(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)
By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Nothing is ever dead until the final day of the legislative session, but the bills that likely will and won’t make it across the finish line this year became increasingly clear over the last week.
A gaming agreement with the Seminole Tribe and a related rewrite of the state’s gambling laws? Almost certainly dead. An overhaul of death-penalty sentencing after a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling? Quickly sent to Gov. Rick Scott. An expansion of the state’s nascent medical marijuana industry? Looks like it will get done.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate continued to keep staff members, lobbyists and reporters in the Capitol after hours as they hammered out the final details of the state’s $80 billion (or so) budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. With one weekend of spending negotiations already in the books, another was on tap.
All the while, advocates began preparing for Hail Mary passes on a variety of long-shot initiatives, and massive legislative “trains” on education, transportation and health care started to take shape. To borrow from Shakespeare (and not from Sherlock Holmes, as some would have you believe), the game’s afoot.
But the winners and losers are already coming into focus.
Calling the efforts to push gambling changes through the Legislature a “heavy lift” had become something of a joke in Tallahassee, simply because the phrase was overused. The reason it was overused was because it was accurate, and the weight of the project came crashing down this week.
Things started out somewhat promising. The House Finance & Tax Committee on Monday crafted what it called a “love note” to the Senate, passing a sweeping bill that would ratify a proposed $3 billion agreement with the Seminole Tribe and allow pari-mutuels in at least five counties to add slot machines.
The measure (HB 7109) could also have done away with dog racing and most horse racing, while allowing tracks to keep operating more lucrative betting operations, such as card rooms and slot machines, a process known as “decoupling.”
Committee Chairman Matt Gaetz said the “elegance” of the legislation was that it would provide an opportunity for the Seminoles to work with pari-mutuels to resolve their differences, because none of the elements of the bill would go into effect without the tribe’s approval.
“Nobody gets anything if there is not mutual accord and consent and agreement,” Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said. “I imagine that … you would very likely see a negotiation between the tribe and the pari-mutuel facilities who benefit under the bill. And, if there is an inequity … that inequity can be cured by contract.”
Elegant or not, gambling legislation wasn’t able to make it through the Senate. That chamber’s Appropriations Committee was supposed to hear its version of the bill Tuesday, but Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, asked that the measure (SB 7202) be postponed.
Senate leaders blamed the demise of the legislation on the pari-mutuel industry. Both plans would have allowed slot machines in at least five additional counties where voters approved the machines in referendums, and the bills also included other perks for dog and horse tracks and jai alai operators.
“The bill had a lot of ornaments added to it, and the tree eventually gets too many ornaments and it falls over,” Bradley said Tuesday.
There were few good options left for the Legislature. Come back for a special session on the Seminole compact? Not something that would appeal to dozens of members running for re-election. Another run at the compact next year? The negotiations might have to start all over again.
The Legislature could also do nothing, while two lawsuits play out in court. One of those lawsuits involves the expiration of part of a 2010 deal between the Seminoles and the state, while the other involves whether a small horse track in Gadsden County should be allowed to offer slot machines.
WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN
There is one bill the Legislature must approve every year: the budget that kicks in on July 1. After Monday closed out the first phase of negotiations with a good deal of the work done, the House and Senate budget chiefs took over the talks.
They didn’t meet again until Thursday, but quickly knocked off two areas of the budget, reaching agreement on funding for environmental programs and health care.
“If you’re someone who cares about agriculture and natural resources in Florida, it’s a great budget,” said House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes. “If you’re someone who cares about health care in quality and funding, I think it did very well.”
The deal has to be done by Tuesday if lawmakers want to go home on time.
And the most difficult work still remained. Almost the entire education budget is unresolved. And lawmakers are considering issuing bonds for education construction projects, something that would set up an even bigger clash with Gov. Rick Scott, who’s already unhappy with the direction negotiations have taken.
That unhappiness stems in no small part from the fate of Scott’s call for $1 billion in tax cuts. As far as the kinds of reductions that the governor asked for, by Thursday the package had been whittled down to $129.1 million.
Lawmakers are also holding local education property tax cuts steady by spending an extra $290 million in state money on public schools — but Scott didn’t ask for that and has pushed back on the idea that it’s needed.
“Unfortunately, the practical impact of rising property values is higher property taxes,” Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in a prepared statement about the revised tax package. “This year, the Legislature is taking important steps to mitigate that impact, by reducing local millage rates and using only state tax dollars to pay for a $478 million increase in education funding.”
The biggest part of the revised package (HB 7099), approved Thursday by the Senate Appropriations Committee, would permanently eliminate a tax on manufacturing equipment, which has been temporarily suspended but is set to return in 2017. Scott has made a priority of eliminating the tax.
For many Floridians, the biggest part of the package will be a sales-tax “holiday” for back-to-school shoppers. However, the holiday will only last three days in August, rather than the 10 days proposed by Scott and the House.
ON THE MOVE
Other legislation was making its way through the House and the Senate in the usual final-days scramble to get everything done.
A hard-fought battle on overhauling the state’s alimony system seemed to be on track. The proposal, approved by the Senate in a 24-14 vote Friday, would establish formulas for alimony payments and includes a controversial provision dealing with how much time children should spend with their divorced parents.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who sponsored the measure, said she wanted to provide predictability for couples, who in the past have used the process of divorce to punish each other.
“Going through a divorce is heart-wrenching for all the parties,” said Stargel, who said she has been married since she was 17 years old and has never been divorced. “The parents get so angry and so mad at each other. … The children are the ones that suffer.”
The House could vote on the legislation early next week.
Lawmakers in that chamber have already signed off on an expansion of medical marijuana in Florida. The plan (HB 307 and HB 1313) would give terminally ill patients access to full-strength pot while revamping a 2014 law meant to allow some patients to use a milder form of marijuana.
The earlier law has been bogged down in legal challenges over the selection of nurseries to get potentially lucrative contracts.
“The focus in our debate and the media has been largely focused on who gets to grow it, who gets to make money, who gets to lobby, who gets to invest,” said Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat who has been heavily involved on the medical-marijuana issue. “The hell with them — who gets to benefit is the patients. That has been largely lost in our debate.”
But Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he doesn’t think the bill is good policy.
“We’re feeding an avalanche that I think will ultimately lead to a tremendous amount of substance abuse in this state,” Baxley said.
Social conservatives like Baxley, though, won a victory when the Legislature signed off on a controversial bill (HB 43) aimed at protecting clergy members who object to performing wedding ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. The measure comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that legalized gay marriage nationwide.
“The bill is a shield. It is not a sword,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. “Pastors have asked for protection because they’re fearful of being discriminated against.”
But in the House and Senate, opponents contended that the First Amendment already protects pastors who refuse to perform same-sex weddings. They challenged supporters to show that any religious organizations have been punished for discriminating against same-sex couples.
And they raised the specter that the bill would open the door for pastors to refuse to marry interracial couples or divorced people.
“I’m afraid it might turn the clock back,” said Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat and veteran of the civil-rights movement. “I’ve been there, and I don’t want to relive history.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: Negotiations continued on the roughly $80 billion state budget, as lawmakers worked to bring the session to a successful conclusion after last year’s session imploded in a health-care fight.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The most repugnant thing is that we’re using the guise of helping these kids for a special interest food fight to expand the people that can offer this, that can make money on it. We got somebody who got left out so this bill takes care of them. … This is about making money, as much or more as it’s about helping sick people. And that’s my moral imperative to vote no.”—Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, talking about a Senate bill dealing with the medical marijuana fight.