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The latest on five legislative food fights

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Where things stand on a number of “legislative food fights” is a complicated question in today’s adversarial climate at the Capitol. The $4 billion chasm between the House and Senate budget proposals is casting a shadow on every corner of legislative business, both appropriations and policy measures.

“Bill aren’t just dying; they’re being massacred,” state Rep. Frank Artiles told this reporter in line at a Shell station on Monroe Street in Tallahassee Saturday evening.

Nonetheless, the show must go on in the statehouse. And that means lots of interests are going to be affected in one way or another as Friday’s Sine Die — 2015’s first one, anyway – grows near. Below is a look at where some of the many Tallahassee turf battles stand as we approach the final week of session, if not a solution to the bicameral healthcare funding problems holding them hostage.

Big tobacco vs. Florida trial attorneys 

Before session, the whispers about the impending doom of the 2015 priorities of the Florida Justice Association couldn’t have been much louder. They were in bad shape and ripe for a comeuppance at the hands of major tobacco manufacturers, who had lawyered and lobbied up big time in order to pass a tort liability bill sponsored by state Sen. Garrett Richter and state Rep. David Santiago that would limit their exposure to big claims by injured smokers seeking payouts under the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.

But FJA played things far smoother than it was given credit for, even with an increasingly pro-business climate in the House not necessarily friendly to plaintiff’s bar. As fractures in that camp began to show, however, FJA presented a united front and showed a lot of savvy, bringing on former Republican Party of Florida Senate campaigns director Brecht Heuchan to lead a largely successful defensive effort.

Both the House and Senate bills that would retroactively apply limits on all civil actions in which a judgment has not been yet been entered — a potentially major setback for many Florida trial attorneys — are still stuck in the committee process, and are unlikely to see the end of the legislative tunnel anytime soon.

Optometrists vs. 1-800-Contacts et al.

A food fight so narrow you might have to squint — especially if your contacts are still in the mail — yet still a site of great focus for many influencers and healthcare providers this session, the battle between the Florida Optometric Association and upstart prescription lens retailers like 1-800-Contacts also seems to have come to an uneasy end, for now at least.

Senate Budget chief Tom Lee of Brandon sponsored SB 1400 in the wake of recent antitrust decisions made in Washington regarding who can sell what vision corrective products and how they can do it. Amid uncertainty at the federal level, Lee stepped in on behalf of the optometrists, seeking to regulate the retailers’ commercial practices.

Bu after three “No” votes in Senate Health Policy — significantly, from fellow Republicans state Sen. Don Gaetz and state Sen. Bill Galvano, as well as panel chairman state Sen. Aaron Bean — the bill was not taken up in Commerce and Tourism and is almost certainly inert for the duration of session.

State Rep. Eric Eisnaugle‘s House companion bill, HB 1119, is stuck in the House Business & Professions Subcommittee and therefore considered dead, according to Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

Ticketmaster vs. Stubhub

This event ticketing policy donnybrook is one where the tone and direction of budget negotiations during the next week, and possibly going forward, truly could hang in the balance. A pair of bills that would assist Ticketmaster in maintaining its dominant presence over ticket sales across the state and nation is circulating in both chambers, and both have made it deep into the process.

The proposals would essentially force second-hand ticket retailers to request permission to re-sell tickets that originated with Ticketmaster, an untenable business proposition for both rival StubHub and everyday parking lot scalpers.

When we last caught up with SB 742 by state Sen. Wilton Simpson, it had not been considered in its first committee stop, while its House companion by state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia sat on ice as well. Since then Ingoglia’s version has made it onto the House calendar on second reading, while Senate Appropriations currently has Simpson’s bill awaiting a spot on the calendar.

Major airline carriers vs. mid-major airline carriers

The outcome of a battle over who benefits or not from a longstanding sales tax exemption on jet fuel is also uncertain ahead of the beginning of Week 8 of this year’s conflict-rich session. Big, so-called legacy airlines like United Airlines and Delta pay a small tax when they fill up their fuel tanks while smaller carriers like SouthwestAirTran and JetBlue get a rebate on their tax bills, due to a legislative effort dating back years designed to spur the expansion of air travel.

Lobbyists on behalf of the major carriers say those originally temporary exemptions have given smaller firms an advantage for long enough, while advocates for the smaller carriers say their business models depend on them.

State Sen. Anitere Flores is carrying a bill that would eliminate the exemption altogether, while lowering the rate of the tax from 6.9 cents per gallon to 5.4 cents per gallon. That would help the big guys doubly, lowering their tax liabilities while raising the exposure of the competition.

Though it has endured an unfriendly amendment to water it down and sometimes lively debate about its merits, the bill has accrued zero “No” votes in the committee process thus far and largely met with acceptance since the addition of a longer sunset period for the exemption. It currently sits in Appropriations.

The state Rep. George Moraitis-sponsored House bill, HB 595, passed the House back on April 13 by a 108-3 margin.

Uber vs. Florida Tax Cab and Limousine Associations 

The battle over whether ride sharing is, strictly speaking, legal in all of Florida’s 67 counties — and possibly the intermediate fate of short-term rental brokerages like Airbnb –– is still very much a live one.

A major test will almost certainly come this week when state Sen. David Simmons SB 1298 comes over to the House in Messages, following its passage in the Senate 28-12 last Thursday, racking up votes against from nine Republicans and three Democrats. That bill would treat cars sometimes used to provide rides via the Uber and Lyft smartphone apps like taxi cabs, which have pricey commercial insurance that covers them 24/7.

Ridesharing advocates say the bill is a non-starter for them, while Simmons and Senate President Andy Gardiner –– both of whom represent many constituents involved with the Central Florida livery service giant Mears Transportation, an ardent enemy of Uber — say the bill is necessary to assure riders the services are safe.

State Rep. Matt Gaetz — whose thoroughly pro-Uber HB 817 was TP’d on third reading the same day Simmons’ bill was approved — will reportedly offer an amendment on the floor if and when SB 1298 goes before the full House that will likely counteract its original intent. If that happens, all bets are off in terms of how the generally pro-ridesharing House will cope with it.

Both sides say they are eager to resolve the outstanding issues, including insurance and driver background checks, sooner rather than later. But as the minutes wind down in regulation time, whether that heavy lift can survive amid the many obstacles to progress remains to be seen.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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