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2017 Legislative Session preview: Alimony rears its head

Get ready for a rumble: Lawmakers will again tackle the sticky issue of alimony in the 2017 Legislative Session.

Companion bills filed in the House and Senate aim to overhaul state alimony law to toughen the standards by which alimony is granted and changed. That’s despite unsuccessful tries in the last few years.

Neither bill had a hearing in the committee weeks leading up to this year’s session, which begins Tuesday.

Given its history, the effort promises to be one of the most contentious the Legislature will deal with this year, and both sides are primed for the fight. Last year, a hollering battle sparked outside Gov. Rick Scott’s office as reform advocates shouted down opponents of the bill.

In a nutshell: Former spouses who wrote the checks have said permanent alimony in particular, or “forever alimony,” wasn’t fair to them. Their exes have shot back that they shouldn’t be penalized, for example, after staying home to raise the children and then having trouble re-entering the workplace.

The First Wives Advocacy Group calls this year’s legislation “one-sided, inequitable, and harmful to Florida families, especially women and children.” Proponents say the measures won’t be retroactive; these ex-spouse advocates disagree.

“As written, the legislation will retroactively tamper with thousands of prior divorces, giving payors a virtual do-over at the expense of the recipient,” the group said in a statement. “During their divorces, many women sacrificed equitable distribution for the security of permanent alimony.  

“This legislation would result in (those paying alimony) filing for modification upon retirement, regardless of prior agreement, need, and ability to pay,” the group adds. “This is clearly not equitable.”

But Alan Frisher, chair of the National Parents Organization of Florida, called “the concept of permanent alimony … outdated in today’s society.”

“Alimony recipients must take some responsibility to earn a living after divorce in this day and age,” he said.

The 2017 bills “would provide predictability and consistency for all, plus, divorcing spouses could settle their financial differences out of court versus spending countless dollars on wasteful litigation,” Frisher added.

This year’s measures (HB 283, SB 412) don’t address the child custody provisions that garnered Scott‘s disfavor in 2016.

He nixed that legislation because it had the potential to put the “wants of a parent before the child’s best interest by creating a premise of equal time-sharing,” his veto letter said.

Family-law related bills have had trouble getting Scott’s signature even as lawmakers have tried for years to change the way Florida’s courts award alimony.

In 2013, Scott vetoed a previous attempt to modify alimony law because, he said, “it applies retroactively and thus tampers with the settled economic expectations of many Floridians who have experienced divorce.” He added that the “retroactive adjustment of alimony could result in unfair, unanticipated results.”

Among other things, the current legislation contains a guideline that says judges should consider an ex-spouse’s “services rendered in homemaking, child care, education, and career building of the other party” when calculating an award.

A judge can go outside the suggested alimony amount under the bill “only if the court considers all of the factors … and makes specific written findings concerning the relevant factors that justify” the deviation.

Rep. Colleen Burton, a Lakeland Republican, is carrying the House bill and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, is sponsoring its Senate counterpart.

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2017 Legislative Session preview: Showdown over gambling—again

With competing legislation now set up in both chambers, the question remains whether lawmakers finally will pass a gambling overhaul or whether the effort will founder as it has in years past.

Hanging in the balance is a new blackjack exclusivity deal for the Seminole Tribe of Florida that promises a cut to the state worth $3 billion over seven years.

Negotiated by Gov. Rick Scott in late 2015, it failed to gain approval from lawmakers last session as it got bogged down by a fight over expanding games for the state’s pari-mutuel facilities, such as horse and dog tracks.

Indeed, the battle has usually been between pari-mutuels, who want to offer more gambling and be free of the state’s requirement that they run live races in order to offer cards or slots, and “family-friendly” tourism proponents, chiefly Disney. 

Younger audiences don’t want to bet on horses or dogs, the pari-mutuels say, and are more taken with diversions like fantasy sports, which would be made expressly legal in Florida in other legislation filed for this year.

Valery Bollier, CEO and co-Founder of Oulala Games, which offers fantasy soccer games in the U.K., told an International Casino Conference audience this month that the gambling industry “will fall off a cliff if they do not adapt to a millennial audience.”

“Young generations are not playing the same games as their parents,” Bollier said. “…They have access to such amazing skill games on their consoles and constant social interactions on their mobile phones.”

The two bills this year (SB 8, HB 7037) come at the issue from different directions, with the House seeking to “freeze” gambling in the state, and the Senate generally allowing expansion of gambling opportunities.

For example, the House outlaws designated-player card games, but the Senate would let “all cardroom operators … offer designated-player games,” which are similar to poker in that people play against each other.   

Moreover, the House would prohibit the expansion of slot machines, while the Senate generally expands the availability of slot machines, including to counties that passed a slots referendum. 

The House also would direct Seminole gambling money to education, including for “K-12 teacher recruitment and retention bonuses,” and funding “schools that serve students from persistently failing schools” and “higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.”

But Florida has a history of failure when it comes to addressing gambling. In 2012, former state Sen. Ellyn Setnor Bogdanoff pushed a measure to permit three destination hotel-casinos in South Florida. That effort died.

The next year, realizing they had likely bungled it, lawmakers hastily moved to ban Internet gambling cafés – only after a multistate investigation that netted dozens of arrests threw egg on the Legislature’s collective face.

Two years after that, then-House Republican Leader Dana Young of Tampa sponsored her own sweeping legislation to permit two destination resort casinos in South Florida and allow dog tracks to stop live racing but continue to offer slot machines, among many other provisions.

It, too, died during the Legislative Session.

And this year, neither bill addresses an idea proposed by Young, now a state senator, and others: Establishing an independent gambling commission, as in Nevada and New Jersey. Now, the state regulates gambling through the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Izzy Havenick, who with his family owns Naples Fort Myers Greyhound Racing in Bonita Springs, says he’s once again “cautiously optimistic” something will pass this year. Lee County is one of those that passed a slots referendum; his facility, which offers poker, competes with the Seminoles’ Immokalee casino, that has slots, about a 45-minute drive to the east.

“It’s hard to be in an industry where you never know what your rules and regulations are going to be,” Havenick said. “We hope they pass legislation that allows us to compete with the gambling that is all around us.”

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Sadowski Coalition seeks full funding for affordable housing in state budget

Affordable housing advocates urged the Legislature Thursday to spend all of the state’s dedicated housing money for its intended purpose, saying that more than 910,000 Floridians pay more than half their income for shelter.

Representatives of the Sadowski Housing Coalition — including Associated Industries of Florida, AARP, the Florida Realtors Association, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Florida Home Builders Association — appeared during a news conference to make their case.

Carrie O’Rourke, of the realtors’ group, said it supports the documentary stamp taxes on real estate purchases that finance two housing trust funds even though it’s levied against her industry.

“And we continue to support it today, because of the good it does for so many people,” O’Rourke said.

“Every community relies on dependable and accessible housing options to say healthy and vibrant. Without that option, the bedrock of the community becomes weak.”

“We as a state can make it possible for older adults to live safely, independently, and affordably, saving the state money, by fully funding our affordable housing programs,” said Dorene Barker, of AARP.

“With the aging population in our state on the rise, it is more important than ever that Florida use every penny of its housing funds to support Florida’s affordable housing programs.”

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget would shift nearly 77 percent of the $293.4 million earmarked for low-income housing next year to other state priorities. That works out to $224 million from state and local housing trust funds that won’t go for their intended purpose.

Yet the need is great, according to member of the coalition. The group is named after Bill Sadowski, a former lawmaker and Department of Community Affairs secretary who died in a plane crash in 1992, and who advocated for affordable housing.

In its Home Matters Report for 2017, the group cited high housing costs for the working poor, seniors, and people with disabilities.

The state’s homeless population is the nation’s third highest, the report said. Some 34,000 Floridians live in homeless shelters and on the streets, including 2,902 veterans and 6,140 children.

One doesn’t even need to be poor to have trouble arranging shelter. In Collier County, for example, the rent is too high for some people in well-paying professions including nursing.

“If a person is making what you consider to be a good income here in Tallahassee, where they might be able to find housing fairly easily, they’re not able to with that same profession in Collier County,” said Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, a member of the Sadowski Coalition.

Historically, the Legislature has swept about 25 percent of the money in Florida’s state and local housing trust funds for other priorities, said Mark Hendrickson, executive director of the Association of Local Housing Finance Authorities.

“During the Great Recession, the percentage that was swept went way up,” he said. “In the past few years, we’ve made significant progress, and we are thankful to the Legislature for the progress we’ve made in moving back toward full funding.”

Of the governor’s proposal, he said: “That’s a starting point. We work with the Legislature at this point to move forward. Last year, the Legislature’s appropriation was well above the governor’s recommendation, and the sweep was smaller. We hope we’ll be headed in that same direction.”

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Blackjack appeal now headed to mediation

An appeal to a federal judge’s ruling allowing the Seminole Tribe to keep offering blackjack at its Florida casinos now has been scheduled for an April 11 mediation, court dockets show.

The state’s lawyers had asked the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for more time to file their initial brief in the appeal.

But they withdrew that request upon learning that a mediation conference had been set at the Kinnard Mediation Center.

The state “learned that … the parties could obtain appropriate extensions of time to file briefs from the mediator,” wrote attorney J. Carter Andersen of the Bush Ross firm, which is representing the state.

“Counsel consulted with the (Tribe’s attorneys) regarding this motion, and (they do) not object to the requested relief,” he wrote.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in November had ruled that regulators working under Gov. Rick Scott allowed select Florida dog and horse tracks to offer card games that were too similar to ones that were supposed to be exclusive to Tribe-owned casinos for a five-year period.

The judge decided the Tribe could keep its blackjack tables till 2030.

The state, however, wanted Hinkle to instead order the tribe to remove the games because a blackjack provision in an agreement between the state and tribe expired in 2015.

Gambling legislation has again been filed in both chambers of the Legislature this year.

While the bills differ by expanding or contracting gambling, both included a new blackjack deal worth $3 billion over seven years in revenue share to the state. Negotiated by Scott last year, it previously failed to gain approval from lawmakers.

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House also files short witness list for Lottery trial

The House of Representatives’ in-house lawyer also plans to call just two witnesses at trial in Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s lawsuit against the Florida Lottery.

House general counsel Adam Tanenbaum‘s witness list was posted in court dockets Monday.

Barry Richard, the Lottery’s outside lawyer, similarly said he plans to call only two witnesses. A non-jury trial is scheduled for March 6.

The speaker sued the agency, which reports to Gov. Rick Scott, saying it was guilty of “wasteful and improper spending” for signing a multiple-year, $700 million contract for new equipment from International Game Technology (IGT).

Tanenbaum listed JoAnne Leznoff, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, and Bruce Topp, budget chief for the Government Operation and Technology Appropriations Subcommittee.

Both started working for the House in November 2006, House records show.

Leznoff, among other things, will testify as to the history of the Lottery’s budget requests, while Topp will talk about the agency’s “fiscal policy” and “communications” between House and Lottery staff about the IGT contract.

Corcoran says the Lottery can’t sign “a contract that spends beyond existing budget limitations.”

The deal with IGT is for an initial 10-year period, and the Lottery exercised the first of its three available three-year renewal options.

Richard has countered that the Legislature cannot “micromanage individual contracts” and noted that the state’s “invitation to negotiate” for the contract discloses that any deal would be contingent on “an annual appropriation” from lawmakers. In fact, he adds, such a disclosure is required under state law.

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Richard Corcoran, Rick Scott still holding on constitutional panel picks

With the 2017 Legislative Session fast approaching, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott still have not released their appointees for the upcoming Constitution Revision Commission.

It’s the panel that meets every 20 years to suggest rewrites and additions to the state’s governing document.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Senate President Joe Negron have already announced their combined 12 picks. (Those appointments are here and here.)

Corcoran last week said he planned to disclose his nine picks next Monday, the day before Session begins. Scott’s office has not said when he plans to announce his 15 selections. His received applications can be seen here.

The state constitution says the commission must be “established … within (30) days before the convening of the 2017 regular session of the legislature.”

The “commission shall convene at the call of its chair, adopt its rules of procedure, examine the constitution of the state, hold public hearings, and, not later than one hundred eighty days prior to the next general election, file … its proposal, if any, of a revision of this constitution or any part of it,” it says.

As governor, Scott will choose 15 of the 37 commissioners, and he also selects its chairperson. Corcoran, as House Speaker, gets nine picks, as does Negron as head of the Senate.

Republican Pam Bondi is automatically a member as the state’s Attorney General.

The commission has met twice before, in 1977-78 and 1997-98, but this will be the first to be selected by a majority of Republicans, virtually ensuring it will propose more conservative changes to the state’s governing document than previous panels.

The nonprofit Partnership for Revising Florida’s Constitution has suggested several issues the commission could address this year, including transportation, natural resources, crime and justice, representation, and “youth, elderly & the underserved.”

Any changes the commission proposes would be in the form of constitutional amendments, which would have to be approved by 60 percent of voters on a statewide ballot.

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Is Bill Nelson’s re-election race really a “Lean Democrat” in 2018?

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is set for a tough reelection battle next year, but for some reason Sabato’s Crystal Ball decided look past that and peg him as the likely victor in 2018.

The blog post lists Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat as leaning toward the Democrats and even goes so far as to give Nelson “the benefit of the doubt” due to him winning statewide several times.

Sure, that’s true, but if you can’t see the Nelson’s weaknesses and the many paths Republicans could use to take him down, you might need to get your eyes checked.

He’s already under attack by a conservative group for his votes on the ACA, and the National Republican Senate Committee is also smelling blood, recently announcing digital ads showing he has voted in lock step with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren 92 percent of the time.

While the attacks are certainly fodder for the Republican base, the comparison has a slugger’s chance of sticking during an off-cycle election in a state carried by President Donald Trump.

Nelson’s response to the attacks is baffling as well. In a Monday article from POLITICO, he said the fundraising prowess of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was “the biggest factor” in how he plans to win a fourth term in the senate.

And that’s in spite of weaknesses he didn’t hesitate to point out with theSsenate Democrat’s social media game.

“I am chewing on Senator Schumer everyday about that,” he said. “We just may surprise everybody. After this election, he might be Majority Leader.”

Yes, the New York Democrat brought in $180 million for Senate Democratic campaigns last cycle, but his results were less than stellar

In Florida alone, the DSCC spent $10 million trying to prop up former Rep. Patrick Murphy in his race, but that barely got him within 8 points of a somewhat damaged Marco Rubio.

Imagine how much money he would have to pump in for a race against expected opponent Gov. Rick Scott who also has won statewide and has had no problem spending his own money on top of the mountains of cash he brings in to his political committee.

But sure, let’s give Nelson the benefit of the doubt. It’s not like Democrats didn’t just get the wakeup call of a lifetime or anything.

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Rick Scott to court: Throw out Richard Corcoran’s Lottery lawsuit

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration is asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

A Leon County circuit judge held a brief hearing Thursday over Corcoran’s lawsuit that maintains the Florida Lottery broke the law when it approved a more than $700-million contract with IGT Global Solutions to help run lottery games.

Corcoran’s lawsuit contends the contract is illegal because it exceeds the department’s authorized budget.

Barry Richard, an attorney hired to represent the state’s lottery secretary, argued the agency followed the law because the contract states it is contingent on state funding.

Richard told reporters after the hearing that if the Legislature “doesn’t like it, they don’t have to fund it.”

The case could get decided quickly. Judge Karen Gievers scheduled a March 6 trial.

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Pam Bondi still a rock star with Florida’s GOP voters, new AIF poll shows

Florida’s top lawmakers and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam are struggling with low name identification among likely Republican voters, but that isn’t the case for Attorney General Pam Bondi according to a new poll from statewide business advocate Associated Industries of Florida.

The AIF poll of likely Republican voters obtained by FloridaPolitics.com found that 54 percent approve of the job the second-term Attorney General is doing, while just 12 percent have an unfavorable view and 17 percent said they had no opinion.

Among Florida’s top elected Republicans, Bondi’s ratings only trailed Gov. Rick Scott, who had a net 67 percent approval rating, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who netted 57 percent approval.

Putnam, who is considered an early frontrunner to take over for Scott, scored 38 percent approval from the same crowd, with 3 percent voicing disapproval and 20 percent saying they had no opinion.

Putnam did come out on top in the mock ballot test for the Republican primary for Florida governor with 22 percent support, though 71 percent said they were undecided. The next highest vote-getter was House Speaker Richard Corcoran with 4 percent support.

AIF also tested the waters for the cabinet positions opening up in 2018, though each scenario featured “undecided” winning over 80 percent of the vote.

In other words, “there’s no news here,” notes Ryan Tyson, Vice President of Political Operations for AIF.

The low level of support for Corcoran likely stems from the fact only 44 percent 0f those polled knew who he was. Of those, 16 percent said approved of the job he was doing, while 4 percent disapproved and 24 percent had no opinion.

Senate President Joe Negron and Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala had even lower name ID than the House Speaker, with just 41 percent and 25 percent recognizing their names, respectively.

Still, both enjoyed relative approval from the Republican base: Negron had a plus-11 approval rating and Latvala came in with plus-8.

AIF surveyed 800 likely Republican voters who had voted in at least one of the last three Republican Primaries, but not the presidential preference in 2016. The group said 81 percent of those polled were over 50 years old and 90 percent were white.

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Lottery says it’s generated $1 billion for education this year

The Florida Lottery, now being sued by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Monday said it had reached “another record – $1 billion in contributions to education for the 15th consecutive year.”

On Friday, Corcoran – a Land O’ Lakes Republican – filed suit against the state agency for “wasteful and improper spending” for signing a multiyear, $700 million deal for new equipment.

The Lottery reports to Gov. Rick Scott.

In a press release, it said it had “reached the $1 billion mark for this fiscal year earlier than any other year in Florida Lottery history. This brings the Lottery’s life-to-date education contributions to more than $31 billion.”

The state’s fiscal year runs July 1-June 30. Lottery proceeds go into the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, which helps pay for public education.

“This milestone would not have been possible without the support of our loyal players, dedicated retailers and hardworking Lottery staff,” Lottery Secretary Tom Delacenserie said in a statement.

“The Lottery will continue working hard every day to advance our mission of maximizing contributions to education in a manner that is consistent with the dignity and integrity of the state.”

The release added: “Florida Lottery contributions represent approximately six percent of the state’s total education budget. Lottery funds are appropriated by the Florida Legislature and are administered by the Florida Department of Education.”

Corcoran sued the Lottery “for signing a contract that spends beyond existing budget limitations.” The deal, with International Game Technology (IGT), will provide the Lottery with new retailer terminals, in-store signage, self-service lottery vending machines, self-service ticket checkers and an upgraded communications network.

In a press release last September, the company said the contract is for an initial 10-year period, and the Florida Lottery “simultaneously exercised the first of its three available three-year renewal options.”

But Corcoran’s suit asserts “there is insufficient budget authority for the contract to be paid under the current appropriation assuming current conference estimates of ticket sales,” according to a press release from his office.

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