Michael Moline - 3/29 - 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.

Senate sends $82.4 billion budget bill to the House in extended session

The Senate approved an $82.4 billion state budget during legislative overtime Monday, including a raft of conforming bills implementing House and Senate priorities on matters including public schools, colleges, and universities.

The 34-0 vote sent the budget bill to the House.

The final Senate vote came at about 8:30 p.m. without debate, following a day spent in extensive debate over the budget package. The chamber sent the usual implementing bill over by the same margin, then paused to give the House time to act.

Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala warned earlier in the day that failure to adopt any of those bills could sink the entire budget.

“From a real-life perspective, if we fail to adopt one of the priorities of the other House, that’s going to have an impact on the whole process, and probably the budget as a whole. You know that as well as I do,” he said.

Nevertheless, there were bipartisan protests by senators who warned of the potential to sink bad policy into these must-pass bills without scrutiny by substantive committees.

“It’s easy for us to say, well, there’s good policy in here and so that’s why we should do it,” Democrat Jeff Clemens argued. “Well, sometimes there’s bad policy in conforming bills, and we don’t get a chance to amend that here. All we can do is vote yes or no.”

The Senate went into recess shortly after 4:30 p.m. Still on the agenda at that stage was SB 2500, the Appropriations Act, and SB 7069, a K-12 education package.

There were protests about tradeoffs. Sen. Bill Montford asked a series of questions about language providing defined contribution retirement plans to state workers, which the Senate agreed to in exchange for state workers raises.

“If we want the pay raise … we had to bite the insurance and the pension changes,” Latvala finally told Montford. “If you don’t think they’re worth the pay raise, vote against the bill.”

Thirteen senators took that advice, against 24 who voted in favor of that conforming bill.

The budget act and conforming bills contain the first across-the-board salary increase for state workers in 11 years — with the biggest increase for people paid $40,000 per year and less. It would steer extra money to corrections officers and other positions plagued by high turnover.

The budget for PreK-12 would grow by $241 million but, because Florida will have 24,000 more students, the base per-student allocation would actually shrink by $27. But there’s $140 million for a Schools of Hope program, to lure charter schools to replace failing public schools, and $234 million for the Best and Brightest bonuses.

In companion legislation, the Legislature would require state universities to charge students per semester, so they could load up on courses and perhaps graduate sooner. There would be no tuition increases, but there would be increases in aid and scholarships.

Support foundations would open more of their books to public scrutiny. State colleges would get a new governing structure and limits on upper level enrollment.

The state would spend $3.6 billion for agriculture and environmental programs. Some $13.3 million is for beach recovery and $39.9 million for beach projects, on top of the $10 million base budget. But the offer zeroed out funding for land acquisition under the Florida Forever program — sacrificed for a $1.2 billion rainy day fund.

“There’s nobody in this chamber that regrets that more than I do,” Latvala said. “But when you put that up against all that we did for the environment … we’ve had quite a year.”

The budget would allow the state to get cracking on Senate President Joe Negron’s $1.5 billion Lake Okeechobee plan, designed to stop discharges of toxic algae-infused overflow into streams and estuaries to the east and west by storing 78 billion gallons of water in a reservoir to the south, with treatment and ultimate discharge into the Everglades and Florida Bay.

Total spending on the Everglades next year would total $274 million.

Plans for substantial cuts to hospitals were mitigated by a Trump administration offer of as much as $1.5 billion for charity care — although the conditions on that aid would restrict the amount to about $1 billion, according to Anitere Flores, who chairs the relevant Appropriations subcommittee.

The legislation would allow the county clerks of the courts to keep $10.4 million in court fees they otherwise would send to the Legislature, plus another $11.7 million from the state for jury-related costs.

Jack Latvala appeals to Senate to pass budget, despite flawed process

Don’t let the perhaps flawed way that House and Senate negotiators agreed upon their $83 billion state budget tarnish the final bill, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala urged Monday as the Senate took up the measure in an extended session.

“We’ve done a lot of good with this budget” and “cannot get bogged down just worrying about one issue and forget all of the many accomplishments that we’ve had together this year,” he said.

“If there’s fault to be had for one of these bills that has gotten a little bit out of control, just understand that we won’t do this again under my watch on this committee. I promise you that,” Latvala said.

The process mostly worked as designed, he contended.

“By and large, we were not interfered with in any way, shape or form, in doing our budgets in our respective subcommittees. We’ve got a good process, and I’m very proud of that product,” Latvala said.

“I think it would be unfortunate to let that product be overshadowed by one or two bills that were added to the conference as conforming bills.”

He reminded the senators of the “regular, full-scale throw-down on conforming bills” during the 2011 session.

This year, lead conferees agreed that the House could bring its preK-12 priorities and the Senate its higher education initiatives into conforming legislation.

“Perhaps they got a little carried a way with their bill. And perhaps it went a little further than a bill should have gone in the conforming bill process,” Latvala said.

“For that, I take the responsibility. I could have cut that off at any time. I could have cut it off in the beginning by going to the president and saying it just wasn’t what we needed to do. I didn’t do that, in trying to respect the two-house system that is so important to governing our state.”

He apologized if the process was abused.

“But today … we have a package of bills. And that package of bills is an entirety,” Latvala said. “If we don’t proceed to adopt all those bills, then we basically have nothing.”

That would force a special session in which lawmakers come back and “we redo our job,” he said.

Jeff Atwater’s office defends pay increases for top administrators

The office of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who is stepping down with the conclusion of the Legislative Session, has defended pay raises for his top staff as in line with long-overdue increases throughout his department.

In a letter dated Thursday to Senate President Joe Negron’s chief of staff, Cheri Vancura, Atwater’s chief of staff, Budd Kneip, said he wanted to explain the situation in light of a press inquiry.

“When the CFO first arrived, we found that department personnel were woefully lagging in compensation compared to their appropriate peer groups. As a result, turnover was high, occasioning operating inefficiencies and excessive costs relating to recruiting and training,” the letter says.

Atwater’s office worked “closely and openly” with legislative Appropriations staff to reduce headcount but boost salaries. “From the very outset, the Legislature has been sympathetic and supportive,” the letter continues.

“In the interest of fairness, we began with lower compensated positions and worked our way up through the organization. We are now in a position to make similar adjustments to those responsible for implementing the changes and creating significant cost savings, bringing them into closer alignment with their peers.”

Over all, the department has eliminated 240 positions and realized annual salary reductions of $4.6 million, Kneip wrote.

“The total of these recent adjustments represents less than 1 percent of the annualized savings and an infinitesimal percentage of all savings realized.”

Among the increase, the chief of staff went from nearly $151,000 per year to $158,550; the deputy chiefs of staff for operations and fraud from $127,000 to $139,700; the general counsel, $125,000 to $128.750; and the director of internal affairs and appointments from $108,400 to $114,924.

Extension resolution pledges that House and Senate will adjourn together

The Senate has adopted a concurrent resolution giving the Legislature itself until 11:59 p.m. Monday to pass the state budget.

SCR 1850, adopted on a voice vote after 9 p.m., limits the extension to work on SB 2500, the proposed General Appropriations Act, and related legislation including a package of tax breaks.

House and Senate conferees were unable to nail down a budget agreement quickly enough to adjourn on time.

“Be it further resolved that all other measures in both houses are indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration of the respective house as of 11:59 p.m., Friday, May 5, 2017.

“Be it further resolved that upon recess or adjournment Friday, May 5, 2017, either house may reconvene upon the call of its presiding officer,” the document adds.

Finally, it says both chambers would adjourn simultaneously once they complete their work on the budget.

Joe Negron starts edging toward the exit

Senate President Joe Negron said Friday that the Senate was waiting to vote on two bills and then would retire for the evening.

Those bills, he said, were the joint resolution extending the session past its midnight expiration time, into Monday, so the House and Senate could debate an $83 billion compromise budget and conforming bills.

The other was SB436, by Sen. Dennis Baxley, to allow students to express religious beliefs in class assignments, profess faith via clothing and jewelry pray, and engage in religious activities before, during, and after the school day.

Essentially, religious activities would be treated the same way as similar secular activity.

Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala wanted to know whether that meant none of the other major legislation still pending was dead.

“I don’t think we should assume anything until the conclusion of business today,” Negron replied.

Meanwhile, the Senate was standing in recess.

Conference committees complete work on budget conforming bills

The House and Senate staged one last conference committee Friday, agreeing on budget conforming bills containing sweeping policy changes, on public schools, higher education, economic incentives programs and more.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron did the honors personally, leading delegations to a committee room to present and consider offers on the conforming bills.

The $83 billion state budget landed on members desks in the House and Senate at 2:43 p.m., allowing them three days to study the document before an up-or-down vote scheduled for Monday. The conforming bills don’t require that long a wait.

A conference committee finally signed off on the final language on Thursday — too late to allow a vote before the regular session’s scheduled end on Friday, forcing the Legislature to extend into next week.

The bills agreed upon Friday encompass the House’s Schools of Hope charter school and Best and Brightest teacher bonus expansion; governance of university support organizations; new limits on Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida; and more.

The bills are HB 5501, HB 5601, HB 7069, CS/CS/SB 374, and SB 2506.

“I think that’s going to go down as one of the greatest K12 bills in the history of Florida,” Corcoran told reporters.

He and Negron both defended the conference process — reaching agreements on key provisions privately, then meeting in public to present their offers, with no time for members of the public to scrutinize the details.

“These things have been going on for years. I think they went on last year. I think they went on the year before that. They went on the year before that,” Corcoran said.

What’s different is that “there was not one single late-night addition in conference to the budget,” he said.

Additionally, the Senate held Appropriations Committee hearings on bills it knew the House wanted to pass, Negron said.

“These are issues that have been part of the legislative process for a long time,” he said.

Bill Montford complains about school spending during scholarships debate

The Senate’s leading education expert unloaded Friday on spending levels for schools contemplated in the Legislature’s compromise $83 billion state budget.

During debate on extending Florida’s corporate tax exemption scholarship program, Sen. Bill Montford complained that base spending per student would decline in the public schools next fiscal year, notwithstanding a modest increase in the school budget.

“In the budget that you’re going to look at Monday,” he said, “the basic student allocation next year will be $27 less than it is this year.”

The budget would grow by $241 million, “but we also have 24,000 more students. You figure that out,” Montford said.

Much of the increase in overall spending would be consumed by pension investments, Montford, a former school principal and superintendent from Tallahassee, continued.

The schools will serve 540,000 students with disabilities. “And we’re spending $50 million less than we did 10 years ago,” Montford said.

“The Safe Schools allocation is $11 million less than it was 10 years ago. The transportation allocation is $45 million less than it was 10 years ago. The instructional material allocation is $36 million less than it was 10 years ago.”

Montford said he would vote for the scholarship programs under debate, because he believes in school choice.

“But the parent who chooses to leave their child in a traditional public school, that child should have the same opportunities as those who choose to go to a nontraditional public school,” he said.

The Senate ultimately approved the scholarships bill, 27-11, and returned it to the House.

The bill would expand both Florida’s corporate tax exemption scholarships and availability of the Gardiner Scholarship program for students with disabilities.

The senators switched out their own version of the Gardiner legislation earlier in the week for the House version, CS/CS/CS/HB 15, which contained the corporate tax exemption scholarship language.

The bill extends Gardiner scholarships to students suffering anaphylaxis; deafness; visual impairments; dual sensory impairments; and “rare diseases which affect patient populations of fewer than 200,000.”

It bumps the amount available to students in the corporate exemption program as they age. Sen. Denise Grimsley said costs tend to rise as students advance from elementary to middle to high school.

“I don’t believe that any of these changes are going to attract more students to the program,” she said in debate earlier in the week.

The program provides low-income students with tuition for private schools or transportation to public schools.

Democrat Daphne Campbell supported the program, saying two-thirds of the beneficiaries are African-American or Hispanic, and more than half live in single-parent homes.

“These students struggled but now they are succeeding,” Campbell said.

“This should not be a partisan issue. The House passed this bill off the floor with unanimous support — every Republican and every Democrat,” she said.

Other Democrats argued the program diverts tax dollars that could go to public schools. Victor Torres said the bill would increase tax breaks by 25 percent each year — doubling it in four years.

“We do not increase finding for public education at this rate,” Torres said.

Sen. Debbie Mayfield sympathized, but argued: “The money should follow the child.”

“I understand that public education needs more money,” Mayfield said. “But I have always believed it is the parent’s choice where the child goes to school.”

“Why would we ask people to languish in situations where they have no choice, when freedom works?” said Sen. Dennis Baxley. “And we know that every one of these schools will do better when everyone’s there because of choice.”

And Kelli Stargel noted that the transportation provision allows students to transfer to better public schools.

“It’s not a fight between public and private,” she said. “It’s dollars that we appropriate from the state of Florida to

Senate sends Dozier school memorial bill to governor’s desk

Legislation to erect memorials to boys who suffered abuse and death at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna was headed to the governor’s desk Friday following final approval by the Senate.

The vote to adopt HB 7115 was 35-0. The measure passed the House, 117-0, on April 18.

Sponsor Darryl Rouson said the measure would provide “a respectful burial to the inidentified, unclaims remains” of the victims of a 1914 dormitory fire at Boot Hill Cemetery on the Dozier campus, with other unclaimed remains to be reburied in Tallahassee.

Additionally, memorials would be raised in Marianna and on the state Capitol Complex in Tallahassee.

Earlier, the House and Senate voted apologies to victims of abuse at Dozier and a boys school in Okeechobee.

A forensic examination conducted between 2013 and 2016 uncovered at least 55 burial site at Dozier, 24 more than records indicated.

House moves toward Senate on must-pass workers’ compensation legislation

The Senate refused Friday to move toward the House position on workers’ compensation reform, but the House gave ground on how much to pay attorneys handling claims appeals.

Senate bill sponsor Rob Bradley offered an amendment that would have split the difference between the two chambers by paying attorneys as much as $200 per hour, but the Senate chose on a voice vote to retain his original language — $250.

The Senate voted, 21-16, to send the bill to the House

The House lobbed the bill back after voting to raise the maximum fee to $180, up from its previous position of $150.

The drama came on the last day of the Legislature’s regular session, on legislation considered must-pass by the insurance industry and business lobbies.

Bradley argued his amendment took a middle position between intractable antagonists — those lobbies and the trial bar.

“All the special interests are against it,” he said.

“For some people, that is a bad thing. I suggest to you that that’s a sign that us as public policymakers are not being dictated to by any one special interest or another. And that we’ve actually achieved, consistent with the spirit of the workers’ compensation law and its design, a balance.

“Because I promise you, if one side was doing cartwheels and the other one wasn’t … it would not reflect that grand bargain and balance that I’m describing.”

The bill is CS/HB 7085.

Sen. Gary Farmer, who offered the substitute amendment that prevailed on the fee issue, argued the original version was “more balanced and fair to all parties.”

Additionally, the Senate would require carriers to compete on rates, rather than submit rate proposals collectively through the National Council on Compensation Insurance, or NCCI.

The House version would allow carriers to depart from the common rate by 5 percent, up or down.

“It makes the rate-making process more transparent, so businesses can get, hopefully, better rates,” Farmer said.

In either case, departures from a statutory fee schedule would apply only when justified by a case’s difficulty.

Bradley’s amendment would have required the Department of Financial Services to engage an independent consultant to study the system for reimbursing medical providers through the workers’ compensation system.

The House bill would tie reimbursement to medical providers to Medicare rates, rather than through the existing fee for service system.

Bradley said that would cost providers as much as $300 million.

Both bills would extend temporary disability benefits from the existing 104 weeks to 260 — but the House bill would provide an additional 26 weeks if the worker hasn’t reached maximum medical improvement and cannot return to the jobsite.

The legislation is a response to Florida Supreme Court rulings last year striking limits on attorney fees and temporary disability payments.

Insurance carriers and their business allies, who consider workers’ compensation reforms must-pass legislation this year, blame those rulings for increasing costs to insurers and employers.

The Office of Insurance Regulation, in response to the rulings, approved a 14.5 percent increase in premiums that began to take effect in December. NCCI blames litigation cost for fully 10 percent of that increase.

Senate bows to minimum-mandatory sentencing for fentanyl traffickers

The Senate changed its mind Friday and accepted mandatory-minimum prison sentences in a bill cracking down on synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and carfentanil.

Senators had stripped the provision earlier in the week, but the House refused to abandon mandatory sentences and sent the bill back.

Senate President Joe Negron initially ruled that Sen. Greg Steube’s motion to rescind the amendment had failed on a voice vote.

But enough members insisted on a recorded vote, which went 20-18 to back down.

The Senate then voted, 31-7, to send the bill to the governor.

Senate Democrats had made it clear during their final caucus of the regular session that they viewed the matter as a test of mandatory-minimum sentencing, which many of them oppose as restricting judge’s authority to consider special cases.

But the feeling wasn’t unanimous. Sen. Darryl Rouson said he usually opposes minimum-mandatory sentencing, but that the opioid crisis presents a special emergency.

“Let’s go home sending a strong message,” he said. He urged support for addiction treatment, “but let’s deal harshly with those who profit off the addictions and illnesses of others.”

Sen. Randolph Bracy, the amendment’s sponsor, argued that the amendment would still permit long sentences for drug traffickers who deserve it.

“It just allows the judge in extreme cases to say, ‘This person does not deserve 25 years.’ ”

Steube insisted the Senate needed to act against dangerous drugs that are killing 10 people each day in Florida when mixed with other drugs, including heroin. He argued that the mandatory sentences wouldn’t apply to most simple users.

“We’re not talking about the kid making a mistake. We’re talking about the trafficker who is mixing and cutting this stuff with heroin and killing people in our state every day.”

HB 477 targets fentanyl and related substances that, when administered by themselves or in combination with other drugs, can prove deadly, for tougher sentencing. For example, it would add fentanyl and derivatives to the list of Schedule I drugs and provides that trafficking in them resulting in death constitutes murder.

Possession of less than 14 grams of fentanyl would bring at least three years in prison; up to 28 grams would bring 15; and and 28 or more grams would bring 25.

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