High-profile bills part of “horse trading” frenzy between House and Senate

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Locked in a last-minute frenzy, the Florida Capitol is full of horse-trading over a number of issues close to both House and Senate leaders — among them school vouchers, pensions and medical marijuana — as session lumbers to its May 2 conclusion.

Telemedicine, the trauma center debate and even a stadium project are on the agenda, although much further down the list of priorities.

However, one issue rises above them all — in-state tuition for undocumented students. The controversial bill already passed the House and is supported by both Gov. Rick Scott his presumptive Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Although the measure (SB 1400) has temporarily stalled in the Senate, the bill could still see life, due to the additional provision that holds off tuition increases for students at state universities, as well as save money for parents participating in Florida’s prepaid tuition program. Lowering tuition costs are a major component of Scott’s re-election platform.

“This session will not end peacefully if that bill does not get a vote on the Senate floor,” former Senate president Tom Lee, told Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida. “I don’t think anyone’s operating under any alternative illusion. So they can posture and dream in Technicolor all they want, but this issue will come up on the Senate floor, or this session will melt down.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, sponsor of SB 1400, said the proposal could end up on the Senate floor next week.

Sen. John Thrasher, a former House speaker and lobbyist, said this year is no different from previous sessions. Still in play is Thrasher’s own eleventh-hour effort to create a stand-alone engineering school for Florida State University; one that is separate from the current joint space shared with Florida A&M University.

“It’s the usual dance that we usually get at this time of the year. There’s nothing unusual about that kind of stuff,” said Thrasher, who also chairs Scott’s re-election effort.

However, this year offers a slightly less pressure, because of a $1 billion-plus surplus that keeps legislators from scrambling to plug budget holes.

House and Senate leaders — at least publically — are toning down some of the differences in the fine print of the budget bill, which face a Tuesday deadline to reach lawmaker’s desks.

One uncertain Senate priority is SB 1030, a bill legalizing a marijuana strain called “Charlotte’s Web,” which does not get users high but could dramatically decrease seizures in children suffering from a rare form of epilepsy.

The proposal has the blessing of Senate President Don Gaetz, and is also backed in the House by his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Among the Senate items still on the table, writes Kam, include a plan for the state’s natural springs and one to create a Central Florida multi-county expressway authority, located in the home base of future Senate President Andy Gardiner.

“There’s no wheeling and dealing in the last couple of days,” Gardiner said drolly as negotiations began with the House over economic development and transportation issues on Wednesday.

A few of House Speaker Will Weatherford’s main priorities, other than in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, remain unsettled.

One is the extension of the state’s school-voucher system, as well as an overhaul of the Florida state employee pension plan. Both items reappeared as amendments in bills for the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

Kam reports that the rushed amendments led Lee to cast a “hell no” vote against the pension plan, later storming out of the committee room.

Another House scheme is to “train” a number of health care proposals — for trauma centers, telemedicine and expanding the powers of nurse practitioners.

Weatherford could give up on some other issues if he wins on in-state immigrant tuition, a bill rejected by half of the speaker’s GOP caucus, predicted Lobbyist Brian Ballard.

“I think if the speaker got that, my guess is the world would be a very smooth place,” Ballard told the News Service. “It sounds like he would be willing to let a lot of the Senate priorities go. People underestimate that Will Weatherford is a very strong guy and a very tough guy. He’s going to have some cards to play.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.