By JIM SAUNDERS
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Florida lawmakers are poised to return to Tallahassee for the March 7 start of the 2017 legislative session.
They will grapple with hundreds of bills during the 60-day session, while also trying to reach agreement on a state budget that will top $80 billion. Here are 10 big issues to watch:
— BUDGET: Gov. Rick Scott has proposed an $83.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, up about $1.2 billion from the current year. In the proposal, Scott called for $618 million in tax cuts, increased education spending and cuts in hospital funding. But the proposal has met skepticism from some lawmakers, who are concerned about projected budget shortfalls in the coming years.
— DEATH PENALTY: Florida’s death penalty has been on hold since January 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that part of the death-penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries. The Florida Supreme Court struck down part of a legislative attempt to fix the system because the changes did not require unanimous jury recommendations before people could be sentenced to death. The House and Senate, however, appear to be ready to quickly pass a bill during the 2017 session that would require such unanimous jury recommendations.
— ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, have battled publicly for weeks about the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida and tourism-marketer Visit Florida. Scott wants to provide $85 million to Enterprise Florida for business incentives and $76 million to Visit Florida. But Corcoran opposes the funding and has gone so far as to back abolishing the public-private agencies.
— EDUCATION: Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has made a top priority of revamping the higher-education system. The Senate is expected to quickly pass a bill that, in part, would expand the use of Bright Futures scholarships and tighten graduation standards for universities and state colleges. In the kindergarten- through 12th-grade system, Corcoran has called for expanding school-choice programs, and lawmakers are expected to look at proposals to reduce the amount of time public-school students spend on standardized tests.
— GAMBLING: The House and Senate have taken dramatically different positions in heavily lobbied bills that would make changes in the gambling industry. The House proposal focuses on reaching agreement on a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that could lead to money going to the education system. The Senate, however, wants to take steps that could expand gambling, including allowing slot machines in eight counties where voters have approved the machines in referendums.
— GUNS: The House and Senate could be moving toward passing a measure that would shift a key burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors in “stand your ground” self-defense cases, a change backed by the National Rifle Association. Several other high-profile gun bills have been filed, such as a proposal that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on college and university campuses. The fate of such proposals likely will hinge on whether they can pass the Senate.
— HEALTH CARE: As it has done in recent years, the House is pushing a series of bills that would scale back regulations in the health-care industry. A heavily lobbied issue focuses on whether to eliminate the “certificate of need” process, which requires approval from the Agency for Health Care Administration before new hospitals, nursing homes and hospice facilities can be built. Among other issues in the Legislature is a proposal that would help clear the way for “direct primary care” agreements, which involve patients contracting directly with doctors for care, cutting out the role of insurers.
— MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Lawmakers will try to agree on a plan to carry out a voter-approved ballot initiative that broadly legalized medical marijuana in the state. The Legislature in recent years approved medical cannabis for limited types of patients, but the November ballot initiative will allow doctors to order medical marijuana for an array of conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. A closely watched legislative issue involves how many nurseries will be able to get licenses to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana.
— WATER: Negron has proposed a controversial $2.4 billion plan that includes buying land south of Lake Okeechobee to try to ease polluted discharges from the lake into waterways on the east and west coasts of the state. The proposal, which involves creating a reservoir to store water moved south from the lake, is opposed by the powerful sugar industry and has received a cool reception in the House. Negron, however, represents parts of the state’s Treasure Coast that have been hit hard by polluted discharges from the lake.
— WORKERS’ COMPENSATION INSURANCE: After the Florida Supreme Court last spring ruled that two parts of the workers’ compensation insurance system were unconstitutional, regulators approved a 14.5 percent rate increase that started hitting businesses in December. Business groups are lobbying for changes that could help hold down rates. But the workers’ compensation system is highly complex, and a major debate will focus on whether to limit fees paid to attorneys who represent injured workers.