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55 posts from April 2019

April 25, 2019

Florida House Democrats pick their next leaders

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Florida House Democrats have chosen their leaders for the next two election cycles through 2024, settling the chain of succession for much of the foreseeable future as party members acknowledge they must win more seats to hold meaningful power in the Republican-controlled chamber.
Caucus members elevated Reps. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale and Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach to lead them starting in 2020, after they pitched an unusual agreement to split policy and campaign responsibilities among the two lawmakers after Leader Kionne McGhee’s term ends in a year and a half. The caucus also voted for Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, to take over the leadership in 2022.
Read more at the Miami Herald.
Image: Reps. Bobby DuBose and Evan Jenne, via Florida House

April 24, 2019

In healthcare budget talks, lawmakers look toward compromise on hospitals' Medicaid funding


The Florida House advanced its first counteroffer on how to reimburse hospitals for Medicaid cases late Wednesday night, suggesting that it and the state Senate were moving toward a potential compromise on one of the thorniest disputes between the chambers sooner than expected.

During a joint conference of some of the Legislature’s lawmakers on the state’s health care budget, leaders announced that the House, which had advanced a plan to trim inpatient and outpatient payments to hospitals for Medicaid cases, was offering to roll back the proposed 3 percent cut to the state’s overall hospital Medicaid funding. The offer would also funnel about $24.7 million of the $318 million currently earmarked for hospitals with the highest Medicaid caseloads into base rates for all of the state’s hospitals instead.

"We're trying to get together and unite to make sure to spread [expenses] around the right way,” said Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, who is leading the health care budget conference committee with Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. “We understand everything is a negotiation and eventually we'll get in the right place."

The state currently compensates all hospitals for Medicaid care at a certain base rate, which is outpaced by the Medicare rate or that of most private payers. But hospitals with the highest percentages of patients on Medicaid can unlock part of the additional $318 million in "automatic rate enhancements,” which are added on to the general funding they and other hospitals already receive. Those two dozen or so hospitals include some of the state's largest safety-net hospitals, including Jackson Health in Miami-Dade, which is the state's biggest individual Medicaid provider.

The House had initially proposed trimming hospital Medicaid reimbursement spending by 3 percent in both inpatient and outpatient care, or about $110 million. The Senate, however, had proposed reshuffling the additional Medicaid “enhancement” payments into the base rates paid to all hospitals, with the overall amount of money the state would pay for Medicaid reimbursements would remain the same.

Proponents of the Senate plan have said bolstering the base rate funding would mean money more fairly “follows the patient” — but safety-net hospitals, which have labeled the enhancements a “critical care fund” say the tiered structure is needed because  those hospitals with high Medicaid caseloads disproportionately handle more complex, critical cases.

The issue is far from resolved. A host of other changes outlined in language attached to the budget have yet to be formally negotiated on, and some of that wording includes specifics on how the base rate funding for hospitals would be weighted to reimburse more complicated, complex medical cases.

Magar said both she and Bean hoped to discuss offers on that language Thursday.

But the two leaders did also move closer on how to fund gaps at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which has struggled with deficits in the last few years. Both chambers also made progress on determining how much to appropriate to scores of local projects that are funded by the six agencies that fall under their purview: the state Agency for Health Care Administration, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the Department of Children and Families, Department of Health, Department of Elder Affairs and Veterans’ Affairs.

For session to end on time next week, lawmakers must reach agreement on all issues by April 30, so the budget can sit for a required 72 hours before the full chambers vote on the package by May 3.

Image: Rep. MaryLynn Magar, via Florida House

Citing immediate Parkland response, lawmakers ask why Pulse memorial still lacks dollars


As budget negotiations ramp up this week — the penultimate week of the legislative session — lawmakers are taking a closer look at appropriations for both statewide initiatives and local projects in their home communities.

One line in the budget caught the eye of Orlando lawmakers, who noted that funding for a permanent memorial in honor of the 49 victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando had evaporated.

The memorial originally got $245,000 in the Senate budget, but on Wednesday's conference committee the number was down to $0. 

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 this year he is hopeful that they can secure some funding, based on conversations he's had with budget leaders. 

"Pulse was the worst mass shooting in the history of Florida .. our 49 angels deserve to be memorialized with a safe space for their families to heal and for future generations to learn," Smith said. "The fact that the Pulse line item is even on the budget shows that there was interest."

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.

Smith noted that the ask for Pulse is much less than the percentage of what was funded for memorials commemorating the Oklahoma City bombings or the 9/11 memorial in New York City. 

"What's important to understand is there is a precedent for state governments funding memorials or museums after an act of terror," he said.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she was troubled by the disparity in funding between Parkland and Pulse. 

"The fact that we immediately supported a memorial but did not take that type of action when 49 mostly queer, black and brown people were killed at Pulse is disheartening and disappointing," Eskamani said. "We have the opportunity to get this right."
Eskamani, who has also had conversations with both House and Senate budget chairs, said the funding is "on their radar." She said she's pushing to at least get the original $245,000 appropriation from the Senate budget. 
"It's not the full amount, but it is something," she said. "I feel good about it." 

South Florida Democrats are not lining up to impeach Trump after Mueller report

Frederica Wilson 2


President Donald Trump’s tweet calling Miami Rep. Frederica Wilson “wacky” was once seen as justification for impeachment. 

The 2017 resolution by Texas Rep. Al Green argued that Trump “harmed the society of the United States” by calling white supremacists “very fine people” while name-calling members of Congress on Twitter, and 58 Democrats, including Wilson, voted to keep the resolution on the table against the objections of party leaders.

But 16 months later, days after Robert Mueller’s redacted 448 page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential obstruction by the president was released, the number of Democrats in Congress backing impeachment can be counted on two hands.

Wilson herself isn’t on board.

“As damning as the Mueller report is, I think that Democrats should let history be our guide,” Wilson said. “When Congress impeached President Bill Clinton, his job approval rating rose while the House suffered historic losses. We need to be on a much more solid ground before we can convince the American public, including Democrats, that Mr. Trump should be impeached.”

Wilson’s argument is that Democrats must build their own case to potentially impeach or exonerate Trump through hearings and additional documents, a sentiment shared by every South Florida Democrat in the House, where impeachment proceedings must begin.

“Nothing changed,” Rep. Donna Shalala said, adding that she read the report in its entirety in recent days. “I think we are a ways away from making a decision on impeachment. This report for the administration I think describes a kind of chaos that we have come to expect with the White House, but Mueller laid out very carefully the obstruction charge. He didn’t charge the president. He was very respectful of the Justice Department’s opinion that you could not indict a sitting president.”

More here.

April 22, 2019

A key 2020 constituency: Florida’s Hispanic vote nearly doubled in 2018



Florida’s Hispanic electorate grew by 81 percent between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, and Hispanics who registered to vote as independents grew by 101 percent, meaning Hispanics are the fastest-growing portion of Florida’s electorate heading into the 2020 election.

The Hispanic-specific data, compiled by Univision and Political Data Inc., shows that campaigns and candidates who make early investments in Spanish-language media and advertising efforts are reaching more potential voters in Florida than ever before. Hispanic voter registration and turnout trends in Miami-Dade County, home to 44 percent of the state’s Hispanic electorate in 2018, mirrored statewide trends.

“This data demonstrates that our community, especially its younger members, played a crucial role in the 2018 election where the Senate seat and various congressional seats in Florida changed parties less than a year ago,” Univision CEO Vincent Sadusky said in a statement. “2020 is shaping up to be an especially competitive election and, particularly in many large states including Florida with significant Latino populations, we have no doubt Hispanic America will play a key role in picking the next president and which party controls Congress.”

Univision will present Hispanic voter data from multiple states in an April 30 event in Washington.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott focused heavily on Hispanic voters in his successful 2018 campaign, spending millions to run Spanish-language ads during major events like the 2018 FIFA World Cup and touting his visits to Puerto Rico throughout the campaign. The Spanish-language TV campaigning, combined with an anti-socialism message in South Florida, helped Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis win narrow victories over Democrats.

More here.

April 19, 2019

FL House and Senate down on energy choice ballot initiative


In filings to the state Supreme Court late Thursday, both the Florida House and Senate said they oppose the petition-driven ballot initiative that would reform how consumers purchase electricity in Florida.

The proposal, put forward by the Citizens for Energy Choices political committee, calls for the customers’ “right to choose” and would loosen the grip of private utility monopolies like Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power, Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. It would allow customers to pick their electricity providers from a competitive market or give them more options to produce solar energy themselves.

Attorneys for the House wrote that the initiative would have a "deleterious effect" and they consider this change to the state's constitution an "abuse of the initiative process." 

They wrote that instead of altering the state's constitutional language, this proposal essentially aims to legislate by amendment. 

"The current initiative proposes to add what essentially is a legislative policy to the Constitution—rather than address a structural or rights feature of the current charter," they wrote. 

Senate President Bill Galvano argued that the initiative violates the single-subject rule found in the state's constitution, which allows voters to know what an amendment does and how it will affect the Constitution.

He wrote that if passed, the amendment would "dramatically affect" the functions of multiple branches and levels of government, and would force voters to choose among numerous different policy choices.

Galvano also took issue with the ballot summary and language, which he said fails to touch upon the "sweeping effects" it would have. He also added that if passed, the language would require the Legislature to "upend the entire electric utility regulatory framework."

The language aims to protect customers against deceptive or unfair practices and establish an independent market to make energy sales competitive, the Alachua-based committee says.

Last month Attorney General Ashley Moody weighed in against the amendment, describing it as a veiled attempt to “eliminate” the state’s investor-owned utilities, such as Florida Power & Light.

Although it sells itself as a pro-consumer choice measure, Moody wrote that the amendment’s “undisclosed chief purpose” is actually the opposite.

The amendment’s language, she argued, requires creating a law “prohibiting investor-owned utilities from owning, operating, or even leasing any facilities which generate electricity.”

The result, she wrote, would prevent those utilities from competing in the new electric utility market.

“The title and this statement give the misleading impression that investor-owned utilities would still be able to sell electricity to customers, competing with additional, new providers,” Moody wrote. “But the actual text of the amendment forbids such activity.”

Several other groups have filed petitions in opposition to the proposal, including investor-owned utility companies, municipal electric groups and electric cooperatives. 

The petitions come at a time when several bills by Republicans are moving through the Legislature to significantly alter the amendment process. One bill makes it far more difficult to gather the signatures needed to get constitutional amendments before Florida voters. Another bill would raise the vote threshold for an amendment's passage from 60 percent to two-thirds. A third bill aims to abolish the Constitution Revision Commission, a 37-member body that meets every 20 years to review and proposes changes to the state constitution.

The fight has turned into a partisan one, as progressives locked out of power in Tallahassee over the last 20 years have seen their policies passed by voters who approved amendments like protecting environmental lands and restoring voting rights to felons.

Alex Patton, chairman of Citizens for Energy Choices, said his group has "far more respect" for voters than utilities and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, who have lobbied heavily against the proposal and in favor of legislation to limit the process.

He said while he can't comment on the specific briefs, the committee is confident in their legal footing and look forward to having their day in court.

"I do hope I at least receive a thank-you card from all the white-shoe firms hired by the utilities and their political buddies for their increase in billable hours," Patton said in a text message. "Truly unprecedented." 

Oral arguments on the proposal are currently scheduled for Aug. 28, 2019.

April 18, 2019

'The hemp industry is waiting': State hemp program bill readies for House floor


Without much conversation and a brief, unanimous vote, a House panel voted Thursday to send a bill that would create a state hemp program to the chamber floor. 

The bill, put forward by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, would authorize the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to administer a state hemp program and make the plant an agricultural option for farmers across the state.

Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high. In 2014, the federal government authorized a state department or university to conduct a hemp pilot program. In 2017, Florida created one. Under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was cleared to become an agricutlural crop under a state-authorized program, which the bill aims to create. 

A similar version of the bill in the Senate has also passed all of its committees.

The state will then have to submit the plan to the United States Department of Agriculture and apply for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp. The plan has to include testing procedures, certification methods, inspection plans and corrective actions for farmers who may be in violation. 

At the House State Affairs committee Thursday morning, bill sponsor Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican, compared the burgeoning hemp industry to a tech boom. He said young people will become the next Steve Jobs, and that new hemp products will soon be as ubiquitous as the iPhone. 

"It will provide jobs not only in the industry, but for the young people today who need to learn a new career," he said.

According to the bill's staff analysis, at least 30 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America currently permit farmers to grow hemp. In the U.S., hemp market is largely dependent on imports.

If passed, the state hemp program will set up rulemaking and a board of experts to help develop the system in the state. The idea is modeled closely after what Kentucky has done to revitalize farmland once used by the tobacco industry. Researchers have since said that hemp is proving successful at adapting to Florida’s growing conditions, which vary dramatically across the state. A staff analysis of the bill said Florida farmers will likely benefit economically by the opportunity to plant, process and sell hemp and hemp-based products.

"Very rarely do we have a bill that has such a broad influence on the people of Florida," Massullo said. "The hemp industry is waiting for someone to develop. The uses of hemp are myriad."

Right to grow veggies at home is headed to the House


A bill to ban regulations on vegetable gardens is headed to the House floor. 

HB 145, filed by Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff, R-DeLand, was approved at the House State Affairs Committee's last meeting Thursday. 

Fetterhoff's bill prohibits local governments from regulating of vegetable gardens on residential property, and voids any existing ordinances or regulations that tell people where they can and can't grow their own produce. The bill doesn't apply to general ordinances or regulations that are not specific to vegetable gardens, such as limits on water use during drought conditions, fertilizer use, or control of invasive species

Local governments, however, can still adopt a local ordinance or regulation that doesn’t specifically target vegetable gardens, like regulating water during drought conditions, limiting fertilizer use or controlling invasive species.

The Senate passed a similar bill during the 2018 session, but the clock ran out and a House version was never filed.

The vegetable garden proposal is rooted in a legal dispute about an ordinance in Miami Shores that banned the gardens from being planted in front yards. Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll, who ate from their vegetable garden for 17 years, sued the village. In November 2017, an appeals court upheld a ruling that the couple does not have a constitutional right to grow vegetables in their front yard. They appealed the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to grant review.

Ricketts and Carroll faced $50 in daily fines after the village amended its ordinance in 2013. They had to dig up their garden – which can’t grow in their backyard because of a lack of sun.

The bill only preempts local government rules, not rules or gardening restrictions set by homeowners associations or other groups.

The main opponent to both vegetable garden bills is the Florida League of Cities. The group’s legislative counsel, David Cruz, has argued that each city in Florida is unique, and much of the unique aesthetic is brought about through code enforcement. That’s why Coral Gables looks different from Perry, Florida, he said.

“There’s the ability at the local level to come up with solutions,” he said. “We’re not against vegetable gardens. Our members are not against vegetable gardens. But local solution could be crafted.”

Cruz said bills like this one preempt local laws, and gave the example of a 2013 Orlando ordinance that allows residents to use 60 percent of their front yard as a vegetable garden.

“This bill would void that ordinance,” he said. “It would undo the good work of a city to compromise on this issue.”

April 17, 2019

School districts, charters, sheriffs. Who decides if teachers can be armed?

PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 25: People visit Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 25, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The Florida Senate didn’t have a formal vote on the bill that would allow classroom teachers to be armed on Wednesday, but they did adopt a major amendment that could settle one of the biggest lingering questions of the debate: who gets to decide if teachers in a school can be armed?
Under current law, passed last year as part of the fallout from the shooting in Parkland that left 17 students and staff dead, both a school district and their county’s sheriff must agree to offer the “Guardian program” before teachers can carry guns on campus. The sheriff’s office is then charged with offering teachers and other personnel with the proper training and psychological screening. Some districts have opted to hire security staff whose only role is to be armed protection.
But under Wednesday’s amendment to the bill, sheriff’s offices would be required to offer that training if school districts requests it, though that sheriff may contract with another sheriff to provide it instead. Additionally, if a district decides not to participate in the program but a charter school disagrees, they can ask their county’s sheriff to offer the training to their staff anyway.
“There have been discussions with the House to try to get these bills lined up," said Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. “It’s a genuine issue regarding who is making the decisions and who is calling the shots and we didn’t want to have one school speaking for the whole district.”
But there’s an additional curveball: if a charter school wishes to arm their staff and the sheriff refuses, they can also ask a sheriff outside their county to provide the training instead.
“If the (Broward County) school board does not want it, and they’ve been adamant about that, so if a charter school decides they do want it it’s going to be a problem,” Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill, said.
The new version of the bill clarifies that the district and charter schools have a joint responsibility to ensure all charter schools have armed security, which is required by law on every campus.
The question was the subject of a lawsuit in Palm Beach County, where an administrative law judge ruled that the school board there must assign school security to charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that are operated by private entities.
Final votes on the school safety bills, Senate Bill 7030 and House Bill 7093, are expected in both chambers in the coming days.

Senators look to require all online retailer collect Florida sales tax

The retail giant Amazon was one of the first online companies to start collecting sales tax in Florida five years ago.
Now, Florida lawmakers want Amazon’s competitors to catch up.
A potential Senate tax package (Senate Bill 1112) would require nearly all online retailers start collecting Florida sales taxes, netting the state roughly $700 million in revenue it currently doesn’t collect.
But much of the money would be given away by other tax breaks.
Currently, Floridians who buy products from sites like Wayfair, Etsy and Amazon’s third-party sellers usually don’t pay Florida’s 6 percent sales tax. Instead, Floridians are supposed to pay the sales tax directly to the state, which they usually don’t do.
“We’re making our average, everyday citizens guilty of not paying their taxes,” Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who is sponsoring the bill, said Tuesday, before it passed its second committee.
Requiring nearly all online retailers collect the tax would fix the problem. But Gruters, who is also chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, is careful not to call it a tax increase.
“Some people say this is a tax increase,” he told fellow senators on Tuesday. “It’s not. It’s a tax that’s currently owed.”
The idea is in response to a Supreme Court ruling last year that threw out the idea that a company had to have a physical presence in a state before the state could require it to collect sales taxes.
It would net an estimated $700 million for the state, according to Gruters. Online companies that sell at least 200 items or $100,000 worth of items in Florida would have to collect the tax.
But under Gruters’ bill, much of the money would be given away through a slew of tax cuts, including:
  • Cutting the tax on rent for commercial properties from 5.7 percent to 3.5 percent,
  • eliminating the ad valorem tax on heavy equipment rented by a dealer,
  • creating a 14-day sales tax holiday for disaster preparedness supplies, and
  • providing a tax cut to insurers that cover remote visits with doctors, known as “telehealth."
Just how much of the $700 million would make it into state and local coffers is unclear, though. The bill still has another committee stop to go before making it to the Senate floor.
“This is probably one of the most important bills of this session,” Gruters said. “I hope we can be the voice of reason and pass this bill.”