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House Speaker: Rick Scott’s focus on Enterprise Florida is misdirected

Gov. Rick Scott should spend less time talking about Enterprise Florida, and more seeking reform of the workers compensation system and assignment of benefits abuse, if he really cares about protecting jobs, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said Thursday.

“We’re talking about a tremendous amount of bandwidth going to Enterprise Florida, going to Visit Florida,” Corcoran told reporters during a wide-ranging news conference.

If the House prevails in its bid to kill Enterprise Florida and other economic incentive programs, and clips Visit Florida’s wings, the savings to taxpayers would amount to $100 million, Corcoran said.

“And the governor’s traveling the state, visiting individual members’ districts, and saying, ‘This is terrible for jobs! This is terrible for jobs!’

“I can tell the governor what’s terrible for jobs — what affects every single business across the board, small and large; what affects every single person out there who owns a home, small and large — is assignment of benefits and workers’ comp,” the speaker said.

Corcoran referred to a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation premiums that began to take effect in December. The House Insurance & Banking committee approved a fix on March 14, but the Senate version has not yet come up for a hearing.

That could cost $550 million in increased premiums. “That’s in year one,” Corcoran said.

“And 14.5 is the initial recommendation — you could see higher increases. And they probably won’t be enough. You could see billions of dollars in increases on every single business.”

Similarly, absent AOB reform, homeowners could experience insurance hikes of as much as $4,000 per yea, Corcoran said, amounting to additional billions.

The House committee approved an AOB reform package the same evening as the workers’ comp bill.

“If I was to give encouragement to the governor, I’d say: ‘Go keep traveling. Start talking about workers’ comp and assignment of benefits, which have far more effects than Enterprise/Visit Florida on jobs,” Corcoran said.

“How can you just be silent on what really will hit jobs — really will cost people dramatic increases, homeowners and businesses? And he’s focused on $100 million that has little if not zero impact on jobs,” he said.

“Go over to the Senate and … get those guys on board for jobs,” Corcoran said.

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Vote-by-mail ballots fix passes House

A bill that would let voters fix mismatching signatures on their vote-by-mail ballots so they can be counted has passed the House of Representatives.

The House approved the bill (HB 105), sponsored by House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa, by a unanimous vote of 113-0 on Thursday.

It would require supervisors of elections and their staff to allow voters to turn in an affidavit to cure any signature discrepancies until 5 p.m. the day before an election. They would need to present a driver’s license or other state ID.

A Senate companion has not yet had a hearing.

It would help older voters who have “arthritis or other physical disabilities” and younger voters who may have signed their voter registration cards “carelessly,” Cruz has said.

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Bill would protect religious expression in schools

Students, their parents and school employees would be guaranteed wider rights to publicly pray and express their religious beliefs in public schools under a far-reaching bill approved Thursday by the Florida Senate.

Backers of the legislation, including Senate President Joe Negron, contend that the measure is needed because schools have unnecessarily clamped down on free speech rights, including prohibiting students from wearing crosses as jewelry, or chiding students who want to include religious figures in their academic work.

The school superintendent in Broward County in 2014 apologized after a student was told he couldn’t read the Bible during a free reading period.

The bill (SB 436) says school districts may not discriminate against any student, parent or school employee because they shared their religious viewpoint.

But those opposed to the bill say it could open the door from everything from cracking down on science teachers who teach evolution to allowing Christian students to intimidate those of other faiths.

“Could it be provoking? Could it be concerning? Yeah, that’s healthy thought. That’s what happens in a free world,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican and sponsor of the bill. “This isn’t protecting a faith, it’s protecting all people’s freedom to express their hearts.”

The Senate passed the bill 23-13 following a wide-ranging debate. A similar bill is now moving in the Florida House.

Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale said the bill could lead to students proselytizing in school.

“We don’t need it. It should be sufficient that during the school day, you can pray to yourself,” Farmer said. “We all have our own personal relationship with God or Allah or whoever we believe in, but to force that on other people is just not necessary and it can be harmful and it can be disrespectful.”

The bill, which is backed by several Christian groups, says that students can wear clothing or jewelry that conveys a religious message. Negron has agreed that this would also allow followers of Islam to wear hijabs in schools.

The legislation also says students can express their religious viewpoints in coursework or artwork without being penalized. It also makes clear students can pray and organize religious groups to the same extent as other clubs and groups are allowed to meet on school grounds.

School districts must give religious groups access to school facilities and they must grant students the right to speak on religious topics at public forums.

___

Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington contributed to this report. Reprinted with permission of the AP.

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House votes to bar use of red light cameras to monitor intersections

The Florida House voted Thursday to ban the use of red light cameras to enforce traffic laws in the state.

The vote on final passage went 91-22.

Supporters argued the cameras don’t save lives and have become money-makers for vendors, some of them located out of state.

“It has become less about public safety and more about revenue,” said Bryan Avila, the Hialeah Republican who presented the bill.

The state is sending $35 million to out-of-state vendors, he said. Yet the cameras are not stopping repeat traffic offenders — there were more than 150,000 of those recorded in the state, he said.

HB 6007 repeals state authorization for red light cameras and bans their use by local governments. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.

Infractions linked to the cameras have generated about $18.8 million for the state thus far this budget year, according to a legislative analysis.

Al Jacquet, a Democrat from Lantana, argued that the cameras violate the 6th Amendment right to confront witnesses.

“With the red light camera program, they have no opportunity to confront that camera, because a camera is not a law enforcement officer,” Jacquet said.

“It is a revenue program, not a safety program,” he said.

The cameras had their defenders. Larry Ahern noted a more than 50 percent decrease in accidents at intersections.

“It does change drivers’ behavior. I think red light cameras are saving the lives of Floridians.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed Bryan Avila‘s quote.

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Joe Negron would ‘prefer’ to use gambling money in budget

Senate President Joe Negron wants to use gambling money sitting in the state’s treasury for spending next year, but said it won’t spell disaster if lawmakers can’t.

The Stuart Republican, speaking to reporters after Thursday’s floor session, said he was “optimistic” that the Legislature will finally pass an omnibus gambling overhaul that includes a renewed blackjack agreement with the state’s Seminole Tribe.

Despite ongoing litigation over its right to offer blackjack, the Tribe continues to pay gambling revenue share to the state, nearly $40 million for just the first two months of this year.

That money – expected to total $306 million this year – is deposited but not marked for spending into the General Revenue Fund.

Meantime, a new deal that would guarantee exclusive rights to keep offering the card games in exchange for a $3 billion cut to the state over seven years is included in this year’s House and Senate bills.

“We also have money – as I call it, ‘sitting in trust’ – that is available if we need it,” Negron said. “It could be purposed this year for tax cuts, for expenditures. So it’s important for the budget for a gaming bill to pass.”

That said, Negron quickly added, if nothing passes this year, it won’t be “a disaster.”

He favors expanding some gambling, including allowing counties that passed local referendums to have slot machines. The House generally wants gambling opportunities held in check.

“We can pass a budget with a gaming bill or without, but my strong preference … is to be able to use those revenues for good purposes,” he said.

As House Commerce Committee chair Jose Felix Diaz put it Wednesday, “Gaming is one of those bills that’s left for the end.”

“It’s too important to too many people, and it has too many repercussions for the budget,” the Miami-Dade Republican said. “There’s a lot of money at stake.”

Negron said he expects his chamber’s working version of a 2017-18 state budget to come together by next week.

The main stumbling block has been “items and expenditures in the budget that, while defensible, aren’t as much of a priority … I see members juxtaposing one project against another and then having to make tough decisions.”

He also said he wouldn’t unlink his tax swap plan that repeals a subsidy for the state’s insurance companies and applies the funds to a cut in the business rent tax. Business interests and the insurance industry oppose the plan.

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Speaker moves ‘Eyeball Wars’ closer to House floor; docs say optometrist testimony ‘patently false’

Florida’s “Eyeball Wars” between ophthalmologists and optometrists could soon be spilling onto the House floor.

On Monday, Speaker Richard Corcoran removed HB 1037 — a controversial bill to allow optometrists to perform surgery, among other things — off the agenda of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.

A representative for Corcoran told POLITICO Florida that the measure, which seeks to expand optometry further into the practice of surgery, was one of 12 bills removed from Appropriations under Rule 7.18(c) because they had “no fiscal impact.”

The move has raised the alarm of Adam Katz, president of the Florida Society of Ophthalmology, who felt the appropriations hearing would represent his organization’s best shot at defeating the bill.

“We feel like this is being orchestrated,” Katz, a Vero Beach ophthalmologist, told Christine Sexton of POLITICO Florida.

In the bill’s earlier stop — the House Health Quality Subcommittee — HB 1037 was narrowly passed by an 8-7 vote.

Sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz, the bill is strongly opposed by both the Florida Society of Ophthalmology and the American College of Surgeons. The measure is still on the schedule for the House Health & Human Services Committee.

“We have a responsibility to make sure everyone has access,” Diaz told reporters last week.

Nevertheless, testimony at last week’s subcommittee hearing did not sit well with the American Academy of Ophthalmology, which makes Corcoran’s procedural move even more disturbing. The Florida Optometric Association have strongly pushed HB 1037, employing a team of a more than a dozen lobbyists that include Michael Corcoran, Speaker Corcoran’s brother.

In a letter to House Health Quality chair Cary Pigman, an Avon Park Republican and emergency care physician, Dr. Mark Michels, board member of the Florida Society of Ophthalmology, pointed out several misleading and inaccurate accusation made during testimony from optometrists and their representatives.

“I cannot stay silent when the process is used by others to perpetuate falsehoods, especially when those falsehoods could endanger patients,” Michels writes. “It is for that reason, and out of respect for all of you and the integrity of our legislative process, that I am writing to bring your attention to two patently incorrect statements made by the representative of the Florida Optometric Association (FOA) at the hearing. “

One of the major selling points for HB 1037 is that it would expand access to glaucoma surgery for Medicaid patients, because in some rural regions — Bradenton was the example used in testimony — ophthalmologists do not accept Medicaid.

Michels called that claim “spurious,” pointing out that “information readily accessible in the State’s database–the AHCA Provider Master List — clearly shows that there are at least 24 active individual ophthalmologists that see Medicaid patients in Bradenton.”

He also pushed back on testimony that said “there are “less than 400 ophthalmologists in the entire State that take Medicaid.” In fact, there are nearly 1,200 active, enrolled ophthalmologists in Florida that see Medicaid patients.

A second issue is a contention that the surgery optometrists are asking to perform is not “invasive” and restricted to only lasers to “stimulate tissue in the eye.”

“Those statements are fallacious and exemplify a dangerous ignorance of what laser surgery is and the complications that can arise from the use of lasers,” Michels writes.

Lasers authorized by HB 1037 are powerful enough to cut ocular tissue — in a process called photodisruption — which can lead to several complications which can be adequately understood only by a medical professional with the training and experience of ophthalmologists.

“This knowledge is obtained from years of experience and seeing thousands of patients,” Michels writes, “all while being directly supervised by a board certified ophthalmic surgeon.”

Michels then calls out the FOA representative for holding himself as a “subject matter expert,” pledging to the committee that lasers authorized in the bill “do not cut,” are “noninvasive” and are only “stimulating” lasers similar to those used in “a new product contained in a baseball hat and used to stimulate hair growth.”

This stance is both “inexcusable and dangerous,” Michels said, before calling Pigman to do his part to “stop this dangerous bill from becoming law.”

Next for HB 1037 — the latest battle in Florida’s Eyeball Wars — is the House Health and Human Services Committee, one of only two stops before heading to the House floor.

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House advances bill allowing guns in private religious schools

A bill in the Florida legislature that could arm teachers with guns in private religious schools passed the House Judiciary Committee Thursday.

The legislation, sponsored by Polk City Republican Neil Combee (HB 849), would carve out certain religious private schools from Florida law that prohibits anyone except law enforcement officers from carrying guns in K-12 schools and colleges and universities, regardless of whether those schools are public or private. The decision about whether to allow concealed guns in these schools would be made by the owner of the church/school.

Doug Bankson, an Apopka City Commissioner and a pastor, said that this is very much a “real world issue.”

“Our public institutions are more and more a target, and our churches have become more and more a target,” he said, adding that the majority of his student body are minorities. “We need [an]  opportunity to protect them.”

Others disagreed.

“This bill would leave a gaping hole in the laws that are designed to protect our schools and keep guns out of school, said Gaye Valamont, a volunteer with the gun control group, Moms Demand Action.

“This bill does not solve the problem of protecting our children.”

“This is not a bill about guns on school property,” said Eric Friday with Florida Carry. “This is about private religious organizations having the right to regulate the use of their property, and who has the right to carry on their private property.”

Dania Beach Democrat Joseph Geller agreed with Combee that religious institutions should have the right to decide on their own if they want to allow arms on their campuses. But the bottom line for him was that “guns and schools do not mix.”

Geller said that the current law in place banning guns in schools is a good one, and “the chances of something going wrong are too great.”

Tampa Republican Shawn Harrison said it was critical to “tread very carefully” on such a sensitive issue, but praised Combee as having “threaded the needle” perfectly in how he crafted his bill.

In closing on the bill, Combee blasted gun-free zones which are on many school campuses, calling them “dumb.”

“If someone wants to do harm to our children … or the public, they’d like nothing better than to have a gun free zone, they got no opposition,” he said. “That’s the dumbest thing in the world.”

There is currently no companion bill in the state Senate.

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Legislative Black Caucus says it supports Aramis Ayala

The leader of Florida’s black lawmakers Thursday said Gov. Rick Scott would not have stripped Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala of the Markeith Loyd murder case had she been a white Republican.

“Absolutely not,” Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, told reporters at a news conference in the Capitol. Ayala, a Democrat, is black.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus decried Scott’s decision to remove Ayala from the case, in which she decided not to pursue the death penalty. Loyd is charged with killing Sade Dixon, his pregnant ex-girlfriend, and Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton.

Lake County State Attorney Brad King has taken over the prosecution, and Ayala – elected to a 4-year term last year – has said she will challenge the governor’s authority to remove her from the case.

Ayala later said she would not seek capital punishment in any cases. A Seminole County Clerk of Court employee was suspended for posting on social media that Ayala should be “tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree.”

“It’s 2017 and the duly elected state attorney is threatened with a lynching,” said Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat. “That’s why we’re here today. The death penalty is a link to the sordid past in Florida where lynching were used to terrorize our communities.”

The caucus’ full press conference can be viewed in a Periscope video below:

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Senate passes ‘whiskey & Wheaties’ bill

Three Legislative Sessions later, the Senate finally passed a bill to allow retailers to sell hard liquor in the same store as other goods.

Senators approved the “whiskey and Wheaties” legislation (SB 106) on a 21-17 vote after a debate in which one senator said it would “kill … kids.”

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who first filed a one-line repealer in 2014, spoke in favor of what has now become a 5-page bill. Among other things, it requires miniatures to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in.

Today, the separation of spirits from retail has “no nexus to the reality of everyday life,” said Galvano, in line to become Senate President in 2018-20.

In a speech that started by mentioning famed mobster and bootlegger Al Capone, Galvano said alcohol now has been “mainstreamed.”

A Prohibition-era state law requires businesses, such as grocery chains and big-box retailers, to have separate stores to sell liquor. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

Big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target want the repeal, saying the added convenience is “pro-consumer,” and independently-owned liquor store operators say they will suffer. Publix also has opposed the move, saying it’s invested in the separate liquor store model.

Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami-Dade Republican, asked colleagues, “Why are we doing this?” He called it “the Wal-Mart bill,” and said it would give an “unfair advantage” against small businesses.

The rhetoric eventually gave rise to emotion: Sen. Daphne Campbell attacked the bill, saying it wasn’t even about “politics, it’s poli-tricks.”

The Miami-Dade Democrat said the effect of the legislation would be to “kill your own kids … How can we do this?”

Anitere Flores, the Miami-Dade Republican carrying this year’s bill, was taken aback.

People watching the debate, she said, must be asking “what in the world does this bill do? Does it kill children. No.” She earlier pointed out it’s not a mandate on any business.

The repeal’s fate in the House is unclear: That chamber’s version, recently amended to be more similar to the Senate’s, has been limping through its committees on one- and two-vote margins.
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‘Religion in school’ bill moves past House education committee

The Florida House advanced a bill that would allow school administrators to pray in public schools throughout the state if students initiate those prayers.

HB 303 unanimously passed the House Education Committee Thursday. The measure would violate the decades-old federal provision separating church and state, and may likely be challenged at some point.

However, at the committee meeting in Tallahassee, there were no oppositional voices as the bill moved passed its second hurdle. The bill’s next stop is a vote on the House floor.

The only concern from members of the committee seemed to come from Rep. Rene Plasencia, who wondered if there was a provision to prevent “satanic” groups from being allowed to express their rights. Plasencia is a former teacher.

“We prayed in school in Orange County, but the problem was that a demonic group came to our school,” the lawmaker said. “Is there anything (in the bill) that prevents a satanic group from coming to a school?”

Rep. Kimberly Daniels, co-sponsor of the bill, said it didn’t, but cited that six other states in the country had passed such measures without incidents involving so-called satanic groups.

Conversely, a big concern from those in the public, was discrimination against Christianity. Several citizens addressed the committee, voicing their support for the measure, including special interest groups.

“We hope you can support this most wonderful bill,” said Shawn Frost, who was at the meeting representing the Florida Coalition of School Board Members.

Rep. Patricia Williams, a freshman legislator and co-sponsor of the bill, addressed committee members in closing the proposal.

“If we as legislators can pray if we want to, then why can’t our children?”

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