The week that was in Florida politics: Getting ready legislative session, quietly

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When Carlos Carbonell, the CEO of the company charged with building the House’s smart-phone app, decided at a press conference to demonstrate the video stream that would soon show live action on the House floor, there ended up being a slight echo in the room.

The app was providing streaming video of the press conference.

It was a lot like that over the last week: plenty of signs that the annual legislative session was about to get started, but little happening that actually demanded attention.

Gov. Rick Scott spent much of the week dashing around the state, whether working at spring training in Lakeland or touting his initiative to get rid of sales taxes on manufacturing equipment. Many lawmakers spent a few last, fleeting days in their home districts. And the courts were still in action, much to the chagrin of Scott and supporters of drug-testing welfare applicants. Artifact thieves had a bad week as well, after 13 people were hit with more than 400 combined felony charges.

Foreshadowing echoes of what will get started on Tuesday: Scott pitching his ideas to lawmakers, hopes that new laws will pass muster with the courts, and some people undoubtedly left unhappy with what’s happened on state property. All of it captured on live, streaming video.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

COURTS ON DRUG-TESTING LAW: NEGATIVE

Even as legislators were preparing to get started on the 2013 session, some of their old handiwork looked like it could be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta struck down a law requiring drug testing of applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Scott vowed to take the measure to the highest court in the land.

“The evidence in this record does not suggest that the population of TANF recipients engages in illegal drug use or that they misappropriate government funds for drugs at the expense of their own and their children’s basic subsistence,” the court wrote in a 38-page opinion. “The state has presented no evidence that simply because an applicant for TANF benefits is having financial problems, he is also drug addicted or prone to fraudulent and neglectful behavior.”

Scott, whose administration has undoubtedly gotten used to the mechanics of court appeals over the last two years, promised another.

“Welfare is 100 percent about helping children,” said Scott, who along with the Republican-controlled Legislature, approved the law. “Welfare is taxpayer money to help people looking for jobs who have children. Drug use by anyone with children looking for a job is totally destructive. This is fundamentally about protecting the well-being of Florida families.”

The judges were just the latest in a line to have turned back, at least temporarily, some aspect of policy passed by Scott and the Legislature in the first half of his term. And critics were once again giddy at having done in court what they couldn’t do during the legislative debate.

“The state of Florida can’t treat an entire segment of our community like suspected criminals simply because they are poor and are trying to get temporary assistance from the government to support their families,” said Maria Kayanan, an ACLU of Florida attorney and lead counsel in the case.

In state court, the online travel industry scored another victory

The 1st District Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 ruling, said companies such as Expedia and Orbitz cannot be forced to pay local tourist-development taxes on part of the money they collect from customers. The majority found that the disputed amounts relate to reservation charges — not to the actual amounts paid to rent hotel rooms — and described the companies as “conduits.”

SEQUESTER THIS

Looming over the entire week was something that wasn’t about to happen in Tallahassee, but something that was happening hundreds of miles away, in a city where lawmakers spend even more time arguing than they do at the state Capitol. In Washington, D.C., Republicans and Democrats couldn’t figure out what to do about the sequester.

The sequester is a series of cuts set to hit domestic and military programs in the haphazard fashion, slicing tens of billions of dollars in federal spending in a more or less across-the-board manner. And Florida stood to get hit hard as the deadline for stopping the sequester came and went with no agreement.

A White House report released during the week listed the toll for Florida: 31,000 civilian Defense Department employees furloughed, a $183 million hit; reductions for Air Force and Army operations in the state, along with a possible cancellation of $135 million for aircraft depot maintenance in Jacksonville; and $54.5 million for K-12 education funding.

A dip in consumer confidence in the state would be even worse if the cuts kick in, said Chris McCarty, director of the University of Florida’s Survey Research Center in the Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

President Barack Obama and Congress agreed to the sequester in an effort to force a deal between the two on spending and taxes, but about all the two parties could agree on was that they were disappointed that the sequester was kicking in. And a fair number of them thought it was so bad that members of Congress shouldn’t get paid.

“No one should get paid for inaction,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., announcing his support for legislation cutting congressional pay while federal workers are furloughed. “And Congress clearly hasn’t done the job to avert the sequester.”

Scott agreed, but took things a step further.

“I don’t believe Congress or the President should continue to get paid while they haven’t solved this problem,” he said.

MULLING OBAMACARE

There was no blockbuster decision like Scott’s declaration last month that he would support the optional expansion of Medicaid under the federal health-care law Obama signed in 2010, but there were signs that the Legislature was prepared to go along with another of the law’s provisions.

Faced with the possibility of huge penalties under the Affordable Care Act, a Florida House committee charged with looking at the impact of “Obamacare” appeared likely to support offering health-insurance coverage to about 8,700 temporary state workers.

Members of the committee Thursday unanimously expressed support for the move, which would affect temporary employees in state agencies and the higher education system who work an average of 30 or more hours a week. If Florida doesn’t start offering coverage to those workers, it could face fines of about $320 million.

Officials said the coverage would cost an estimated $35.6 million during the upcoming 2013-14 fiscal year, only a fraction of the potential fines.

“You either play their (the federal government’s) way or you get hit with a significant penalty,” committee member John Wood, R-Winter Haven, said.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Pam Bondi said she was against Scott’s endorsement of Medicaid expansion, becoming the second member of the Cabinet to speak out, after Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

“I am opposed to this dramatic expansion of Medicaid, because of the ultimate cost to Florida’s taxpayers and because I don’t think our state should surrender even more control over health care to the federal government,” Bondi said in an email Tuesday.

CFO Jeff Atwater also criticized the expansion Friday.

GUN FIGHT?

Meanwhile, with the final days ticking off the clock for lawmakers to file their bills, a few proposals that could be highly controversial were added to the fray.

Perhaps most prominent was a set of gun proposals, coming from either side of the aisle.

Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by filing legislation to clarify that those firing warning shots could be protected from harsher penalties that they could otherwise face under criminal gun laws.

Co-sponsor Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the original sponsor in 2005 of the state’s “stand your ground” bill, and a member of a task force that examined the law in the wake of Martin’s shooting, said Combee’s bill is based upon a task force recommendation to clarify Florida’s 10-20-Life law regarding displaying a firearm.

“There is an edge there with the law if you fire a weapon or display a weapon, you could be charged with a felony,” Baxley said.

The man who shot Martin has said he was acting in self defense and should be covered by the law.

Meanwhile, Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, filed a measure asking school principals to decide which teachers and staff can carry concealed weapons while at work. Conservatives nationwide and in Florida have called for arming teachers and guards after the December shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults. But some educators are nervous about proposals to allow firearms into schools.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, filed a bill that would impose a 4 percent fee on dealers’ sales of guns and ammunition, with the money going to mental health treatment. It wasn’t clear whether the bill would get any traction in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

Bills were also filed to add a consumer advocate to the Citizens Property Insurance Corp. board of directors (Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami); ban committees of continuous existence (Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater); and overhaul the state’s pension plan without closing off the traditional pension to new employees (Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.)

STORY OF THE WEEK: A federal appeals court strikes down a law allowing the state to drug-test applicants for public assistance.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “If we can make people drive to Georgia and Alabama and South Carolina to buy fireworks that are illegal in the state of Florida, then certainly we can make them drive to get crack pipes and marijuana pipes.”–Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, on a bill banning drug paraphernalia

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.