Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park, whose district includes Orange Park Hospital, a privately owned facility whose trauma center was shut down after a judge ruled the health department should not have allowed it to open.

Safety net hospitals and trauma doctors say the number of trauma centers should be limited to allow them to have the most experience possible.

The more frequently doctors do something, they say, the better they get at it.

"What happens if you or I is involved in a motor vehicle crash and we get taken to a hospital that doesn't have the experience?" one such doctor, Michael Cheatham of the Orlando Regional Medical Center, said. "Our survival will drop because we're not receiving the care that we need."

Similar legislation has not moved in the Senate.

Trumbull's bill would set the maximum number of trauma centers in each region of the state based on population. Under the bill, Under the bill, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties would need four trauma centers between them and Broward should have two.

"This is creating much more structure within the trauma statute," Trumbull said.

Photo by Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times

April 27, 2017

Florida Medicaid cuts will hit $650 million, Senate chair says



As part of a broad budget deal, House and Senate leaders have agreed to roughly $650 million in cuts to hospital payments through Medicaid.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, the Senate's health care budget chairwoman, confirmed that the state would cut its share of Medicaid payments by $250 million in the upcoming budget, which reduces federal matching dollars by more than $400 million. That's more than was proposed by either the House or Senate in their original budgets.

How each hospital could be affected is not yet clear.

But hospitals -- particularly safety net hospitals that care for a disproportionate amount of the state's Medicaid and charity care patients -- might be repaid for some of those cuts, Flores and House health budget chairman Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said.

"A couple months from now, that potentially could be backfilled or it could be lessened, or there could be some way that the federal government money that has been promised could help make (hospitals') year look a little different than what it is we come out with," Brodeur said.

That's because the terms of a Low Income Pool program that could reimburse as much as $1.5 billion in care for the uninsured have not yet been settled between the federal government and Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration.

AHCA spokeswoman Mallory McManus said Wednesday that "agency staff are continuing ongoing discussions."

Lawmakers are working on two plans to allow the state to put LIP into effect after the terms have been finalized later this year, either through separate legislation or by vote of the Legislative Budget Commission.

But the $83 billion state budget does not include LIP money, said House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. He said the Legislature plans on taking the money and adding it to whatever spending plan they pass.

Flores, however, warned that depending on the terms, the state may only be able to take $600 million in local and federal dollars under the program, not the full $1.5 billion the federal government agreed to help fund.

"What we're trying to figure out is what are the policies that we would need to implement to make sure that the hospitals can draw down the full amount," Flores said.

Photo: State Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, (right) talks to Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, on the floor of the Senate. (Scott Keeler | Times)

College, university emergency response plans will be out of Sunshine

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The substance of plans Florida’s public college and universities have for responding to campus emergencies or threats will soon be kept secret, under a proposed law that is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The measure creates an exemption in Florida’s public records law that shields from disclosure such materials as photographs, presentations, sheltering arrangements, training manuals and equipment and supplies related to emergency response strategies.

Senators approved HB 1079 by a 36-0 vote on Thursday without any debate, a week after the House also passed it unanimously.

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo

Does Legislature budget deal dare a Rick Scott veto?


Despite nearly daily warnings from Gov. Rick Scott that the Legislature is on the brink of damaging the state economy, the House and Senate appeared ready to move forward with an $83 billion budget deal that would severely cut his two biggest priorities, Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida.

“We have reached an agreement on allocations,” Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told senators during the Senate’s morning session.

There are still more details to be hammered out over the next four days, but the framework of the deal is expected to include the House’s insistence on cutting Visit Florida’s $76 million annual budget to $25 million and rejects Scott’s demand for $85 million for Enterprise Florida. Scott’s stated top priorities.

Scott started his day in West Palm Beach on Thursday where he met with economic development groups and later held a press conference about his frustration that the Legislature also refused to set aside $200 million he had request to strengthen the Herbert Hoover dike around Lake Okeechobee.

"The politicians in Tallahassee are not including the $200 million in the state budget," Scott said.

Returning to Tallahassee after four days in Argentina for a trade mission, Scott scheduled 10 meetings with state Senators, including key allies who have supported his calls for funding Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, like Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

If Scott cannot convince them to restore funding to Visit Florida and better fund Enterprise Florida, Scott will be left with the potential of signing the budget when it gets to him, or vetoing it completely and requiring the Legislature to return to Tallahassee to pass a new budget.

“That’s a possibility,” said State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill who is also the Republican Party of Florida chairman.

State Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said he thinks Scott should consider vetoing the whole budget.

“The most important thing for the governor is jobs,” said Gruters, a longtime ally of Scott's. "That’s the one thing that he wants. And they’re not giving it to him. What other options does he have. I don’t know what the Governor will do, but I hope somehow, the House and Senate will come together and fully fund the Governor’s wishes.”

Continue reading "Does Legislature budget deal dare a Rick Scott veto?" »

A hidden tax on hard-working motorists? Tax collectors think so

TagsDid the state House just impose a new hidden tax on cash-strapped motorists in Florida? No, say lawmakers. Yes, say Florida's elected tax collectors.

Every session, private agencies that renew car registrations and licenses seek a greater foothold in the nation's third-largest state, a lucrative market. They succeeded in getting language in a must-pass tax cut package that allows them to charge drivers a new "convenience fee." (Republicans in Tallahassee don't like to use the word "tax.")

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, was included in the same bill that includes a cut in the business rent tax, back-to-school sales tax holidays and other forms of tax relief. Read the Brodeur amendment here.

When Rep. Lori Berman and a few other Democrats asked Brodeur why private vendors should be able to charge a fee that tax collectors can't, Brodeur said it's for the convenience of motorists who may want to renew their tags on nights and on weekends at a "branch office," as the amendment specifies. Brodeur said the amount of the fee would be regulated by the market.

The measure sailed through the House on Wednesday on a 117-0 vote, with liberal Democrats joining conservative Republicans in voting for it. The bill now awaits a final vote in the Senate -- which could strip out the controversial Brodeur language -- before sending the bill to Gov. Rick Scott, a strong supporter of tax cuts.

"It's laughable," said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a former Republican legislator who opposed the amendment. Because Brodeur's amendment doesn't specify how much the fee can be, the sky's the limit: a dollar? $2.50? $10? "You have no idea what they're going to charge," Fasano said.

Florida drivers pay tax collectors a fee of $6.25 to renew their tags and a $2.50 fee for the issuance or renewal of a driver's license. Those fees have not been increased in years, and Fasano, whose agency is $3 million in the hole, says they don't cover the costs of operations.

What worries tax collectors is the possible proliferation of private tag vendors siphoning away their business and their revenue. Most tax collectors operate exclusively on motorist fees, with no tax revenue.

The House sponsor of the tax cut package, Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, whose county of Manatee has a private tag vendor, said motorists can still renew their tags online or at a tax collector's office without facing the possibility of a "convenience fee."

"If you want the convenience of a service like this, you're welcome to go do it," Boyd said. "There's no requirement. The tax collector still has to approve these facilities. There's no hidden fees because there's no requirement to use them."

Fasano said it's an obvious giveaway to private vendors. "I can't believe the governor and his staff would let this go through," he said.

Senate's vetting of 'schools of hope' has been vastly limited compared to House



Nine minutes.

That’s how long senators on the Appropriations Committee spent this week to hurriedly describe, amend and approve their version of one of the most high-profile, substantial and costly education policy changes the Legislature will enact this year affecting K-12 public schools.

Senators did not even debate their pair of bills Tuesday that counter a House Republican-approved $200 million “schools of hope” incentive for specialized charter schools. The one person from the public who wanted to weigh in was cut off after 56 seconds.

That’s not the picture of open, thorough and public debate Republican Senate leaders painted a couple of weeks ago when they agreed to send the House bill directly into budget negotiations and vowed transparency in those talks with the House.

Senate leaders had pledged they would have enough time — and would take the time — to properly vet the House “schools of hope” legislation and develop their own ideas on how to improve educational opportunities and services for students, mostly poor and minorities, who attend perpetually failing neighborhood schools.

“These issues have been discussed around here, and we’re just putting them in the conference posture,” Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told reporters Tuesday, referencing the pending budget negotiations process and dismissing the lack of time spent on the Senate’s “schools of hope” bills.

The Senate had general, conceptual conversations earlier in session on how to help kids in failing schools, as did the House. But substantive consideration of an actual policy proposal by the Senate has been extremely limited, compared to the airing the House gave its priority bill.

Senators, so far, have spent barely 90 minutes vetting their legislative proposals (SB 1552 and SB 796) across three committee hearings since senators unveiled their specific policy language early last week.

In contrast, House members spent nine hours considering their bill (HB 5105) during two committee hearings and across two days of discussion, debate and voting on the House floor — about six times as long as the Senate has to date, a Herald/Times analysis found. (Through its two committee hearings alone, the House spent three-and-a-half hours on “schools of hope.”)

Full story here.

Photo credit: Stuart Republican and Senate President Joe Negron, left, and Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, talk with reporters during a press conference in early April. Phil Sears / AP

April 26, 2017

More warnings from Rick Scott's office against cutting Visit Florida


As the Florida Legislature steams towards a budget deal that increasingly looks like it would gut funding for Visit Florida, Gov. Rick Scott's office put out a letter warning of dire fiscal consequences if lawmakers don't change course.

The Florida House and Senate appeared to be nearing a budget deal that would cut Visit Florida's $76 million budget to just $25 million next year. Scott had called for $100 million for the agency to market the state.

If the Legislature goes through with the cuts, the state could see a big drop in revenues, according to Christian Weiss, policy coordinator of finance and economics for the state Office of Policy Budget.

In his memo to Scott, which Scott shared with the media on Wednesday, Weiss said based on his review of a study of Visit Florida's return on investment, the state could lose $210 million in state revenues by cutting the agency that deeply.

"Promoting and marketing the Florida brand to potential visitors is crucial to not only maintaining and but also increasing the number of visitors," Weiss said in his memo dated Wednesday. "More than half of the visitors are the direct result of such marketing efforts. Consequently, any decrease in advertising will negatively affect the state economy."

That warning letter comes a day after Scott's office put out a letter from the state's chief bond officer, Ben Watkins, who suggested a potential loss in tourism revenues could lead to a drop in state and local revenues and that, perhaps, could reduce bond ratings.