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Legislature passes measure to aid disabled

In what Senate President Andy Gardiner called the last of a “trifecta” of first-week bills, a measure to help people with disabilities get jobs is heading to Gov. Rick Scott.

The Florida Senate unanimously approved the bill (HB 7003) on Friday.

Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, has a son with Down syndrome and has pushed several bills this year to help those with disabilities.

The final bill in the package is intended to encourage state agencies to hire disabled employees. It also establishes a financial literacy program for those with disabilities and recognizes businesses that advance the cause of employing the disabled.

“This has been a good week for the citizens of Florida,” Gardiner said, seemingly beaming from the dais. “We’re changing lives.”

On Thursday, the Legislature approved a bill that would expand a program providing scholarships up to $10,000 a year to families of children with autism, Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.

It also passed a comprehensive water policy bill sought by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

• • •

Capitol correspondent Jim Rosica contributed to this post. Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press.

Big-name groups, leaders trumpet progress on legislative priorities

A major trio of political players at the Florida Capitol are happy with progress made Thursday on big-ticket priorities in the Legislature.

The H2O Coalition, a water policy consortium affiliated with Associated Industries of Florida, applauded the further progress of what it calls comprehensive water reform in the Legislature.

The praise comes after the House gave final approval to SB 552 by Sen. Charlie Dean, which is identical to HB 7005 by Rep. Matt Caldwell, who led the House’s efforts to update state water policy after voters’ overwhelming approval of Amendment 1 in 2014.

“Today is a historic day for Florida. Floridians should be proud of the leadership demonstrated by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, Senate President Andy Gardiner, Representative Matt Caldwell, Senator Charlie Dean and Commissioner Adam Putnam in passing a comprehensive water policy that should serve as a model for other states,” AIF Senior Vice President of State and Federal Affairs Brewster Bevis said in a prepared statement Thursday afternoon.

“If enacted, the impact of this comprehensive water policy will be far-reaching and felt long after the members of this body are in office,” Bevis said. “Future generations of Floridians will remember the 2016 Legislative Session as the time when lawmakers upgraded our water policy with higher water quality standards, stronger protections for our springs, and a forward-thinking approach that integrates water planning into economic development.”

The AIF executive and policy advocate concluded his remarks with a clarion call to the governor, who must sign the legislation for it to go into effect.

“As this bill goes to Governor Scott’s desk for his consideration, I join representatives from Florida’s business, environmental and agricultural communities in urging him to sign it,” Bevis said. “The future of Florida’s water supply depends on it.”

Foundation for Florida’s Future, for its part, celebrated the approval of greater educational funding and support for children with unique abilities.

“I am particularly grateful to the Legislature, which today expanded the Gardiner Scholarship Account Program to include 3- and 4-year-olds as well as students with muscular dystrophy and autism spectrum disorder,” FFF Executive Director Patricia Levesque said after the passage of SB 672. “This measure will give parents more options and resources to ensure brighter futures for their children. Thank you to Senator Don Gaetz and Representative Erik Fresen for sponsoring this measure, and to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli for supporting and leading the House to support.

“But my deepest appreciation goes to Senate President Andy Gardiner. His passion and drive has turned a personal crusade into a state priority. The impact of his advocacy will make a profound difference in the lives of children – with unique abilities – for generations to come. It is an outstanding legacy and one that will be long remembered.”

Finally, the Senate President himself took a victory lap after securing the relatively easy passage of a raft of priorities, chiefly the aforementioned support for children with disabilities.

“I am so grateful to Speaker Crisafulli and my colleagues in the House for making our cradle-to-career pathway to economic independence a reality for people with unique abilities and their families,” Gardiner said.

“There are so many Floridians with unique abilities who can benefit from the opportunity to personalize their education and to learn the skills needed to contribute to Florida’s workforce in a meaningful way. This comprehensive package will give people with unique abilities and their families a road map to education and employment opportunities that will help them on the path to economic independence.”

House OKs priorities for Steve Crisafulli, Andy Gardiner

The state House of Representatives knocked out three pieces of priority legislation Thursday, sending two measures — a wide-ranging water policy bill and an education bill expanding scholarships to students with disabilities — to the governor.

“I think this just sets the tone,” Senate President Andy Gardiner said after the House adjourned Thursday. “I think you’re going to see us work together quite a bit on all this stuff. This has just been a really good week.”

The water bill (SB 552) was a top priority for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican. The bill, according to the Associated Press, “modifies dozens of areas of Florida law, including controlling pollution and restoring natural flow in springs and rivers.”

“This is what working together can do, and obviously this is us finishing off a work plan we started together,” Crisafulli said during a joint news conference with Gardiner. “Obviously there is a lot left to do, with the budget to pass and some great things we can do for the state of Florida over the next several weeks.”

The House shot down several amendments proposed by Minority Leader Mark Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat.

The water package passed the Senate 37-0 on Wednesday. The House voted 110-2 on Thursday to approve it.

“The Florida Chamber has long supported science-backed efforts that will ensure our state can meet the demands of today and of the future,” said Christopher Emmanuel, director of infrastructure and governance policy at the Florida Chamber, in a prepared statement. “This bill is a meaningful step in the right direction to help ensure Florida’s water future doesn’t go the way of California. This bipartisan effort is a fantastic start to Florida’s 2016 Legislative Session.”

The House also approved an education bill (SB 672) that a top priority for Gardiner. Among other things, the bill expands scholarship opportunities for students with disabilities and provides incentives for school districts to adopt dress codes for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The measure also renames the scholarship program — formerly known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, or PLSAs —  the Gardiner Scholarships, after the Senate President.

The state Senate voted 39-0 to approve the measure Wednesday; while the House supported it 109-1. Republican state Rep. John Tobia was the only”no” vote.

The House also approved another Gardiner priority bill. That measure (HB 7003) addresses economic independence of individuals with disabilities. Among other things, it creates a Financial Literacy Program for Individuals with Development Disabilities to promote economic independence and employment opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities. That measure passed 110-0. It now heads to the Senate.

Cabinet members praise ‘taxpayer friendly’ policies during Florida TaxWatch State of the Taxpayer dinner

The defining debate of the 2016 Legislative session? Tax cuts.

That was Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s prediction Wednesday during Florida TaxWatch’s inaugural State of the Taxpayer Dinner. The event featured several state lawmakers, including Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

“If you think about the foundation of this organization and what this state has been through, you have every reason to be extraordinarily proud of your taxpayer friendly House, taxpayer friendly Senate and taxpayer friendly Cabinet and governor,” said Putnam.

Putnam said the “taxpayer friendly nature” of state government helped pull the state out of the recession. Now, he said the unemployment rate is barely over 5 percent; the crime rate is at a 44 year low, and discussions of tax cuts will likely be a driving factor of the 2016 session.

“The defining debate of this legislative session is likely to be how much of your tax money is going to be returned to you,” he said. “That’s an extraordinary accomplishment in what is the third largest state.”

The state, Atwater said, was able to cut taxes and reduce the debt during difficult times. That, he said, was part of a concerted effort to make sure there wasn’t a burden on future generations.

“After what we have been through … we have reduced our taxes on a per capita basis through that period of time and into this period of recovery more than any other state in the union,” said Atwater. “We didn’t extract more from the market place; we gave the market place more of what it needed, its own resources to create the next job, to invest in the new piece of equipment and keep us moving forward.”

Atwater said the choices of former lawmakers had “created conditions for success.”

Putnam said the state should now focus on sustainable growth through things like focusing on talent development and boosting reserves.

Senate President Andy Gardiner also spoke during the event, telling attendees the Senate was “absolutely committed to having very positive tax cuts.”

Senate passes disabled children bill; now it moves to House

The Florida Senate on Wednesday passed legislation expanding aid for students with intellectual disabilities and named the program for Senate President Andy Gardiner, who has made what he calls “people with unique abilities” the signature issue of his tenure as president.

The bill (SB 672) increases funding from $55 million to $73 million for $10,000-per-year scholarships for children with autism, Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, starting as early as age 3.

The program was expanded last year to add categories of disabilities, increasing recipients to about 4,300. The new bill makes the expansion permanent, likely increasing recipients to 8,000.

Gardiner says he expects the House to pass a companion bill, HB 7011, by Friday, sending the legislation to Gov. Rick Scott.

Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome, and his wife has been active on the issue.

He initially rejected an amendment by sponsor Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, naming the program “Gardiner Scholarships” in honor of his family. Gardiner said he had promised House backers the Senate would pass a bill with no amendments, to match the House bill.

But he accepted the honor, and was overcome with emotion at the podium, when House Speaker Steve Crisafulli called during the deliberations to say the House would accept the amendment.

“I didn’t see that coming. It’s a moment I won’t forget,” Gardiner said afterward.

“This is a bill that people come up to us with tears in the eye and talk about how it’s changed their lives,” he said from the podium.

The bill passed despite objections by Democrats that it included $14 million for financial incentives for school districts that require students to wear uniforms. The districts would get an extra $10 per student per year.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, called the incentives “a giveaway to the school uniform industry,” but withdrew an amendment to remove them.

Gardiner said the uniform measure was included because, “It was a priority of the House.”

The Senate also passed bills creating employment incentives and a financial literacy program for persons with intellectual disabilities.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Major players react to Senate passage of water legislation

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a major water bill, a major priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and the object of much interest on the part of environmentalist community as well.

Reactions from significant groups and individuals will continue to flow in as the debate goes forward, but for now here’s a look at what some of the most influential Floridians are saying about the move.

The Senate itself put out a detailed statement breaking down the legislation piece by piece. It heralded the move as a major step forward, one year after disagreement on health care policy ended the Session and sent a similar environmental bill to its demise.

“Passing this legislation today is a win for Floridians,” said President Andy Gardiner. “This legislation increases public access to conservation lands for recreational purposes, protects Florida’s unique environment, and ensures Floridians have quality water for future use through restoration and conservation efforts of our water bodies.”

Gardiner also thanked Sen. Charlie Dean, who chairs the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation committee.

“Today, the Senate approved legislation to transform the way Florida conserves our most valuable natural resources, making certain that we take a statewide, comprehensive approach on restoring and preserving our water and natural resources,” Dean said. “This bill establishes a systematic and transparent process to ensure taxpayer dollars are allocated to meaningful water quality and restoration projects and implements best management practices to increase our clean water supply.”

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also relayed his pleasure at the bill moving forward.

“I thank the Senate for the passage of this key legislation,” Putnam said. “This session, we have an opportunity to pass meaningful water policy reform that will help meet the needs of our growing population and thriving economy, while protecting our most precious natural resources.

“This proposed legislation is a much-needed step forward that accounts for a long-term, science-based and strategic approach to protecting our water,” Putnam said.

The Associated Industries of Florida’s affiliated H2O Coalition also had fond words for the legislation Wednesday. The group was formed in part to promote the bill in 2015.

“The Florida Senate’s adoption of SB 552 has been many years in the making. Over the past year, this legislation has been improved to strengthen the protection of Florida’s springs and create stronger water quality standards. Today, a unanimous, bipartisan majority has agreed this comprehensive approach to water policy represents the best path forward for our people and our state,” said AIF VP of State and Federal Affairs, Brewster Bevis.

“We appreciate the leadership of President Gardiner and Senators Dean, Simmons, Hays, Simpson, and Montford.  Their tireless work on this bill has put us one step closer to passing this historic reform.”

Senate passes education, water bills

The sausage-making began in earnest Wednesday morning, as the Florida Senate teed up nine bills for final approval and passed a sweeping $95 million educational policy bill and a water protection measure desired by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

The education bill (SB 672) was sponsored by GOP state Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville, a former schools superintendent. Among other things, it expands scholarships for students with disabilities and awards public and charter schools $10 per K-8 student if they adopt a dress code or require school uniforms.

The dress-code provision generated the most questions, with Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens even saying he was concerned about “shoving school uniforms down the throats” of constituents. He offered an amendment to delete that language, then withdrew it.

The bill then hit a snag when Gaetz, as a last-minute change, wanted to name the scholarships after Senate President Andy Gardiner. He politely rejected that notion, saying he promised to send the House a “clean bill.” But Crisafulli actually called the Senate, saying the idea was OK by him.

Finally, Gaetz asked for ceremonial co-sponsors from the floor and 38 other senators added their names, missing only state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring, who had an excused absence.

In closing, Gaetz said there wouldn’t be lobbyists or protesters interested in the passage of his bill, “just thousands and thousands of Florida families who are waiting quietly, and prayerfully, to see what we will do today,” he said.

It then passed 39-0 and was sent to the House.

The water protection bill (SB 552) was sponsored by state Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican.

According to the Associated Press, it “modifies dozens of areas of Florida law including controlling pollution and restoring natural water flows in springs and rivers; developing alternative water supplies; water-use permitting; and restoring flows and preventing pollution around Lake Okeechobee and the northern Everglades.”

The legislation easily survived several attempts at floor amendments to make it even tougher; environmentalists say it doesn’t go far enough to guard the state’s springs and surface water.

It was supported by the H2O Coalition, an offshoot of the Associated Industries of Florida business lobby, which called the bill “the best path forward for our people and our state.”

Getting a water bill done this session is one of Crisafulli’s top goals before he departs the Legislature: He’s term-limited this year.

The bill passed the Senate 37-0. That makes two priority bills that likely will be the first triumphs the two leaders will advertise as signs of their new harmony after the 2015 regular session that ended in impasse over health care funding.

“What you see is a real trust between the Speaker and me going into this Session that we want to help each other,” Gardiner later told reporters.

Steve Crisafulli: House, Senate will pass “3 important bills” by end of week

The state House and Senate will pass three bills by the end of the week, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli told members during his opening remarks Tuesday.

“As we look ahead to the next 60 days, I want us to double-down,” said Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican. “We will do that first by finishing what we started. By the end of the week, the House and Senate will pass three important bills that were part of last year’s Work Plan.”

Crisafulli said the House and Senate will take up statewide water policy legislation (HB 7005 and HB 522); an education bill that expands the personal learning scholarship (HB 7011 and SB 672); and a measure (HB 1359 and SB 962) aimed at creating employment opportunities for people with unique abilities.

“Members, these are three bipartisan bills we can all be proud to support and deliver for Floridians,” said Crisafulli. “Of course, those bills are only a fraction of our work this session.”

Crisafulli’s comments were echoed by Senate President Andy Gardiner, who told lawmakers that sending Scott those measures by the end of the first week of the 2016 Legislative Session “sets the tone.”

Crisafulli used his opening comments to highlight several other issues lawmakers will tackle this session, including tax cuts.

Andy Gardiner promises first 3 bills this Session

On the first day of the 2016 Legislative Session, Senate President Andy Gardiner made a promise that Gov. Rick Scott would get three bills by the end of the week.

Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, spoke during the Senate’s first floor session for 2016, with Scott sitting in the first row.

The first measure is statewide water policy legislation (SB 552/HB 7005) championed by Republican state Sen. Charlie Dean.

According to The Associated Press, it “modifies dozens of areas of Florida law including controlling pollution and restoring natural water flows in springs and rivers; developing alternative water supplies; water use permitting; and restoring flows and preventing pollution around Lake Okeechobee and the northern Everglades.”

Another was an education bill (SB 672/HB 7011) that creates a Personal Learning Scholarship account for children with autism or muscular dystrophy that would provide for a $10,000 lifetime scholarship. It’s backed by state GOP Sen. Don Gaetz.

The third (SB 962/HB 1359) is aimed at employment opportunities for people with unique abilities, focussing on “vocational evaluation and planning, career counseling and guidance, job-site assessment and accommodations, job placement, job coaching, and on-the-job training.” Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome.

Forwarding those efforts to Scott by the end of the first week of session “sets the tone,” Gardiner said.

“Last year was unusual,” he added, referring to the regular session that ended in the House leaving town three days early over a budget impasse, resulting in a special budget session.

Two other special sessions for redistricting ended without agreement on new political maps, resulting in courts making the final decision.

“You have my commitment we will do everything we can,” Gardiner told the chamber, filled with former and current lawmakers, all the statewide elected officials and five Supreme Court justices. “We will work to cut taxes, pass a balanced budget and appropriate unprecedented funding for K-12 education.”

Gardiner, however, said his chamber would “work with” Scott on funding for Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development agency. Scott wants a $250 million fund for business incentives, something the Senate isn’t fully on board with.

By the end of this session, Gardiner said, he hoped every senator will be able to say, “Andy gave me every opportunity to be successful.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Gambling, guns, tax cuts and more facing Florida lawmakers

The Legislature will begin its annual session early this year with the hopes of avoiding the chaos and dysfunction that marked the 2015 Session and three special sessions that followed.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner say the past is the past and there’s no lingering animosity after the two chambers found it difficult to agree on much last year.

“What you’re seeing is a real desire to get some things done. While a lot of people talk about what happened last session, as far as I’m concerned the relationship with the speaker and the governor have been good,” said Gardiner.

Crisafulli acknowledged there were “many challenges” this past year.

“Now it’s time to look ahead,” he said, adding that lawmakers will begin the upcoming session by addressing major issues that died last year when the House went home early, including a water protection bill and measures to help developmentally disabled residents.

Here’s a look at issues facing lawmakers when the 60-day session opens Tuesday.

GOV. RICK SCOTT’S AGENDA

Scott is pushing for $1 billion in tax cuts and a $250 million for business incentives. On Wednesday, he will start a three-day bus tour that hits most of Florida’s major media markets to promote both ideas. Scott’s proposed cuts are largely aimed at businesses, including the elimination of corporate income taxes for manufacturers and retailers. That alone would cost the state treasury an estimated $770 million a year. Scott also wants to cut sales taxes charged on commercial leases by 1 percent and permanently eliminate the sales tax charged on the sale of manufacturing equipment.

The governor is also calling for a 10-day back-to-school sales tax holiday as well as a nine-day sales tax holiday on supplies used for hurricane preparation. Scott also wants to permanently eliminate sales taxes on college textbooks.

While the Republican-led Legislature is open to the idea of tax cuts, leaders in both chambers have said $1 billion might be too much, especially if it’s largely revenue the state will permanently lose.

GUNS

Two bills are moving through committees that would give more rights to gun owners. Each has been passionately debated during legislative committees. One would allow concealed weapon permit holders to openly carry their handguns. A second would allow permit holders to carry guns on state university and college campuses.

If both become law, universities could go from gun-free places to having students in class openly displaying handguns. Gun-rights advocates say that will make universities safer. However, every state university president and police chief in Florida opposes the guns-on-campus bill.

ENVIRONMENT

Both chambers say a top priority is passing a bill designed to help protect springs and groundwater while cleaning Lake Okeechobee, the northern Everglades, rivers and other waterways. The idea is to limit pollutants entering waterways and to come up with long range plans to manage water resources. Environmentalists say the legislation doesn’t go far enough to address regulating sugar producers, cattle ranchers and farms that contribute to pollution.

Lawmakers will also consider a proposal to dedicate $200 million a year to restoring the Everglades.

Environmentalists are upset over a bill that would require the Department of Environmental Protection to come up with regulations for fracking, a form of drilling that uses chemicals and water to blast through rock to get to oil and gas underneath. Supporters say there is nothing to stop fracking now, so regulations would make sure it’s done safely. Opponents would prefer to see the practice banned because of fears groundwater will be contaminated.

GAMBLING

The Legislature will consider the gambling deal Scott signed with the Seminole Tribe. It would guarantee the state $3 billion in revenue in exchange for allowing blackjack to continue at the tribe’s seven casinos and letting them operate roulette and craps. The agreement as signed is guaranteed to go through changes as the lawmakers consider regional interests like slot machines at dog and horse tracks.

Lawmakers will also consider a proposal to allow lottery sales at gas pumps and self-checkout registers at grocery stores.

A bill would regulate the fantasy sports companies like DraftKings and FanDuel while making it clear that they can legally operate in Florida.

AND MORE …

• Among other bills is a measure that will repeal an unenforced 19th-century law that makes it illegal for unmarried men and women to live together and have sex.

• Lawmakers are considering a measure that will ask voters to make the education commissioner an elected instead of an appointed position.

• A bill would ask for the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith that represents Florida in the U.S. Capitol.

• A bill would let terminally ill patients use marijuana.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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