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Senate offers to cull $21 million in projects as higher ed conference opens

Sen. Bill Galvano delivered the bad news first as the House and Senate opened conference negotiations on higher education spending Thursday evening.

The Senate would have to cut at least $21 million in projects from its version of the budget to reach the level agreed upon with the House, he said.

“Many of you on this conference committee, as well as advocates for your positions in the audience, have what we traditionally call placeholders, in the hopes that somehow these placeholders will find additional dollars as the process goes on,” Galvano said.

“I just want to manage expectations in that regard. Because when you are starting with a significant reduction, it’s highly unlikely that a placeholder is going to move in the upward direction, as opposed to either staying where it is or in a downward direction.”

The higher education conference subcommittee was the among first to meet after Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced how much each subcommittee would have to play with, and who would serve on those panels, earlier in the day.

The panel has $7.8 billion to spend.

Galvano, serving as chairman of the higher ed conference, made the Senate’s first offer; Rep. Larry Ahern, the vice chairman, was expected to present a counter-offer around 8:30 Friday morning.

“The gist of what the Senate is proposing, with regard to projects, is a significant reduction — a $21 million reduction,” Galvano said.

“The other two big takeaways are the mitigation of the developmental ed funding in the college system, as well as the restoration of the performance funding in the state college system.”

Meaning the final budget won’t hurt the 28-member state college system as badly as expected.

About those projects — the Senate had voted to spend $71 million on them.

Galvano expected similar bad news for House projects.

“For sure, for sure. We’ve got to get where it balances out and move on. We had the difficult exercise of being the offerer in a budget scenario where our allocation required us to start by negotiating against ourselves. It should get easier for us here. Maybe not so much for the House.”

Ahern thought the opening meeting went well.

“It all has to start somewhere. We were able to come together and agree that this is a good place for both of us to get started. It looks like a pretty good offer at first blush — at least something we can work with.”

Senate passes health insurer regulations, while House stalls

Two health insurer regulations passed the Senate floor unanimously Thursday, while similar House measures stall in committee.

LobbyTools reports that Senators passed SB 102, which prohibit health insurers and health maintenance organizations from retroactive claim denial after verifying the eligibility of a patient, which usually occurs during a post-payment audit.

Members also passed SB 182, a bill preventing insurers from removing prescription medications from coverage after the contract is signed.

But according to LobbyTools, House versions of the two Senate bills remain stuck in the committee process as time runs out.

Florida passes bill to issue certificates for miscarriages

Florida could become the first state to issue what’s essentially a birth certificate for women who’ve had miscarriages under a bill the Legislature sent to Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday.

The Grieving Families Act would give parents the option of receiving a state-issued certificate if a pregnancy is lost between nine weeks and 20 weeks of gestation.

“The parent can name the child if they have a gender or they can just name it Baby Smith,” said Republican Rep. Bob Cortes, the bill’s House sponsor. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, somebody in life has been touched through a miscarriage and they understand how important this is as part of the grieving process.”

The Senate passed the bill unanimously Thursday, three weeks after the House passed it on a 115-1 vote. The bill was worded in a way to ensure it wouldn’t spark a partisan argument over whether the state was trying to define life.

“This has nothing to do with personhood,” said Democratic Sen. Lauren Book, who said she received calls from people concerned about the bill. “It rather gives families that are grieving during a very difficult time some closure.”

Pregnancies that end at 20 weeks or later are considered stillbirths and death certificates must be issued. Parents can also request a birth certificate in such cases. A handful of states allow death certificates to be issued to women who’ve had miscarriages, but Cortes said Florida would be the first to issue what would be called “certificates of nonviable birth.”

He said many couples who grieve after a miscarriage already seek out certificates.

“They’re doing it right now, they’re just paying ungodly amounts of money for a fake certificate on the internet,” he said. “You have parents that have had miscarriages at 19 weeks and they find out after the grieving process that one more week and they could have gotten a certificate, and now they can’t get it.”

The certificate would contain language that it is not to be used as proof of a live birth.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Scott’s demand for budget priorities leaves Carlos Trujillo unfazed

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo did not appear especially intimidated by Gov. Rick Scott’s tough talk on the state budget Thursday evening.

That $200 million Scott seeks to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike, for example? Not likely.

“That showed up about a week ago, and we’d already gone a far way down the road as far as crafting our budget,” Trujillo told reporters.

“It’s something I wish had been included in the original budget, and its something I wish we would have had an opportunity to discuss and debate early on as we crafted our own budgets,” he said.

“I think there’s merit in doing it. I don’t there’s merit in ever lending the federal government $200 million that they should be responsible for.”

Trujillo sees no need to build a veto-proof majority.

“We just have to pass a budget. If he vetoes it or he doesn’t veto it, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

He believes House Democrats “have had a meaningful seat at the table the entire time,” and have supported key House spending priorities.

“You look at our House budget — in committee, only two Democrats voted against it. On the floor, we had a substantial amount of Democrats vote for it — much more than a veto-proof majority.”

House and Senate leaders finally reached agreement in principle Thursday on an $83 billion state budget for next fiscal year, and put conference committees to work on refining the deal.

Scott all but demanded his way on his own priorities — also including boosting Visit Florida’s funding to $100 million, and providing business incentives money for Enterprise Florida.

The House-Senate budget deal provides about $25 million for Visit Florida and no incentives money for Enterprise Florida, although that agency would be allowed to live.

Scott figures the Legislature can afford his projects because of the $1.5 billion in Low Income Pool, or LIP, money promised by the Trump administration to reimburse hospitals for charity care.

Neither of the House or Senate plan on spending close to that amount for the care. Still, Trujillo was reluctant to spend the federal money before it’s in hand.

“We’re still waiting for the terms and conditions before we can figure out how much we can actually use,” he said.

“We are including the money, but it’s outside of the budget. We will appropriate it depending on the terms and conditions” imposed by the Trump administration. He was still negotiating how to handle the matter with Senate budget chief Jack Latvala.

Regarding Lake Okeechobee, the House does plan to take up SB 10, Senate President Joe Negron’s $1.5 billion restoration plan, which would not pay for the repairs to the dike around the lake.

“We’re making a lot of progress in getting that passed in our chamber,” Trujillo said of the overall Lake O plan. “I don’t know if we’ve agreed to bond, but we’ve agreed in concept to the policy.”

Mike Williams: Meaningful workers’ comp reform must protect Florida’s workers

Mike Williams serves as president of the Florida AFL-CIO,

With the House version of workers’ compensation reform, our state legislators are dangerously close to repeating the mistakes of the past. We cannot have a lopsided system that creates a chasm between the army of lawyers and executives who represent workers’ comp insurance companies and the injured worker who needs a competent lawyer to fight for the benefits that their employer has purchased.

Thankfully, the Florida Senate has taken the lead in advocating for effective, meaningful reforms that we know to be constitutional.

We must always keep in mind that workers’ compensation laws are designed to ensure the quick and efficient delivery of medical benefits to injured workers so they can recover from their injuries and return to work. The laws are not designed to grant one side a competitive advantage in the court system. Families that depend on the livelihoods of injured workers are counting on a fair system that will give them an avenue for redress when they are wrongly denied benefits.

The Legislature has an opportunity to fix several problems that would benefit both small-business owners and injured workers. The system must allow for appropriate access to the courts when an injured worker’s benefits are wrongfully denied. Maintaining a reasonable standard for attorney fees is the only remedy that will ensure this access for injured workers.

While there is still work to be done, I applaud the Senate for placing a cap on attorney fees, which are paid only when benefits are wrongfully denied.

Although an injured worker must retain counsel to pursue these benefits, the cap is reasonable and will not invite a constitutional challenge. The legislation also establishes a mechanism for containing defense expenditures by insurance companies by requiring them to refund money to policyholders if defense costs exceed a certain percentage.

We also have an opportunity to streamline the process for authorizing medical treatment. Under the current system, workers are unable to have any say in their own physician, and there are significant consequences from not being able to utilize a trusted physician.

Inevitably, there is a trust gap between the worker and the designated doctor paid for by the insurance company. This isn’t fair to either party and this simple fix will go a long way to reducing unnecessary claims. The Senate bill streamlines the authorization of medical treatment and will expedite how and when care is provided – avoiding the need for unnecessary litigation

There has been a great deal of discussion about the unique rate filing system that workers’ compensation insurance companies enjoy here in Florida. The Senate version smartly creates a competitive ratemaking system that will allow employers to shop for affordable coverage and eliminates the longstanding single rate system, which has granted a monopoly to the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI).

Florida’s workers’ compensation system has favored the insurance industry over employers and employees for far too long. There is much to be done to bring fairness to the system, more than the current Legislature seems willing to tackle. However, the bill being offered in the Florida Senate is a fair start and represents a far more balanced approach than the unconstitutional measure in the House.

Whatever happens, this session has put a spotlight on the many inequities in the system and we will continue to work to correct these for all of Florida’s working families.

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Mike Williams is a construction electrician from Jacksonville and serves as president of the Florida AFL-CIO, representing almost a million workers, retirees and their families across the state.

Bob Martinez, Dominic Calabro: The time is now to address the Everglades crisis

Florida’s Everglades is an American iconic national park known and revered throughout the world for its biodiversity.

Floridians, regardless where they live, must join together to protect and restore this treasure before the Everglades reaches a point of no return. The Everglades is home to thousands of plant and animal species and draws millions of visitors to Florida. Unfortunately, decades of massive changes to the habitat’s water flow have resulted in unintended consequences that threaten Florida’s environment, residents and economy. The situation requires immediate action.

During the wet season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discharges large volumes of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee west into the Caloosahatchee River and east into the St. Lucie River to prevent flooding in the urbanized areas south of the lake. These discharges of lake water cause a number of problems to the east, west and south.

To the east and west, the introduction of large quantities of fresh water to the fragile estuaries where the rivers meet the coast harm or destroy wildlife, which rely on a delicate balance of fresh and salt water. Similarly, the lack of fresh water flowing to the south results in too much salinity in Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay, and harms or destroys the ecosystem there. Furthermore, nutrients in these discharges have resulted in harmful algae blooms along the affected rivers and coasts, which you may remember from numerous news stories last summer.

But in addition to the environmental effects, this situation impacts many Florida industries and small businesses. Unhealthy and unsightly estuaries discourage tourists from visiting Florida. Unhealthy waterways negatively affect commercial fishers, which affects other businesses in their supply chain. All of these reduced economic actives result in less tax revenue. Yet, these are just a small glimpse of the people and industries affected; when viewed as whole, from an economic and fiscal standpoint, it truly affects all of us in Florida.

It is rare in public policy when any solution would be a significant improvement over the status quo, but this one such situation. We are at a tipping point where we don’t have the luxury of time to wait for the perfect solution. These effects will cascade into economic and fiscal costs borne by all Floridians. There is too much at risk for us, as a state, to do nothing.

Recent a proposals in the House and Senate have seen spirited debate. Governor Scott recently came out in support of Senate President Joe Negron’s reservoir plan to send Lake Okeechobee water south into the Everglades and the House agreed to fund the reservoir as part of a budget compromise deal to ensure session ends on time.

A recent Florida TaxWatch report examines these issues and explores the costs of inaction. The report finds that “each day Florida waits to solve the problem, the solution becomes more expensive. While the price tag to address the issues may be a shock to the system, the cost of inaction could be far more devastating to the state of Florida and its hardworking taxpayers.” The report is available at www.FloridaTaxWatch.org.

It is clear that our state’s leaders are aware of and understand the importance of this issue. The questions now being debated are how to solve it and can we afford to fix it, but the real issue is not what we can afford, but the true and widespread cost of failure to act.

Florida’s livelihood is dependent on the strength of the Everglades. The cost of the solution will never be less than what it is today and any action is better than no action. Failure to act will send Florida down a terrible path. Soon, the damage will be beyond the point of no return and taxpayers across the state, and the state itself, will suffer irreparable harm.

These effects will cascade into economic and fiscal costs borne by all Floridians. There is too much at risk for us, as a state, to do nothing. Luckily, it seems that the Legislature is paying attention.

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Bob Martinez, 40th Governor of Florida and former Mayor of the City of Tampa, is a senior policy adviser with Holland & Knight’s Public Policy & Regulation Practice Group and is co-chair of the firm’s Florida Government Advocacy Team.

Dominic M. Calabro is the president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit taxpayer research institute & government watchdog.

Kevin Rader carries campaign against lobbyist into the Capitol’s lifts

If you entered an elevator in the Capitol Thursday, you might have spotted a piece of paper resembling a wanted poster bearing the pixelated photo of a smiling woman.

“Senator Kevin Rader would like to know… Where is ‘Concerned Citizen’ Mary Beth Wilson,” the letter-sized document announced.

Surrounding the photo were six red question marks — three per side. In the top left corner, the Senate seal.

The woman pictured looked an awful lot like Lisa Miller, a lobbyist with clients including Demotech Inc., a company that rates Florida insurance companies.

Rader, a Democrat from Boca Raton, asked Gov. Rick Scott in February to look into whether Miller had posed as “concerned citizen” Wilson during a conference call between Demotech and industry figures.

A number of Tallahassee lobbyists were certain they recognized Miller’s voice, as Jeff Grady, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, reported on his blog (password protected).

Miller and Demotech president Joe Petrelli have strongly denied it.

Asked about the elevator sheet following the Senate’s session, Rader issued a non-denial denial.

“That wasn’t Lisa Miller. It was about Mary Beth Wilson,” he said.

But he acknowledged his hand in posting the fliers.

“It’s just a reminder that I would still like the governor to take a look into it,” Rader said.

“When you have, allegedly, a lobbyist impersonating a fictitious person on behalf of her client, I think that says really awful things about that profession,” he said.

Had he received any response from the governor?

“None,” he said.

“Remember, to file a Senate complaint with the Rules Committee, you have to have first-hand knowledge. Which means you would have had to be on the phone call. I wasn’t on it, so I don’t have the ability of filing a Senate complaint.”

How many elevators got tagged?

“I think it was 12 — I’m not 100 percent. We had someone who did it.”

Any reaction?

“I haven’t had any negative reaction. Obviously, people have seen them, and are curiously interested in how this person is still operating as a lobbyist.”

Rader hadn’t heard from Miller, either.

Was plastering someone’s face around the Capitol perhaps a little extreme?

“I didn’t plaster her face. When you look it — I showed several people — most people thought it was a young boy, actually.”

But it was Lisa Miller?

“I’m not sure how it was created, but it was created.”

He added: “I don’t think any person who’s related to this process is shedding a tear on what I’m doing.”

Miller hadn’t responded to a voicemail message seeking comment as of this posting.

Budget conference committee gets down to work, with time running short

The House-Senate budget conference committee convened Thursday, exchanged pleasantries, and dispersed to begin working toward a compromise $83 billion spending plan for next fiscal year.

“Let the games begin,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, who’ll serve as chairman of the conference.

“We look forward to making quick and aggressive counter-offers, and we look forward to passing a budget on time,” said Carlos Trujillo, the House budget chairman and vice-chairman of the conference.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron attended the gathering. They’d appointed the members earlier in the day.

Members of the committee, including various subcommittees, were scheduled to work through the weekend to place a compromise budget before the House and Senate and adjourn on time on May 5.

“It’s Thursday, and so we’re hoping that the committees will move quickly with offers and counteroffers. But I think we have plenty of time for all the members to be engaged,” Negron said.

Getting here required resolving competing priorities, Negron told reporters. He mentioned House proposals to boost charter schools and Best and Brightest scholarships, and his own ambitions for higher education.

The House even accepted Negron’s Lake Okeechobee restoration plan, which would require floating bonds.

Under aggressive questioning by reporters, the presiding officers resisted giving a line-by-line account of the trade-offs.

“There are other issues that both sides care about, and I think it’s incumbent on me as the presiding officer in the Senate to make sure that priorities both of us share get passed in the last week,” he said.

“You’ve seen it all in the open, including amendments. We’ve traveled the state and talked about all those things that are priorities of the Senate and priorities of the House,” Corcoran said.

“I know all of you wrote that it was going to be a train wreck, we were going to go into 18 special sessions, we’re never going to get done. But now that we have come together, we’ve worked out our differences, and now we’re having a conference, I think it’s going to be a spectacular session,” Corcoran said.

“There’ll be no crashes, despite your reporting. And I think it’s going to be a good day for the state of Florida.”

Latvala spelled out some of the details. The Senate got a commitment for $50 million for beach restoration — “the magic number we’ve been looking for,” he said.

Visit Florida would receive $25 million, and Enterprise Florida would be kept alive with operating money but none for incentives. “That’s a long way from where the House was when they wanted to do away with both of them,” Latvala said.

He said he has been in contact with Gov. Rick Scott, who has pressed for his economic incentives programs this week via press releases. Scott has been meeting with House members and senators since returning from a trade mission to Argentina.

“The governor is very committed to the economy of the state of Florida. He’s committed to economic development. He’s committed to jobs. There’s nobody I know who pays more attention and focuses more on those issues than the governor,” Latvala said.

The Senate wins an across-the-board pay raise for state employees, with extra money earmarked for police and corrections officers, but has agreed to steer state workers — except for high-risk employees — who don’t express a preference into private-market retirement-savings plan rather than the traditional state pensions. They’d have nine months to choose.

The House gets its way with the required local effort — the minimum property tax rate for schools. The rate will be rolled back so that the amount paid will stay the same as it is now, notwithstanding rising property values.

Florida House passes bill cracking down on sober homes

A crackdown on sober home corruption took a big step forward on Wednesday after House members unanimously voted to pass a bill strengthening the state’s role in prosecuting criminal and regulatory violations.

Rep. Bill Hager, a Republican from Boca Raton who is sponsoring the measure (HB 807), hopes this is the next step toward stopping problems at substance abuse treatment centers in Florida.

“Based on hearings we held, we found evidence of patient brokering, insurance fraud, human trafficking, forced labor and sex abuse,” Hager said. “Our goal is to eliminate the exploitation of those in recovery and end the cycle of recovery to relapse.”

Under the bill, sober home operators who allow fraudulent marketing for their operation or run a facility without a license would face criminal penalties punishable by up to five years in prison.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has prioritized this piece of legislation saying it will “help curb unscrupulous clinics and protect vulnerable Floridians.”

The proposed legislation would be creating a certification program for sober homes based on the recommendations of a state-funded task force that investigated issues at sober homes last year.

The House bill now heads to the Florida Senate, where a companion bill awaits.

The Florida Legislature is currently considering bills that tackle the state’s rising opioid abuse problem. One of the bills moving ahead in the process would add fentanyl and other synthetic drugs to the state’s drug trafficking offense.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Beer advertising bill ready for vote on House floor

A bill to allow beer companies to sponsor “events, activities, or cooperative advertising” at the state’s theme parks is ready for a final vote in the Florida House.

The House on Friday will take up the Senate bill (SB 388), sponsored by Republican Sen. Travis Hutson of Elkton.

It eases the state’s “tied house evil” law by allowing on-site ads, including a beer company sponsoring a concert or festival within a park. Universal Orlando has supported the bill.

Some beer industry representatives had privately complained they feared “being extorted by the theme parks.”

“We … kind of see a situation where they say, ‘We do such-and-such theme night, but now we’d like you to pay for it,’ by sponsoring it,” said one, who asked not to be named. “(W)e all feel like we’ll be put over a barrel.”

The House version of the legislation (HB 423), now tabled, started to break down over successive changes. One would have allowed for “brand naming agreements,” which weren’t defined in that bill.

Moreover, an amendment to that measure failed that would have allowed such agreements with all businesses that serve booze on premises, not just theme parks.

Josh Aubuchon, executive director of the Florida Brewers Guild, the state’s craft beer lobby, has referred to the proposal as “little more than a cash grab by the theme parks from beer manufacturers.”

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