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55 posts from April 2019

April 30, 2019

Healthcare bill breathes new life into proposal to cap strong smokable medical pot


While House Health & Human Services Chairman Ray Rodrigues' bill to cap medical THC — the naturally occurring element in marijuana that produces a high — was never heard on the floor and failed to get a Senate companion, the Estero Republican's proposal is not dead yet.

But although there is only a matter of days left in the legislative session, the proposal to cap strong medical pot was tacked on as an amendment to a larger health-related agency bill, as often happens to some major changes in the final days of session.

The amendment was filed to a Senate bill dealing with the Department of Health and could be taken up later Tuesday night on the House floor. The proposal would limit the amount of THC, in dried leaves and marijuana flowers to 10 percent, citing research indicating that high-potency marijuana is associated with earlier onset of psychosis and the development of schizophrenia in marijuana users.

Current law places a limit on the amount of THC in edible products only, which may only contain 10 mg of THC per serving and 200 mg in total. The levels are much higher than what most patients would normally consume, according to industry experts.

Despite criticism that the bill is trying to curb the Legislature’s recent repeal of a ban on smoking medical marijuana, committee chair Rep. Ray Rodrigues said the bill is necessary because of the research around harmful effects of high-THC marijuana.

April 29, 2019

Florida's tourism arm Visit Florida gets money for one more year

The state-funded tourism agency Visit Florida survived a potential death this week, with lawmakers deciding to fund it for one more year.
But it’s getting a big budget cut. Lawmakers are assigning it $50 million for the next fiscal year, $26 million less than Gov. Ron DeSantis asked for in his budget.
The amount is a compromise between the Senate and the House, where Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said he wanted to kill the state’s tourism arm outright.
He saw it as a waste of money when companies like Disney already do their own marketing for Florida, where tourism is one of the state’s main economic drivers.
“In a trillion-dollar economy, a few million dollars put towards advertising a few different places cannot possibly have a direct correlation with tourism,” Oliva said last week.
The agency did itself no favors the last few years after spending millions on several controversial promotions, including $11.6 million to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and $1 million for Miami rapper Pitbull to promote Florida in videos and on social media.
The agency is now set to expire on June 30, 2020, unless lawmakers next year decide to keep paying for it.

Florida Legislature finishes K-12 education budget with $248 increase per student

Miami Herald file photo
TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers said they were finished negotiating the preK-12 education portion of the budget during a Sunday evening meeting, closing out one of the largest and typically one of the most contentious areas of the state’s massive funding plan. If the session is to finish on time, the entire state budget must be finished by the end of the day Tuesday.
Highlights of the preK-12 education budget include a $248 per-student increase in state funding that’s distributed based on enrollment, also called the “FEFP.” However, it’s important to note that lawmakers have also boosted the number of programs that are funded through the per-student pot, so comparing that to last year’s $101 per-pupil increase is not completely representative.
The best measure, perhaps, is the portion of that increase dedicated to flexible district spending, in a category called the “base student allocation.” This year, lawmakers have agreed to a $75 per-student boost to that portion.
Last year’s increase to the base student allocation was only 47 cents, which sparked outrage among districts and superintendents demanded that the Legislature reconvene to redo their education funding after the session had ended.
This year’s amount elicited a much warmer response from school leaders.
Pinellas County schools superintendent Mike Grego, who was a vocal critic of last year’s budget, praised the agreement, saying he was “very much more excited about the budget this year than last.”
“It’s obviously moving in the right direction,” said Grego, vice president of the state superintendents association.
He said this increase to the base student allocation could help the district cover retirement costs, electric bills and health insurance benefits — all of which are rising. At $75 per student, Pinellas schools would get about $7.3 million, Grego said.
Other than the base student allocation, there are other important categories within the per-student funding that are dedicated to certain expenses, such as school safety and mental health services offered in schools by counselors and school psychologists. The breakdown of those categories was not yet released as of early Monday evening.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho noted that this $75 boost represents the highest increase in the flexible district spending, which he called the “clearest indicator” of state education funding, since the 2015-2016 budget.
“We certainly should celebrate a $75 increase to the BSA,” he said. “We could very well see ourselves in a position where … in this next year, we would not have to make reductions to balance the budget as was the case in the last four years.”
Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning, president-elect of the state superintendents association, got word of the base-student allocation amount while traveling abroad. He was among the superintendents who most loudly criticized the Legislature's 47-cent increase a year ago.
“The additional $75 in BSA is welcomed,” Browning said via text message, noting he had not seen all the other details in the budget. “Grateful, but hoping for more for teacher raises.”
Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman Tamara Shamburger said she viewed the budget as more of a mixed message.
“We’re grateful and we’re happy that the legislators have heard us,” she said, but noted the higher funding level does little to boost Florida’s national standing when it comes to per-student funding. “We certainly will encourage everyone next year to do a little bit better."

Florida House passes criminal justice reform package bill. But it’s not over yet.

Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, is the sponsor of the House's criminal justice reform package.
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House passed a sweeping, 296-page criminal justice reform package on Monday with only one lone “no” vote, signaling to the Florida Senate that they are willing to come to an agreement on many issues that have long failed to cross the finish line in the Legislature.
The proposal, House Bill 7125, contains a slew of changes praised by both Democrats and Republicans, including raising Florida’s theft “threshold” — the dollar amount at which a misdemeanor theft becomes a felony — from $300 to $1,000. This would bring Florida’s amount close to the national average and adjusts for inflation since the $300 amount was set in 1986.
We all know theft is wrong,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples. “The question is, ‘At what point are you going to be branded a felon for the rest of your life?’ Because once you’re a felon in this system, there’s no coming back from that.”
The bill also would allow state attorneys to decide if juvenile cases should be transferred to adult court, which currently happens automatically if the crime is severe or the child has certain prior convictions. In a win for advocates for former felons’ rights, the bill would also make it easier for people with prior felony convictions to get occupational licenses for everything from barbering to auctioneering, helping people get jobs more easily after they are released from prison.
It also repeals and reduces driver’s license suspensions as a penalty for non-driving related crimes, and would give crime victims a longer period of time to file for compensation after the original crime was committed.
The only “no” vote came from Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, who said he was concerned that being more lenient on theft was not “moral."
“I don’t think we should be soft on crime, because we are not championing the rights of the individual,” he said.
There are major things the Senate has sought that the House does not have: chiefly, a piece that would give judges discretion over the sentences they hand down for certain drug trafficking crimes — under current law for example, someone caught with at least 28 grams of cocaine would face a required sentence of at least three years imprisonment and a $50,000 fine. Those required sentences are often referred to as “mandatory minimums.”
The Senate bill would also allow prison inmates to earn “gain time," through programs and good behavior, that would allow them to be released after a maximum of 65 percent of their sentence. Current law requires them to serve at least 85 percent. It’s estimated that that change alone could save the state $860 million and remove about 9,000 people from prison by 2024.
But that piece has also prompted major opposition from Gov. Ron DeSantis as well as the Florida Sheriffs Association, who have both said 65 percent is not enough.
Those major differences are still being negotiated behind the scenes, which means the House’s passage Monday was just one step in that process. The Senate is expected to amend the House bill and then send it back to the House for their final approval in the coming days.
The legislative session is scheduled to end Friday.

April 27, 2019

Florida is spending $200 million on affordable housing next year, most of it in Panhandle

The Florida Legislature is assigning $200 million to affordable housing programs next year, doubling what the state spent last year but short of what Gov. Ron DeSantis wanted.
Most of the money — $115 million — is going toward affordable housing programs in the Panhandle areas affected by Hurricane Michael. Another $77 million is going to programs around the state, and another $8 million is going to the Jacksonville area.
State Sen. Rob Bradley noted that the amount is about $100 million more than the state spent last year.
“We made a big jump compared to where we were last year,” Bradley said.
But it falls far short of what DeSantis wanted in his budget. He wanted the state to spend $338 million on the programs, which provide low-interest loans to developers of affordable housing and build affordable housing for low- and middle-income families.
Affordable housing has been a growing problem in the state. A recent study showed Orlando the worst among the nation’s 50 largest metro areas for the availability of affordable housing.

April 26, 2019

Ron DeSantis to get $4 million from the Florida Legislature for a new(er) plane

A 2003 Raytheon Aircraft Company B300 fixed wing, multi engine plane, as it takes off from Prestwick Airport in Scotland, United Kingdom in September 2011. The plane is believed to be the same plane that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is using and is currently registered to Florida Department of Law Enforcement. [Photo courtesy of Robert Banks]
As the Florida Legislature continued haggling over various items in the state budget from school scholarships to hospital funding late into Thursday night, one item emerged settled: a new plane for Gov. Ron DeSantis.
It’s been three months since DeSantis’ plane had its air masks drop and his team made an emergency landing, leaving the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to do some much-needed
upgrades. DeSantis took over the plane, which has a mysterious past once thought to be connected to a drug seizure, after former Gov. Rick Scott sold off the state’s fleet when he was in office.
Scott, a millionaire former health care executive, used his own private plane to travel the state.
Since then, DeSantis’ hand-me-down plane has become a point of fascination in the world of Florida politics.
The Legislature has agreed to set aside $3.8 million for a plane, pilots and maintenance staff. At that price, DeSantis may have to start by leasing a plane, which Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said could lead to an eventual purchase.
“This is the third largest state in the country,” Brandes said after a Thursday night budget meeting. “The governor needs to get around effectively.”

State budget negotiators agree to smaller shift in hospital Medicaid reimbursements funding

Lawmakers tasked with negotiating the state’s health care budget agreed late Thursday night to a smaller shift in reimbursement funding for hospitals’ Medicaid cases, meaning hospitals with the largest fractions of those cases may not face nearly as severe a reduction as initially proposed.

Senate budget writers had previously raised a plan that would have redistributed a $318 million additional fund of “automatic rate enhancements” to those hospitals into general funding for all hospitals in the state. (The state currently reimburses all hospitals for Medicaid care at a certain base rate.) But negotiators agreed to shrink that redistribution to just $9.5 million, or 3 percent of the total fund, for the upcoming budget year.

The change means that potential cuts to the state’s largest safety net hospitals, like Jackson Health in Miami-Dade or Tampa General, are unlikely to reach into the tens of millions as had been first projected.

“It means a slight reduction that hospitals can live with. Hospitals can plan. It’s not a drastic reduction,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, the joint panel’s health care budget chief. “I think the industry can live with it. Floridians are going to be well taken care of at their local hospital.”

The House had initially suggested trimming hospital Medicaid reimbursement spending by 3 percent in both inpatient and outpatient care, which would have been about $110 million. That would have meant slight cuts for every hospital across the board. But the Senate’s plan, to instead reshuffle the additional Medicaid “enhancement” payments into the base rates paid to all hospitals, would have given the majority of hospitals a small boost while dealing major cuts to the approximately two dozen hospitals that currently get the additional funds.

Proponents of the Senate plan had said bolstering the base rate funding would mean money more fairly “follows the patient.” Safety-net hospitals, which labeled the additional money a “critical care fund,” said that the money was necessary because those hospitals disproportionately handle more severe and complex cases.

Though it’s clear those hospitals will not lose as much, it’s not yet clear how much individual hospitals will gain or lose. Lawmakers are still negotiating other details related to hospitals’ Medicaid reimbursements, such as how the base rate funding is weighted to pay for more complicated, complex medical cases.

What House and Senate negotiators are also likely to agree to early is how the state will handle its policy of retroactive eligibility for Medicaid, which determines how long the program will cover past medical bills. Last year, the Legislature had approved shortening the period from three calendar months to just one calendar month, though advocates said the change could hurt seniors and those with disabilities.

Bean said the House is likely to agree to a plan to extend the policy for just one year, rather than permanently as initially suggested, and authorize a study to collect data on how the change affects patients before it is reconsidered in 2020.

Lawmakers also plan to “bump” up still unresolved differences in the budget to each chamber’s budget chief Friday, and those reimbursement details are just one of several health care issues left on the table. The chambers still have to reach agreement on some funding related to child welfare, how to fund a waitlist for caring for people with disabilities, and a proposal that would require the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to restructure its Medicaid waiver.

And though both chambers have now agreed to a mild cut to the “enhancements” fund, the fund may be trimmed further in future years, suggested Sen. Rob Bradley, who will soon take over budget negotiations with his House counterpart Rep. Travis Cummings.

“What happens in future years we're still discussing,” he said Thursday night. “We want the system to wean off [those] payments over time but those are ongoing discussions.”

The legislative session is scheduled to end by May 3. For that to happen, the chambers must reach agreement on all budget issues by Tuesday, so the budget can sit for a required 72 hours before the vote.

Florida House passes bill to require school districts to share referendum money with charter schools

Herald file photo
TALLAHASSEE — When voters choose to hike their local property taxes to help schools in their county, that money would need to be shared between districts and charter schools under a bill passed by the Florida House.
The bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Bryan Avila of Hialeah. The late-night debate largely became a South Florida fight as Democrat and Republican representatives from Miami-Dade duked it out on the floor of the House over an ongoing fight happening in Miami that may now have statewide implications.
As the legislative session races to the finish line, the House has been in overtime, and this bill was passed just before midnight Thursday night.
In the 2018 midterm elections, Miami-Dade voters approved a raise in their property taxes for teacher salary raises and school safety measures required in the law passed after the Parkland shooting last year. However, district officials have said they would not be sharing the salary portion — the majority of the funds — with charter schools.
“Whether you’re a charter school teacher or a traditional public school teacher, you’re doing the same thing,” Avila, himself a former charter school teacher, said. “We put in blood, sweat and tears, we care for our kids. So when a school district says, ‘We’re going to have a levy but these public (charter) school teachers need to be excluded?’ I think that’s not only wrong, I think it’s immoral.”
Charter schools are publicly funded schools operated by private entities, and are defined as public schools under Florida law.
Avila said Miami-Dade’s ballot language proposing the increased property tax was “as vague as possible," and he accused the district of intentionally being unclear on whether charter schools would get a cut of the funds until after the referendum passed.
Democratic Rep. Dotie Joseph, also of Miami, said this bill is “smoke and mirrors” simply because Republicans didn’t like how districts are using their discretionary spending when they raise local money to go above inadequate state funds.
“We try to play like the voters don’t know what they’re doing. They know absolutely what they’re doing,” she said. “What happened here was simple: Tallahassee failed us so we took matters into our own hands at the local level.”
The presidents of both the statewide teachers’ union and the Miami-Dade teachers’ union held a news conference earlier this week at the Florida Capitol where they protested this bill and said lawmakers were usurping the will of the voters.
“Some of our educators already started to receive some of this (referendum) funding with the negotiations we finished in January, so now if you’re putting this in place, you’re creating a big dilemma for us,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, the United Teachers of Dade union president. “We had over 71 percent of the community said yes ... when they voted, they knew they were voting for our public schools.”
Beyond the fight in Miami, Avila also pointed out an ongoing lawsuit in Palm Beach County over this exact issue, which he said proves the point that greater “clarity” is needed in the law to settle that districts must share their funds.
Around 20 school districts in the state have reaped the benefits of voter-approved increases to local property taxes, including Pinellas.
Pinellas most recently passed its special property tax in 2016, with 76 percent of the vote. It generates about $40 million a year, of which 80 percent goes toward teacher salaries.
As in Miami, the revenue already has been figured into the latest teacher contract, with $4,188 in referendum dollars going into each Pinellas teacher’s salary.
In addition to the piece about school funding, House Bill 7123, the House’s tax package, also would significantly reduce the state’s commercial lease tax and set dates for this year’s sales-tax-free shopping days for back-to-school season and hurricane preparedness.
There is currently no similar language related to referendum money in the Florida Senate, though that is fairly typical for this point in the process when dealing with tax bills. It’s unclear so far whether the Senate will take up a similar idea.

April 25, 2019

FL Senate gives hemp program the green light


With little discussion and rousing support, the Florida Senate unanimously approved a bill to create a state hemp program Thursday. 

"This may be one of the most significant things we do this session," said bill sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley during the afternoon's floor session.

The Fleming Island Republican’s SB 1020 authorizes the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to administer a state hemp program and sets up rulemaking and a board of experts to develop the system. 

Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high — and uses less water and fertilizer to grow. Hemp has been cultivated for approximately 10,000 years, according to the University of Florida’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Project, and can be used for fiber, building materials, animal feed and pain relief.

The 2018 Farm Bill allows a state department of agriculture to submit a plan to the United States Secretary of Agriculture and apply for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp in their state. The plan, which is required under Bradley’s bill, must include a procedure for tracking land upon which hemp will be produced as well as testing, disposal, enforcement, inspection and certification procedures.

The bill doesn’t allow for Floridians to grow hemp for individual use, which is also not allowed under the federal farm bill.

Bradley’s bill also authorizes the department to oversee the development of pilot projects for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at UF, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and any university in the state that has an agriculture program.

"This could be and will be game-changing for the agriculture community," he said. 

The House version of the bill was read on the floor Tuesday, but has not yet been voted on.  

House, Senate promise dollars for Pulse memorial after early budget snub


After funding for a permanent memorial in honor of the 49 victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando came out to $0 on the budget proposals Wednesday morning, the House and Senate changed course.

The Senate put forth a proposed $500,000 for the memorial, and late Wednesday night House Speaker José Oliva said he's willing to make the effort as well.

"We are open [to funding the Pulse memorial]," the Miami Lakes Republican said. "We expect that there will be funding.”

The House matched the Senate's $500,000 in their proposal Thursday afternoon.

There is currently an interim memorial at the nightclub, with an offering wall, ribbon wall of photographs, a modest green space and a place on the original sign for the Pulse nightclub for visitors to write a message.

The onePULSE Foundation, a non-profit started by Pulse Nightclub owner Barbara Poma, has hosted an international design competition for the permanent memorial and museum. According to the group's website, a winner will be picked this summer.

Three years later, the project has yet to receive state funding.

Sen. Linda Stewart, who sponsored the request for Pulse funding on the Senate side, said she'll remain "steadfast" in bringing the memorial to her community.

"I have been diligently working to secure funding for a permanent memorial to the victims and families of this community," the Orlando Democrat said. "As long as I am the Senator of this district, I will continue to fight for the reverence of those affected by the horrific tragedy that occurred on June 12, 2016, at the Pulse Nightclub."

Last year when the Legislature passed a package to address school safety in wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the package included $1 million for a permanent memorial to the 17 victims at the high school in northwestern Broward County.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, proposed an amendment then that would include $1 million for a Pulse memorial, which did not pass. He said Thursday that the investment is a "tremendous step" toward fully funding the project to be on par with Parkland's memorial 

“Our budget chairs have listened to us in our sincere and authentic attempt to secure funding for the Pulse Memorial and should be applauded," he said. "

Rep. Anna Eskamani, who serves on the conference committee that takes up arts funding, said she was troubled by the disparity in funding between Parkland and Pulse. On Thursday, she said she was pleased with the quick response.

"I am thrilled to see our Speaker of the House — alongside both budget chairs — see the value and importance of supporting the creation of a permanent Pulse memorial in Orlando," Eskamani, D-Orlando, said. "We will continue to watch the budget proposal closely to ensure that we make it to the finish line."