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Epilogue: Lawmakers hit new low in number of bills passed

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Friday morning lobbyist Ron Watson was preparing reports for clients whose interests he represents before the Florida Legislature.

The curtains close officially on the 2015 regular session Friday, but for all intents and purposes, it ended Tuesday with the House and Senate exchanging insults and the House adjourning with no state budget in place for the fiscal year beginning in July.

“In the latest episode of As Tallahassee Turns,” Watson joked, citing the opening line of the dispatch he’s sending clients.

A record low number of bills, 231, was approved by both chambers and Chris Moya, the government affairs director for Jones Walker, said he thinks that’s a good thing.

“That’s the committee process at work. It’s a sign that the filters worked,” said Moya. “I don’t know if any bad legislation passed, a lot of bad things died but if you did a poll among the bills that passed I don’t think that you would find anything really, really bad.”

Any assessment of the 2015 session has to come with a disclaimer because the budget still needs to be written. The current spending plan in the House is $77 billion and a lot of policy is wrapped up in $77 billion, said Keith Arnold, who lobbies for Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

“Money drives policy so it was a remarkably nonproductive session. Very little of substance passed and all the big issues are still out there,” said Arnold. “Taken as a whole, it’s not over.”

Advocates though are making their lists and preparing for when lawmakers return to the Capitol.

Damien Filer, political director for Progress Florida, said one of the best things to have happened is that the Senate put a healthcare expansion plan in its proposed budget. The move blew up the session, the House choosing to go home rather than accept it, but Filer said the idea is still alive.

“That’s the best news we can point to,” said Filer. “The last two years the session ended and healthcare expansion was dead. We’re on the 60th day of the regular session and it is still alive.”

The bad news, according to Filer’s group, is that a 24-hour waiting period for an abortion was approved.

“The mandatory abortion-delay bill, SB 724, was one of the most offensive proposals we saw. Every year for the past five years they have moved forward with another way to chip away at the reproductive rights of the women of Florida,” said Filer.

Florida Smart Justice Alliance includes two measures on its best of 2015 list.

“For us, the revenge porn bill was a very big one,” said J. Christian Minor, the Alliance’s director of legislative affairs. SB 538 makes getting back at an ex by posting images that were supposed to remain private a first-degree misdemeanor. A second violation would be a third-degree felony.

Smart Justice is also celebrating getting SB 378 through both the House and Senate. The bill gives police officers the discretion to give a juvenile a civil citation rather than a criminal charge for a petty offense. Studies indicate the recidivism rate is lower with a civil citation than when a youth is charged and convicted. And Minor noted it is less expensive; with a civil citation the youth pays $375. An appearance in teen court costs the state $500 and juvenile court comes with $5,000 in costs.

“Probably one of the best things we saw go to the governor,” said Minor. It gives the teen another bite of an apple and a chance at rehabilitation and allows them to keep their record clean so they can find employment and get into certain schools.”

Child advocates are also applauding approval of the Regis Little Act, HB 437. It provides foster children who are incapacitated with a guardian once they age out of the system.

“What happens is these children who are not able to protect themselves would turn 18 and go back to the parent they were removed from and that child could be exploited by them taking their SSI check or anything else they could do,” said Allan Abramowitz, executive director of the Guardian ad Litem program.

The measure is named after an Orange County teen who was murdered on the streets of Orlando after he aged out of foster care. Abramowitz estimates the measure would apply to more than 100 youths a year.

Patient advocates are pointing to the Right to Try Act as the best thing lawmakers did during the session. HB 269 allows terminally ill people to experiment with drugs and devices not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It clarifies liability, providing protection to doctors and drug companies when the patient wants to try an experimental drug.

“You have a person who is dying, why not allow them to try something that is available?” asked Watson.

“I’ll tell you the worst thing that happened. SPB 7066 died. That’s the worst part of what’s going on,” Watson said about the glitch bill for the Charlotte’s Web law never moving from the Senate’s special order calendar.

And Smart Justice was disappointed about time running out on a reform package for the Department of Corrections. There have been numerous turnovers in leadership at the department, allegations of whistle blowers being targeted and a Miami Herald investigation into inmate deaths.

“Sen. Gregg Evers and Rep. Carlos Trujillo worked very hard hashing out the issues to fix the problems and shortcomings in the system,” said Minor. “It was a shame to see it go down.”

Then again, Keith Arnold sounded quite emphatic on his drive back to Fort Myers.

“It’s not over,” said the former House Education Appropriation chair. “Money drives policy and without a budget it’s simply not over.”

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