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Capitol Preview: Money, press skits and the search for clarity

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This week politics at the state Capitol will be about money and a search for clarity.

Legislators will get a better view of the hill they need to climb in building a state budget for the year beginning July 1. The Revenue Estimating Conference meets Tuesday and will count up how much tax money the state has collected so far and project how much more money will roll in by the end of June.

These are the numbers lawmakers will use when deciding how much to spend on schools, social services, prisons and the environment. Economist said in December the general revenue fund was growing by 4 percent adding a billion dollars to what the state has to use for providing services, paying debt and saving money in a rainy day fund.

However, a health care dispute between Washington and Tallahassee has created a big hole for budget writers to fill; a $2 billion federal program reimbursing hospitals for providing care to the uninsured ends in June. Gov. Rick Scott used the money in his budget proposal, a maneuver Sen. Tom Lee called, “irresponsible.”

Lee, the Senate Appropriations Chairman, said he wants more “clarity” on the situation before moving forward with substantial budget work.

Clarity about the dynamics of their relationship over the next three years is what we will have after Scott and the Cabinet meet Tuesday. The waters are still churning in the wake of the Bailey affair. Attorney General Pam Bondi, CFO Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam did not appreciate the awkward position they ended up in after the ouster of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, a move orchestrated by Scott.

All four officials are term-limited in 2018 and it’s in everyone’s best interest to look like the top dog. Last week aides to Bondi and Atwater blocked a discussion of Scott-proposed guidelines for evaluating agency directors at their pre-Cabinet meeting. On Tuesday’s agenda is a Bondi item about Sunshine training for Cabinet aides.

It’s hard to figure if Scott’s star is rising or starting to descend. He just won reelection on his economic program and is taking his story to other states on business recruitment trips but a Republican leader in the Senate called his handling of a budget proposal “irresponsible.” And, the potential exists for the Cabinet meeting room to become a den of political intrigue as everyone begins positioning themselves for their next job.

A post Cabinet media availability will provide the Capitol Press Corps its first opportunity to talk to Scott since Lee’s criticism of his budget proposal.

Also Tuesday, Sen. Dorothy Hukill’s bill restricting surveillance by drones is up in a Community Affairs Committee meeting, campaign finance reports are due for candidates in the SD 6 race and HD 17, 24, and 64 races, and The House will consider a bill moving the 2016 presidential primary to March 15. The move would help a Florida favorite-son candidate by allowing the winner to claim all the delegates.

Doors open 6:00 p.m. Tuesday for the 60th edition of the Capitol Press Corps sometimes-Annual Press Skits at the Moon Nightclub in Tallahassee. Scott may have edged Charlie Crist in November but that isn’t stopping Troy Kinsey from keeping a good gag going. Kinsey produced two videos featuring his renowned Crist impersonation.

“Just because Charlie Crist lost an election doesn’t mean he isn’t coming back, everybody knows it,” Kinsey said breaking into Crist character.

Reporters and lawmakers will begin lampooning each other at 7:00.

Back to the search for clarity. Secretary of Health John Armstrong gets a chance Wednesday to explain to Sen. Renee Garcia and the Health and Human Services Committee the recent layoffs of 15 administrators in the Early Steps program for disabled infants and toddlers. A budget shortfall forced the staff reduction.

A former Health employee told CBS Miami current staffing in Tallahassee is not enough to keep the program in compliance with federal guidelines, placing more money at risk.

Amendment 1 money will be on the table Wednesday when an appropriations subcommittee takes up a package of six bills implementing the initiative directing doc stamp dollars to conservation.

Sen. Jeff Clemens wants to ban smoking in cars when children are passengers. His SB 548 is on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting of the Regulated Industries Committee.

Thursday we should have a better idea of whether Florida’s first legal marijuana crop will be in the ground any time soon; that is whether a stand-off will end between the Department of Health and stakeholders over a regulatory structure for the Compassionate Medicinal Cannabis Act of 2014.

Thursday is the end of a 14-day period when DOH would have to publish a notice of revision of or affected parties can challenge a proposed rule. And although I live in a town that sprouts lawyers like they were a species of kudzu I can’t find anyone who speaks with confidence about rulemaking timelines.

The consensus though is that Thursday is important. If no one makes a move then a 21-day application period for the five licenses to grow marijuana and dispense oil as medicine for children afflicted with a severe form of epilepsy will begin by the end of March.

“I want the rule to go forward. I think it is the best the Department can do with how the law is written,” said lobbyist Ron Watson.

“This isn’t the end, my friend; I want to continue to have conversations with lawmakers about making more low-THC applications available to help more people but I don’t want that to affect implementing this law and helping those kids,” said Watson who represents producers of a variety of medicinal products.

All but lost in the legal wrangling surrounding the Charlotte’s Web law is a provision in the 2014 law directing the University Of Florida College Of Pharmacy to research the efficacy of low-THC cannabis in treating pediatric illnesses and provides grants to state universities to conduct Food & Drug Administration – approved research.

“I think we’re about 90-percent there, I really do,” said Don Clifford last week during a break in a hearing on the rule.

Clifford is leading a $7-million venture in turning a former central Florida mattress factory into what may be the country’s largest in-door marijuana growing facility.

If nothing happens by 5:00 p.m. Thursday then Clifford is right but if DOH or a stakeholder makes a move in a high-stakes game of chicken then we’re back to 50 percent.

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