2017 Legislative Session Archives - Page 7 of 24 - SaintPetersBlog

Joe Negron sees ‘good progress’ toward budget deal as session enters final week

Senate President Joe Negron held out hope Monday evening that he and House Speaker Richard Corcoran could resolve lingering disagreements about the state budget in time to present a bill Tuesday and adjourn as scheduled on Friday.

“I know there was some real good progress made today on a number of issues, particularly in the environmental budget. If we work diligently through the rest of the afternoon and evening, I’m still optimistic that we can get it done,” Negron told reporters following Monday’s floor session.

“I think it’s more important to get it done right than to get it done quickly,” he said. “But my goal is to be able to have a budget on the desk sometime tomorrow.”

As of 5:30, no public budget negotiations had been formally noticed.

Monday was marked by progress on a number of levels.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committee chairmen — Carlos Trujillo and Jack Latvala — kicked unresolved differences to Negron and Corcoran Sunday but continued to negotiate with each other as the formal work week opened.

“There’s still significant involvement by both Appropriations chairs, in particular, but also the sub-chairs. They know their budgets the best,” Negron said.

Meanwhile, must-pass legislation advanced in Senate committee and on the floor. That included a $75 million tax package and a homestead exemption increase.

The House had demanded the latter proposal as a condition to expanding gambling options, as the Senate wants to do. The gambling bill could provide millions for state programs, Negron said.

“The budget that we have is a strong budget, but I think it could be even better if we have a couple hundred million dollars to consider expanding the tax package,” Negron said. “We could even put some of it into increasing our reserves — and I know that was a strong position of the House, to have reserves.”

The House-Senate compromise tax package falls far short of the $618 million in breaks proposed by Gov. Rick Scott.

“We funded what we think is appropriate based on the revenues that we have,” Negron said.

Homestead exemption expansion wins supermajority vote in Senate

The Senate approved a proposed ballot measure Monday to raise the value of Florida’s homestead exemption, improving chances that separate legislation to expand gambling would survive the Legislative Session.

The vote was 28-10, within the required three-fifths majority.

House leaders, who have been reluctant to open Florida to additional gambling options, have made approval of legislation to do that contingent on passage of the homestead exemption increase.

Several senators referred to those stakes, but sponsor Tom Lee maintained that the resolution was about keeping people in their homes.

“Let’s respect property rights. Let’s give the people the opportunity to make this decision,” Lee said. “They will make the right call.”

Amendments to scale back the increase to $12,500, to let county commissions opt out, and to shift the effective date to 2022, failed on voice votes.

HJR 7105 would raise Florida’s homestead exemption to $75,000 on property values of as much as $125,000, effective Jan. 1, 2019.

The increase would not apply to school taxes. And it would be subject to approval by at least 60 percent of Florida voters.

A companion measure, HB 7107, would shield financially strapped small counties by promising state money to backfill any losses in revenue.

The Senate language would cost $644 million. The original House version was priced at nearly $795 million.

Opponents argued that Florida already is a low-tax state, and that raising the exemption would force local governments either to raise tax rates or cut back services, especially to lower-income Floridians. Renters would pay more, too, they said.

“If we think that we need to cut taxes … why don’t we just do it, instead of pushing it off on local officials and then blaming them with they increase the tax rate?” Sen. Jeff Clemens said.

Sen. Gary Farmer complained that no a committee of substance ever studied the wisdom of the proposal. Rather, it was rushed through the Rules Committee last week.

“I know we’re toward the end of the session, and things start getting a little funky,” Farmer said.

“I think it’s hard for us to fully understand the fairness of this change when the issue has not been fully vetted though the committee process,” he said.

Sen. Perry Thurston said every local official in his Broward County district opposed the rollback. “This is going to pass if we approve it. But who’s it going to hurt?” he said.

Sen. Denise Grimsley expressed reservations about the potential for budget cuts for police, firefighters, and other first responders, but concluded the voters would make the right decision.

While conceding the potential for harm, Sen. Darryl Rouson expressed faith in the voters.

“I expect to take some heat,” he said. But he offered: “Strip every project I have from the budget. It’s not about the projects. It’s about a fundamental belief that do the people deserve the right to speak.”

“They will figure it out. And I trust whatever decision they’re going to make,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson.

Lee said it wasn’t true that the bill was never heard in a committee of substance — the Community Affairs Committee debated it on March 22.

Tax breaks clear Senate Appropriations as session enters final scheduled week

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved some $75 million in tax breaks Monday, including repeal of Florida’s tampon tax, that would be central to passing an $83 billion budget and ending the Legislative Session on time Friday.

The committee also approved across-the-board pay raises for state workers, with extra money for high-risk employees, plus an option to participate in a defined-contribution retirement plan instead of a traditional pension.

“I am pleased to see a tax package advance to the Senate floor that incorporates several ideas promoted by the Senate throughout the 2017 Legislative Session,” Senate President Joe Negron said in a written statement.

“This tax relief package continues our commitment to reducing the tax burden facing Florida families and businesses in a broad-based and meaningful way.”

The package would reduce the sales tax on commercial leases from the existing 6 percent to 5.8 percent — not eliminate it entirely, as Gov. Rick Scott wanted.

It would provide a three-day sales tax holiday for back-to-school purchases, and exempt feminine hygiene products, construction materials for projects in rural areas of opportunity, and health products for agriculture and aquaculture.

It also would provide tax breaks to encourage construction of large data centers, and to encourage construction of low-income housing.

The House approved some $300 million in tax breaks and holidays, but would go along with the Senate version, Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said.

“I believe that’s an agreed-upon bill,” he said. “I think all together that’s $75 or $80 million.”

Associated Industries of Florida praised passage of the tax bill.

“AIF supports reducing taxes, such as the business rent tax, to attract new businesses to the Sunshine State,” president and CEO Tom Feeney said in a written statement.

“With Florida being the only state in the nation to charge taxes on the lease of commercial property, AIF supports a gradual reduction and eventual elimination of the business rent tax to the benefit of Florida small and large businesses,” he said.

Union representatives argued against the retirement fund shift, which the committee amended onto a bill creating a legal presumption that cancers common to firefighters are work-related.

Workers would have nine months to choose, and could change their minds later. The same amendment would let state workers chose among a three-tier health insurance options

Latvala suggested they were foolish to oppose the measure.

“Did my irritation come through there?” Latvala asked reporters later.

“There’s nobody that’s fought harder for our public employees in Florida for the past seven years than I have. I think it’s ridiculous for them to fight because people are too slow to fill out a form in nine months. That’s not my problem. That’s their problem.”

But might the shift open the possibility of undermining pension guarantees in the future?

“I think it’s irresponsible to even say that. There’s no indication of that. It’s not going to happen next year — I can assure you. Maybe not for the next eight years. Read into that what you will.”

Big budget questions headed to House and Senate presiding officers

House and Senate negotiators agreed on $40 million in water projects and a $23 million higher education budget Sunday, but major decisions on charter schools, Lake Okeechobee restoration, and more remained unsettled.

Carlos Trujillo and Jack Latvala, respectively the House and Senate budget chairmen, made progress during what Latvala said would be their last meeting — although Trujillo said they’d meet once more, possibly on Monday morning.

“We are going to have another conference committee only for the conforming bills,” Trujillo told reporters. “It’ll happen within the next 48 hours at the latest.”

The chambers must wait three days to vote on a budget bill, but conforming bills require only 24 hours’ rest, he said. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Friday.

Regardless, clearly major policy and spending questions involving health care, the environment, school construction, criminal justice, and more will fall to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

“Ag and environment is one that we have a lot of work to do. In our subcommittees, we really struggled on that one,” Trujillo said.

And the public might not know what the big decisions are until the presiding officers reach deals and present the final bill.

“Just like any issues that bump, it will ultimately be laid on the desk,” Trujillo said.

“It’ll be laid on for 72 hours. Members will be able to debate and, ultimately, vote on the budget.”

Budget conferees spent the weekend wheeling and dealing. See here, here, and here.

Sen. Rob Bradley, chairman of the environmental budget subcommittee, emphasized the conference process’ accomplishments.

“We’ve resolved the water projects, which is obviously something that’s very important to a lot of the members. So, that was a big step forward in that area of the budget, to resolve that dispute between the two sides today. Everybody’s happy and we move on to the rest of the budget,” Bradley said.

Conferees bump university foundation-control question to budget chairmen

House and Senate higher education conferees agreed Saturday to trim cuts to developmental education programs at state colleges, but sent a disagreement about control of state university support foundations up the chain of command.

Lead Senate negotiator Bill Galvano indicated at one point during an afternoon meeting that the developmental spending might have to be referred to the House and Senate appropriations committee chairmen — Carlos Trujillo and Jack Latvala, respectively.

But House negotiator Larry Ahern agreed to a Senate offer to reduce the cut by $30.2 million. The original Senate budget would have cut around $90 million.

Developmental programs are intended to help nontraditional students cope in the classroom.

The foundations — also known as direct support organizations, or DSOs — were another matter.

“The House has its DSO position, and we are not going to the House position on it. That’s something that the big chairs are going to have to discuss and figure out. We just left it open,” Galvano said.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran entered the budget process intent on exerting control over the foundations, including opening more of their books to public scrutiny.

The committee didn’t reach formal agreement on the foundation policy bill, HB 5601, or on SB 374, spelling out the Senate’s reorganization of the state college system.

“They’re not necessarily bumped. Those policy issues are really not in controversy,” Galvano said.

Attendance by conferees during the meeting had declined markedly since negotiations opened on Thursday — “more and more as we closed out issues,” Galvano said.

“I think we had one of the more cohesive budget conferences. A lot of these big issues were Fourth Floor issues” — of interest to the presiding officers — “and have been around in both chambers. So when we came together, there was not as much to fight over,” he said.

House, Senate moving closer on civil and criminal justice spending

The main things separating the House and Senate on civil and criminal justice spending is whittling down Senate member projects and construction costs in the juvenile justice and prison systems.

That’s according to Rep. Bill Hager, the lead House negotiator, speaking following a conference subcommittee hearing Saturday morning.

“These are really not sticking points. It’s really the philosophical difference,” Hager said.

The talks opened with a $200 million gap between the House and Senate positions — the former intending to spend $4.8 billion, the latter $5 billion.

“The Senate proposed budget was substantially higher that the House. They’ve come down. We’ve shown goodwill — we’ve come up on some issues,” Hager said.

He figured the next meeting, sometime late morning, would resolve “90, 95 percent” of the remaining differences.

“It’s been hard to get to their numbers in the House, but we’re getting there,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, sitting in for Sen. Aaron Bean as lead Senate negotiator while other business occupied Bean.

Both sides agree that Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala should have fewer prosecutor slots, since she’s vowed never to seek the death penalty, although the Senate started out with a smaller cut, designed to shield Ayala’s human trafficking program — $622,000, compared to $1.3 million in the House, representing 21 positions.

“It’s not a cut of positions; it’s an allocation of positions consistent with work. It needs to be articulated that way, because that’s what it is,” Hager said.

The meeting was the occasion of rare public comment when Jack Cory, lobbyist for the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, told conferees of the complicated administrative process grant recipients must go through to get paid.

Legislative leaders have stressed that conference meetings would offer opportunities for public participation but, thus far this year, there have been few takers.

“Talking with the members, I think there’s been some misunderstanding that mentoring programs, juvenile prevention programs, and in fact many of the programs that you all have funded, that on the first of July the state writes us a check and pats us on the head and we just go our way. Nothing can be further from the truth,” Cory said.

In fact, oversight is such that his clubs were reimbursed for July 2016 expenses only on Oct. 1, he said, following multiple levels of oversight.

“As chairman of Government Oversight and Accountability, I’m encouraged we have that much accountability,” Baxley said.

Top line tourism, economic development money closed out, chair says

Don’t expect any movement in the budgets for Enterprise Florida and VISIT FLORIDA at the conference committee level.

“I’m authorized to negotiate quite a few things in this budget and there’s a few things I’m not, and those would be among the things I’m not,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican chairing the Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations conference committee.

The panel met again at 8 a.m. Saturday. Earlier this week, legislative leadership agreed on roughly $83 billion in allocations, the main pots of money for major spending areas.

A deal already announced deal gave $25 million to VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing agency and $16 million in operating money only to EFI, Florida’s economic development arm. The money for EFI, however, would be recurring, or repeated year after year. Both entities are public-private agencies but funded largely with taxpayers’ money.

Gov. Rick Scott has asked for $85 million for EFI’s business incentives to lure businesses to the state, which House Speaker Richard Corcoran derides as “corporate welfare.”

The governor also wants $100 million for VISIT FLORIDA, saying the tourism industry and its jobs depend on it.  The current proposal cuts its funding from nearly $80 million.

“Obviously, this is all a negotiation between the Speaker and the President—and ultimately the Governor—as to where the topline issues end up,” Brandes added. “If they choose to reopen (them), that’s up to the Appropriations chairs and President and Speaker’s Office.”

The committee could meet once or twice more today before a noon deadline, when unresolved issues “bump up” to Senate Appropriations chair Jack Latvala and House Appropriations chair Carlos Trujillo.

After noon on Sunday, disagreements on spending go directly to Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron. On Friday, Corcoran told House members there would be no floor session on Monday.

State Rep. Clay Ingram, a Pensacola Republican and vice-chair of the committee, said without money for incentives, Enterprise Florida would be limited to “business marketing,” similar to what VISIT FLORIDA does to encourage tourists to visit the state. And EFI’s budget would only have around $2.5 million for that purpose.

Ingram also said he expected the House’s oversight requirements on VISIT FLORIDA to be part of the final budget deal. The speaker, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has been critical of the agency, even threatening to sue after it refused to reveal a secret deal with Miami rap superstar Pitbull to promote Florida tourism.

The oversight measures include requiring contracts “to contain performance standards, operating budgets and salaries of employees of the contracting entity,” and those deals would have to be posted online.

The House plan limits employees’ travel expenses and would cap annual pay at $130,000. It also would delete a public records exemption for “marketing projects and research.” It would ban any promotional project from “benefit(ing) only one company.” And it would force the agency to be funded with more private dollars.

When asked if there could be any “extraordinary circumstances” that could cause the top line agreement to change, Brandes smiled.

“I would say extraordinary circumstances happen in this process all the time,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Environment and natural resources conferees go light on details

If you can read a spreadsheet, you might be able to figure out the offer the House made Friday morning on the agriculture, environment, and natural resources budget.

If you can’t — well, lead House conferee Ben Albritton wasn’t willing to explain it to you.

Albritton distributed a spreadsheet listing the House position, but declined to discuss it. Even when asked by Rep. Loranne Ausley.

Sen. Rob Bradley, chairing the hearing, conferred with Albritton — inaudibly, to the audience — then announced:

“We’re not going to do that publicly at this time. The document reflects the two sides. This is a public document.”

Bradley added: “At our next gathering, we can have a discussion about the remaining differences. But at this time, we’re not going to do that.”

Albritton did offer that the line items for specific House changes had been highlighted. They included agreement with the Senate on items including citrus greening research and sea turtle restoration.

Following the meeting, Albritton and Bradley exited through a rear door.

“I’ve been here before. This is not the way it’s been done in the past,” said Ausley, who returned to the Legislature last year following a hiatus.

“The speaker started this session saying this was going to be the most transparent session ever. This process, to me, is not transparent,” she said.

“I’ve been going to the other conference meetings, and they’ve been going line by line. Last night, we got a sheet, so I thought today we’d at least get more information. It’s helpful to the public to go through this as well,” she added.

“It remains to be determined whether supporting this is in the best interest of the people of Florida. I don’t know, because we don’t have enough information at this point,” Ausley continued.

“It’s clear that a lot of decisions have been made not in these rooms. It would be helpful to the public and to those of us who are ultimately going to make decisions to know what the background is, and what’s going on with all these things that are important.”

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.”

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.”

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