April 25, 2017

Negron and Corcoran work to negotiate an end to the budget deadlock

Corcoran and Negron

Midway through the day on Tuesday, a framework of a budget deal appeared to be emerging as House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron leapfrogged past their budget chairs and spent much of the morning negotiating a break in the deadlock.

"I'm very encouraged,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, at midday. "The process has continued and so there's continuing offers between the chambers and we'll take it from there."

It became clear that the negotiations were going beyond the detail of the budget allocations and instead reached into trades on major policy bills that have divided the chambers on education, environmental protection, health care and state employees.

The Senate used its Appropriations Committee Tuesday to quickly advance education reforms sought by the House as part of the budget negotiations. With eight minutes left, the Senate passed two large amendments to education bills and took no testimony.

"These issues have been discussed around here and we're just putting them in the conference posture,'' said Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, after the meeting.

However, Senate education committees have largely discussed only in general concepts how to help students in perpetually failing schools.

The chamber's response to a proposal the House has dubbed "schools of hope" was unveiled only a week ago. That specific policy language got less than an hour's worth of discussion at that previous hearing; Tuesday was the Senate's opportunity to continue that discussion. By comparison, the House spent more than eight hours specifically vetting its "schools of hope" bill before it passed the floor earlier this month.

When a member of the public addressed the Senate Appropriations Committee, noting that one of the amendments would allow non-certified teachers to be teaching at Florida schools, Latvala reminded her there was one minute left before the committee had to adjourn.

Latvala said he hasn't agreed to accept the House's reforms to pensions and state employee health benefits in exchange for the pay raise but he didn't deny that a potential trade is on the table.

"I haven't agreed to anything like that. The bill was heard in committee yesterday. It will be heard again in committee before any trade is made."

He denied they are close to allocations. "I've been sitting in that meeting for four hours. I have no idea what's going on and I've got nothing more to say right now,'' he said.

Galvano said the Senate is not ready to trade gaming policy for budget consensus.

"At this point they are only being put into the conference process,'' he said, adding that he was "not privy to the latest details. We still need to have the membership vote on these things."

He said that relying on a gambling deal for reserves for future years is not part of the deal at this point.

"You can't do that because we have to have at least some affirmation from the Seminole Tribe that these funds are available,'' he said. "Right now, it's just at the allocation stage and you can't allocate dollars you don't have."

"We will have other meetings in this committee,'' Latvala said, apologizing that they didn't get through some of the bills and cut short much of the debate.

For the Senate, major elements of an agreement include a major new Lake Okeechobee reservoir, more money for the state's major universities and an across-the-board pay raise for state workers. 

The House's must-haves include $200 million for an expansion of charter schools, no increase in property taxes for public schools and a statewide referendum in 2018 to let voters increase the Florida homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.

The fate of Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida also remains a key issue. Corcoran has insisted on a major cut to Visit Florida's budget to $25 million and a major cut to Enterprise Florida's budget.

Negotiations intensified while Gov. Rick Scott was in the second day of a four-day Enterprise Florida trade mission to Argentina. But as the negotiations over major policy appeared to move underground, advocates also expressed their frustration.

"If the House had wanted to promote policy changes that said we will not fund much without non-recurring revenue, we should have reviewed it, had public input,'' said Karen Woodall, lobbyist for the left-leaning Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy. "Instead, the House is using the budget as a tool to for the Senate's hand on philosophical policy differences."

Staff writers Steve Bousquet and Kristen Clark contributed to this report. 

With medical marijuana bills headed to floor votes, final deal won't have public comment

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@MichaelAuslen

Lawmakers say they're getting close to agreement on sweeping legislation on how to put voter-mandated medical marijuana into effect. But the details of a deal -- and how it might impact patient access -- are still unclear.

Instead of unveiling the deal to be vetted by House and Senate committees this week, legislators plan to put it forward for full vote by the two chambers, likely next week.

That would likely come in the form of a complete rewrite of the legislation subject to an up-or-down vote on the floor of the House and Senate.

What it means for advocates and activists is this: There won't be an opportunity for public comment on the details of the final plan, which is being arranged by bill sponsors behind closed doors.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who sponsored the Senate's medical marijuana bill (SB 406), said he's "comfortable" with the amount of public input there has been.

"I don't think that there's anything left to be said that hasn't been said already," Bradley said. "We've heard loud and clear people's concerns about access and about making sure that the product is safe and that there are options to recievie medical marijuana, and we're responding to those concerns."

In the House and Senate, lawmakers gave medical marijuana legislation three public hearings, where comment was often limited to ensure packed committee agendas could be finished.

By the end of those meetings, the competing bills had in many ways become less similar.

House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who sponsored the House bill (HB 1397) said Monday that he is confident some sort of deal will be reached.

"I think our negotiations are going very well," he said, but he noted that "everything is on the table with our bills."

Photo: Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island (Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times)

'Cold case' murder victims get dragged into budget controversy

Nothing is immune from the bruising budget battle between the House and Senate in Tallahassee.

When House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, excoriated "liberal" senators for loading the budget with hundreds of millions of dollars in hometown projects, the Senate responded in kind. Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, noted that Corcoran wants to take home $4.3 million for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, where the speaker does legal work.

RenderingPascoIt's a first-of-its-kind Florida forensics laboratory in Land O'Lakes near the Pasco County jail (see rendering) that would teach law enforcement professionals and students while focusing on 16,000 estimated "cold case" unsolved murders and missing person cases in Florida.

"I haven't criticized the project," Latvala said. "I'm just saying that it's ironic: He's against projects, but the largest single project in the budget is for him ... It's do as I say, not as I do."

"It had nothing to do with me," Corcoran said. "It's not parochial. It's for the entire state."

The Tampa Bay Times described the project, known as a "body farm," in detail here.

It will formally be called the Florida Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactical Training. The leaders of the project include Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco and forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle at USF, who led the research that unearthed the remains of young boys beaten to death and buried in unmarked graves at the former Arthur Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. The project is listed as a one-sentence proviso on page 181 of the House budget bill in the criminal justice category: "From the funds in Specific Appropriation 1234, $4,300,000 from nonrecurring general revenue funds is provided to the Forensic Training center (HB 3577)." The project's sponsor is Rep. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, but Corcoran said Dr. Kimmerle brought the idea to him.

If the House carries out with its planned "standard operating budget" and extends the current budget for a second fiscal year, the project would not get any state money next year.

Nocco said he met with Latvala to discuss the project on Jan. 24. "If he had any issues with it, I wish he would have said it directly to me," Nocco told the Times/Herald.

Corcoran and Nocco are allies, and Latvala noted that Corcoran, a lawyer, has a contract at the Broad & Cassel law firm to serve as legal adviser to the sheriff's office. The speaker said plans call for naming the Pasco center in memory of a Dozier victim, Thomas Varnadoe of Brooksville, who died in 1934.

April 24, 2017

'The House is prepared to walk away,' K-12 education budget chairman says

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@ByKristenMClark

If House Republicans follow through this week on plans to vote on a budget for 2017-18 that simply mirrors this year's, they will have to scrap a slew of top education priorities they had sought this year and worked for months to craft -- including their $200 million "schools of hope" plan to provide incentives for specialized, high-performing charter schools to set up in predominantly low-income areas.

"Our responsibility, constitutionally, is to pass a budget, so if it means that's what we have to do and walk away, then that's what we have to do," House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, told the Herald/Times mid-afternoon on Monday. "We come back next session -- which, September starts committee [weeks] -- and we go back at it again."

The House's backroom offer over the weekend of what its calling a "continuation budget" was rebuffed by Senate leaders, leaving the two chambers deadlocked. The House isn't backing down, though.

MORE: "Stalemate in the Florida Capitol as budget talks collapse"

Diaz said the plan is: "We're going to take last year's budget and put it on the floor and pass it, which means it's a take-it-or-leave-it offer -- which means there's no conference [negotiations]. That means they [the Senate] would have to turn down that bill for us to not have a budget and send us in to special session. That's where we are right now."

The status of budget negotiations could change by the hour, but for now, "the House is prepared to walk away with a continuation budget. We're fine with it," Diaz said. "It's a budget that will obviously not include all of these new twists and wrinkles and doesn't address those things that we think are a very high need and emergency needs, as we've said, but at the end of the day, we have to pass a budget."

"If that's where we have to go, that's where we have to go. We can't go climbing to the $85 billion that the Senate wants," Diaz added.

Diaz said he and his counterpart in the Senate -- Senate pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs -- are still talking privately to find middle ground on key budget issues affecting public schools. But he said their conversations are limited because they don't have budget allocations, a figure of how much money they would have to work with.

"It doesn't matter what we talk about because we don't have allocations," Diaz said. "We're talking about concepts and things that are important and how to help these kids in these low-income schools, et cetera, et cetera -- but it's all conceptual."

Photo credit: Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, addresses a luncheon audience at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. on Jan. 26, 2017 with Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, left. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

Galvano reads the tea leaves: court is prepared to allow statewide expansion of slot machines

Slot machines Herald

House and Senate leaders conceded Monday that years of Legislative stalemate over the future of slot machine expansion in Florida -- including whether Miami-Dade will be home to additional casinos -- may come to an end not because of their actions but because the courts have forced their hand.

Lawmakers convened a conference committee Monday to work out the differences between their vastly different gambling bills aimed at renewing the gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe. But, in the process they concluded that no matter what they do, a series of court rulings may be driving the train. 

“There’s too many lawsuits out there. We have to act,’’ said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the House's chief gambling negotiator. He noted  that numerous court rulings over the last few years have been nipping away at the compact with the Seminole Tribe by allowing gambling to expand in violation of the compact without legislative approval.

The latest decision came Thursday, when the court approved the language for a proposed constitutional amendment that would require voter approval for any casino expansion in the future. Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, a lawyer who helped negotiate the current compact with the Tribe, said that he thinks the dissenting opinion in that case is the latest clue the court is ready to overrule the Legislature's position that it has final say over expanding gambling in Florida.

The dissent came from one of the two most conservative members of the Florida Supreme Court, Justice Ricky Polston, who was considered "a no-vote on the referendum counties to keep their slots," Galvano explained.

The language in his opinion may shine a light on a ruling lawmakers have been awaiting for nearly 11 months: whether a struggling race track in the impoverished North Florida town of Gretna is entitled to slot machines because voters approved a countywide referendum in 2012, he said, adding that Polston's dissent reads as if he has accepted that voter-approved slot machines across the state are "existing."

The Gretna case is expected to have precedent-setting power by determining whether or not voters can expand gambling without legislative authority and, Galvano speculated, it appears as if the court has decided voters are in control.

"One can almost glean from the dissent that it's a fait accompli just pending in the court,'' Galvano told members of the gambling conference at its first meeting on Monday. "I don't want to put words in the court's future opinion but those are the type things that we need to be aware of.”

Galvano said a reading of the opinions indicates that the court may have concluded that slot machines are not only allowed in the 10 counties that have conducted voter referendums to approve them, but that they may not be allowed if a county has not approved them -- such is the case at Hialeah Racetrack, in which the Legislature, not the voters, approved the slot machine expansion.

Galvano admits it's an attempt to read the tea leaves on a case the court heard oral arguments about in June but has still not ruled.

"All of these things play into the big picture,’’ he said.

The proposed constitutional amendment is being backed by No Casinos, an Orlando-backed group that does not reveal its financing. The amendment would ask voters in November 2018 to require statewide approval for any casino expansion in the state. The proposed language would give voters the "exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling" in the state.

The Senate has long contended that lawmakers have the authority to expand gaming in Florida while the House is arguing that it supports requiring voters statewide to approve any new casinos.

“In the House, we would see the constitutional amendment as a compliment to what we are trying to do,’’ said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the House's leading negotiator on the gambling conference committee.

The Supreme Court approved the language of the amendment in a 4-2 decision, with Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and Charles Canady in the majority and justices Ricky Polston and R. Fred Lewis dissenting. Justice Alan Lawson, who joined the court at end of December, did not take part.

In his dissent, Polston argued that the proposal is misleading and violates the single-subject requirement. He said it fails to fully inform voters about its possible effects on a 2004 constitutional amendment that authorized slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Under that amendment, local voters also had to approve the slot machines.

"The initiative is placing voters in the position of deciding between a preference for controlling the expansion of full-fledged casino gambling and Florida's current legal gaming landscape," Polston wrote.

But the majority disagreed and said the ballot language was clear enough to go on the ballot.

"The opponents primarily argue that the initiative should not be placed on the ballot because it is unclear whether, if passed, the amendment would apply retroactively and what effect, if any, the amendment would have on gambling that is currently legal in Florida --- including gambling that was previously authorized by general law rather than by citizens' initiative," the majority wrote.

Galvano repeated the Senate’s desire to negotiate a comprehensive gambling package rather than just address the compact.

“Every point is a leverage point for one component of the industry, including the Seminoles, and that’s the only way we’ll get done,’’ he said.

The bills before the House and Senate attempt to not only renew the compact, but address court rulings that have left the state’s already-frayed gaming laws in tatters. The Senate bill, SB 8, opens the door to massive expansion of slot machines and Indian gaming, while the House bill, PCB TGC 17-01, continues to give the Seminole Tribe the exclusive right to slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward and blackjack at their South Florida casinos but demands more money than they are paying now in exchange -- $3 billion over seven years.

"There's still plenty of threats out there and we're constantly playing a game of catch-up,'' Diaz said.

The Seminole Tribe has said that it would not agree to either approach because the Senate allows for more competition than it believes should be allowed in exchange for payments to the state while the House asks for too much money in exchange for what is essentially the status quo.

On Monday, Galvano said the Senate was prepared to make some minor changes to its own gambling bill by including a provision to require that the state be given 24 months to pass legislation to remedy any alleged violation in the Tribe’s compact with the state.

The Senate also agreed to provide more flexibility if the Seminole Tribe of Florida objected to allowing an additional casino in Broward, by instead suggesting that the two new casinos it wants to authorize for South Florida could both be located in Miami-Dade or Broward, a shift from the current bill which says each county may get only one new casino.

The Tribe has objected to the competition in Broward and "that gives us the flexibility without losing the revenue,'' Galvano explained.

House's testing bill set to expand, setting up negotiations with Senate

SP_409499_KEEL_2_FLGOV@ByKristenMClark

Lawmakers in the Florida House plan to take a priority proposal aimed at reforming the standardized testing schedule in K-12 public schools and transform it into a broader education policy bill — a move intended to set up negotiations with the Senate with less than two weeks left in the 2017 session.

Members of the House Education Committee will vote Monday afternoon to expand HB 773 through a 76-page amendment — filed late Sunday by bill sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. The amendment would replace the bill so it incorporates language not only from Diaz’s original measure but also from at least five other education bills lawmakers have considered to varying degrees.

Such a strategic move is typical at this point in session but often draws criticism over a lack of transparency. Individual policy bills that stalled in committee can find new life through omnibus bills lawmakers create by attaching those smaller proposals on to a single, expanded bill that’s still on track to reach the floor.

Senators last week similarly expanded their testing proposal (SB 926), although the tangential education policies being added to each chamber’s testing bill don’t yet align.

More here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Stalemate in Tallahassee as budget talks collapse and stall

Negotiations between the Florida House and Senate on a state budget are at a stalemate after the House on Sunday proposed a "continuation budget" for the fiscal year that begins July 1, meaning that current spending levels would remain flat with no cuts, no new initiatives and no hometown projects for legislators.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, made his offer in response to what he said was a liberal, free-spending Senate obsessed with higher spending and a lack of respect for the House. Corcoran viewed that as a serious offer, in part because it would ensure current spending levels for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida for another 12 months.

NegronBousquetBut Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart (in photo), didn't take it seriously.

"That's not an offer. That's the equivalent of packing your suitcase and moving out," Negron told the Times/Herald. "It's a reflexive and lazy response to our responsibility for budgeting."

Negron's chief budget-writer, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said: "We laughed and went home."

Corcoran referred to Negron and Latvala as "Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders" for their approach to budgeting, and Latvala in particular bristled at being labeled a liberal Democrat by the Republican speaker.   

"If we're being liberal wanting to restore the personal needs allowance that people on Medicaid get, then so be it," Latvala said, referring to a proposed House cut, from $105 a month to $70, for elderly Floridians to pay for haircuts and other personal needs.  

At the end of last week, Negron and Corcoran said negotiations were proceeding smoothly, and both leaders sounded hopeful about striking a deal. But House leaders claimed senators opened up a series of new issues on Saturday, including money for farmworkers and a program to help firefighters who are presumed to have contracted cancer. The House also said senators insisted the budget must have seven dollars for Senate member projects to every dollar for House projects.

Legislative leaders have said that a joint House-Senate conference committee would have to begin its work by Monday for the session to end on time on Friday, May 5.

 

April 22, 2017

Frank Artiles, from defiance to resignation: Four extraordinary days at the Florida Capitol

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@PatriciaMazzei @stevebousquet @MaryEllenKlas

TALLAHASSEE -- Last Monday afternoon, at the start of the state Legislature’s seventh week of session, Sen. Audrey Gibson raced up three floors to present one of her bills to the Florida Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, stood behind the lectern and tried to catch her breath as she told colleagues about a 6-year-old from back home who had been involuntarily committed to a mental-health facility for three days for a “temper tantrum.” She filed legislation to require such facilities to speed up their evaluation of the about 30,000 admitted each year under the state’s Baker Act.

But a Miami Republican on the committee had questions. Wouldn’t it cost more money for the facilities to work faster? Sen. Frank Artiles asked. Only for more transportation, Gibson said. Artiles continued: If a child is released before 72 hours have gone by and has a psychotic break, won’t lawmakers just be forced to change the law again?

It looked like a typical legislative exchange over policy. Nine hours later, Gibson found out it had been political retribution.

Spotting her at the Governors Club Lounge in downtown Tallahassee around 10:30 p.m., Artiles, who had been drinking, confronted Gibson: “Audrey, stop being a bitch on my bills and I’ll stop being a fucking asshole on yours.” 

His words would mark the beginning of the end of his Senate career.

By the end of his tirade, Artiles had called Gibson a “girl,” Senate President Joe Negron a “pussy” and Republicans who had elected Negron “niggas.” By the end of the week, Artiles had resigned, succumbing to pressure from a Senate overcome by the scandal.

More here.

April 21, 2017

Rubio: 'No doubt' Artiles should have resigned

@PatriciaMazzei

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Friday he approves of fellow Republican state Sen. Frank Artiles' resignation from the Florida Legislature following a racist and sexist tirade against two lawmakers.

Rubio told Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4 that elected officials are -- and should be -- "held to a different standard." 

"You hold a public trust, you are a representative of those districts, and you are going to be held to a different standard, and people should know that coming in," Rubio said in an interview with "Facing South Florida" host Jim DeFede that will air Sunday. "No one forces anyone to run for office, and no one forces you to run in the state Senate."

Here are Rubio's comments in full:

Rubio: "I know Perry Thurston. I know Audrey Gibson, actually very well. She served with me in the House. We're good friends. And I'm sorry she found herself in that position, because I know that is not what she is in Tallahassee to do. She didn't seek this out. It's an unfortunate thing and an inappropriate thing, obviously, that [Artiles] said, and my understanding is that he resigned, and, in the end, what people don't realize is the legislative bodies, the Senate and the House, they are the judge of their own members' qualifications. They can remove members from their seats. And it sounds like that is where the Senate was headed. And so there is no doubt Sen. Artiles made the right choice in light of that. It had gotten in the way of, I think, the Senate being able to function in Tallahassee, and, ultimately, I think, gotten in the way of his ability to continue to serve effectively."

DeFede: "You went through a similar circumstance when you were the incoming Speaker with Ralph Arza, who was also caught using a racist term and ended up resigning. Where are we? Where do you think we are when incidents like this do come up from time to time?"

Rubio: "You know, I think it happens, and when it happens it has to be dealt with. For the most part, people need to recognize that when you are in public office, the words you use, your behavior, is held to a different standard. And in the case of a collegial body like the Senate, where you need to work with 39 other people in Tallahassee to get things done, how you comport yourself with your colleagues has a direct impact on your effectiveness. Obviously, the terminology that was used is inappropriate in any setting. I think people for the most part know that. And then when they make these horrible mistakes or decisions or say these incredible difficult or horrible things, I should say, they need to understand that they're not -- you're not going to be treated, nor should you be, like anybody in some other job. You hold a public trust, you are a representative of those districts, and you are going to be held to a different standard, and people should know that coming in. No one forces anyone to run for office, and no one forces you to run in the state Senate."

Why was there a cop outside Artiles’ Miami house Friday?

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via @LDixon_3

On Friday state Sen. Frank Artiles resigned from the Florida Legislature after a scandal over his use of a flurry of racial slurs and insults to refer to fellow lawmakers at a Tallahassee bar.

Down in South Florida, a police cruiser was parked across the street from his southwest Miami-Dade home, and when a reporter went to knock on Artiles’ door, an officer emerged from his car and said the former senator wasn’t giving any interviews.

Why was there a cop outside the former senator’s home?

It turns out the police presence was the result of a watch order requested by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement after a previous protest at Artiles’ home, Miami-Dade police said.

Detective Alvaro Zabaleta said that anyone can request the order and it was an effort to keep the street clear and traffic moving. 

"We knew that protesters had gone to his house and media trucks had blocked the roadway," Zabaleta said.

Once Artiles officially resigned from office the police presence was called away, Zabaleta said, although one cruiser, driven by officer Orlando Fleites, remained across the street from the house at about noon Friday.

Artiles never emerged from the house, but two trucks were parked outside including one sporting a state legislator tag.

--LANCE DIXON

Photo credit: Steve Cannon, Associated Press