Jim Rosica - 7/115 - SaintPetersBlog

Jim Rosica

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

Legislature OKs 2017-18 state budget in extended session

The Senate approved a roughly $83 billion state spending plan during a legislative overtime Monday, including a raft of conforming bills implementing House and Senate priorities on matters including public schools, colleges, and universities.

The 34-4 vote sent the General Appropriations Act to the House, which later approved it on a 98-14 vote. The annual ‘sine die’ ceremony, with the sergeants-at-arms for both chambers dropping handkerchiefs simultaneously, happened at 8:52 p.m.

The budget now heads to Gov. Rick Scott, who was at a “Freedom Rally for Venezuela” in Miami Monday night and did not attend the hanky-drop ceremony as he has in previous years.

It remains whether Scott will veto some or all the budget, which guts his favored tourism marketing and business incentive programs. His office did not issue a statement late Monday.

The budget gives $25 million — down from around $75 million — in recurring operating funds for VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing arm, and only $16 million to Enterprise Florida, the economic development organization.

The sine die ceremony was more subdued than earlier years, with far less than the usual complement of lobbyists and staffers hoisting red cups to toast the end of another Legislative Session.

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.

House Democrats debated the budget only briefly before Speaker Richard Corcoran dimmed the lights in the chamber, joking “We don’t want you to see the (budget) so we’re gonna vote on it blindly.” He actually was getting ready to show a House-produced video. 

Corcoran, who is rumored to be eyeing the Governor’s Office in 2018, called the session’s work “bold and transformative,” mentioning the nearly 100 votes the budget got in the House.

With the Senate’s vote, “that’s way more than two-thirds,” he said — the margin needed to override the governor’s veto legislatively. “I think it’s more likely that (Scott) will veto (member) projects, and I have always told you that my encouragement to the governor is, ‘ go ahead and veto all the pork you can.’ “

Senate President Joe Negron also told reporters that policies in the budget “are things that this governor supports … I think that all of us will spend some time over the next week to 10 days to make our case. We have the burden of proof.”

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, however, said she didn’t “feel all the transparency that people professed” — a shot at Corcoran.

“We sat outside,” she said, referring to House Democrats in the budget process. “If Floridians who elected us really understood what was happening here, they would quite frankly be surprised at how few people make the decisions.”

Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, 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.”

There were protests about trade-offs. 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 for 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 are 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 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.

Tallahassee correspondents Michael Moline and Jim Rosica contributed to this post. 

Updated 9:45 p.m. — The tax package included nearly $815 million in cuts, including repeal of Florida’s “tampon tax,” and back-to-school and pre-hurricane season tax holidays. There’s also a $25,000 boost in the homestead exemption, contingent on voter approval.

That deal almost hit a snag when the House added two last-minute amendments. Senate bill manager Kelli Stargel wasn’t having it. She urged senators to say “No” to the House.

 “It’s not about the policy. It’s about at the last minute of the last hour of the last day of what has been a very difficult session that we do an amendment that we were not prepared to do,” Stargel said.

The House accepted the trimmed version.

Janet Cruz blasts USF’s treatment in proposed budget

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz blasted legislative leadership’s treatment of the University of South Florida, saying the school’s achievement of state “pre-eminent” status was snatched away from it at the last moment.

Language in an education conforming bill late last Friday was changed, preventing USF from pre-eminence, a status that would have qualified it for millions of additional dollars in state funding.

Cruz, of Tampa, asked pointed questions of fellow state Rep. Larry Ahern, chair of the chamber’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. 

Who decides when we move the goalpost … who makes that decision?” Cruz asked. Ahern said the change happened in the Senate. 

Senate President Joe Negron has denied accusations of unfairness, saying they are “entirely unsupported by the facts.”

A bill originally had language that a university must achieve a four-year graduation rate of 50 percent or higher, a mark that USF has exceeded.

But the conforming bill — written after the budget was finalized Friday — reverted to a previous benchmark: A six-year graduation rate of 70 percent or better for full-time, first-time students.

“Did you know that USF was celebrating that they would finally, after years of preparation, would finally achieve pre-eminent status?” Cruz asked Ahern. 

“I’m not sure what they were doing Friday night,” Ahern said.

In debate, Cruz later lambasted the process: “I was ready to be supportive but then someone took from my hometown … (The university) followed the rules, and late at night, the goal posts were changed.”

Tampa Republican Shawn Harrison added, “We were there until we weren’t … this is a blow to USF.”

Tampa correspondent Mitch Perry contributed to this post. 

Blaise Ingoglia: Agency for State Technology ‘is going to stay’

House members voted Monday in favor of a budget conference committee report that keeps the state’s Agency for State Technology.

The measure passed on a vote of 109-2.

The House had earlier angled for a major overhaul, even doing away with the agency, but agreed to keep it intact during budget negotiations.

The agency came under fire in January after a report by Florida Auditor General Sherrill F. Norman’s office laid out a laundry list of security and other problems at the relatively new agency.

Ingoglia

Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican, explained that the agency won’t be abolished: The agency “is going to stay,” he said.

But the measure reduces the agency’s “top-heavy” management structure, though it does create a “chief data officer.” It also requires the next agency head, the state’s Chief Information Officer, to have 10 years of “executive management experience.”

Because the state’s data center costs were “escalating out of control,” it also moves more information to cloud computing, Ingoglia said.

Jason Allison resigned as Chief Information Officer in February. He joined the Foley & Lardner law firm as a “director of public affairs” in the Tallahassee office.

The Agency for State Technology, which replaced the predecessor Agency for Enterprise Information Technology, was created by lawmakers in 2014. Allison was appointed its head that Dec. 9. He was paid $130,000 a year.

Among the January audit findings: The AST failed to “review user access privileges for the mainframe, open systems environments, and the network domains,” kept an inaccurate “inventory of IT resources at the State Data Center,” and “State Data Center backup tape records were not up-to-date and some backup tapes could not be located and identified.”

House OKs VISIT FLORIDA, Enterprise Florida funding cuts

House members on Monday approved a measure dealing with VISIT FLORIDA and Enterprise Florida funding on a 74-34 vote.

If vetoed, however, the “conforming bill” would need 80 votes to overcome Gov. Rick Scott‘s red pen.

Both chambers have begun discussing the 2017-18 state budget, which wasn’t completed on time to finish the 2017 Legislative Session last Friday. That caused a rare extension to Monday, using the weekend to count toward the constitutionally required 72-hour “cooling off” period before lawmakers can vote.

The proposed budget gives $25 million—down from around $75 million—in recurring operating funds for VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing arm, and $16 million to Enterprise Florida, the economic development organization.

Both are public-private entities but have historically received far more public dollars than private. The budget also zeroes out Gov. Rick Scott‘s favored business incentive programs for next year. It remains to be seen whether Scott will veto some or all of the Legislature’s budget.

Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Petersburg Democrat, asked Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, whether VISIT FLORIDA would be “able to function” at such a reduced amount.

“I think the word ‘function’ is in the eye of the beholder,” Renner said, adding that the agency would not be able to create new programs but all “existing programs will continue.”

Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat, also asked Renner how new accountability measures would have prevented a contentious deal the agency cut with South Florida rapper Pitbull to promote tourism.

Speaker Richard Corcoran went to war against VISIT FLORIDA, threatening to sue after it refused to reveal a secret deal with Pitbull, who later voluntarily disclosed he was set to be paid up to $1 million.

The House majority has imposed measures including limiting individual employee compensation to $130,000 (equal to the salary of the governor), requiring Senate confirmation of new agency CEOs, disallowing new direct-support organizations, and requiring new contracts to be posted on the state CFO’s transparency website.

In addition, Renner explained that lawmakers could have nipped the Pitbull deal in the bud under a proposed 14-day “legislative consultation” period that “would have prevented it from going forward.”

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz later argued in debate that she did not “believe $25 million is enough to sustain tourism at the level we’ve seen it in the state of Florida.”

“We’ve probably punished (them) a little too harshly” in this budget, she said.

Rep. Jay Fant, a Jacksonville Republican, has been the rare GOP House member who never bought into gutting the agencies, especially doing away with incentives. He suggested the proposed funding all but invited Scott to veto it.

The proposal “jeopardizes our entire budget, and bills and special projects, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Fant said. “Why not compromise on some basic principle of business incentive? We can tailor it, we can negotiate it.”

But Renner said “it’s always still the taxpayers’ money … we’ve seen too many times that that has been forgotten.”

Tallahassee not the only town with ‘sine die’ traditions

Tallahassee is devoted to certain traditions on “sine die,” the final day of the yearly legislative session, but it’s the not the only state that has them.

In Idaho, capital reporters wear ugly ties near session’s end to “encourage legislators to finish their business quickly and go home,” says a Legislative Research Librarians newsletter.

In the Magnolia State, Mississippi State University lobbyists put tomato seedlings “on the desks of legislators, staff members and sometimes statehouse reporters.”

“The tradition started several decades ago after university researchers engineered a robust tomato plant capable of traveling well,” according to a Stateline blog post. “Proud of their development, they sent some to the Capitol, where the tomatoes were a hit.”

In Georgia, lawmakers toss ripped paper into the air above their desks, and in Alabama, legislators give a “shroud” award to the bill deemed least likely to pass.

Here in Florida, traditions focus on colors: Pink, red and white.

Pink, as in the color of ties, sport coats, dresses and flowers worn by lobbyists, lawmakers and others, especially as they mill about in the 4th floor Rotunda between the two chambers.

The wearing of pink, for those who still remember the reason, is to honor the late insurance lobbyist Marvin Arrington, who wore a pink sports coat on the last day of Session.

Arrington died the last week of the 2002 session, succumbing to a heart attack in his car near the Capitol. (For last year’s story on that tradition, click here.)

The red refers to the same-colored Solo cups ubiquitous on the last day. Capitol Police frown on the drinking of alcohol in the building, so (mainly) lobbyists sneak their tipple in the plastic chalices — though now it’s pretty much an open secret.

The same cups also were immortalized — maybe even “immoralized” – in song by Toby Keith, who called them “the best receptacle/For barbecues, tailgates, fairs and festivals.”

And white, as in the handkerchiefs that are ceremonially dropped by the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms to mark the precise moment of session’s end.

As the State Library and Archives of Florida explains, in the pre-technology days in the Old Capitol, the presiding officers of each chamber couldn’t see each other and weren’t in communication by phone.

“The House and Senate sergeants would stand in the rotunda where they could be observed by the Senate President and House Speaker,” the website says. “The sergeants would drop a handkerchief at the moment agreed upon for adjournment and the gavels would fall in each house to formally signal the end of the session.”

But that tradition has taken a hit in recent years.

In 2011, the chambers were at odds over a flurry of competing priorities, including claim bills and tax breaks. They adjourned separately in the wee hours of the morning, eschewing the traditional joint “hanky drop.”

And last year, the House went home three days early after the chambers deadlocked over health care funding, forcing a special session to finish the 2015-16 state budget.

See ya Monday: House and Senate adjourn after extending session

The work of the people ended with a whimper Friday, as lawmakers agreed to extend the 2017 Legislative Session to complete the budget, killing a host of other legislation.

As the Legislature turned out the lights around 9:30 p.m., high-profile dead bills included efforts to overhaul workers’ compensation and assignment of benefits, and to implement the state’s medical cannabis constitutional amendment.

The House and Senate agreed to a concurrent resolution extending session to 11:59 p.m. Monday to pass the 2017-18 state budget and several other measures, including the annual tax cut package.

The General Appropriations Act wasn’t delivered until 2:43 p.m. Friday. With the state constitution’s required 72-hour “cooling off” period, Monday afternoon is the earliest that the budget can be voted on.

Now it remains to be seen, with a budget that includes drastic cuts to Gov. Rick Scott‘s tourism marketing and economic development priorities, whether Scott will veto part or all of the spending plan.

“On the Senate side, we tried to work with our friends in the House and the governor to be able to obtain more of the governor’s priorities, but ultimately that wasn’t successful,” Senate President Joe Negron told reporters Friday night.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, also said he wanted an approach to workers’ compensation that was fair both to workers and businesses.

“Businesses don’t care whether attorney fees are paid to plaintiffs’ attorneys, whether they’re paid to defense attorneys. They care what the premiums are,” he said. “Whether it’s something we can look at when we reconvene (in January), we’ll have to see.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, expressed similar sentiments about the effort to implement medical marijuana.

“If we’ve learned anything about these constitutional amendments, whether the Legislature acts or not is irrelevant,” he said. “There will be court challenges, because people will not like what we did when we act, and they won’t like our inaction either. So I would expect court challenges no matter what we did.”

Jim Rosica and Michael Moline contributed to this post. 

self defense

Legislative fix to ‘Stand Your Ground’ law goes to Rick Scott

The Senate blinked in a fight over a standard of evidence, sending a fix to the state’s “stand your ground” law to Gov. Rick Scott.

The House on Friday voted to “insist” that the Senate accept its amendment to Sen. Rob Bradley‘s bill (SB 128), which aims to streamline claims of self-defense.

Last month, it OK’d the bill but changed the burden of proof to “clear and convincing evidence,” a lower threshold than the Senate’s “beyond a reasonable doubt,” to overcome self-defense.

By Friday evening, the Senate finally accepted the change on a 22-14 vote.

Bill proponents want the burden to be on “the party seeking to overcome the immunity from criminal prosecution,” usually prosecutors, requiring a separate mini-trial, of sorts.

In legal terms, clear and convincing evidence is a “medium level of burden of proof,” according to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School.

“In order to meet the standard and prove something by clear and convincing evidence, a party must prove that it is substantially more likely than not that it is true,” it says. “This standard is employed in both civil and criminal trials.”

The Republican majority in the Legislature wants to shift the burden to prosecutors, making them disprove a claim of self-defense. A state Supreme Court decision had put the onus on the defendant to show self-defense.

Democrats have inveighed against the measure, saying it would encourage bad actors to injure, even kill, and then claim self-defense.

The stand your ground law, enacted in 2005, allows people who are attacked to counter deadly force with deadly force in self-defense without any requirement that they flee.

Lottery warning bill passes Senate, bounces back to House

The Senate on Friday passed a bill requiring lottery ticket warning labels after removing a requirement that warnings also be displayed at counters where tickets are sold.

The Senate approved the measure (HB 937) on a 23-15 vote, sending it back to the House.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, a Mount Dora Republican, mandates six rotating warnings on Florida Lottery tickets and advertisements.

They include “WARNING: GAMBLING CAN BE ADDICTIVE” and “WARNING: YOUR ODDS OF WINNING THE TOP PRIZE ARE EXTREMELY LOW.”

The bill also says the warning must “occupy no less than 10 percent of the total face of the lottery ticket” or ad.

A fiscal analysis by the Lottery, which reports to Gov. Rick Scott, said the “cost associated with one of several warnings to be printed equally over 10 percent of the surface area of all advertising/tickets/promotional items would most likely impact sales of Lottery products.”

That could be up to $50 million. Lottery revenue goes into the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund that pays for public education, including Florida Bright Futures Scholarships.

Keith Perry, the bill’s Senate sponsor, has said he doesn’t believe the agency’s number-crunching, adding, “I think we’re doing our job to the general public to inform them.”

Carlos Lopez-Cantera to head federal judicial nominating panel

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera will be the next statewide chair of the panel that vets candidates for federal judges, according to a Thursday statement from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio‘s office.

The purpose of the Florida Federal Judicial Nominating Commission is “to identify highly qualified individuals as finalists to become U.S. district judges in each of the three judicial districts in Florida,” the release said.

“Carlos is well-suited for this position and I am confident he is dedicated to this important process and will successfully lead the commission in identifying exceptional candidates to serve on the federal bench in Florida,” Rubio said.

“I look forward to reviewing the commission’s selections and working with Senator (Bill) Nelson and the president to ensure that these critical positions are filled.”

Added Lopez-Cantera: “I am committed to ensuring that the commission identifies for our senators’ consideration the most qualified applicants to serve as U.S. district judges.

“I am looking forward to working with all of the members of the commission to evaluate candidates based on their qualifications, experience, character, and integrity.”  

According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. CourtsFlorida now has seven U.S. District Court vacancies, the trial level of the courts.

Officially, district judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. But individual senators have veto power over individual candidates, a tradition known as “senatorial courtesy.”

“The commission will send the names of the finalists to Senators Rubio and Nelson for their individual and independent review and, if neither senator objects, those names will be forwarded to the White House for the president’s consideration,” the release said.

Rick Scott: Legislature’s inaction on gambling “doesn’t make any sense”

Gov. Rick Scott says he doesn’t understand lawmakers’ inability to pass comprehensive gambling legislation this year—especially when he gave them a head start.

Scott spoke with FloridaPolitics.com reporter Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster in Naples Thursday, after a stop of his “Fighting For Florida’s Future” tour.

Part of the legislative package was a deal negotiated by Scott with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, guaranteeing continued exclusive rights to blackjack in return for a $3 billion cut of gambling revenue over seven years.

“I don’t understand why they didn’t take that and try to work with it,” Scott said. “I know you have to work with both the Seminoles and the pari-mutuels. But there was a great framework there to get something done.”

Part of the continual tug-of-war that ultimately kills gambling bills is the tension between pari-mutuels who want more games to offer—meaning slots and cards—and the Seminoles, who want to limit the competition against them.

“I don’t get it. It’s more money for the state,” the governor said. “It stops this constant thinking about what we’re going to do, and it would solve a lot of problems … It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

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