2017 Legislative Session Archives - Page 6 of 24 - SaintPetersBlog

Final $83 billion budget bill awaits only fine tuning, conferees report

The House and Senate were tantalizingly close Wednesday to completing negotiations on an $83 billion state budget. It appeared only a question of firming up some details and completing the paperwork.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into preparing the document and getting it distributed and printed and whatever. But the major points are decided,” Senate budget chief Jack Latvala said following a noon meeting with his House counterpart, Carlos Trujillo.

What’s left?

“Mostly the HHS budget, and then some various implementing and proviso kind of situations. But we’re a long way down the road,” Latvala said.

Earlier in the day, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced their intention to distribute a budget bill to members on Friday, go home over the weekend, and extending for a short session Monday on the budget only.

The Legislature will miss its Friday deadline for completing a budget.

Working late on Tuesday night, the presiding offers settled the major remaining disputes.

“We appreciate the amount of time and effort the Senate’s put in and the amount of compromise that we’ve made in order to pass a responsible budget,” Trujillo said during the meeting Wednesday.

“It should be apparent to all of you that we’re now into gear. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress today, which hopefully will continue,” Latvala said.

The House and Senate have agreed in principle to restore $50 million of a possible $600 million in cuts to reimbursements to hospitals for treating Medicaid — or $120 million, counting federal matching funds.

“We haven’t got the paper and exchanged the offers, but the commitment is there to settle that,” Latvala said.

There’s no money for the Florida Forever land acquisition program next year — it was sacrificed, Latvala said, to the House demand for a larger rainy day fund, now at $1.2 billion.

“As the father of Florida Forever, as the person who passed that bill, I’m obviously disappointed to have a year when I’m Appropriations chairman and not be able to fund it,” he said.

“But it you look at the totality of our budget, and look at what we’re doing for Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, springs, Lake Apopka, the St. Johns River, beaches … I believe you’re going to probably find there’s more money in this budget for the environment than we’ve had in a long time.

“If buying raw land suffers for a year, so be it. Next year, I’ll try to fix that.”

Negron’s Lake Okeechobee restoration plan, sent to the governor Tuesday, also represents a major environmental investment, he said.

“It’s going to be spent for land buying. It’s just down there. It’s not timberland in North Florida.”

The House accepted Senate language allowing the state to use $1.5 billion made available by the federal government to reimburse hospitals for charity care unless both chambers agree.

The House agreed to pay nursing home residents $105 per month to spend on sundries — House leaders had wanted to reduce that to $70.

“The Senate considers that a big win. I don’t know why that should be a big issue,” Latvala said.

There’s $50 million for beach restoration, up from $30 million now. The House has not agreed to an emergency renourishment fund.

Jackpot? Judge could reconsider ‘pre-reveal’ slot machine ruling

A Tallahassee judge has agreed to hear arguments on why he should reconsider his ruling that stand-alone consoles known as “pre-reveal” games are not illegal slot machines.

Judge John Cooper set a hearing for June 19 in the Leon County Courthouse, court dockets show, after the Seminole Tribe of Florida asked to intervene.

The move also puts a hold on an appeal filed in the 1st District Court of Appeal by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), which regulates gambling.

The Tribe will argue that Cooper’s decision “upends the Compact,” the 2010 agreement between the Tribe and the state for exclusive rights to offer certain gambling in return for a cut of the revenue. That could cost the state “multi-billions of dollars.”

“The court’s decision would lead to an unprecedented expansion of slot machine gambling in the state, destroying the exclusivity that the Tribe bargained for,” says a memo by Barry Richard, the Tribe’s outside counsel in Tallahassee.

As one person in Florida’s gambling industry, who asked not to be named, said after the ruling, “I see a giant wave coming … My phone is blowing up from people (at pari-mutuels) who want” pre-reveal games.

Lawmakers, who failed to agree on comprehensive gambling legislation this year, also were concerned the games would soon inundate bars, restaurants and even “family fun centers,” where they could be played by children.

The devices look and play like a slot machine, Cooper reasoned, but don’t fit the legal definition of gambling because the player always knows whether he or she is a winner or loser.

Players must “press a ‘preview’ button before a play button can be activated,” his March order explained. The outcome of the next game is always known, thus it’s not a game of skill or chance, he said.

In his memo, Richard suggested Cooper misunderstood the game play: “The player is not wagering for the already revealed outcome, but rather on the next outcome, which is unknown.

“Players are not … merely spending money to see spinning reels and flashing lights,” Richard wrote. “Rather, it is a slot machine, with which players are wagering on an unknown, unpredictable outcome” that they may or may not win.

Other states, including Indiana and North Carolina, have found pre-reveal games to be illegal gambling, he added.

The Seminole Compact “guaranteed the Tribe substantial exclusivity in the operation of slot machines and other forms of casino gambling.” Now, slot machines outside the Seminoles’ casinos are allowed only at pari-mutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

And that exclusivity was required for the agreement to be agreed to by federal Indian gaming regulators, Richard said.

Otherwise, “the Tribe has the right to suspend all payments until such gaming ceases,” he wrote. That could cost the state “multi- billions of dollars,” he added.

Senate sends amended version of opioid crackdown bill back to House

The Senate approved legislation Wednesday increasing penalties for trafficking in synthetic opioids including fentanyl and carfentanil,

The vote was 37-0 to send the measure back to the House.

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.

An amendment the Senate adopted Tuesday on a voice vote removes mandatory-minimum sentences from the bill, possibly setting up a clash with the House

The amendment, by Randolph Bracy, would give judges discretion to depart from minimum sentences “if the court finds in giving due regard to the nature of the defendant’s crime, the defendant’s criminal history and character, and the defendant’s chance of successful rehabilitation, there are compelling reasons on the record that imposition of the mandatory minimum is not necessary for the protection of the public.

Senate sponsor Greg Steube warned during a sometimes impassioned debate Tuesday that the amendment would endanger his bill.

“Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than morphine. That’s what we’re talking about here,” Steube said.

“The other piece of this is, we’re in Tuesday of the last week in session, and if an amendment goes on, I don’t know if the House is going to be willing to take it up,” he said.

Bracy argued that defendants typically never knew they’d dealt in substances containing the targeted drugs.

Legislative Session will extend through Monday

House Speaker Richard Corcoran told members at the beginning of Monday’s floor session that both chambers have reached agreement on a final 2017-18 state budget.

Corcoran said the Legislature will take the weekend off and reconvene Monday at 1 p.m. to consider the budget and vote.

That contrasts with the speaker’s comment to reporters Tuesday that he was “90 percent” sure the session would end on time, which would have been this Friday.

The announcement also means that millions of dollars in spending differences were worked out behind closed doors, out of public view and participation.

Shortly after, a notice of a meeting between Senate Appropriations chair Jack Latvala and House Appropriations chair Carlos Trujillo was sent.

On the agenda: “Pre-K-12 Education Appropriations, Higher Education Appropriations, Criminal & Civil Justice Appropriations/Justice Appropriations, The Environment & Natural Resources Appropriations/Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations, General Government Appropriations/Government Operations & Technology Appropriations, Public Education Capital Outlay, Administered Funds.”

The state constitution provides that a “regular session of the legislature shall not exceed (60) consecutive days, and a special session shall not exceed twenty consecutive days, unless extended beyond such limit by a three-fifths vote” of each chamber.

Senate President Joe Negron had signaled a need for overtime Tuesday evening.

“You know the timetable as well as I do, with the 72-hour requirement,” he said. “So we will definitely not complete the budget work prior to the end of Friday, and so we’ll continue to work diligently.”

“We made a lot of progress today in a number of budget areas … But I think, given the current schedule, it’s improbable we’ll be able to finish by Friday.”

On Friday, Negron said he hoped to place the bill on senators’ desks by Friday.

“The plan is to reconvene in Tallahassee here at 1 p.m. on Monday for consideration of the budget and budget bills,” he said.

“It would be my goal that we would conclude our session at a reasonable time on Monday evening, to allow members to travel home if they chose to, or stay until Tuesday and go back then,” Negron added.

Updated 11 a.m. — Minutes after the budget announcement, Corcoran’s political committee, Florida Roundtable, sent out an email: “Major Tax Cut Passed!”

“On the opening day of the 2017 legislative session, I committed to you that the House of Representatives would fight to cut property taxes for hardworking Floridians. Today, just two months later, I have great news for you.

“I am proud to share that yesterday we passed HJR 7105, which amends the Florida Constitution to increase the homestead exemption by $25,000.

“If passed by the voters in 2018, this additional exemption will be one of, if not the largest tax cut in the history of Florida at $645 million. An additional $25,000 exemption means real money in the pockets of Florida families. For just the third time in state history, the people will see real tax relief in homeownership.

“This tax cut proves, once again, the Florida House will continue to fight for, and stand with, every day Floridians.”

Capitol correspondent Michael Moline contributed to this post. 

Joe Negron acknowledges the Legislative Session will enter extra innings

Senate President Joe Negron conceded the obvious Tuesday night: The House and Senate won’t wrap up budget negotiations in time to adjourn as scheduled on Friday.

“You know the timetable as well as I do, with the 72-hour requirement. So we will definitely not complete the budget work prior to the end of Friday, and so we’ll continue to work diligently,” Negron told reporters after the Senate recessed for the evening.

“We made a lot of progress today in a number of budget areas. I’m optimistic we can continue that. But I think, given the current schedule, it’s improbable we’ll be able to finish by Friday.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran expressed hope earlier in the day that the session would finish on time, but other denizens of the Capitol gave up on that idea as the day progressed.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott is taking to the road to criticize the Legislature for snubbing his bids for economic development money, repairs to the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee, greater support for public education, tax cuts, and other priorities.

Negron defended the emerging budget on all of those points.

“We certainly can’t accept every priority every session,” Negron said.

He opened the prospect of capturing $200 million that the Seminole Tribe has paid the state under its gambling compact. The state hasn’t spent the money because of legal complications, and pending passage of a gambling bill — which as of Tuesday had failed.

Still, Negron suggested the money could help with the budget.

“It we can work together with the House to make that happen, I think that would be a way to mitigate some of the situations you’re discussing,” he said when asked about the governor’s stance.

Negron said outstanding disputes involve “a very small portfolio of the entire budget and all of the policy issues. Before any of those are ratified, we’ll certainly have public meetings with the Appropriations chairs.”

Lawmakers must wait three days before they can vote on any compromise.

He confirmed that a sticking point was health care spending.

“It almost always happens that the health care budget comes in last, because it’s the most difficult,” he said.

“I’m hoping maybe this evening we can talk about ways to come to a principled resolution that would involve accommodating the Senate’s concern about money following the patient, and the House’s concern about making sure our safety nets are not hurt and our children’s hospitals are protected,” Negron said.

“There may be a way to do a blended model where both sides could win.”

This year presented a particularly vexing mix of problems, he said — including gambling, Lake O, education funding, and hospitals.

“We may need a little extra time to complete it. But, as I said yesterday, it’s better to get it right than to get it done quickly.”

Presuming an extension is inevitable, lawmakers might go begging for shelter if they try to work over the weekend — Florida State University is holding its spring commencement, and hotel rooms and other accommodations are booked.

“Here’s what my first preference would be — that we complete our budget work; that the budget is actually printed and on the desk of House members and senators in its complete and final form; and then, if there’s a short extension that has to happen for the 72-hour rule and for senators and House members to review the budget, that would be fine.

“And then we could set a date for when we would come back to take a final vote that convenient for all parties.”

Lawmakers, lobbyists begin to contemplate an extended session

House Speaker Richard Corcoran insisted Tuesday that he still hoped to complete a budget deal in time to adjourn on schedule Friday — but other lawmakers and Tallahassee’s lobbyists have begun clearing their calendars for next week.

“I think it’s 90 percent likely,” Corcoran said of chances the negotiations with the Senate could be wrapped up that day, conceivably allowing a timely adjournment.

Sen. Jeff Brandes wasn’t counting on it.

“Monday — it’s my best guess. That’s my math,” Brandes said.

It takes 36 hours to prepare a compromise Appropriations Act for presentation to House members and senators, he said.

“It’s a complicated process, even once it’s all agreed to,” he said.

That would be in line with lobbyists’ scuttlebutt, according to one health care advocate. He predicted a budget deal would go to the members by Friday, giving them the weekend to review the bill.

Sen. Rob Bradley, who’s participating in negotiations over environmental spending, argued against selling legislative staff short.

“They have magical power to produce these bills quickly. It’s a complicated task, but it’s not impossible,” Bradley said.

A deal Tuesday would leave the House and Senate with the rest of the week to consider conforming bills, Corcoran said.

Asked which bills, apart from the budget, he’d be willing to consider if the Legislature extends, Corcoran said, “You can ask me that if we get there.”

What kind of overtime was he considering?

“We’re not. I told you, we’re hopeful we’ll get done,” Corcoran said.

“Last time I checked, I think every single conforming bill I’ve ever voted for was done on probably Wednesday, Thursday,” he told reporters.

The biggest hold-up was reimbursement levels for hospitals treating indigent patients under Medicaid, Corcoran said.

The Trump administration has promised enough money to, with a state match, provide $1.5 million for Florida’s Low Income Pool program, but House leaders want to see the money before they agree how to spend it.

Jose Felix Diaz: ‘We were too far apart’ from Senate on gambling

State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the House’s point man on gambling, said an impossibility of compromise over slot machines killed the 2017 gambling bill.

“We were too far apart and the Senate wanted to bring it in for a landing during budget conference, and we were not going to be able to do that,” he told reporters after Tuesday’s House floor session. “The timing was off.”

The sticking point was an offer to expand slot machines to pari-mutuels in counties that approved them in referendum votes. Such an expansion still needs legislative approval. The House opposed it; the Senate wanted it.

The will of residents who voted for slots “should be acknowledged and accepted by us,” Senate President Joe Negron said Tuesday in a Senate floor session, during which he officially dissolved the Conference Committee on Gaming

Also, Negron made clear Monday his desire to pass legislation was for the money: The state is holding about $200 million in gambling revenue share from the Seminole Tribe pending a resolution in legislation and litigation. A court fight between the state and Tribe is pending on appeal.

“My interest in doing a gaming bill this session significantly decreases if we’re not able to deploy the funds available that we’re currently holding,” Negron told reporters. He also had said both sides were “getting close” to a deal.

In any event, this week’s collapse continues the Legislature’s modern history of failure on passing any kind of overhaul of the state’s gambling laws.

The slots issue “was the big divide,” Diaz said, allowing that there were a myriad of other smaller disagreements. “Our constitution has said that gaming is not allowed, and when gaming needs to be expanded in a major way, everybody gets to vote.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran “has been pretty consistent” in not wanting to legislatively OK slots in referendum counties, Diaz said.

So far, voters have passed slots referendums in Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington counties.

When asked about the bill’s death after an impromptu press availability Tuesday, Corcoran said only, “You know my record.”

Lawyer: Seminole Tribe ‘will react accordingly’ to gambling bill’s death

The Seminole Tribe of Florida “will react accordingly” to the demise of a gambling bill this Legislative Session, the Tribe’s top outside lawyer said Tuesday.

Chief negotiators for the House and Senate said earlier Tuesday they wouldn’t resolve their differences over the legislation before the scheduled end of the 2017 Legislative Session on Friday.

When asked whether the Tribe plans to stop paying the state, attorney Barry Richard of the Greenberg Traurig law firm said, “I can’t answer that question,” adding such a decision requires a vote by the Tribal Council.

Gary Bitner, the Tribe’s spokesman, declined comment.

The death of the gambling bill also means killing any chance of passing a renewed blackjack agreement struck by Gov. Rick Scott that promised $3 billion over seven years in revenue share to the state.

But despite active litigation over its right to offer blackjack, the Tribe still pays gambling revenue share to the state as a “sign of good faith,” approximately $20 million a month. The money has gone into the state’s General Revenue Fund, but is not marked for spending.

Senate President Joe Negron has said there’s now about $200 million from the Seminoles sitting in state coffers.

federal judge last year ruled the state broke an original blackjack deal, which expired in 2015, and said the tribe can offer “banked card games” through 2030.

The state appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but that appeal has been on hold while lawmakers considered legislation that could have affected the agreement.

It allows for the Seminoles to stop paying if the state allows gambling that compete with the Tribe’s offerings, including slots and cards. The Tribe has seven casinos, offering blackjack at five, including Tampa’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

A court decision allowing slot machine-type entertainment devices and state regulators OK’ing “designated player games” that resemble blackjack constitute an “infringement” of the Seminole Compact, the overarching agreement signed in 2010.

“If that infringement continues, (not paying) is an option,” Richard said. “The state has to take action to shut those (games) down. If they don’t, the Tribe certainly is entitled to stop payments.”

A spokesman for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates gambling, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Opioid-crackdown bill picks up potentially deadly amendment in Senate

The Senate adopted an amendment Tuesday easing mandatory-minimum prison sentences in a bill cracking down on trafficking in synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and carfentanil.

Senate President Joe Negron ruled that Sen. Randolph Bracy’s amendment had passed on a voice vote, following an impassioned debate touching on the drugs’ dangers and the damage minimum-mandatory sentencing has done to communities.

The amended legislation awaits a final vote.

“Man, this was one of my noncontroversial bills that I filed this session,” Senate sponsor Greg Steube said.

He said he was willing to address the sentencing issue with Bracy, but warned that the amendment would endanger his bill.

“Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than morphine. That’s what we’re talking about here,” Steube said.

“The other piece of this is, we’re in Tuesday of the last week in session, and if an amendment goes on, I don’t know if the House is going to be willing to take it up,” he said.

Bracy argued that defendants typically never knew they’d dealt in substances containing the targeted drugs.

“For us to send someone to prison for possibly 25 years, when they have no idea what is in this drug, I think is wrong,” he said.

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.

Bracy’s amendment would give judges discretion to depart from minimum sentences. Under the original language, for example, 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.

Bracy said he’d agreed to hear the bill in his Criminal Justice Committee contingent on giving judges sentencing discretion.

But Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said he’d reinstated the mandatory penalties in his own committee, citing the seriousness of Florida’s opioid crisis.

Support for the amendment crossed party lines. Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes argued that judges need the same discretion in sentencing prosecutors hold in charging drug crimes.

“We’re not asking for anything radical,” Brandes said. “We’re asking for something that people do every day as prosecutors, to give that same exact authority to judges who are independent third parties who are supposed to oversee this process and make sure that travesties of justice don’t occur.”

A number of senators said they’d changed their minds about the wisdom of mandatory-minimum sentencing, including Democrat Darryl Rouson and Republican Rene Garcia. “Drug addition shouldn’t be a crime. It’s an illness,” Garcia said.

“I do trust our judges,” Sen. Kelli Stargel said, arguing against the amendment, but “this drug is killing people.”

Joe Negron: Lawmakers ‘getting close’ to agreement on gambling

Senate President Joe Negron on Monday said lawmakers are “getting close” to a deal on a gambling overhaul bill for the year.

The same day, however, a House Democrat who’s on the Conference Committee on Gaming tweeted “Nope” about the same thing.

Negron was asked about the legislation during a media availability after the day’s floor session. Lobbyists close to the negotiations said the House wouldn’t broker a gambling deal unless senators passed its favored homestead exemption increase, which won approval in the Senate Monday.

When asked how close, Negron said, “I don’t want to give you odds,” smiling. The 2017 Legislative Session is scheduled to end on Friday.

“We have a very compressed time period,” he said. “My interest in doing a gaming bill this session significantly decreases if we’re not able to deploy the funds available that we’re currently holding.”

Despite ongoing litigation over its right to offer blackjack, the Seminole Tribe of Florida continues to pay gambling revenue share to the state, about $20 million a month.

That money goes into the General Revenue Fund, though state officials have said it is administratively segregated.

A renewed blackjack agreement struck by Gov. Rick Scott promised $3 billion over seven years in revenue share to the state, but it failed to gain approval from lawmakers last year.

It’s back before the Legislature this year as part of dueling gambling legislation. The House wants to contract gambling overall, while the Senate would expand some gambling opportunities across the state, including allowing slot machines at pari-mutuels in counties that have passed local referendums approving them.

“I’m not committed to what we would do with those funds,” Negron said. “But I don’t think it makes sense to bring a gaming bill to the floor that doesn’t address the $200 million that’s available.”

But in response to the Senate passing the homestead bill, Tallahassee lawyer Hal Lewis tweeted, “The gambling bill should now be on the fast track!”

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat on the gaming conference committee, soon tweeted back, “Nope.” 

“For too many years now, our inability to come to a solution on the issue of gaming has allowed the courts to fill the vacuum and legislate from the bench,” he said Monday night. “Meanwhile the dogs continue to run for their life next to an electrified third rail while no one is watching. I thought this year was going to be different.”

When asked specifically whether there was any chance of a bill this year, he said “no,” adding that “obviously the Senate President may know things I do not.”

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