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House lays Seminole Compact failure at feet of Senate

It’s the Florida Senate’s fault that the Seminole Compact wasn’t passed this session, two House leaders said Friday afternoon.

They rejected claims that there weren’t enough votes in the House, saying instead there was no point in moving a bill that wasn’t going to be considered across the Capitol Rotunda. (For today’s background, click here.)

The Senate gave up on it earlier this week, with President Andy Gardiner saying the compact “will be for another day, and for somebody else to handle.” This is his last year in office.

“We wanted to keep hope alive, but obviously nothing panned out,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican. “We figured there was no life in it … as for 2016, it won’t have an opportunity to come back up.”

“It just couldn’t get done in the Senate,” he added. “There wasn’t a compromise opportunity to get it done.”

Gardiner and other Senate leaders weren’t available Friday night because that chamber was still meeting.

State Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Fort Walton Beach Republican who chairs the Finance and Tax Committee, said he believed there were “no fewer than” 80 votes in the 120-member House to pass the re-negotiated agreement.

He also feared that now the courts will essentially make gambling policy for the state as several related suits are pending.

The Florida Supreme Court is set to consider a challenge by a Creek Indian-operated racetrack in Gretna that it and pari-mutuels in five other counties can offer slots because voters approved the machines in local referendums.

Competing lawsuits are also before two federal judges.

In one, the Seminoles say the state violated a previous promise of blackjack exclusivity by allowing card games known as player-designated games, similar to some versions of player-banked poker.

The tribe offers blackjack at five of its seven casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.

In another suit, the state alleges that the tribe current offering of blackjack is technically unauthorized because one part of the previous agreement expired and Seminole blackjack going on now is illegal gambling.

“If we don’t take action, we will surrender the state’s involvement in this critical decision-making,” Gaetz said. “If there is judicial action that deems the state in violation of the Compact, we’ll have the deprivation of revenue, a loss of control on the expansion of gaming … and we look dysfunctional.”

The previous blackjack deal was worth at least $1 billion over five years to the state treasury, though payments usually exceeded $200 million per year. Revenue from the tribe stops without a new deal.

It wasn’t clear whether the new Compact would still go to the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees Indian gambling, for review and separate approval.

Volunteer Florida, Uber collect 4,000 #SuitsForSession items for local job seekers

Tallahassee insiders across Leon County gave local job seekers a big helping hand this week by donating thousands of pieces of professional attire.

In the first-ever #SuitsForSession, Volunteer Florida and Uber collected 4,023 donations Tuesday at both the Capitol and by Uber drivers picking up items across the county free of charge.

Through the project, which asked for donations of gently used, high-quality clothing, volunteers collected 2,751 items for women, 851 articles of men’s clothing and 421 shoes, belts and other items. Uber drivers brought in 10 bags through requests in its ride-sharing app.

Items collected will be distributed to a number of organizations helping job seekers prepare for employment – Dress For Success Tallahassee, the Goodwill Prosperity Center, and the Florida Department of Education’s Division of Blind Services.

Helping out volunteers throughout the day included several of the state’s top political leaders: Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, state agency heads and members of the Legislature. Twelve Gubernatorial Fellows and 10 AmeriCorps members also contributed to the effort.

“Volunteer Florida is overwhelmed by the volume and quality of the donations we received through #SuitsForSession,” Volunteer Florida CEO Chester Spellman said in a statement.

“The people of Tallahassee matched these donations by bringing and sending in their own,” Spellman added. “We are grateful for our partnership with Uber, which made it possible for so many people to give.”

Matt Gore, Uber’s general manager for Florida called #SuitsForSession “a tremendous success.”

“We are proud to have played a part in making the donation of items easy and convenient for Uber users,” Gore said.

Grace Grindler, chair of the Dress for Success Tallahassee Board of Directors, said the overwhelming outpouring of donations will “empower so many economically disadvantaged women attain and retain employment to better their family’s lives with the donated professional attire.”

Suits for session 3 (Large) Suits for session 2 (Large) Suits for session 1 (Large)

House all but declares defeat on Seminole Compact, gambling legislation

Their lips were saying “not dead yet” but House leadership otherwise made clear that the Seminole Compact and gambling legislation were goners for this session.

“I’m not ready to declare it dead yet,” said state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the Miami Republican who shepherded the bills through the process this year. Diaz spoke after the House’s floor session.

After a deep breath, he added, “…but that’s the word around town.”

Diaz said he talked to his counterpart, state Sen. Rob Bradley, earlier in the day. Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, chairs the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries, which oversees gambling issues.

“I said, ‘Do you think it’s really and truly dead?’ And he said…” Diaz nodded his head up and down, signaling Bradley said yes.

Seminole Tribe of Florida spokesman Gary Bitner did not comment on Tuesday’s turn of events, but said the tribe might issue a statement on Wednesday.

The tribe’s Tallahassee attorney had blamed the apparent collapse of the 2016 gambling bills on lawmakers bending over backward to appease the state’s dog and horse racing concerns.

The Compact was a new agreement to let the Seminoles continue to offer blackjack at their tribal casinos in return for $3 billion to the state over seven years.

But Barry Richard, who represents the Seminole Tribe of Florida, questioned the Legislature’s trying to help the state’s struggling pari-mutuels, expanding their ability to offer slots and cards as horse and dog racing’s appeal continues to decline.

Ultimately, as Senate budget chief Tom Lee said, there weren’t enough votes in any of the Legislature’s gambling factions to pass something.

“You were never going to get 61 votes without some kind of pari-mutuel concessions,” Diaz said, referring to a majority of the House’s 120 members. “But there does come a point where it gets too heavy.”

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli separately told reporters he wasn’t counting the Compact out yet, but also said, “We all understood what was coming. There was just a reality to all that.”

That said, Diaz offered, “I’m willing to see if we can get the blood moving again.”

Ironically, one gambling lobbyist asked about the Compact’s chances this session said, “…It’s in full bleed.”

State police radio replacement dispute becomes budget conference sticking point

An obscure but heated battle over a state contract potentially worth hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money is at stake as budget conferees continue to hammer out differences between House and Senate proposals.

At issues is the radio equipment law enforcement agents use to communicate. Problems with communication gear have led to the deaths of several officers across the country.

Tucked into the House’s government operations budget proposal is $7 million for a line item that reads “Replacement Of Statewide Law Enforcement Radio Equipment.”

The budget request came from Melbourne Rep. Ritch Workman on behalf of a Washington, D.C.-based government relations director for Harris Corp. Harris holds a state contract to provide law enforcement radio support valued at an estimated $18 million annually.

Critics of the move – including representatives for Motorola Solutions who hope to take over the contract after the current arrangement expires in 2021 – say the $7 million appropriation would unfairly bolster Harris’ grip on the contract. The contract provides that proprietary Harris-made radios fulfill orders for replacements.

The Harris representative named in the request, Glenn Grab, said during the weekend that state officials in agencies such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles tell him they need new radios to replace outdated units, some more than a decade old.

Grab said an equipment “refreshment” before the 2021 contract expiration is only a matter of time. He said guidelines indicate law enforcement radios should be swapped out every seven years. The current 20-year procurement deal was awarded in 2000 under then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

Harris is headquartered in Brevard County, represented in the House by both Workman and Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

Sources familiar with the budget process said the contentious issue is likely to be “bumped up” to appropriations chiefs Rep. Richard Corcoran and Sen. Tom Lee, who are set to take over any unresolved budget issues Monday evening at 6 p.m.

Key senators, including conference committee Vice Chairman Alan Hays and Sen. Jack Latvala, expressed concerns about the line item when it was proposed late in the budget process last year.

Latvala called it “a back-door extension” of the current contract, and said it could jeopardize a planned competitive bidding process set to solicit offers to continue servicing state communications infrastructure needs.

Budget writers approved $800,000 for the Department of Management Service to add staff in preparation of the bid last year.

A state Joint Task Force that administers the state’s radio systems has been careful not to publicly take sides in the battle of vendors, though a DMS study recommended a bid process go forward “as soon as possible.”

A Harris PR rep told reporter Matt Dixon last year that switching vendors after 2021 could lead to nine-figure costs to the state and a possible disruption in service.

Budget conference to begin this weekend

Legislative leaders issued a joint statement on the 2016-17 state budget Thursday night:

Members,

We are pleased with the progress President (Tom) Lee and Chair (Richard) Corcoran (the Senate and House budget chiefs) have made and are optimistic we will be ready to begin the budget conference this weekend.

We will update you as early as possible tomorrow, so you can make the appropriate travel arrangements.

Thank you for your patience as we work through this important process. We look forward to providing you with more information as soon as possible.

President Gardiner and Speaker Crisafulli

Stay tuned for an update Friday morning …

Stand Your Ground bill still in legislative limbo

There were still no definite answers Wednesday on whether the House will consider a Senate-approved change to the state’s Stand Your Ground law.

The Senate bill, backed by state Sen. Rob Bradley, “shifts the burden of proof from the defendant to the prosecution” in pretrial hearings on whether a use of force was justifiable, according to a staff analysis.

Those hearings determine whether a defendant can claim self-defense at trial.

The House version died in the Criminal Justice Subcommittee in November on a 6-6 vote. But the Senate bill passed that chamber last month on a 24-12 vote and was redirected to the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Jacksonville Republican Charles McBurney.

But the bill wasn’t on the agenda for Thursday, the last scheduled meeting of that committee for the 2016 Legislative Session.

After a Wednesday floor session, McBurney exited the chamber through a side door before reporters could get to him.

Speaker Steve Crisafulli wasn’t able to give any more clarity: “I couldn’t tell you. Chair McBurney has the authority to meet through next week. He’ll be the one to make the decision” to hear the bill.

On Tuesday, he denied reports of pressure from the National Rifle Association to move the bill.

“We are certainly not under pressure,” Crisafulli said. “Members are moving legislation as they see fit.”

Rick Scott calls session ‘successful’ – but still hasn’t got what he wants

Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday suggested, with as much subtext as he could muster, that lawmakers need to come around on his two main budget goals for 2016-17: $1 billion in tax cuts and $25o million for business incentives.

After all, legislative leadership passed their priority bills early on, which Scott happily signed.

The message was clear: You got yours, I want mine.

“We’ve had a very good Session. It’s all going to be successful,” Scott told reporters after a bill signing in his office.

“We started with the water bill that the Speaker of the House wanted, we started with the Gardiner Scholarship bill for those with unique abilities (named after Senate President Andy Gardiner), those have already been signed,” he said.

“Everyone knows my priorities,” Scott added. “All of them are tied to getting more jobs in our state. The tax cut is important … along with the $250 million for (the Florida Enterprise Fund).

“I believe we’re going to have a good end to Session. And there’s plenty of money in the budget.”

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, in separate comments to reporters, basically said Scott was overspending and asking for too much.

“I’ve said it, the President has said it, even the governor has said it: There has to be compromise on all sides,” he said. “That’s the only way to bring those numbers within a threshold we can obtain.”

As of Wednesday night, House budget chief Richard Corcoran and Senate budget chair Tom Lee had not announced agreement on allocations, the silos of money for each major part of the state budget.

“We know the governor is very focused on his message,” Crisafulli said. “He’s fighting for as much as he can get, but there’s a reality in all this … Nobody gets everything they want.”

Added Gardiner: “It’s give and take … everybody’s going to have give and take if we want to go home on time.”

The session ends March 11, but the budget has to be done before then because of a 72-hour “cooling off” period mandated by law, giving lawmakers and the public time to inspect the details.

“He’s going to have vetoes; he’s probably going to have a lot of vetoes,” Gardiner said of Scott after a Wednesday Senate floor session. “If we all sat out and had a big group hug, he’d still have a lot of vetoes … I’m trying to put together what I think is a responsible budget.”

House passes incentives measure desired by Rick Scott

After a debate that included mentions of monsters, Robert A. Heinlein and the Tampa Bay Rays, the Florida House of Representatives Wednesday passed its 2016 business and economic incentives package, including the framework for Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposed $250 million Florida Enterprise Fund.

As bill sponsor Jim Boyd reminded members, it still has no funding: “This is a structure bill, a policy bill,” he said, explaining that how much money goes to incentives still must be decided in the budget process. 

The legislation (HB 1325) will provide “more oversight, more control and will foster growth for all businesses throughout Florida,” he told members.

But his measure fractured the usual party-line vote on high-profile measures: Those in favor included members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who had held a closed-door meeting Tuesday after the House first started considering the bill.

Caucus chairman Ed Narain, a Tampa Democrat, did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment after the vote.

Those opposed included dozens of Republicans, including Speaker pro tempore Matt Hudson of Naples, House budget chief Richard Corcoran and state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

In a statement, the governor thanked the House, saying he wants to “protect taxpayer money by ensuring no incentive dollar leaves the state until we have confirmed a company’s economic investment or job creation in Florida.”

The Florida Enterprise Fund “will also diversify our economy at a key time in our state’s history to help guard against another economic downturn, and make Florida first for jobs in the country,” Scott said. “As the legislative process continues, we’ll continue working closely with the Enterprise Florida Board of Directors and Senate and House members on finalizing this legislation.”

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat and Black Caucus member, said he supported the bill because the businesses it could help attract may wind up in his district, bringing jobs to many of the depressed areas he represents.

It might also help keep the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, he added, even as the team considers a move to a possible new ballpark in Tampa.

But Rouson also offered a caveat: “I believe in the free market but I don’t believe the free market always believes in me.”

His support and that of his colleagues galled state Rep. Kristin Jacobs, however, who chided the back row about “ghost companies” and their lack of jobs.

“Wake up,” she said. “You’re not going to get the money you think you’re going to get.”

Jacobs, a Coconut Creek Democrat and former Broward County mayor, even compared the measure’s supporters to prostitutes, saying they cut a deal for their votes.

She quoted science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein about “just haggling over the price.” (The quote, by the way, has a complicated history.)

State Rep. Amanda Murphy, a New Port Richey Democrat, apologized to her constituents for the bill, saying the legislative process “makes monsters out of men.”

And Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat, called it “a quarter-billion-dollar slush fund” that would only “make a few fat cats that much fatter.”

Even supporters struggled to rise to the same level of histrionics.

“It is not rosy but it is not the status quo, which is what we have had,” said Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Keystone Heights Republican.

He had planned to vote ‘no,’ but said Boyd had won him over with multiple text messages that included pleas of “you got to support my bill.” 

“And I don’t text,” Van Zant added.

The Senate already committed to the fund, with state Sen. Jack Latvala championing both the idea and the dollar amount, but wants to use money coming from the settlement over the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Legislators are still awaiting an announcement of the 2016-17 “allocations,” the big silos of money available for each major section of the 2016-17 state budget to be worked out by House budget chief Richard Corcoran and Senate budget Chairman Tom Lee. 

Steve Crisafulli says no budget conference yet

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli on Thursday said the budget conference process won’t begin just yet.

The Merritt Island Republican announced the news to members of this chamber in an email:

From: Crisafulli, Steve
Sent: Thursday, February 18, 2016 9:16 AM
Subject: Conference will not begin this weekend

Members:

There is positive forward progress in the effort to reach an agreement on budget allocations with the Senate. However, there is still a great deal to be worked out. Therefore, we will not begin conference this weekend. It is my hope that we will begin conference early next week.

I hope you enjoy your weekend.

We’ll have more on the budget as it develops. The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m.

Gut check: Legislative Session reaches midpoint

With the half-way mark of the 60-day 2016 Legislative Session on Wednesday, the theme so far is like a line from a Frankie Valli song: “… so close/And yet so far.”

Take the 2016-17 state budget, the only bill lawmakers are required to pass each year. The House came in at $79.9 billion with the Senate proposing $80.9 billion. Sure, that’s only a billion dollars apart, but $1 billion is still a lot of money, even in Tallahassee.

Lawmakers are set to begin talking about the state’s blueprint for spending on the floors of both chambers in the afternoon. After voting out their respective proposals, both sides will go into a conference process to come up with a final product to send to Gov. Rick Scott.

As to policy, both chambers are closing in on some sort of ride-booking legislation, for example, but remain apart on how to regulate those services, which include Uber and Lyft. And both chambers seem willing to do something about gambling, but don’t agree on exactly what.

But they did pass three big measures in the first week: A water protection bill that House Speaker Steve Crisafulli wanted; a bill that expands employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, and another that increases their educational opportunities.

The latter two were priorities of Senate President Andy Gardiner, who has a son with Down syndrome. Scott signed all three.

Here’s a recap of some major areas:

2016-17 STATE BUDGET

Scott didn’t have a lot of demands on lawmakers for the yearly spending plan. In fact, he had just two: A $250 million Florida Enterprise Fund for business incentives and $1 billion in tax cuts.

The House gave Scott the tax cuts – sort of. The Finance and Tax Committee came up with a plan that’s a little less than $1 billion in tax cuts over two years. The House also didn’t honor Scott’s request to kill the corporate income tax on retailers and manufacturers.

“Some of Governor Scott’s goals have been included,” Republican state Rep. Matt Gaetz, the committee’s chairman, said last week. “I think there’s a lot of synergy, a lot of overlay. There were some ideas … that we were unable to accommodate at this time, but, you know, hope springs eternal.”

In the Senate, state Sen. Jack Latvala came around to the incentive fund, recommending it for his chamber’s budget as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development.

“By taking a significant step forward to work with the governor, I hope we are improving the overall climate of his decision making,” the Clearwater Republican said last month, a not-so-subtle reference to the governor’s veto power over line items in the budget.

When asked whether his decision was more “olive branch or philosophical agreement,” Latvala said, “It’s a combination of both.”

RIDE-BOOKING SERVICES

The House last month passed a bill regulating “transportation network companies” such as Uber and Lyft, and mandating insurance and other requirements.

But it includes a provision disfavored in the Senate: It vests regulatory power over ride-booking services solely with the state, cutting out local bodies such as the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.

On Tuesday, the Senate moved forward with its own version that only addresses insurance requirements, setting up another logjam with the House similar to last year.

GAMBLING

Also on Tuesday, a House panel OK’d a trio of bills having to do with the Seminole Compact struck between Scott and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which operates casinos across the state.

The measures would approve the new Compact, a deal that grants the state $3 billion to be paid by the tribe over seven years. In return, the tribe gets continued exclusive rights in the state to offer blackjack. The bills also allow pari-mutuel “decoupling,” meaning racetracks would no longer be required to run actual races in order to have slots and card rooms at their facilities. The measures would also allow voters to approve any future expansion of gambling.

Florida and the tribe signed the previous deal in 2010, but the provision allowing blackjack and other “banked card games” expired last year.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate postponed consideration of similar legislation for a week. A key senator said his colleagues needed “the opportunity to digest the various amendments being filed.” One of them would clarify that fantasy sports play isn’t gambling.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee, also said, “If there is a gaming deal to be had, it would be in either the last week or the week before.”

ALIMONY REFORM

A bill aimed at effectively ending permanent alimony is heading to the House floor after clearing its final committee of reference.

Mainly, the measure limits judges’ discretion in awarding alimony by providing guidelines for how much an ex-spouse should get and for how long.

It’s the third time in recent years the Legislature has attempted to change Florida’s alimony law.

A companion bill was set to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday but the meeting ran out of time and the bill was pushed to next week.

Another family-law bill moving this session would change state law on child-sharing. It would create an assumption that equal time-sharing for both parents after a divorce is in the best interest of a child. It’s set to be heard Wednesday in the Senate Rules Committee.


Jim Rosica (jim@floridapolitics.com) covers the Florida Legislature, state agencies and courts from Tallahassee. 

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