2017 Legislative Session Archives - Page 5 of 24 - SaintPetersBlog

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.

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.”

Appropriations chiefs declare budget talks ‘closed’ — but with an asterisk

House and Senate budget negotiators traded final offers Thursday and pronounced their work done, bar some last-minute tidying up.

“The budget is closed,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Lavala said.

“We’ve got a couple of question marks, but this is not an opportunity to entertain any new issues. We’re going to resolve one or two issues, and then we’re going to come back together and get those solved,” he said.

“The cupboard is bare.”

Left to do is reconcile conforming bills on topics including PreK-12 and higher education and state worker pay raises.

“They are currently in the final stages of drafting. I think they’ll probably be printed later on this evening. Public hearing Friday, Monday, as soon as we possibly can. We want to give the public ample opportunity to review them. We’re not going to drop them 30 minutes before the meeting,” House budget chief Carlos Trujillo said.

The conferees reduced a proposed $300 million cut to hospital Medicaid reimbursement rates by $50 —which, accounting for the federal match — will leave the hospitals $600 million poorer.

But they still are figuring out how to apply the cut, Trujillo said.

The health and human services budget was the last big roadblock to a compromise $83 billion budget. The breakthrough didn’t come in time to meet the Legislature’s deadline for adjournment Friday, so the House and Senate agreed to extend the session into Friday.

Negotiators need to clear up “one or two big issues that may have been put in the wrong place on the spreadsheet,” Latvala said.

“It’s a lot of money. We just want to be right about what we do.”

Senate negotiators accepted House proviso language requiring an audit of the Tampa International Airport expansion. The chamber had rejected a Sen. Tom Lee amendment to audit the project on April 17.

Additional proviso language requires the Florida Supreme Court to issue a report each year to the governor, speaker of the House, and president of the Senate on the number of cases that remain on its docket for more than 180 days.

The item was a high priority for House leaders and passed both chambers — although the Senate tacked on an amendment expanding the use of juvenile civil citations that the House had yet to accept as of Thursday.

“That’s a House speaker initiative. But, actually, I don’t disagree with that,” Latvala said.

Update: The conferees reconvened Thursday evening to resolve their remaining technical differences, and to add nearly $2.5 million in last minute projects, including a rodeo facility in Arcadia, canal improvements in Florida City, and the Urban League.

“The budget is closed,” Latvala said. “It should be on the desk tomorrow morning. No more. No more. The budget is closed.”

Insurance bill sponsor insists it won’t become a train for AOB, PIP

When Lee Jacobson heard that that an insurance omnibus bill had been pulled from the Rules Committee onto the Senate floor Wednesday, he hightailed it to Tallahassee.

The Orlando insurance and personal-injury attorney, active in the Florida Justice Association, was watching his daughter play soccer at the time.

“I ran home, threw two suits in a bag and grabbed two one-way flights to get here,” Jacobson said Thursday morning.

His fear was that the bill — CS/CS/SB 454 — would become a train that might pull legislation to reform assignment of benefits agreements or personal injury protection auto insurance into law.

Bills on those two subjects have been languishing in the Senate.

Jacobson needn’t have worried. Jeff Brandes, SB 454’s sponsor, insisted Thursday that that’s not going to happen.

“My deal to pull that from committee was to take only things that were in the House bill or were in the Senate bill, plus one or two other issues that leadership of the Senate agreed would go on that bill,” Brandes said.

“AOB, PIP, workers’ comp are not any issues that are authorized to go on that bill, nor has the president asked me to put that on there,” he said.

The House version — which would prevent third parties from collecting attorney fees — is favored by Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier, the industry, and business lobbies.

“They could put the AOB bill on workers’ comp,” Brandes allowed. He wouldn’t object “as long as it’s the House version. I would take the House version of both workers’ comp and AOB if it were up to me. I think they’re far superior to what we’ve approved.”

But on SB 454? No way.

“I would be happy to have that conversation, but that would violate the agreement I made to pull that bill from committee.”

He described his bill as “largely clean-up provisions that are needed to basically provide consumer protection and offer more efficient service in the insurance industry.”

Pulling a bill from committee like this is “a huge lift,” Brandes said.

“You think about how many bills got pulled from committee this year — maybe four of the thousand bills that got filed. You want to operate within your agreement, and that’s what I always endeavor to do.”

Might AOB or PIP find their way onto Sen. Rob Bradley’s workers’ compensation legislation? It awaits debate on the Senate’s special order calendar.

“To my knowledge, there’s nothing like that happening. But things could be happening I’m now aware of,” Bradley said.

He’d oppose any effort to amend an AOB bill onto his legislation.

“My workers’ comp bill is a workers’ comp bill,” he said.

“It’s going to be hard enough trying to get workers’ comp reform done this session. If you were to add AOB or any other insurance to the mix, it would weigh the thing so much it would sink.”

Bradley filed an amendment Wednesday that moves his bill closer to the House version by lowering the maximum hourly attorney fee available in claims appeals from $250 to $200. The House bill would provide $150.

The move does not reflect any deal with the House, Bradley said.

“But there is certainly a good faith effort on our part to meet in the middle.”

Update: Brandes swapped the House bill for the Senate language, but avoided any unwanted amendments. The bill still awaits a final Senate vote.

Amendment would move Senate workers’ comp fix closer to House language

The sponsor of the Senate workers’ compensation bill has edged toward the House position regarding the maximum attorney fees payable in claims litigation.

Sen. Rob Bradley filed an amendment to his bill Wednesday trimming the maximum hourly fee to $200 — down from $250 in his original bill, but more than the $150 contemplated in the House.

The amendment also would require the Department of Financial Services to engage an independent consultant to study the system for reimbursing medical providers through the workers’ compensation system.

“The study must evaluate the feasibility of adopting other reimbursement methods, including group health outpatient reimbursement rates,” the amendment says. “The study must include an evaluation of the payments, prices, utilization, and outcomes associated with each of the reimbursement methods.”

The amendment is drawn to the House language, HB 7085. The Senate version has been awaiting action on the Senate’s special order calendar, but has not yet been debated.

Insurance carriers and their business allies consider workers’ compensation reforms must-pass legislation this year, following a 14.5 percent increase in premiums that began to take effect in December.

The National Council on Compensation Insurance blames litigation cost for fully 10 percent of that increase.

Compensation judges would be allowed to departure from the statutory attorney fee schedule only when the payments would be less than 60 percent or more than 125 percent of the customary fee in the geographic area.

The Florida Justice Institute issued a written statement decrying any limit on attorney fees, and the lack of limits in the amendment for defense costs. Carriers would be required to report their spending to the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims, however.

Mark Touby, president of Florida’s Worker Advocates, issues a written statement denouncing the amendment.

“On top of being potentially unconstitutional, the strike-all amendment would have a devastating and chilling effect on Florida’s businesses and the workers they employ,” Touby said.

“The only people smiling about this amendment are the insurance special interests who will continue to profit at the expense of businesses,” he said. “It is our hope that Florida lawmakers will recognize the detrimental consequences this language would have on the workers’ comp system in Florida and vote no on this amendment.”

Against criticism by governor, Joe Negron makes the case for budget deal

Faced with the prospect of a gubernatorial budget veto, Senate President Joe Negron said Wednesday that he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I hope the governor doesn’t veto the budget, because I think it’s a strong budget. He certainly has every right to look at particular items,” Negron told reporters following the day’s Senate session.

Scott noted earlier in the day that he has the authority to veto the $83 billion budget in whole or in part, although he did not commit to either course. He’s specifically mentioned his unhappiness with funding levels for Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida, and repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

Scott also criticized the Florida Legislature budget talks as secretive, saying he does not know what is or is not in the budget.

“The governor always has that option,” Negron said of a veto. “I don’t see anything unique about this budget that would make it more or less likely to be vetoed.”

Regarding secretiveness, he insisted the process has been “very open and transparent.”

For example, the House and Senate agreed not to insert projects into the budget during conference committee meetings.

“That’s a dramatic change from how the budget process was done before.”

He and House Speaker Richard Corcoran started making decisions only when their budget chairman and subcommittee chairman could not, Negron said.

“The vast majority was of it was resolved before things got to the presiding officers.”

He noted that the Senate has been supportive of Scott’s priorities, including Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida and other economic development programs.

“The Senate has fought hard for the governor’s priorities the entire session,” he said.

“At some point in this process, if one part of the Legislature does not want to fund something, it’s always easier not to do something than to actively fund something.”

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon said his caucus might be happy to see budget elements vetoed.

“It depends. We’ve got to see it first. I’m not going to opine on something that, as you can see, is not on my desk,” Braynon said.

“I’m trying to think of something terrible. Schools of Hope. Maybe Best and Brightest,” he said — referring to two education programs disfavored by many Democrats.

One element of the workers’ compensation fix headed to the governor

It’s not the big banana, but a small piece of workers’ compensation reform is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The bill is CS/CS/HB 1107, shielding personally identifying information about workers’ comp claimants under Florida’s public records laws.

It passed the House on a 120-0 vote Wednesday, having cleared the Senate, 37-0, on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the big workers’ compensation package remained on the Senate calendar, awaiting debate. The House has passed its version of that legislation.

The information at issue was shielded until 2003, when the Legislature allowed a public records exemption to lapse.

Advocates of the exemption argued it allows trial attorneys to identify possible claimants, encouraging costly claims appeals.

The National Council on Compensation Insurance has blamed litigation costs for 10 percent of the 14.5 percent workers’ compensation insurance premium increases that began to take effect in December.

“By exempting public records relating to injured or deceased workers, this relief is one way to clear the burdensome pressures in the system to get injured workers healthy at affordable rates to employers,” Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, said in a written statement following the House vote.

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