Michael Moline - SaintPetersBlog

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Legislature adjourns sometimes-bumpy special session in a burst of amity

The Legislature concluded its special session with about an hour and 20 minutes to spare Friday, after voting to improve funding for public schools, colleges, and universities, and revamping the way the state encourages economic growth.

While they were at it, the lawmakers passed an implementing bill for the medical marijuana constitutional amendment the voters approved last year.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron gaveled their chambers into adjournment at around 4:40 p.m. — well in advance of their 6 p.m. deadline. Clashing priorities at times had seemed to threaten a timely sine die.

“This is a very good day for Florida families,” Gov. Rick Scott said during a joint post-adjournment news conference with Corcoran and Negron in the Fourth Floor rotunda.

Scott had called the special session because he was unhappy with the state budget for schools and economic development the Legislature sent him last month.

On Friday, he credited Corcoran for coming up with the idea of helping to finance repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike, around Lake Okeechobee, and Negron for pressing for the boost to higher education.

“I’m excited to travel the state and brag about what got accomplished in the special session,” Scott said.

Negron viewed the dike project as in keeping with SB 10, his big Lake Okeechobee and Everglades restoration project, approved during the regular session. He promised additional attention to the matter during the next regular session.

As for higher education, “our universities and our state colleges are an integral part of economic development and vitality in the state of Florida,” Negron said.

“If you put them all together — the special session and the regular session — it’s a landmark year,” Corcoran said.

He welcomed the increased investment in schools and the new economic development model that stresses broad infrastructure and training investments rather than grants to particular businesses.

“It looks like one of the first infrastructure projects might be repairing the dike at Lake O. So that’s an exciting thing, too, that happened today,” Corcoran said.

In subsequent remarks to reporters, Scott zeroed in on the schools right off the bat.

“We had to put more money into K-12 education, and I want to thank the House and Senate for making that happen,” he said.

He and Corcoran had bickered over the future of Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida during the regular session. On Friday, he allowed that the speaker “made us think about how we can do economic development better.”

Scott wants the dike project completed by 2022, he said — and thanked President Donald Trump for promising federal money for the project. He said the state money would allow the work to get started.

Does Scott plan to sign the medical marijuana implementing bill?

“Absolutely,” he said. He raised no objection to language reserving treatment center licenses for defunct citrus processing businesses.

He’s still reviewing HB 7069, the House’s Schools of Hope charter initiative from the regular session. Asked whether there was a deal linking that bill to his priorities during the special session, Scott said: “I’m still reviewing the bills.”

Of the higher ed projects the Senate held out for, Scott said: “I have reviewed those projects and I plan on approving them.”

We have a deal: Lawmakers agree to increase money for higher ed and Hoover dike

Gov. Rick Scott expanded the call of the Legislature’s special session Friday to include money he wants to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike and higher education investments important to the Senate.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran had proposed both items in a letter to Scott earlier in the day.

Meanwhile, the Senate went into recess pending what President Joe Negron referred to as “an amendment being prepared based on current developments.”

Corcoran posited the dam project as economic development spending, fully compatible with the Florida Job Growth Fund created in legislation that cleared the House floor earlier Friday.

“This disaster has all the characteristics and consequences that the (fund) is designed to address,” Corcoran wrote — specifically, “the devastating economic impact resulting from the blue-green algae bloom in South Florida” last summer.

“The House believes infrastructure projects, such as the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike, can assist economic recovery and support the area’s workforce,” he wrote.

Corcoran noted that “your friendship with President Trump” has resulted a promise for federal matching money for the $200 million project, which Scott urged the Legislature to support during the regular session.

Negron on Thursday evening demanded respect for the Senate’s higher education priorities — he wants Florida’s colleges and universities to rank among the nation’s best. The upper chamber has voted to override Scott’s vetoes of $75 million in higher ed projects.

Corcoran found a way to qualify those projects as economic incentives. “These institutions can and ahould provide ongoing research, training, and support for local economic recovery,” he wrote.

“As I have publicly stated, the House will not participate in any legislative action to override your higher education project vetoes,” Corcoran stressed.

“However, with your agreement, we can support more conservative appropriations to provide funding for higher education projects that will contribute to the broader goal of strong public infrastructure and a skilled workforce.”

Scott confirmed in a written statement that Trump has promised money to fix the dike, which surrounds Lake Okeechobee.

“Along with SB 10, a major priority for Senate President Joe Negron, that I signed into law last month, repairing the Herbert Hoover Dike will ensure that future generations of Floridians will not be plagued with safety concerns during flooding events and problems with algae. I urge the Legislature to take up this call and fund these critical repairs,” Scott said.

“Also, today, I updated the call to include higher education funding. Last week, I signed a historic $4.9 billion budget for Florida’s universities, which is a $174 million increase over last year,” Scott continued.

“By adding higher education to the topics that can be considered during the ongoing special session, the Legislature will have the opportunity to modify these issues for my consideration.”

Senate holds off on school funding until House acts on higher education

The Senate has teed up a compromise school-funding bill designed to help send the Legislature home from its special session.

But the senators held off a final vote until the House makes good on its promise to OK an economic development bill that contains $60 million in higher education projects.

The Senate passed the latter bill, HB 1-A, earlier in the afternoon, on a vote of 34-2 (with Jeff Brandes and Perry Thurston dissenting).

Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala conceded that the Senate’s efforts to tighten oversight of the bill’s Florida Jobs Growth Grant Fund had failed.

“In the negotiations to work this bill out … those got dropped by the wayside,” he said.

But the governor and Department of Economic Opportunity will soon “find that they are going to need to set up some (oversight) process. The demand from the public and media will be there for transparency,” he said.

The Senate had voted on Day 1 of the three-day session to override Gov. Rick Scott’s line-item vetoes of higher education projects worth $75 million. The approved version drops two of those projects, and apportions prorated shares among what’s left.

The public education bill, HB 3-A, would meet Scott’s demand to add $215 million to the Florida Education Finance Program — $100 per student.

Critics said the overall funding level, in light of diversions to charter schools under the House’s Schools of Hope program, would prove inadequate, should Scott sign it into law.

“These dollars are greatly needed. Seriously needed,” Sen. Bill Montford said. Without them, “three weeks from now school districts would be laying off people and cutting programs.”

Still, HB 7069 needs fixing, Montford continued.

“We’ve got work to do when we get back in the fall” for the next regular session,” he said.

Update at 4:30 p.m.: The Senate approved the economic incentives bill on a vote of 34-1 after the House sent it back with language providing $50 million in state money to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike, around Lake Okeechobee. The addition was key to the compromise designed to let the Legislature conclude its special session.

Updated at 4:38 p.m.: The Senate voted, 31-4, to send the schools funding bill to the governor after the House accepted its higher education package. Scott made an appearance on the Senate dais for the occasion.

The economic incentives bill clears the House by a lopsided vote

The House passed the economic incentives package Friday over complaints it would hand Gov. Rick Scott a “slush fund” and make a mockery of the leadership’s professed opposition to picking winners and losers in the economy.

The vote was 111-4. The “no” votes were John Cortes, Evan Jenne, McGhee, and Emily Slosberg — all Democrats.

The bill represents “a fundamental change in direction” for the state’s economic development programs — away from subsidizing individual companies, said Paul Renner, carrying the measure.

“The old way of doing economic development asked from the many to give to the few — asked from all the taxpayers to give to a handful of privileged companies that can navigate the system here in Tallahassee to receive these incentives,” he said.

“We are taking a departure from that, because it violated that basic fundamental principle, that compact between the government and the taxpayers.”

Democrats, however, complained the bill would give governors too much discretion to spend money without oversight — creating an “$85 million slush fund where we’re giving the governor a little bucket of money … and he’s going to get to pick winners and losers,” David Richardson argued.

He voted for it anyway.

“We don’t want to support this slush fund but, if we don’t vote for it, we can’t get the money for Visit Florida. And that’s all part of the design,” he said. “Members, welcome to sausage-making.”

The bill, HB 1-A, envisions an $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund to support infrastructure and job training programs. It would not allow grants to individual businesses. There’d be another $76 million for Visit Florida tourism marketing.

The Senate version, SB 2-A, provides for tighter oversight. For example, projects more than $750,000 would need approval by a special legislative committee. Those worth more than $500,000 would need to be posted on the organization’s website for 14 days before they take effect.

The House pushed to end both programs during the regular session; the Senate sided with Scott in favor. House leaders relented following the session after Scott agreed to limit grants to broad infrastructure and training investments.

Republican Randy Fine said he was prepared to trust that Scott — a wealthy businessman who doesn’t draw his salary — “will spend this money in the best way possible.”

Furthermore, the bill could “serve as a model to the country for how economic development should work. Maybe we can lead the country away from this notion from handing money out to companies,” and toward investments in infrastructure and job training.

“This is a great compromise,” Fine said.

Democrat Kionne McGhee didn’t buy it.

“What we are doing today is creating a political action committee for the governor,” he said. “This is not a slush fund or trust fund — this is a state-sponsored PAC.”

Jim Boyd, a Republican who sits on Enterprise Florida’s board, insisted the bill represents a fair compromise. “We don’t always end up where we started out, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Joe Negron doubles down: He was not party to any special session deal

Senate President Joe Negron insisted Thursday, for the second time in as many days, that he emphatically was not party to any deal between Gov. Rick Scott and the House over public education spending and economic incentives.

Any suggestion otherwise, Negron told reporters following the day’s Senate session, is a “false narrative.”

There is evidence, he said — absence of reference to him in the governor’s special session proclamation, and of any quote from a press release announcing the session.

He said early drafts of those documents would back him up, but his office hadn’t produced them Thursday evening.

He’d asked not to be included, lest it be mistaken as an endorsement, although he did attend a June 2 news conference announcing the special session call.

“I hear this false narrative by some that, somehow, the Senate is not keeping its end of the deal,” Negron said.

“We all care about our reputation. Our word is our bond. I think the evidence is indisputable — and it makes perfect sense — that the governor and the speaker have resolved a conflict. But they can’t resolve that conflict by using the Senate priorities to make that happen.”

Negron stressed that the major disagreements during the regular session were between Scott and the House. The Senate sided with Scott on funding for Enterprise Florida Inc. and Visit Florida, over determined opposition in the House.

“Now the House has decided to give the governor every single dollar he has demanded for EFI, every single dollar for Visit Florida. And they’ve decided we’ll go ahead and do the $215 more for FEFP (public schools) — which is less than what the Senate had agreed to do in our budget,” Negron said.

“That’s the conflict. That’s why we’re here. We’re not here because of the Senate.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran is on record to the effect that Negron “did not stick to the plan.”

Negron objected that Scott’s line item vetoes favored House projects over the Senate’s by a 2-1 margin.

Among the first things the Senate did upon convening Wednesday morning was to override Scott’s veto of the schools budget and $75 million in higher education projects. Boosting higher education has been a key Senate priority.

Additionally, the Senate is bent on reducing cuts to Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals by $100 million.

“We’re not just going to rubberstamp an agreement the two parties made without our priorities being taken into account,” Negron said.

“The good news is, we can be out of here by 2:30 or 3 o’clock tomorrow. It’s real simple. We fund the Senate priorities in higher education. We make sure the Senate’s views are respected as part of the negotiation. We look at hospital funding, which is important to the Senate. I’m open to discussing how we get there. And we still have reserves that exceed the current reserves that we have now,” he said.

“That’s what it’s going to take. But the Senate is united on not simply ratify an agreement that we weren’t part of.”

Negron spokeswoman Katie Betta said a Scott aide had shown her drafts of the proclamation and press release on a tablet computer. The proclaimation lacked Negron’s name, and she asked the aide to remove references to the president.

Senate avoids loading down schools funding bill with hostile amendments

The Senate rejected amendments Thursday that might have blocked a meeting of minds with the House on public schools funding — including bids to tie the legislation explicitly to economic development investments.

“These issues have been parsed out separately,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, who offered both amendments.

“Let’s put them together. And let’s candidly assert ourselves as the Florida Senate. Let’s make a statement about what our policy is. Let’s send the House one bill, one package,” he said.

“Let’s do our thing, and maybe not be so worried about what they’re going to do.”

Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala was sympathetic, saying the leadership had decided against such a move to avoid a confrontation with the House.

“In the end, in the spirit of trying to arrive at a solution, we made the decision not to go in that direction,” Latvala said.

He stressed that the point was to inject $215 million — $100 more per pupil — into the schools.

“If we try to get too cute, we may blow the whole thing up, and we have come up here for naught. I think that would be very unfortunate,” Latvala said.

The debate set the bill up for a final vote on Friday.

It came during the second day of a three-day special session that Gov. Rick Scott called after he vetoed the $11 billion Florida Education Finance Program, the public education budget.

SB 2500-A is designed to supplement the Appropriations Act approved last month, to get around the 72-hour waiting period for budget bills, Latvala said.

Additionally, the Senate voted Wednesday to override Scott’s veto of the schools budget plus $75 million in higher education projects.

That did set up a confrontation with the House.

“We’d be the first Republican Legislature that overrode a Republican governor on pork-barrel spending,” House Speaker Richard Corcoran told reporters.

Additionally, the Senate set final votes on an Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida bill containing tougher oversight than does the version favored by Scott and the House. And on a bill that would restore $100 million of the $200 million cut from Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals in the state budget.

Details on those bills here.

Again, Corcoran didn’t sound interested.

“It’s not in the call,” the speaker said. “We’re happy with where we are with the funding for the hospitals.”

Senators used the occasion of the schools-funding bill to re-debate HB 7069, the House’s big Schools of Hope package from the regular session. The upper chamber passed that bill only reluctantly, as part of the budget deal reached in an extended session.

Farmer was behind a series of amendments seeking to pick away at HB 7069. He would have stripped most of the money out of the $414 million Schools of Hope and related programs and sent them to public schools, while preserving aid to students with disabilities.

A third would have provided $100 in social services for students in the struggling schools targeted for closure under HB 7069. Another would have stripped $30 million the disability money from that bill. All failed.

Sen. Dennis Simmons withdrew amendments providing for similar raids, in the interest of compromise with the House, he said.

Budget panel sends schools, economic development, Medicaid bills to the floor

The Senate’s versions of legislation pumping money into public schools, hospitals, Enterprise Florida, and Visit Florida — and establishing a regulatory framework for medical marijuana — cleared the Appropriations Committee Thursday.

The votes — either unanimous or nearly so — sent the measures to the Senate floor. They also augured confrontations with the House involving oversight of economic development grants, and spending on Medicaid and public schools.

Chairman Jack Latvala appeared determined to hold his ground. For example, of a provision allowing use of local tourist tax dollars for Visit Florida projects in small counties — forbidden statewide in the House bill — he said: “I plan on sticking with that. If we have a bill, that ability is going to be in it.”

That bill — SB 2-A — includes more stringent review of the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund projects it would authorize.

For example, Enterprise and Visit Florida projects more than $750,000 would need approval by a special legislative committee. Those worth more than $500,000 would need to be posted on the organization’s website for 14 days before they take effect.

Legislation preferred by the House and Gov. Rick Scott would “vote a blank check with no accountability,” Latvala said. By contrast, in the Senate, “we’re not just talking the talk; we’re walking the walk.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran defended the House bill.

“The oversight already exists,” Corcoran told reporters.

“He (Scott) is elected. The Legislature is elected. We go in every single year. All those things can looked at,” he said. “But they’re broad-based benefits to the entire state.”

The full Senate began the special session Wednesday by voting to override Scott’s veto of the $11 billion budget for public schools, plus $75 million in the higher education budget.

SB 2500-A, approved by Latvala’s committee Thursday, adds another $215 to the schools budget.

Besides serving as an “insurance policy” to keep the schools open after the new fiscal year begins on July 1 — and against procedural tricks by the House — the Senate’s procedural posture “gives us flexibility on 72 hours.” That’s the three days legislators must wait before voting on budget bills — “at $70,000 a day for the taxpayers,” Latvala said.

For the record, the House doesn’t believe the cooling off period applies during the special session.

Sen. Dennis Simmons withdrew amendments that would have raided the House’s Schools of Hope program to provide $100 million in social services for students at underperforming schools. He indicated he might offer them on the Senate floor.

He argues the program can’t spend the money during its first year anyway, given the time needed to enlist charter operators.

Sen. Anatere Flores conceded SB 4-A, her bill to restore $100 million of the $200 million the Appropriations Act cut from Medicaid reimbursement rates to hospitals, has provoked indifference — even hostility — in the House.

Counting federal matching money, the cuts would be reduced by $260 million.

“Hope springs eternal,” Flores told reporters.

“It is completely within the Senate’s purview to say hospital cuts were a major issue. Forget about it being important to the Senate. It’s important to the state,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us to get that right.”

As Special Session opens, the Florida Senate asserts its prerogatives

That deal everyone assumed Gov. Rick Scott struck with legislative leaders to ensure a smooth special session?

It didn’t exist. At least, it didn’t include Senate President Joe Negron.

Scott invited him to Friday’s press conference held to announce that he was calling a three-day special session on education, Visit Florida, and Enterprise Florida, Negron said Wednesday. He went out of respect for the governor, but there was no meeting of minds.

“It was very clear to the governor, in my communications with him, also through our staff, that any particular details of how the special session would unfold were not agreed to by the Senate. In fact, we were never even approached about those particular details,” Negron told reporters.

“Some falsely interpreted the events as a narrative involving the House, the Senate, and the governor,” he said.

“The Senate’s been very clear that we’re here to do the people’s work.” Just as Scott and the House have their priorities, “the Florida Senate has its own ideas and its own ways that we think the budget can be improved,” Negron said.

For his part, Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala bristled at suggestions the Senate was bound to any deal.

“The mood of the chamber is, we want to do what’s right for the people we represent. And we’re not going to told what to by somebody else,” he said.

The Senate began bucking as soon as it left the gate. It voted to override Scott’s vetoes of various public schools and higher education projects — as an “insurance policy” against House high-handedness regarding the plan to boost spending by $215 million, Latvala told the senators.

The Senate also asserted its prerogatives on the economic development package, and will debate reinstating $100 million in Medicaid reimbursement cuts to charity hospitals.

Sen. David Simmons plans to offer an amendment to divert $389 million pledged to HB 7069 — the Schools of Hope Bill — for the public schools.

Some $100 million of that would provide wrap-around services to kids in underperforming schools — meaning “intensive assistance to children in low-performing schools,” Simmons said — the very ones targeted by Schools of Hope charters.

Simmons argued to reporters that there’s no way the program can get off the ground during the new budget year. In the meantime, it makes sense to spend the “fallow” money on pressing needs, he said.

Latvala saw irony in the House’s cooperation with Scott on the incentives package in light of criticism of the Legislature over behind-closed-doors deal on the Appropriations Act. The governor was among the critics.

“When you give the Senate a bill that you have written between the governor’s office and the House of Representatives and say, ‘This is what we want,’ what’s different about that? Out of the three, it’s just a different two of the three making the decision,” he said.

Sen. Anatere Flores is carrying legislation that would restore $100 million of the $200 million in cuts to hospitals that treat Medicaid patients under the Appropriations Act. That would draw an additional $160 million in federal funds.

She would get the money from the state’s rainy day fund, which, fed by Scott’s line item vetoes would still total around $3 billion, Flores said. There’d be $1.3 billion in the working capital fund, enough to preserve the state’s bond rating.

“We would be somewhat derelict in our duties if we didn’t go back and say, there are some other issues that we could take a stab at,” Flores said.

“These are pregnant mothers. These are children. This is their safety net,” she said.

Is she talking to House leaders?

“I think that we’re all just talking right now. Soon, maybe, we’ll be talking to each other. I hope.”

Regarding the outlook for a timely adjournment on Friday, Negron was conciliatory after the Senate concluded business for the evening.

“The Senate’s relationship with the governor has been very productive,” he said.

“I don’t take it as an offense when the governor exercises his constitutional right to get a final review of the budget and to veto certain items,” he said. “Under our constitutional system, the Legislature gets to also make a review.”

And he welcomed the House’s movement toward positions Scott and the Senate have embraced all along.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. We certainly understand where the House is on their priorities. I hopeful over the next two days we can continue the dialog,” Negron said.

Senate votes to override veto of public education budget as ‘insurance’

The Senate voted Tuesday to override Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of the public schools budget — as an “insurance policy” intended to keep the schools open after July 1 if this week’s special session of the Legislature breaks down.

“This is an insurance policy. We just don’t want to get to a situation where we end up without having our (education) finance program funded,” Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala said.

“You know as well as I do that we’re in contentious times here. We’re faced with very aggressive House of Representatives in advocating their position on issues,” he said.

“You never know what that’s going to produce. I don’t want to be responsible, as our Appropriations Chairman, and our president doesn’t want to be responsible, for getting into a situation where we leave town and we do not have our school funding in place.”

The measure passed with three dissenting votes — well within the necessary supermajority.

The new state budget takes effect on July 1.

The plan remained to take up separate legislation that would funnel $215 million into the education budget on top of the $404.6 million in the state budget approved during an extended session last month,” Latvala said

Sen. Tom Lee asked whether Latvala had briefed the governor on the plan, including the override.

“I’m sure they are watching on TV,” Latvala replied.

Governor and Cabinet to take up environmental land-acquisition priorities

The newest project on the state’s priority list for conservation land buys is a 4,700-acre spread in eastern Alachua County, containing valuable wildlife, water, and plant resources, but also largely given over to pine harvesting.

That’s if Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet approve an updated Florida Forever work plan during a meeting scheduled for June 14.

Sitting as the trustees of state lands, Scott and the Cabinet will review the Florida Forever land-buy priority list and five-year plan for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. A 10-member panel of state agency heads and members of the public assemble the Florida Forever list, and the Department of Environmental Protection the work plan.

Inclusion doesn’t guarantee acquisition right away.

“When things become available, we can make deals happen,” DEP spokewoman Lauren Engel said.

“No. 1 might not be available that year, but No. 27 might have a seller who’s willing to negotiate,” she said. The list “helps us define our focus.”

New to that plan would be Lochloosa Forest, assessed at nearly $5.3 million.

A summary describes the area as upland terrace containing flatwoods, swamps, and marshes, with Hatchet and Bee Tree creeks flowing through. In the past, the area has supported cypress and hardwood logging, and at present pine plantation covers about 80 percent of the land — limiting the parcel’s usefulness for recreation.

However, the property might serve as an “outdoor classroom/laboratory,” similar to one next door at the University of Florida’s Austin Cary Forest, the document says.

Also on the Cabinet’s agenda is the purchase for nearly $5.3 million of 407 acres to protect a network of springs including Gilchrist Blue Springs, near High Springs.

“Four of the six springs are named, with one being a large second magnitude spring that produces an average of over 44 million gallons of water per day,” a summary reads.

“The second magnitude spring, Gilchrist Blue, discharges water through a shallow spring run about one quarter mile to the Sante Fe River. The other named springs onsite are Small Blue Spring, Naked Spring, and Johnson Spring.”

The state’s First Magnitude Springs Project targets 16,000 acres across the state, of which 9,425 have been acquired or have deals pending.

To date, the state has acquired nearly 605,000 acres under the broader Florida Forever program.

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