Latest on the legislative staffing merry-go-round

With a tip of the hat to LobbyTools, here are the latest movements – both on and off – the legislative merry-go-round.

On and off: Portia Palmer has been named interim Clerk of the House, and the post previously held by Bob Ward, who is retiring.

Off: Benjamin Smith is no longer a legislative assistant for state Rep. Jim Boyd of Bradenton.

Off: Rebekah Hurd is no longer a legislative assistant for St. Cloud state Rep. Mike La Rosa.

Off: Kristin Bradstreet is no longer a district secretary for state Rep. Kathleen Passidomo of Naples.

Off: Anna DeCerchio is no longer a legislative assistant for Palm Coast Republican state Rep. Paul Renner.

On: Omar Raschid has become legislative assistant for Republican state Rep. Chris Sprowls of Tarpon Springs.

On: Austin Nicklas is the new legislative assistant for Republican state Sen. Aaron Bean of Jacksonville.

Off: Michael Nachef is no longer legislative assistant for Republican state Sen. Garrett Richter of Naples.

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Instant winners aplenty in Florida Senate races

You might want to call them instant winners.

As of 5 p.m. Friday, a dozen Florida Senate candidates appeared to win their elections when the qualifying period ended without them drawing opposition.

Newcomers Lauren Book and George Gainer were among those candidates who did not draw an opponent.

Gainer, a Bay County Republican, ran unopposed in Senate District 2. That race was expected to be hotly contested and deemed one to watch by political observers. But in March, Rep. Matt Gaetz dropped his state Senate bid to run for Congress instead. Gaetz is one of the several Republicans who qualified to run in Florida’s 1st Congressional District.

Book is a well-known South Florida Democrat, having spent years trying to bring awareness to childhood sexual abuse. She is the daughter of lobbyist Ron Book. She is expected to win her bid to represent South Florida in Senate District 32.

Gainer and Lauren Book are the only newcomers who won their races after running unopposed. The remaining candidates all will return to the Senate after they failed to draw an opponent.

Audrey Gibson won re-election in Senate District 6; Perry Thurston won re-election in Senate District 33, and Oscar Braynon won re-election in Senate District 35. Braynon is set to become the Minority Leader in 2016.

On the Republican side, Aaron Bean won re-election in Senate District 4; Rob Bradley won re-election in Senate District 5; David Simmons won re-election in Senate District 9; Wilton Simpson won re-election in Senate District 10; Tom Lee won re-election in Senate District 20; Bill Galvano won re-election in Senate District 21; and Denise Grimsley won re-election in Senate District 26.

Galvano and Simpson are both believed to be in line for the Senate presidency.

Candidates had until noon Friday to qualify to be on the ballot. State elections officials said they expect all of the candidate qualifying information to be finalized by Friday evening.

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Aaron Bean to try again with “cold case” legislation

Families in Florida, who have lost loved ones to unsolved murders, often press in vain for authorities to re-examine their “cold cases.”

Duval County alone has more than 1,200 unsolved murders dating back to 1970. Jacksonville resident Ryan Blackman, who lost his father to an unknown killer, has set up an online database in an effort to make sure these many forgotten victims find justice.

And Blackman’s Project Cold Case has an ally in State Sen. Aaron Bean.

“We’ve got to give families hope,” said Bean, who co-sponsored a bill last year aimed at helping to solve cold case murders in Florida.

That Session, Governor Rick Scott vetoed $50,000 that would have created a Florida cold case task force. The vetoed proposal was based on a similar effort Colorado enacted in 2007. 

Look for Bean to try again to reintroduce the legislation.

“They say the FOURTH time is the charm when it comes to these things,” Bean told WJCT.

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AIF announces “Champions for Business”

Associated Industries of Florida’s, the state’s premier lobbying group, has announced the latest awardees of its “Champions for Business.”

The group gives the awards every year to state lawmakers “whose extraordinary efforts provide model leadership on key legislation for the success of Florida’s business community,” according to a news release.

On this year’s list are:

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and four-time award recipient, for championing business incentives that ultimately stalled in the House;

Sen. Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican and five-time award winner, for her role in this year’s tax cuts;

Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican who won his second award, for “defending the state’s water resources”;

Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican and three-time winner, for preserving tort reform measures this past session;

Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican and six-time winner, for carrying ‘fracking’ legislation “aimed at growing Florida’s onshore energy industry while providing safeguards for the environment”;

Rep. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican and three-time winner, for “successfully sponsoring an Economic Development package”;

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican and three-time winner, who fought for Gov. Scott’s 2016 tax cut package;

Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Lehigh Acres Republican and four-time winner, for “exhibiting significant leadership in sponsoring environmental resources legislation”;

Rep. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican and twice award-winner, who “took the lead in sponsoring Information Technology legislation that will bring the state’s cyber security measures up to date”; and

Rep. Ray Rodrigues, a Fort Myers Republican receiving his second award, this year for his companion bill to Richter’s ‘fracking’ legislation.

“At AIF, we proudly honor those elected officials who defend Florida’s competitive climate and continually strive to keep the Sunshine State a place where businesses and families can prosper,” said AIF President and CEO Tom Feeney in a statement.

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Florida’s Pastor Protection Act doesn’t go as far as Georgia’s — and that’s a good thing for NFL fans

After the June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Obergefell v. Hodges case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, more than 20 state legislatures reacted by passing religious freedom laws to protect clergy.

This month, Florida became the latest state to do so after Gov. Rick Scott signed the Pastor Protection Act. The new law shields religious entities and individuals from any lawsuit if they refuse to administer same-sex weddings.

Meanwhile in Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal says he’ll decide by next month whether he’ll sign the Peach State’s version, which goes beyond Florida’s bill. Plus, critics contend the Georgia law allows for discrimination against LGBT people.

The National Football League said Friday it opposes the legislation, and could yank Atlanta from consideration to host a future Super Bowl if Deal signs off on it.

Deal said this month he’d veto any bill that legalizes discrimination. As written, though, the bill would protect clergy from performing same-sex marriages. It also would give faith-based organizations permission to deny use of their business for anything they find “objectionable. Businesses wouldn’t have to hire anyone whose religious beliefs are different from theirs, according to The Washington Post.

The Human Rights Campaign says under the bill “taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care agencies could refuse to place children in need of homes with LGBT couples. Homeless shelters could turn away unwed couples and their families. Food pantries could turn away people of other faiths or even engage in race discrimination. Drug counseling centers could refuse to hire a qualified LGBT therapist.”

That’s entirely different than the Florida bill, said Carlos Smith, government affairs manager for Equality Florida. He said Florida’s bill sponsors – Lakewood GOP Rep. Scott Plakon and Fernandina Beach GOP Sen. Aaron Bean – promised not to expand the bill beyond its initial intent.

The bill’s language provides that “churches or religious organizations, related organizations, or certain individuals may not be required to solemnize any marriage or provide services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges for related purposes if such action would violate a sincerely held religious belief; prohibiting certain legal actions, penalties, or governmental sanctions against such individuals or entities.”

Plakon said he’s read about the Georgia proposal, and that “they go into a lot of different areas.”

“It was born with clergy in mind, and it was passed with clergy and their facilities,” the Lakewood Republican said, adding that he worked with the Christian Family Coalition and Equality Florida to come up with the final language.

Critics such as Equality Florida contended there was no need for such legislation, saying that the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution already make it clear that religious leaders can’t be forced to perform same-sex marriages.

“Pastors in churches have so many layers of protection already,” Smith said. “The idea that we wasted all of this time in Florida just to restate the current law changed nothing to accommodate people who were concerned about the Oberkfell decision is a giant waste of taxpayer resources and it was insulting, because in Florida, gay and transgender people don’t have any protections under state law from discrimination.”

Plakon acknowledged that reality, saying that he only wanted to add “an extra layer of protection” for the religious community.

“You would like to believe that it would protect these people, but the way things have been going, there’s a lot of uncertainty these days due to the Obergefell decision,” Plakon said. “It kind of left a lot of questions unanswered.”

Religious freedom bills across the country have been controversial. Indiana passed legislation last year, but after considerable backlash overhauled the law with a follow-up measure intended to ease concerns driven by businesses that it could lead to discrimination.

The NFL’s statement on Friday puts Georgia Governor Deal on notice that his state could lose the Super Bowl if he signs the proposed legislation.

That action could only boost Tampa’s chances of hosting its fifth Super Bowl. Atlanta, Tampa, Miami, Los Angeles and Charlotte all were said to be in the mix for the next Super Bowl sites to be selected by the league. Tampa residents learned last week the odds for all those cities were recently enhanced.

“It’s my understanding the dates have also been expanded to include a third Super Bowl; we’re talking 2019, 2020 and 2021,” Dennis Rogero, chief of staff for Mayor Bob Buckhorn, told the Tampa City Council on Thursday.

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Jack Latvala rues lack of business incentives in budget

State Sen. Jack Latvala brought up “the elephant in the room” during remarks on the 2016-17 state budget Friday, lamenting the lack of a $250 million business incentives fund, a priority of Gov. Rick Scott

The Clearwater Republican, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development, said the absence of the Florida Enterprise Fund was the “most disappointing point of this session.”

With the current amount of incentive dollars dwindling, Scott wanted the new pot of money to lure businesses and their jobs to the Sunshine State. But the House’s GOP leadership declined to put any money into it, and the Senate later agreed.

After some initial skepticism in the early part of the 2016 Legislative Session, Latvala came around to the idea and supported it.

When it became clear the plan would be a victim of budget negotiations, he penned an op-ed blaming the fund’s demise on “ideologues” in House leadership.

On the floor Friday, Latvala detailed how “day after day, our sheets went back and forth, and every single time the response was zero. Not even an offer in the middle” or starting somewhere over zero funding.

“We now have zero in the Quick Action Closing Fund, our most important economic development tool,” Latvala told his colleagues. He used the example of a business that was interested in relocating to Sen. Aaron Bean‘s district in Fernandina Beach. 

Now, “we won’t get it,” he said. “And we’ll hear more about these (losses) without any ammunition in the gun.”

State Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, asked Latvala whether the rest of the economic development silo of the budget has the potential “to create tens of thousands of jobs?”

Latvala agreed, saying he was proud of next year’s $82.3 billion budget, “but not the zero in the incentives.”

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Senate pays tribute to outgoing President Andy Gardiner

The man of the hour smiled as his colleagues told stories and reminisced about his time in the Florida Legislature.

They spoke of his commitment to his family, his dedication to his community, and his calm demeanor when dealing with the tough issues the state has faced in recent years.

“He is the George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in our state,” Fernandina Beach Republican Sen. Aaron Bean said of Senate President Andy Gardiner. “He’s truly the richest man in the Florida Senate.”

Andy Gardiner's official Senate portrait. Courtesy of Florida Senate.
Andy Gardiner’s official Senate portrait. Photo courtesy of the Florida Senate.

For nearly two hours Monday, lawmakers paid tribute to Gardiner, who’s wrapping up his term as Senate President. The  Senate unveiled the official portrait of the 47-year-old Orlando Republican, and colleagues from both sides of the aisle praised him for his nearly two decades in office.

“There has not been a time where I’ve shown up to this office that I don’t look forward to being here,” Gardiner said. “It is an incredible opportunity.”

First elected to the Florida House in 2000, Gardiner served as the House Republican leader from 2004 until 2006. He was elected to the Senate in 2008, where he was the Majority Whip for two years, before becoming the Majority Leader in 2010. He has spent the past two years as the Senate President.

Gardiner – whose son, Andrew, has Down syndrome – has made improving the quality of life for people with unique abilities a priority during his time in office. Gardiner spent much of the past two years pushing legislation to create a path to economic independence for people with unique abilities.

This year the Legislature approved a bill (HB 7003) that expanded the personal learning scholarship account, now known as the Gardiner Scholarship Program, to more students; creates employment options for people with unique abilities, and creates a financial-literacy program for individuals with disabilities. Gov. Rick Scott has already signed the bill into law.

“The greatest accomplishment is bringing folks and families out of the shadows, making it known and expected that we will give them the best opportunities,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican. “If we did nothing else, we changed the culture.”

Gardiner’s wife, Camille, and three children — 12-year-old Andrew, 8-year-old Joanna Lynn and 5-year-old Kathryn Lucille — attended the ceremony Monday. His parents, in-laws and several friends and former legislators — including former House Speaker Dean Cannon and former Senate President and CFO Jeff Atwater — also attended the event. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and House Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran were also on hand.

“Thank you for embracing the Gardiner family on this journey,” he said.

Gardiner used his speech to thank his staff, family and friends for their support during his time in the Legislature. He became emotional as he spoke to his colleagues, encouraging them to continue to advocate for their communities.

“There is no doubt in my mind that God has a plan for each and every one of us,” he said.

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Senate committee passes series of cost-saving health care proposals

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved Thursday several bills with some cost-saving measures for health providers. The bills now head to the Senate floor.

LobbyTools is reporting on SB 1686, sponsored by Fernandina Beach Republican Sen. Aaron Bean, which will allow Florida’s health care practitioners to provide telehealth services. The bill creates a task force under the Agency for Health Care Administration to study ways to implement telehealth. An amendment allows representatives of long-term-care services to become part of the task force.

SB 152, sponsored by Sebring Republican Sen. Denise Grimsley, combined with SB 946, seeks to allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants the ability to order controlled substances for patients in health facilities, hospitals and nursing homes.

“Nothing in this amendment authorizes prescribing outside of the hospital or the nursing home,” Grimsley told LobbyTools.

Another bill passed by the committee (SB 1496), this one from Fleming Island Republican Sen. Rob Bradley, would bring additional transparency to health care costs. The AHCA would be required to contract with a vendor for a consumer-friendly website which will show both cost and quality data. An amendment provides a competitive bidding process to choose the vendor.

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Senate panel OKs Seminole Compact, gambling bill

The proposed $3 billion gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida got a boost Wednesday when a key Senate panel approved it and another related gambling measure.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which oversees gambling in Florida, approved both measures (SB 7072, SB 7074) with four senators opposed: Republicans Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, Anitere Flores of Miami, Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, and Democrat Gwen Margolis of Miami.

Tribe Chairman James E. Billie “and other leaders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida want to thank Chairman Bradley and members of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee for their work on the Seminole Compact,” spokesman Gary Bitner said. “The Tribe hopes to continue working with legislators to finalize a Compact agreement this session.”

That panel was initially the only “committee of reference” for the measures, which began as proposed committee bills. That means they now head to Senate President Andy Gardiner, who will decide at least one other committee to review them, according to spokeswoman Katie Betta.

Senators also discussed and approved a raft of changes that, among other things, would expand slot machines beyond South Florida, lower the effective tax rate on the machines, and clarify that fantasy sports play is a game of skill and not gambling.

The package is bitterly opposed by the horse and dog racing industry, which fears it will suffer if the bills are made law, and by gambling opponents.

A “decoupling” provision would allow pari-mutual facilities, such as greyhound and horse tracks, to stop running live races if they wish to offer other gambling, like slots and card rooms.

They’re currently required to keep races going if they want other games. Otherwise, dog and horse breeders and trainers say demand for their services is sure to die off.

A coalition made up of The Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, representing 8,400 licensed thoroughbred owners and trainers; Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association; Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association, which has around 1,000 members; and the 500-member Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association “strongly oppose(s) ANY form of decoupling whatsoever,” they said in a statement.

But Senate President-designate Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican who offered decoupling and other amendments, said requiring live racing is “arbitrary and outdated.”

“I see no public policy rationale to tell a business to engage in an activity,” he said. Still another measure cleared Wednesday would allow lottery tickets to be sold at gas pumps in the state.

John Sowinski of Florida’s No Casinos anti-gambling expansion group told FloridaPolitics.com after Wednesday’s meeting that the new Seminole Compact “is certainly an expansion of gambling, (but) the implementing bill is an explosion.”

Using tribal gambling compacts “as a vehicle to expand gambling for every different gambling interest in Florida is completely antithetical to what compacts exist for,” he added, saying they should be limited to specific deals between tribes and states.

Negron disagreed, saying that “clearly there is a market for these activities,” referring to different and additional ways to gamble.

Committee Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, told reporters that although there’s a chance the Compact may not be approved by the Legislature this Session, “This is a work in progress … I suspect the final landing place, if there is a final landing place, will look a little different.”

He also bristled at suggestions that provisions OK’d Wednesday mirror a case now before the Florida Supreme Court, which is being asked to decide whether slot machines are allowed outside South Florida if local voters in a particular area approve of them. That would include Brevard, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington counties.

A lower court said several Florida dog and horse tracks can’t also have slot machines. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which runs the racetrack in Gretna, brought the case.

“I don’t think it’s fair to leave it to courts to decide that kind of policy question,” Bradley said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

Bradley also wrote a letter to fellow senators, disclosed Wednesday, saying he did not want to “punt to the courts” and “end up with the most significant expansion of gaming in Florida history.”

“If the Legislature takes no action and the Florida Supreme Court sides with (the pari-mutuels), the state will lose all revenue sharing” from the Seminoles, he wrote.

The tribe already has paid Florida more than $1 billion for exclusive rights to offer blackjack. Those rights expired last year, requiring a new deal.

“I wanted there to be an understanding of what’s at stake,” Bradley told reporters when asked about the letter. “There hasn’t been a lot of discussion and this is complicated … There’s a lot at stake.”

But Wednesday’s votes illustrate the divide in the Senate: Committee members with gambling interests, including Seminole casinos, in their districts voted for the measures; others from “family-friendly” areas near Disney resorts were opposed.

“We have a lot of strong personalities on this committee, so the fact we were able to get a bill out says a lot,” Bradley said.

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Senate health care panel narrowly advances CON, balance billing changes

Monday afternoon, the Senate Health Policy Committee narrowly approved a pair of closely-watched health care bills, with exchanges between lawmakers that predict much more debate will still be to come.

Bills weakening the state’s “certificate of need” regime for hospital licensure, and shielding patients from a medical collections practice known as “balance billing” each passed by votes of 6-3 and 5-4, respectively.

Former Senate Don Gaetz joked his SB 1144 was simply an “another uncontroversial bill” after the panel approved a number of relatively minor measures, but the bill saw half an hour of debate and testimony before passing with three ‘No’ votes.

The bill would create significant exemptions in a state hospital review process that require prospective medical facilities to obtain a “certificate of need” demonstrating enough local demand for services to prevent hospitals from cherry-picking patients with insurance and saddling existing facilities with unpaid charity care.

Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Arthenia Joyner quizzed Gaetz on whether eliminating the certificates would exacerbate disparities in the quality of care available in wealthy zip codes versus poorer neighborhoods, by setting the scene for a proliferation of new facilities in more affluent areas.

Gaetz responded that the state Agency for Health Care Administration would enforce a requirement in his bill that would mandate any new entry to an existing market must perform at least as much uncompensated care as the incumbents.

“The only remaining reason for CONs is to restrict competition, or to prevent cherry-picking,” said Gaetz, citing an academic article.

“This bill exempts from CON requirements only those health care projects with ‘a significant, active, and continuing commitment to improved access to care for uninsured and low-income persons,” he added.

Gaetz called CONs “a regulatory burden that costs more than its worth,” saying they are outdated in a time where negotiated rates have supplanted the actual cost of providing services for insurance reimbursement. He also quoted an Obama-appointed Federal Trade Commission member who echoed his sentiments.

The bill passed 6-3, and will next be taken up by the Senate Health Budget panel.

The last measure that was taken up by the committee (SB 1442) from Miami Republican Sen. Rene Garcia, was similarly contentious.

Garcia’s bill protects patients from receiving at-times astronomical bills after a hospital stay after unintentionally receiving treatment from out-of-network providers — known as “balance billing.” Debate on the issue has been heated.

Garcia introduced a strike-all amendment that tweaked the bill prohibiting balance billing in particular cases, while leaving intact the existing billing formula for reimbursing providers, rather than replacing it.

Representatives from Florida CHAIN, HCA, and other hospital groups support the bill, saying it is in the best interest of consumers; several ambulance groups opposed it, arguing it would shift costs for uncompensated care onto EMTs, who are required to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay.

A lobbyist representing Pensacola said the bill would have a six-figure negative fiscal impact for Escambia County ambulances.

The debate ended abruptly at 3:29 p.m. after Sen. Oscar Braynon requested a time-certain vote.

The bill passed 5-4, with Republicans Sen. Anitere Flores, Sen. Denise Grimsley, and Garcia joining Joyner and Braynon voting in favor.

Gaetz, Sen. Bill Galvano, and Committee Chair Aaron Bean voted ‘No,’ joined by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, who broke with fellow Democrats in opposition.

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