February 17, 2017

Nine little words that just might cause a legislative train wreck

The 2017 legislative session begins in Tallahassee in about two-and-a-half weeks and the Senate and House are still hashing out details of a critical joint rule so that writing a budget can get underway.

FullSizeRender(11)Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, tells the Times/Herald that he and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, are making progress, but stumbling blocks remain, including a standoff over nine words found in House Rule 5.14: "An appropriations project bill may only request nonrecurring funds." That's a cornerstone of Corcoran's plan to transform and add transparency to how individual lawmakers' spending priorities work their way into the budget every year.

But it's a non-starter in the Senate.

Recurring money is generally used for fixed annual costs, such as paying state workers' salaries. Nonrecurring or one-time money, from a lawsuit settlement or an unexpected uptick in lottery ticket sales, is like a one-time salary bonus, and generally pays for one-time expenditures like water projects.

Corcoran insists on using nonrecurring money for appropriations projects so that they have to be justified every session by every Legislature. Negron disagrees. "Projects that are put forward by members of the Legislature should not be given short shrift and disadvantaged," he said. "It seems self-defeating."

Senators interpret the House rule to mean that any program that seeks a dollar more than it received last year is subject to the House's three criteria: It must be filed as a stand-alone bill, must be reported favorably by at least one House committee, and must be funded with one-time nonrecurring money. Negron says that would impose hardships and confusion for programs that have to pay workers' salaries and have permanent overhead expenses.

Negron agreed that a program he supports could be impacted by the nonrecurring money provision: PACE Centers for Girls, a statewide program that helps at-risk youth. "That's a good example. There are lots of examples. There are programs that we have that serve patients with Alzheimer's disease ... I don't think there's anything wrong with having recurring funding." PACE Centers received about $19 million in the current year's budget. PACE Centers for Girls has three lobbyists, Frank Mayernick Jr., Tracy Hogan Mayernick and Jodi Lea Stevens.

Nearly two weeks ago, a threatened Senate lawsuit against the House, followed by a dare from Corcoran that he would pay the Senate's filing fee, slowed communication. Negron says he shared Corcoran's goal of making the budget more transparent, but that the autonomy of each chamber must be respected. Negron was asked to name a date by which an on-time adjournment would be impossible if the two sides can't agree. His reply: "I'm actually encouraged that we're doing it now as opposed to addressing it in week five or six."

As of Thursday, the legislative tracking site LobbyTools.com reports, House members had filed 759 separate project bills with a total cost of nearly $1.5 billion. Many won't make the cut, and if the two chambers can't agree on how they will be paid for, none of them may survive. Corcoran has said he and Negron have made headway on an agreement on a detailed questionnaire that every project sponsor must complete, and the House has agreed to relax the timetable for when projects must be filed until the fifth week of the session, which this year is the week of April 3.

June 15, 2016

After Orlando shooting, Democrats want special legislative session


Three Orlando-area Democrats will call this morning for Republican legislative leaders to convene a special session of the Florida Legislature, so lawmakers can consider a proposal in response to Sunday's shooting massacre at Pulse nightclub.

Expected to attend the 10 a.m. announcement in front of the Orange County Courthouse are state Sens. Darren Soto and Geraldine Thompson, both of Orlando, state Rep. John Cortes, of Kissimmee, and Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings.

The lawmakers and local official plan to unveil their "tactical proposal to prevent future tragedies."

But the proposal -- details of which are yet unknown -- isn't expected to go very far.

Katie Betta -- the spokeswoman for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando -- told the News Service of Florida in an email Tuesday: "The president does not support expending taxpayer dollars on a special session unless there is definitive support within the Senate for a concrete legislative proposal that requires time-sensitive action. Absent those elements, the president has a hard time viewing press conferences calling for a special session three days after the worst act of terrorism in this country since Sept. 11 as anything more than political posturing by two senators who have declared their intention to run for Congress."

Both Soto and Thompson are leaving the state Senate this year and are campaigning for seats in the U.S. House.

February 25, 2016

Florida House, Senate 'optimistic' budget conferences could start this weekend


Florida House and Senate leaders are either more in sync than Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee let on just four hours ago, or he and House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran had some very productive discussions in a short period of time.

In a joint email to the state's 160 lawmakers at around 9:15 this evening, Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said they are "pleased with the progress" made by Lee, R-Brandon, and Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

"(We) are optimistic we will be ready to begin the budget conference this weekend," Gardiner and Crisafulli wrote. "We will update you as early as possible tomorrow, so you can make the appropriate travel arrangements."

At the close of yesterday's session, Gardiner had advised Senate appropriations members to stick around, in case budget meetings started this weekend.

But after a seven-hour Senate Appropriations Committee meeting today, Lee indicated not much progress had been made in the past 24 hours. He told reporters earlier this evening that he "hadn't really talked" to Corcoran all day, but that they'd planned to speak this evening.

House and Senate leaders have yet to release budget allocations, the next big step in the process. They need to shore up a budget no later than March 8, in order for lawmakers to vote on one before session is scheduled to end March 11.

February 03, 2016

Florida Senate president: Gun bills are "in trouble"


@ByKristenMClark and @MaryEllenKlas

Although the Florida House is expected to pass two controversial gun bills this afternoon, the odds are continuing to diminish that they'll become law this session.

Speaking to reporters today, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the proposals are "in trouble," as far as the Senate is concerned. One of the bills allows concealed weapons permit-holders to carry openly and another lets them carry concealed on public college and university campuses.

Gardiner has been consistent that the fate of the bills rests with Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where both bills await another hearing. Diaz de la Portilla said he won’t hear the campus-carry proposal in his committee for the second year in a row, and he indicated last week he could change his mind and not hear the open-carry plan, either.

Gardiner confirmed today that outcome is likely.

"I think now he has some concerns about open carry," Gardiner said of Diaz de la Portilla. "It's not my intent to pull those bills out of committee, so I would say, yeah, they're probably in trouble."

Diaz de la Portilla has not returned messages from the Herald/Times seeking comment.

For weeks, some Republican leaders in the Florida Senate haven't been as enthusiastic about the proposals as their counterparts in the more conservative House.

The open-carry bill was amended Tuesday evening on the House floor to also include a provision allowing Florida's 160 state lawmakers to carry concealed in official meetings of the Legislature, a location that's currently one of several so-called "gun-free zones" designated in state law.

Gardiner said he supports removing that exemption.

"To me, if you're taking away an exemption, especially for somebody else, you should live by that same standard," Gardiner said, "so it should be all the way across the board, but I don't know if we'll even get that bill to make that point."

Photo credit: Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, speaks to reporters with the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau during a pre-session interview late last year. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times

January 21, 2016

With budget 'allocations' done, Senate is ready to spend $250M on economic development

The Florida House and Senate are reviving their traditional budget schedule and this week gave "allocations" to their budget subcommittee chairs that set the parameters for their chamber's proposed budget.

As happens most years -- except last year when budget negotiations broke down over health care spending -- this means that the chambers will have budget details available from subcommittees in the third week of session, in full committee in the fourth week and on the floor in the fifth week. 

"We're in a very, very conventional budget calendar,'' said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee. 

Neither Lee nor Senate President Andy Gardiner would disclose what their allocation numbers are for the decisions that are made behind closed doors. 

"We don't have an allocation document,'' Lee acknowledged "because if we had an allocation document, somebody is going to ask for it."

Both Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Lee said the decision on tax cuts will come later but Gardiner acknowledged that they are prepared to give the governor his full request for economic development funds -- $250 million -- for Enterprise Florida. 

Continue reading "With budget 'allocations' done, Senate is ready to spend $250M on economic development" »

January 15, 2016

Senate passes bill promoting jobs for Floridians with disabilities


A plan to improve job opportunities for Floridians with disabilities is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott's desk after earning unanimous favor in the Florida Senate on Friday.

The legislation was the third and final bill House and Senate leaders aimed to get off their plates during the first week of the 2016 session. Scott plans to sign it Thursday, along with two others the Legislature sent over yesterday: a sweeping water policy bill and a bill promoting educational opportunities for people with disabilities.

The jobs bill, like the education bill, was a priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

Among the bill's highlights, it:

-- creates a financial literacy program to help people with developmental disabilities

-- requires state agencies to report annual progress toward increasing employment of women, minorities and people with disabilities

-- requires the state to develop workforce programs to enhance job training and work experience for people with disabilities

-- and, establishes the Florida Unique Abilities Partner Program to identify businesses that hire people with disabilities and encourage other businesses to do so.

"We need to lead by example so we’re going to do that, but we also need to recognize businesses that are doing it and track and make sure that individuals with unique abilities are getting jobs, which is obviously a priority for us and the governor," Gardiner told reporters.

He called the first week of the 2016 session "a really, really good week," and told senators to rest up over the long weekend for what's to come.

"It’s been a good week for the residents of the great state of Florida," he said during this morning's session. "These bills and the water bill and others, we’re changing lives with that. ... Next week and every week after is going to get a little tougher and there’s going to be a little more stress."

The Senate returns for session Tuesday afternoon, following the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

January 13, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Via @stevebousquet

Day 2 of the Florida legislative session is here. Here are five things to watch:

* Focusing on education, a Senate budget subcommittee considers a bill to let students count computer coding as a foreign language, and will discuss whether to use alternative exams in lieu of the Florida Standards Assessments, as well as how much local property tax money should be spent to increase spending for schools.

* Another Senate budget subcommittee will allow groups from across the state to make pitches for taxpayer dollars. The panel's chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, held a similar hearing last year.

* A House panel takes up a bill (HB 505) to allow Florida voters to use their concealed weapons license as a form of identification at the polls for future elections.

* The Florida Chamber of Commerce kicks off its annual two-day Capitol Days with speeches and panel discussions focusing on major issues facing the Legislature.

* Senate President Andy Gardiner. R-Orlando, will speak at the annual dinner of Florida TaxWatch at the Hotel Duval.

January 12, 2016

Florida Senate president aims to send 3 bills to Gov. Scott this week


With the 2016 legislative session underway, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, says he hopes to get House and Senate leaders' top priorities cleared from both chambers and sent to Gov. Rick Scott's desk by Friday.

Those include a comprehensive water policy plan that died with the abrupt end to last year's session and two bills in a package of initiatives led by Gardiner to improve educational and job opportunities for Floridians who have disabilities.

"It could be a very good week and I think it sets the tone for where we are over the next 60 days," Gardiner told reporters after the opening session.

Continue reading "Florida Senate president aims to send 3 bills to Gov. Scott this week" »

January 11, 2016

December 07, 2015

Gardiner: Still no plans to include card games compact money in 2016 budget

Andy Gardiner 120715Senate President Andy Gardiner said Monday that it remains unlikely that the House and Senate will renew the banked card games portion of the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe in time to include the money in the 2016-17 budget.

"We’re certainly not anticipating it,'' Gardiner told the Herald/Times at a pre-session interview for the legislative session that begins Jan. 12.

He said that for a deal to be reached in time for the 2016-17 budget year, lawmakers would need a resolution “certainly by the beginning of session” because of the many hurdles involved in reaching agreement on the plan.

The Legislature must ratify any agreement between the tribe and Gov. Rick Scott. Any ratifying legislation is expected to be used by both gaming opponents and proponents across the state to insert provisions that help their cause. Among the many issues on the table, for example, is the prospect of allowing slot machines in Palm Beach County while requiring that any future expansion of gambling get statewide voter approval. 

Continue reading "Gardiner: Still no plans to include card games compact money in 2016 budget" »