Takeaways from Tallahassee – Just 240 days until the start of the 2017 Legislative Session!

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Session is coming.

Sure it is only July, and there hasn’t even been an election yet. But the tell-tale signs of a looming session — budget proposals and promises of legislation — are beginning to pop up. And while calls for a special session have been rebuffed, some of the issues in question could bubble up in 2017.

Think the workers’ compensation system might need to be addressed? Some Florida lawmakers may agree with you, especially after the Florida Supreme Court ruled part of the system unconstitutional.

The justices in June ruled in favor of a St. Petersburg firefighter, saying a portion of the law led to his benefits being cut off after two years. The ruling added to growing calls for legislative changes. Business groups have indicated they would seek changes to address an April ruling on attorney’s fees, and both Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi have called it a top concern.

Some lawmakers hear them, and House and Senate leaders have said they expect the issue to be addressed in 2017.

Florida Democrats are also hoping gun laws will be addressed in 2017, already pushing to prioritize legislation that would close the so-called terror loophole in the state’s gun law. While a call for a special session dedicated to gun laws fell flat, Sen. Darren Soto — who is running for Congress and won’t be returning to the Florida Senate — encouraged legislative leaders to prioritize the legislation next year.

A special session received significant opposition, so legislation may not gain much traction. But with gun bills expanding gun owners’ rights popping up every year, expect this to be part of the conversation.

Another conversation lawmakers will be having: How much money should they set aside to help clean up the Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River? Gov. Rick Scott thinks some, though the exact amount is still unknown.

The Treasure Coast and parts Southwest Florida have been hard by Lake Okeechobee discharges in recent years. And lawmakers have vowed to help. Scott wants to set aside money in 2017-18 for a 50-50 matching grant program to encourage residents to move from septic tanks to sewer systems and help local communities build wastewater systems.

And lawmakers will have to take into account the growing public school population when they’re crafting the budget. State economists estimate there will be a 2.87 million students in public schools beginning in the fall of 2017. That’s a 1.1 percent increase over a projected 2.81 million students entering classrooms this fall.

Get ready for a jam-packed session. The first day is only 240 days away, but who’s counting?

Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster, Lloyd DunkelbergerJim Rosica and Peter Schorsch.

But first, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was

Blue-green algae crisis — Gov. Scott called on the Obama administration to declare a federal emergency in parts of Florida because of the “public health and safety threats associated with the unnatural discharges of nutrient-laden freshwater from Lake Okeechobee into the canals that flow east into the Indian River Lagoon and west into the Caloosahatchee.” The request for a federal declaration came one week after Scott declared a state of emergency in Martin, St. Lucie, Lee and Palm Beach counties. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio urged Senate leaders to bring Water Resources Development Act of 2016; and Nelson has baked Scott’s request for federal disaster assistance.

Zika update — The number of cases of the Zika virus continues to rise in Florida. On one day this week, the Florida Department of Health reported 11 new cases of travel-related Zika in Florida. There are more 260 cases of Zika, more than 40 of which involve pregnant women regardless of symptoms. Sen. Nelson has asked Senate leadership to bring back the bipartisan $1.1 billion funding bill for approval, while Sen. Rubio will hold a hearing next week on Zika. The Senate is expected to hold a vote on a House-backed $1.1 billion funding plan next week.

Special session denied — Florida Democrats failed to get enough support for a special session to consider legislation to prevent terrorists from buying guns in Florida. The Department of State recorded at least 54 no votes from House Republicans. Supporters of the special session needed three-fifths of the House and three-fifths of the Senate to convene a session. Democrats pushed for the session in the wake of the Orlando shooting that left 49 people dead.

Court’s out for summer — The Florida Supreme Court went on summer vacation this week, deciding to hold off releasing opinions until two of the most controversial issues — the death penalty and the expansion of slots — until a later day. The final rulings included a clarification to a decision overturning the state’s workers’ compensation law. The rulings over the death penalty and expansion of slot machines are highly anticipated, and could have wide-reaching ramifications.

Day in court — Rep. Corrine Brown was indicted on charges likely stemming from her involvement with an unregistered charity in Virginia. According to First Coast News, the indictments were sealed, but they may be related to her involvement in “One Door for Education.” The group was advertised as a charity, but was never registered as a non-profit. The indictment comes as Brown is in the midst of a re-election bid.

Rev up those engines, car lovers.

Gov. Rick Scott announced Mercedes-Benz USA is relocating an engineering division from New Jersey to Jacksonville. The company, Scott announced, will add the engineering services division to its Quality Evaluation Center in Jacksonville. The company, Scott said, will add 50 jobs to the region through relocation and new hires.

“With no income tax, a low business tax, and a focus on helping businesses succeed, it is clear why more companies are choosing to invest in our state,” said Scott in a statement. “I look forward to seeing Mercedes-Benz USA’s continued success in Jacksonville as we continue to work each day to help Florida outcompete other states for new opportunities.”

Mercedes-Benz USA began its operations in Jacksonville in 2010, and has invested more than $20 million in its 500,000-square-foot facility.

“Mercedes-Benz USA’s selection of our city is great news for Jacksonville,” said Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry. “This further demonstrates that the momentum is with us as our local economy continues to grow, creating highly-skilled jobs and more opportunities for our citizens and their families.”

More consumers are buying renewable energy.

The Florida Public Service Commission reported Tuesday that customer-owned renewable energy interconnections increased by 36 percent in 2015. Statewide, electric generation capacity from renewable energy systems increased about 35 percent.

“We’ve helped accelerate renewable energy use without compromising service reliability,” said Julie Brown, chairwoman of the Public Service Commission, in a statement.

The committee said its rules promote development of customer-owned solar and other renewable energy sources, making it easier for customers to connect to the grid.

New guidelines are now in place for free- and reduced price meals at Florida schools.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services updated federal income eligibility for free and discounted meals. Students with 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines are eligible for reduced price breakfast and lunch. Those whose household incomes are 130 percent of federal poverty levels get meals for free. Children in both income brackets receive free milk.

A family of four with annual income of $44,955 would be eligible for reduced-price meals; while a family of four with an annual income of $31,525 would be eligible for free meals.

The guidelines are in place through June 30. The state is sending information to families to apply if eligible.

Speak Up Wekiva! has dropped its suit.

The group, which opposed the bear hunt, filed a suit in 2015 to try and block bear hunting in Florida. In June, the organization dropped its suit after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to delay the hunt for a year. That delay will allow FWC officials to analyze the state’s bear population.

According to POLITICO Florida, the group filed a request for a voluntary dismissal on June 24. The commission voted to delay the hunt just two days earlier.

Hunters in 2015 killed 304 bears in the state’s first hunt in more than 20 years.

Make closing a so-called terror loophole a priority.

That was the message state Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, sent this week after an attempt to convene a special session to discuss gun laws failed.

“This issue is not about gun control, or the second amendment, or assault rifle bans, or any other purported excuse for inaction,” said Soto. “This is about stopping the sale of firearms to people suspected of terrorist ties before another tragedy happens.”

Soto urged lawmakers to rethink their positions ahead of the 2017 legislative session. Soto said the main purpose of a special session was to close a loophole that allows individuals on federal watch lists, like the No Fly list, to legally purchase guns in Florida. His legislation would have banned anyone on a terror list from purchasing weapons.

Fifty legislators voted in favor of a special session. Ninety-six votes were needed to convene a special session.

A new cruise terminal is coming to PortMiami.

Royal Caribbean Cruises entered into an agreement with Miami-Dade County to construct and operate a new terminal at PortMiami. The new terminal, according to the cruise line, will serve as homeport to Royal Caribbean International ships, including a 5,400-passenger Oasis-class ship.

“Florida is undoubtedly the global leader for trade and we are excited that Royal Caribbean chose PortMiami for their brand new cruise terminal which is expected to create 4,000 jobs in South Florida,” said Gov. Scott in a statement. “With the recent expansion of the Panama Canal, we expect more opportunities at Florida ports and look forward to welcoming more visitors and adding more jobs with great projects like this one from Royal Caribbean.”

Joni Ernst is coming to the Sunshine State.

The Iowa Republican is one of several speakers scheduled to attend the 10th annual Defending the American Dream Summit in Orlando on Sept. 2 and Sept. 3.

“This year’s Defending the American Dream Summit in Orlando is going to be a remarkable event and will cap off a successful year of grassroots advocacy for the Florida chapter,” said Chris Hudson, the state director for Americans for Prosperity-Florida, which is hosting the event. “This opportunity to come together will give activists from across the country a clear picture of our vision of how we will continue to fight for effective policy reforms in Florida and across the country.”

Speakers include Ernst, House Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran; Rep. Jose Oliva, who is next in line to be speaker; Georgia Sen. David Perdue; 2016 presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina, and Daniel Hannan, a writer, journalist and British Conservative politician.

A former Florida prosecutor has been named the one of the “Deadliest Prosecutors in America.”

According to a report in the Public News Service, two Florida prosecutors were featured in an analysis by the Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project.

The report said Abe Laeser, a retired prosecutor from Miami-Dade County, was listed as one of the “Top 10 Deadliest Prosecutors in America.” According to the Public News Service report, Laeser sent more people to death row than any other prosecutor in the state.

The report also said Bernie de la Rionda from Duval County is one of three prosecutors on a trajectory to join the top 10 list.

David Rivera may have to pay up.

The 1st District Court of Appeal rejected the former congressman’s contention that he was denied due process by the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Rivera is accused of violating several state ethics laws. The commission recommended he pay $16,500 in penalties and more than $41,000 in restitution.

It’s now up to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli to decide whether to impose penalties. According to the Associated Press Rivera’s attorney said Crisafulli has no authority over former House members, but the court said it couldn’t rule on that until the speaker acts on the case.

There’s two new members on the state’s Rehabilitation Council for the Blind.

Gov. Scott appointed Howard Bell and Paul Edwards to the Florida Rehabilitation Council for the Blind this week. Bell, a 61-year-old St. Petersburg resident, is an advocate investigator with Disability Rights Florida. Edwards, a 70-year-old Miami resident, formally served as the director of access services with Miami-Dade Community College.

Scott also reappointed Lenora Marten, a 53-year-old Jacksonville resident, and Bruce Miles, a 65-year Marco Island resident, to the board.

Courtesy of the Florida Department of Financial Services.
Courtesy of the Florida Department of Financial Services.

Some Florida residents are already seeing the impact of a new Florida law.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto delivered an unclaimed property check to a Punta Gorda woman whose mother died 20 years ago this week. In his weekly newsletter, Atwater said unbeknownst to the woman, her mother named her the beneficiary on an insurance policy.

“Twenty-three years later, because of our work to hold life insurance companies accountable, her mother’s chosen insurance company finally turned over that policy as part of a settlement agreement that was brokered,” said Atwater. “It was an honor and a privilege to hand that money to (her) — money that was owed to her so long ago. As if her mother was with her once again, she now knows that her mother had thought of her future, had set money aside, had planned to help with her own final expenses. Regardless of the amount — large or small — that is a gift in and of itself.”

Gov. Scott signed a bill into law earlier this year that requires insurers to use master death lists to tell the survivors of loved ones when benefits are made available through a life insurance policy.

The state’s GDP is on the rise.

Gov. Scott announced this week that Florida’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew 3.1 percent in 2015. The growth rate beat the national growth rate of 2.4 percent, according to the Governor’s Office, and was the third fastest among all large states.

“Florida’s impressive GDP growth outpaced the nation in 2015, including beating large states like California and Texas in the last quarter,” said Scott in a statement. “Our low tax and business-friendly environment is helping us welcome businesses and more people who want to live in the Sunshine State. I look forward to continuing this success and creating more jobs for Florida families this coming year.”

The state’s 2015 real GDP was $789,8 billion, the fourth-largest in the nation.

Florida’s human trafficking assessment tool might not as effective as some had hoped.

A recent Office of Program Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability (OPPAGA) report, there are concerns over the tools effectiveness. The tool — developed by the Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice — is meant to assess factors like how many instances involve running away, prostitution or a history of sexual abuse.

According to Sascha Cordner with WFSU, DCF child protective investigators have complained that the questions are too broad or time consuming. Cordner also reported that some investigators don’t use it because they worry about intimidating victims.

The OPPAGA report said DCF and DJJ should “prioritize getting feedback on the screening tool and validating it.”

Floridians with disabilities can now save money without fear of losing their government benefits.

Under a 2015 law, ABLE United launched the program July 1. The state law — sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodrigues and Sen. Benacquisto — is the result of the federal Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, a Jacksonville Republican, shepherded through Congress in 2014.

Senate President Andy Gardiner said the savings accounts would help Floridians with “unique abilities,” like his son who has Down syndrome, have more opportunities, ranging from going to school to finding a job.

“ABLE United provides the opportunity for people with unique abilities to save for the future without the concern of losing important state and federal benefits,” Gardiner said.

Under the program, Floridians with disabilities can save up to $100,000 in a tax-free account to pay for their health care, education and job training without jeopardizing their government benefits.

Eligible individuals must be Florida residents and have acquired their disability before age 26. The law allows up to $14,000 a year to be contributed to the account.

Stay right at night.

That’s the message the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is sending to motorists this July. The department has teamed up with the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Chiefs Association, and the Florida Department of Transportation to commemorate July 2016 as Wrong Way Driving Awareness Month.

Preliminary data shows there were 1,490 wrong way crashes in Florida in 2015. That sum included 96 fatalities. In the majority of wrong way crashes, vehicles were hit head-on.

“Wrong-way collisions are dangerous and often deadly, and driver education is critical to lowering the number of these incidents in our state,” said Winter Park Police Chief Brett Railey, president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association.  “Our chiefs encourage Florida drivers to eliminate distractions when they get behind the wheel so their entire focus in on their driving. This will help us better protect everyone on the road.”

The end of recreational red snapper season is near.

The 2016 recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico state waters closes July 11. The last day to harvest is July 10.

But have no fear, recreational red snapper season opens back up — on Saturday and Sundays only — in September and October.

The season helps maintain fishing opportunities for recreational anglers in state waters and provide additional fall weekend fishing days.

Here’s this week’s edition of Capitol Directions:

capitol directions - 7.8.16

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.