Thursday, May 23, 2019
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Legislative Session’s big winner – Gov. Ron DeSantis

Photo credit: Governor's Office

In most cases the legislature gives a newly elected governor a honeymoon period.  As the 2019 legislative session concluded Saturday afternoon, one thing was clear – there’s a platonic love affair between the House, Senate and Governor Ron DeSantis. The first year governor had as much success as the Republican gold standard, former Governor Jeb Bush. DeSantis clearly got everything he asked for. 

  • Increased spending for the environment;
  • Banning “sanctuary cities” in Florida;
  • Importing pharmaceuticals from other countries to lower prescription costs – despite significant opposition from big PhRMA; and
  • School choice expansion.

All four issues were big wins for DeSantis. During a post-session news conference, DeSantis acknowledged he needed the legislature to fulfill most of his campaign promises. 

“This session marks the beginning of a new day in Florida,” said Governor DeSantis. “From our environment, to education, to public safety and healthcare, we have put people above politics and made a commitment to our future generations that we will leave our state better than we found it. We did not achieve this alone. I thank the Florida Legislature, especially Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva, for their dedication to these important issues. We may now begin implementing these critical policies for Florida families and our children.”

Add DeSantis’ legislative success to his three appointments to the Florida Supreme Court and it’s clear Republicans are united and Democrats are resigned to having very little input in the direction of the state’s government. 

One other thing is very clear – DeSantis’ relationship with the House and Senate is already stronger than what former Governor Rick Scott enjoyed during his 8 years in office. Scott’s demands plus never recognizing the legislative branch was a co-equal strained the relationship from day 1. 

Will there be differences between DeSantis and legislative leaders? It’s certain. But in his first session as governor, DeSantis and legislative Republicans are singing from the same hymnal and that’s not something seen in Tallahassee in a long time. 


Lawmakers sign off on budget as session ends

Florida Capitol

Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature quickly put the finishing touches on a record $91.1 billion spending plan Saturday, meeting numerous requests from freshman Gov. Ron DeSantis.

While declaring “great wins for conservatives,” along with environmental protections that should appeal to Democrats, the governor said he intends to use his line-item veto power but didn’t specify what spending he might target.

“It’s going to be under $91.1 billion when I get through with the budget, don’t worry about that,” DeSantis said during a traditional “sine die” ceremony in the Capitol’s fourth-floor rotunda after lawmakers ended the annual legislative session.

The Senate voted 38-0 to approve the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and the House followed with a 106-2 vote. The only dissenters were Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, and Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar.

The budget includes high-profile spending issues such as $680 million for the Everglades and other water projects; a $242-per-student increase in school funding; and $50 million to maintain for at least another year the state’s embattled tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.

The package also would provide a little more than $220 million to help areas of the Panhandle hit last year by Hurricane Michael; $45 million for Senate President Bill Galvano’s priority to add or build toll roads; and $40 million to retain the Job Growth Grant Fund, an economic program created under former Gov. Rick Scott.

DeSantis will have a chance to veto parts of the budget when it formally reaches his desk.

As DeSantis prepares to review the budget, Galvano, R-Bradenton told the governor Saturday, “Just trust me. It’s all good.”

Galvano later told reporters, “I hope that he really studies and understands what is there and gets to the bottom of it as opposed to just making a statement in terms of a number to cut.”

Scott, now a U.S. senator, made $615 million cuts in 2011, his first year as governor. Last year, in his final year in the governor’s mansion, Scott removed just $64 million from the budget.

DeSantis implied that Galvano’s toll road priority, which is spelled out in a bill (SB 7068) that will soon go to the governor, will likely survive. But other spending could be on the chopping block.

“Obviously there’s certain things government shouldn’t be doing at any level. If that’s in there, that’s going to be a candidate,” DeSantis said. “There are some things that maybe government should do but should be local, and not state government.”

The spending plan includes $3.4 billion in reserves, but DeSantis indicated he would like to see a larger amount. Vetoes of spending could boost the reserves.

“The economy is great. I wish I could say we’re going to have 3.6 (percent) unemployment ad infinitum,” DeSantis said. “But I think we just need to prepare ourselves that the economy is cyclical. I hope it’s not next month, next year, three years from now. But eventually things are going to get tighter. We all have to recognize that.”

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, said late Friday the session had included “extraordinary” collaboration between the Legislature and the executive branch, noting that DeSantis had served in Congress.

“There was a legitimate commitment on behalf of the governor to work with the Legislature, having been a legislator (in Congress),” Oliva said. “The president of the Senate and I are good friends, trust a great deal in one another.”

The budget also earmarks $10.2 billion in general-revenue funding for health care and other social service programs, with much of that state money drawing federal matching funds. In all, the health and human services budget totals $37.6 billion.

While the Legislature made deep cuts to hospital funding in recent years, the new budget does not include Medicaid reductions for hospitals. Lawmakers, however agreed to continue for another year eliminating Medicaid “retroactive” eligibility for elderly and disabled people. Pregnant women and children have been exempted from the policy and will continue to have a traditional three-month retroactive period to enroll in the Medicaid program when needing services.

The Legislature initially agreed last year to eliminate Medicaid retroactive eligibility, a move that saves about $100 million. They agreed to extend the policy for another year by including it in the new budget. The budget expires annually, which means lawmakers will have to address it again next year.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said people often focus on large-dollar or high-priority budget issues. But Bradley said one of the brightest spots in the budget is a change that could help adults with disabilities who want to work. The change would allow adults with disabilities to earn about $50,000 annually without losing access to Medicaid benefits that assist people with activities of daily living.

“It’s going to make a real difference in people’s lives,” Bradley said. “Many people in the state of Florida will be able to get better-paying jobs, make more money and get the benefits they deserve.”

The budget is the largest in state history, topping by 2.7 percent the $88.7 spending plan for the current year.

House Majority Leader Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said the increase is “organic,” due to the state’s population growth and additional tourism.

Environmentalists, however, expressed disappointment in the session, in part because the budget includes $34.5 million for the Florida Forever land-preservation program — much less than the program has often received in the past..

“This year’s amount is a far cry from the $300 million this program received for decades. It is also well short of both last year’s $100 million appropriation and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget recommendation this year of $100 million,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters. “To say we are upset would be an understatement.”

Legislative leaders have pointed to funds remaining from the current year’s allocation to Florida Forever, which wasn’t as much of a priority under Scott and the previous state Cabinet.

— News Service staff writer Christine Sexton and senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.

Despite cities objections, DeSantis signs firefighter cancer benefits

Photo Credit: Governor’s Press Office

After the proposal received unanimous support in the Legislature, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed a bill that will expand benefits for firefighters who are diagnosed with 21 types of cancers. Supporters of the bill pointed to cancer dangers faced by firefighters, in part because firefighters are exposed to more burning chemicals and plastics than in the past.

“There will be a system in place to allow them to have some benefits and coverage, in addition to their own health insurance,” said state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who doubles as state fire marshal and was a key supporter of the bill. “This will, moving forward, help us recruit and help those families have as much normalcy as they can as they fight cancer.”

The bill (SB 426) requires providing a series of benefits to firefighters diagnosed with the types of cancer. It also would help firefighters pay their bills while undergoing cancer treatment by providing lump-sum payments of $25,000 upon diagnosis.

The Florida League of Cities asked DeSantis to veto the bill, pointing to questions about how local governments will pay for the increased benefits.

“For those local governments, it is what it is,” Patronis said. “They will learn how to embrace this policy that is long overdue.”

State budget funnels money to hurricane recovery

Hurricane Michael

Florida lawmakers put just over $220 million in the new state budget for Hurricane Michael recovery efforts, as the wait continues for Congress to advance a much-larger disaster relief package.

With a final vote expected Saturday on the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, legislators are touting $1.86 billion in spending related to the deadly Category 5 storm that swept through parts of the Panhandle in October.

The bulk of the state’s spending — $1.639 billion — is emergency funding from the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The state expects to eventually recoup most of the emergency spending from the federal government.

As he started to outline the $91.1 billion budget plan pduring a floor session Friday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said lawmakers continue “to be frustrated with the response of the federal government. It’s been in fits and starts.”

“But rather than wait for D.C. to do its job, we stepped up like we always do,” Bradley said. “And thank goodness we are good fiscal stewards. We had the reserves to step up and answer the call to our friends in the Panhandle.”

Sen. George Gainer, a Panama City Republican whose district suffered massive damage in the storm, thanked the Senate for its response to Hurricane Michael. “I think we came in strong” he said.

Similarly, Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat whose district was hit hard, said he was proud of the nearly $2 billion the state has spent or plans to spend for hurricane relief.

Montford said the money in the budget may not be enough. But he added it should be considered a “shot of fresh air, if you will, a lifeline, if you will, until we can convince Congress to do their job.”

If federal assistance isn’t forthcoming, Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, warned the Legislature may be back next year having to address deeper issues in the Panhandle.

Other lawmakers said the they would like the state to do more to address the storm, which caused billions of dollars in damage after making landfall Oct. 10 in Mexico Beach and plowing through communities such as Panama City, Port St. Joe, Blountstown and Marianna.

Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, said she couldn’t support the proposed budget, in part, because more money is needed as “the conditions of the Panhandle continue to deteriorate.”

“It’s not enough to help local governments figure out how to meet their obligations,” Ausley said. “It’s not enough to help our schools, our hospitals and our health department to deal with rising mental health needs. It’s not enough to help our row crop farmers get their seed in the ground so they don’t miss an entire planting season. It’s not enough to remove the 20 million cubic yards of debris from almost 3 million acres of private and public land in preparation of the wildfires that we know are coming.”

The largest portion of the hurricane-related spending for the coming year will be $115 million for affordable housing.

Another $35 million will go to county and municipal roads through the budget and through a transportation bill (SB 7068) the House approved Wednesday.

A separate $14.2 million will help school districts cover declining enrollments that stem from families and students being displaced by the hurricane.

Lawmakers also plan to spread money to the affected counties for a variety of projects.

As examples, Jackson County is slated to get $1.6 million for courthouse repairs and $19.1 million for school construction.

Also, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office will get $1.4 million for a new building, while another $1.9 million will be directed in the county toward storm-water and wastewater projects and $3.8 million will be allocated for road repairs and traffic safety.

Meanwhile, Panama City is slated for $500,000 for road and drainage repairs, the city of Callaway is getting $1 million for road and storm-water repairs and Lynn Haven is in line for $1 million for road repairs.

Heavily rural Liberty County is expected to see $7.08 million, of which $6.1 million is for school construction.

Meanwhile, neighboring Calhoun County is expected to receive $3 million to rebuild Calhoun Liberty Hospital, $800,000 for infrastructure repairs in Blountstown and $600,000 for infrastructure repairs in Altha.

School ‘Guardian’ expansion goes to DeSantis

school safety

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday gave final passage to a wide-ranging school safety bill that would allow classroom teachers to be armed, reversing a decision made last year after the mass school shooting in Parkland.

Despite backlash from Democrats, the Republican-dominated House passed legislation (SB 7030) that would expand the controversial school “guardian” program and carry out other recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.

The vote was 65-47, with five Republicans voting against the bill and four Democrats missing the vote, including House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee, of Miami. The Senate passed the bill last week, meaning it is now ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Lawmakers last year passed a major school-safety bill after a gunman killed 17 students and faculty members on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The 2018 law included creating the guardian program, which allows school staff members to be armed to try to protect students from active shooters.

After heated debate, the Legislature decided last year to leave classroom teachers out of the guardian program unless they doubled in other roles, such as working as coaches or principals.

But the vote Wednesday would overturn that decision and allow teachers to volunteer to become trained guardians in school districts that authorize it. That reversal drew heavy criticism from Democrats.

“Here we are, one year later, and for some reason the carefully crafted compromise that agonized all of us has just been completely abandoned and tossed out the window,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said.

During an emotional debate that lasted three hours, Democrats slammed Republicans for overturning the 2018 decision and for blocking extra precautions. Democrats argued the change will likely result in a loss of life and endanger minority students across the state.

But Republicans stood their ground and maintained the program offers extensive training to school staff members who want to serve as guardians.

“We cannot prevent a shooting, but we can protect against one,” said Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, a Mount Dora Republican who sponsored the bill in the House.

School districts across Florida’s 67 counties, however, have been reluctant to participate in the guardian program. Only 25 school districts have established the program in one way or another under last year’s law. The bill seeks to give districts flexibility to participate in the program, even if their county sheriff’s offices do not want to do so.

The bill reflects the work done in the last year by the state commission, which was created in the 2018 law to investigate the Parkland school shooting and make recommendations about school safety.

Lawmakers relied on commission recommendations in the bill, such as taking steps to improve data collection on incidents that occur on school premises that could pose a threat to students; expanding mental-health services at schools; and enhancing information-sharing between schools about new students’ histories with behavioral issues.

With the bill heading to DeSantis, groups opposing the measure are launching renewed efforts to block it.

The gun-control advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America plans to deliver hundreds of letters to the governor’s office that detail arguments of residents who oppose the bill.

“We are frustrated and angry that members of the House ignored the message today, and as we register to vote, we won’t forget that they turned their backs on us. We call on Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto this bill,” said Jovanna Liuzzo, a volunteer with the Florida chapter of Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

The state’s largest teachers union also slammed lawmakers for passing the bill and urged school districts to speak up against the guardian program, arguing that they will be the “last line of defense on this issue.”

“If a local district wants to let teachers carry weapons, parents and education should ask some tough questions. Will teachers wear guns, or how will firearms be stored? Will parents and students be told if the teacher in any given classroom is armed?” said Fedrick Ingram, the president of the Florida Education Association.

Budget chiefs finalize state spending plan

Florida Capitol

House and Senate budget chiefs agreed Tuesday to a roughly $90 billion budget deal, but lawmakers will not end the 2019 legislative session on time.

The budget needed to be distributed Tuesday to meet the scheduled Friday end of the session. That is because of a mandatory 72-hour “cooling off” period before lawmakers can vote on the budget. But the budget was not distributed by Tuesday night.

“We’re probably going to spill into Saturday on the budget, hopefully about mid-day, maybe early afternoon,” House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said early Wednesday after a marathon House floor session. “The final details are always very difficult, and the staff works diligently, but there’s just so many details to cover.”

The budget package exceeds Gov. Ron DeSantis’ call for environmental spending, steers public-education construction maintenance funding to charter schools, and boosts wages for individuals who take care of developmentally disabled adults.

House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, a Fleming Island Republican, and his Senate counterpart, Rob Bradley, spent days hammering out differences between the two chambers’ spending plans. The budget writers also took into consideration suggestions from DeSantis, Cummings told reporters after he and Bradley met Tuesday evening.

“There was a good balance that took place that not only offered constraint but met some of the critical needs of the state of Florida,” Cummings said.

When asked the total amount of the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Cummings said it’s been “a fast and furious couple of days.”

“I can’t even tell you kind of where we ended up,” he said.

Money for school construction has been one of the most contentious areas of the budget.

As part of a final budget deal, the House and Senate agreed to give charter schools $158.2 million to maintain, repair and remodel their buildings while deciding to give traditional public schools, state universities and colleges no money for that purpose.

Cummings and Bradley defended that decision, pointing to a $248 per-pupil increase for K-12 students and other school funding.

“This was a big year for traditional public schools,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said. “I think that our traditional public schools and those parents and students who choose to make different choices in their educational opportunities are all winners in this year’s budget.”

The final budget deal sets aside $280.4 million for public education capital outlay, or PECO, projects, including the $158 million lawmakers earmarked for charter school building maintenance and repairs. Legislators also settled on $76 million for higher-education construction projects, including $25 million for a University of Florida Data Science and Information Technology building. And they agreed to give $1.5 million in recurring funds to the Department of Education to develop a two-year workforce program that would assist individuals aged 22 or older to get a high school diploma and career technical skills.

House and Senate budget writers also approved $250,000 for Florida Department of Education “litigation expenses.”

Cummings acknowledged that money will likely be needed to defend a new voucher program which would allow a maximum of 18,000 students to use taxpayer-funded scholarships for tuition at private-schools, which often include religious schools. The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 struck down a similar program.

“We think we have bold legislation, particularly in the school choice area, that we greatly support, and resources are needed in this very litigious society that we are in,” Cummings said.

In an unusual move, meanwhile, lawmakers agreed to change the law to allow a lieutenant governor “who permanently resides outside Leon County to have an appropriate facility as an official headquarters.”

The agreement allows Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, a former state representative from Miami-Dade County, to receive a subsistence and travel allowance for days spent at the Capitol.

Bradley said the funding was requested by the governor’s office.

“She’s got a family and we want some flexibility for that situation,” Bradley said Monday, referring to Nuñez. “It was a request and we accommodated the request.”

In environmental spending, the budget will top by $60 million DeSantis’ $628.6 million request for Lake Okeechobee and other water projects.

The budget includes $322.6 million for Lake Okeechobee restoration and $100 million for Florida springs. Bradley said the budget also includes $33 million in new funds for the Florida Forever land preservation program, down from $100 million in current spending.

Bradley said more than $100 million will be available for Florida Forever because there will be money left over at the end of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“They haven’t even spent all that money yet,” Bradley said of the current year’s funding. “They aren’t close to spending all that money yet. And so we’re not going to just put things in the budget just for show. The executive and the Cabinet need to demonstrate that they’re going to move those dollars out that we’re providing.”

The fiscal plan also includes $90 million for a tax relief package.

Other than lifting sales taxes during “holiday” periods on back-to-school items and for hurricane season supplies, the details have yet to be settled. The Senate is expected to take up the House proposal (HB 7123) on Wednesday.

In health care funding, Cummings said the Agency for Persons with Disabilities was given a lot of attention this year.

Lawmakers agreed to provide more than $28 million to increase wages paid to people who care for adults with developmental disabilities. Increasing the payments was a priority for the Florida Senate, but was not included in the House’s initial budget proposal.

“Those employees in those (residential) facilities, they don’t have a lobbyist. There’s not a special interest group. These are folks who are taking care of some of our most sick and vulnerable in the state of Florida. And they are not making a lot of money at all, and the House and Senate committed to raising their standard of living because we appreciate the things they do,” Bradley said.

The Legislature also agreed to allow the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to work in conjunction with the state Agency for Health Care Administration to develop a plan to redesign the I-budget. Though it’s a Medicaid program, the I-budget is one of the few that is administered outside of the statewide mandatory Medicaid managed-care program.

Visit Florida, jobs fund get money

Florida Capitol

Florida’s tourism-marketing arm will get an extra nine months — and a $50 million budget — to prove itself to the governor.

Legislative budget chiefs agreed Monday to fund the beleaguered Visit Florida through June 30, 2020, keeping the agency in business beyond an Oct. 1 date when it otherwise would have been eliminated.

The House, which has long been critical of Visit Florida, wanted to let the agency die. But House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on the extension until the end of the 2019-2020 fiscal year amid final budget talks.

Also, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley and House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, both Fleming Island Republicans, agreed Monday to continue funding for an economic-development effort, known as the Job Growth Grant Fund, that was created under former Gov. Rick Scott.

The agreements on Visit Florida and the Job Growth Grant Fund came as House and Senate leaders raced to finish a roughly $90 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The budget has to be finished Tuesday for the legislative session to end on time Friday because of a mandatory 72-hour “cooling off” period.

Meanwhile, most higher-education issues had been resolved Monday. But one major area of concern for House Speaker Jose Oliva and other House leaders continued to be Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, funding for building projects.

As for Visit Florida, House leaders had maintained a hard-line stance against the agency, pointing to questionable contracts from several years ago and questions about the effectiveness of the tourism-marketing efforts. The House wanted to provide just $19 million for the agency, enough to cover expenses until Oct. 1, the date when Visit Florida would be eliminated if it was not reauthorized under state law.

The House stance changed Friday as Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said he was willing to yield to a request from DeSantis to keep the agency around for another year.

“As we get into the next session, we’ll have to determine whether it’s something that’s renewed on an annual basis,” Cummings said Monday.

Oliva told reporters Friday that the governor’s office had asked to keep the agency afloat for another year “so that he would have the opportunity to make an assessment of his own of how unnecessary it is.”

Two days earlier, DeSantis said that while he sought $76 million in his proposed budget for Visit Florida, he’d “be fine” with the $50 million initially proposed by the Senate.

Asked Monday about Oliva’s comments as the budget chiefs agreed to the extra money and time, Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said the agency will continue to provide a “great” return on investment with the funding available.

“We have great, talented people who work for our organization, and we are very good at what we do, and I have no doubt in my mind that we will continue to produce great results,” said Young, a former House and Senate member from Tampa.

Meanwhile, Bradley said putting $40 million toward the Job Growth Grant Fund — less than half of what had been provided the past two years — was made simply to honor a request by DeSantis.

“This is a situation where you have three parities at the table, the House and the Senate and our new chief executive, and that was something that was important to him,” Bradley said.

In 2017, lawmakers created the Job Growth Grant Fund after a battle between Scott and House leaders over economic-development spending. The funding for the current year, which Scott depleted shortly before DeSantis took office, was in the Department of Economic of Opportunity.

DeSantis has backed keeping the fund, at least for another year.

The House also has been highly critical of the way some universities have managed money for building projects. Oliva reiterated Monday his desire to restructure the way building projects are funded following a financial scandal at the University of Central Florida. House investigators found university officials misused millions of state dollars for a construction project.

“As you know, our area of most concern was the PECO area and how we restructure that in a way that is sustainable so that universities and colleges have buildings that they can afford,” Oliva said.

Oliva remained firm on having his higher-education policy proposals accepted by the Senate. One thorn is a proposal requiring universities and colleges to have escrow accounts to back future building maintenance of new construction projects.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, expressed frustration with that specific policy area, saying he had expected to see some resolution Monday morning.

“I am eager to see what is left in this budget process and work with the speaker of the House to get this thing together and printed and have us go home on time,” Galvano said

Texting and driving ban heads to Governor

texting driving

Law enforcement officers could pull over motorists they see texting and driving on Florida roads, under a bill now headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

With a vote of 108-7, the House on Monday passed a compromise measure (HB 107) that blends a ban on texting and driving with a requirement that motorists travel hands-free of wireless devices in school zones and work zones.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican behind the Senate effort, had sought to make the hands-free requirement statewide. Simpson is slated to take over as Senate president following the 2020 elections.

The House’s passage of the bill Monday came after the Senate approved a series of health-care measures sought by House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

If signed into law, texting while driving would be a “primary” traffic offense. Currently, police can only cite motorists for texting behind the wheel if they are pulled over for other reasons. By making it a primary offense, police could pull over motorists solely for texting while driving.

Oliva, a Miami Republican, credited the Senate’s willingness to compromise for the advancement of the proposal, which proponents have sought for years.

“I think as you saw there was some amendments put on regarding school zones and construction areas where workers are present and a couple of smaller fixes,” Oliva told reporters following Monday’s floor session.

Last week, DeSantis said he supported the House’s efforts to make texting while driving a primary traffic offense.

“This stuff has got to be enforceable,” the governor said Wednesday. “If it’s a primary offense, then people are going to get pulled over. So, you’ve got to make sure that is going to happen. The more you go beyond texting, I just have concerns about the administrability of it.”

Rep. Emily Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat who co-sponsored the House bill with Tampa Republican Jackie Toledo, said the state is catching up with the rest of the nation. Slosberg said the goal is to get Florida fully hands-free.

“It means Florida’s roads are finally going to be safer. It’s huge,” Slosberg told The News Service of Florida following the bill’s passage. “This means the safety of Florida’s citizens, Florida’s drivers, and especially Florida’s children, by adding the extra protections in school zones.”

Slosberg, who has followed her father, former Rep. Irv Slosberg, in pushing for traffic-safety changes in the Legislature, called the vote “surreal.”

Emily Slosberg’s twin sister, Dori, was killed in 1996 when a speeding car in which they were passengers struck a median and crashed into an oncoming vehicle.

Toledo said the “blending” of the bills “will make our bill much better.”

Under the bill, changes would be phased in, with ticketing beginning Jan. 1.

From Oct. 1 through the end of the year, only verbal and written warnings would be issued to people stopped for texting while driving.

As part of Simpson’s proposal, county clerks of court would be able to dismiss cases of first-time offenders when violators buy wireless communications devices that can be used hands-free.

Making texting while driving a primary offense has raised concerns among numerous black and Hispanic lawmakers, who fear it would lead to increased racial profiling of minority motorists. Similar concerns helped derail previous attempts to make texting while driving a primary offense.

To address concerns about racial profiling, the bill headed to DeSantis would require officers to record the race and ethnicity of violators, with annual reports of statewide arrests submitted to the governor, Senate president and House speaker starting Feb. 1, 2020.

School funding resolved as budget deal gets closer


In a flurry of decisions, top Republicans edged closer Sunday night to reaching a final deal on a state budget for the upcoming year.

Budget writers in the House and Senate agreed to spend $12.4 billion on the Florida Education Finance Program, the major part of the budget for public schools. The budget next fiscal year will include a $248 increase per student, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley said after an 8:30 p.m. meeting Sunday.

“We took a balanced approach with our traditional public schools and our charter schools, and I think it is a great year for public education,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.

The House and Senate agreed on a slightly higher overall amount for the so-called FEFP than Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request for $12.3 billion. But legislative budget writers decided to set aside $233 million for the controversial Best and Brightest teacher-bonus program, which they said was “tremendous” but still falls about $189 million short of what the governor sought.

“We are hoping the governor recognizes that he has had a lot of wins in this budget,” House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, said when asked about not meeting the governor’s request for the Best and Brightest program.

The deals announced Sunday night brought the House and Senate closer to meeting a Tuesday deadline to wrap up what is expected to be a roughly $90 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Lawmakers still must reach final agreement on funding for health care, the environment and higher education, as well as a few issues on criminal justice.

Budget writers agreed to put $750,000 into the state’s controversial clemency process. Saying lawmakers were “disappointed” in how former Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet handled clemency cases in recent years, Bradley said they wanted to set aside that amount because they are “encouraged” by the new Cabinet.

“We were very encouraged by the new Cabinet and their probably more open-minded approach to considering these types of (clemency) petitions, and they need money to review people’s backgrounds and records and make informed decisions on these very important matters,” Bradley said.

Legislators also agreed to include an additional $5 million in the criminal justice budget for naltrexone, a type of medication used to treat people with alcohol or opioid addictions.

Lawmakers consider scores of issues annually, but they are required by law to pass just one bill: the budget. It’s also the only bill that must be printed and available for review for 72 hours before passage. That means the budget must be finalized and available no later than Tuesday for this year’s legislative session to end on time Friday.

Education and health care are the largest parts of the budget. In health care, lawmakers agreed to earmark an additional $15.5 million toward nursing home rates to increase what the facilities are paid to care for elderly and disabled people in the Medicaid program.

Initially, neither chamber proposed funding to bump the rates. AARP Florida and nursing-home industry groups called attention to the issue.

“We’re happy the Legislature did recognize that there’s a need for additional funding,” said Florida Health Care Association lobbyist Bob Asztalos.

The chambers have not agreed, though, on the amount of spending that should be targeted for people with disabilities. The Senate wants to direct $37.8 million for pay raises for employees of residential homes. Initially the House’s budget had no funding for the increase. The House has offered to go to half of the Senate’s proposed increase, or $18.9 million.

The Senate did not agree to the offer.

Also, the chambers have not agreed on whether the state should move toward scrapping what is known as the iBudget system used by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and place people with developmental disabilities in Medicaid managed-care plans.

Bradley downplayed the differences in health and human services.

“There’s not a lot of disagreement in that area,” he said. “We’ve come to an agreement on nursing homes, we’ve come to an agreement that there will be no overall cuts to hospitals.”

Bradley added, “We’re going to get there.”

The budget chiefs also agreed to a request from Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz to better prepare the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee for future disasters by adding staff and planning to modernize the facility.

The issues settled Sunday included $1.52 million to cover 20 new hires, with at least seven directed to provide technical assistance to local governments.

Moskowitz will also get $1 million — $500,000 less than initially proposed — to plan a redesign of the center.

Another $1.8 million will go toward helping nine fiscally constrained counties — generally poor rural counties — where emergency operations centers failed to meet minimum hurricane safety criteria.

— Staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this story.

DeSantis huddles with Seminole Tribe, pari-mutuels


As he sifts through a proposed gambling deal that could have a wide-ranging impact on the state’s pari-mutuel facilities, Gov. Ron DeSantis huddled Friday morning with more than a dozen gambling operators and lobbyists — including dog- and horse-track owners, cardroom executives and horse breeders — shortly after he met with leaders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

DeSantis started at 9 a.m. by meeting with multiple representatives of the tribe, including Chairman Marcellus Osceola; Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming; and Jim Shore, the Seminoles’ general counsel, tribe spokesman Gary Bitner told The News Service of Florida.

Bitner described the talks as “cordial.”

Shortly after that meeting, pari-mutuel owners and operators — accompanied by their lobbyists — streamed into the governor’s plaza-level large conference room in the Capitol for a nearly 90-minute discussion that was unusual in the highly competitive industry. Representatives of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who operate a poker room in North Florida, were also present.

Numerous participants who spoke to The News Service of Florida after the gathering praised DeSantis for calling the summit, as well as for his knowledge of the complicated subject matter, frequently referred to as a “three-dimensional game of chess” by lawmakers who’ve attempted to craft gambling deals in the past.

“I have a tremendous respect for him. It’s the first time since I’ve been involved that he’s gotten this whole group together. There’s never been a time that the industry’s been together and hasn’t wanted to kill itself. He got the horsemen, he got the breeders, he got everybody, and for that, I think he gets tremendous respect,” Barbara Havenick, whose family owns pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade County and Southwest Florida, told the News Service.

The governor’s office had no comment on the meetings when asked about them Friday afternoon.

Powerful Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Seminole leaders have worked in recent weeks to negotiate a deal that could make major changes in the gambling industry. Any deal, however, also would need support from DeSantis and the House.

The proposed 31-year deal with the tribe — more than a decade longer than a current agreement, known as a “compact,” — would open the door for sports betting at the Seminoles’ casinos as well as at Florida racetracks and jai alai frontons, with the tribe acting as a “hub.” Allowing in-play sports betting, known as “proposition” or “prop” bets, at professional sports arenas is also in the mix.

By allowing the tribe to serve as a “hub” for sports betting at pari-mutuels and arenas, Simpson has hoped to sidestep a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November. The amendment requires statewide votes on proposals for casino-style gambling. Voter approval is not required for gambling on tribal lands, which is regulated under federal law.

Earlier this week, DeSantis said he and his lawyers were scrutinizing the proposal, which remained a closely guarded secret prior to his sit-down with the pari-mutuel contingent. But the governor, a Harvard Law School graduate, is questioning some of the provisions of the deal, such as allowing live bets as professional games are being played. A former college baseball player, DeSantis called that idea a “big moral hazard.”

One of the other key sticking points remains controversial “designated player” card games offered at many of the pari-mutuel cardrooms. Those games have been at the heart of a legal dispute between the state and the tribe.

The Seminoles — and a federal judge — have maintained that the card games violate a 2010 gambling agreement with the state that gave the tribe “exclusivity” over offering banked card games, such as blackjack. Under a settlement with former Gov. Rick Scott, the tribe is continuing to pay about $350 million a year to the state.

But that agreement expires on May 31, prompting discussions about a new compact, which would severely pare the designated player games.

But pari-mutuel cardrooms, especially those outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties that are not allowed to have slot machines, have grown to rely heavily on the lucrative designed-player games as their major sources of revenue. They maintain that thousands of jobs — and tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the operators — would be lost, were the games to go away.

DeSantis asked probing questions about the games, according to several people who attended the Friday meeting.

“He wanted to know what they meant to our business. We expressed to him that’s a very important part of our business. It’s an even more-important part for some of the other pari-mutuels,” Palm Beach Kennel Club President Patrick Rooney, a former state representative, told the News Service.

“We hope he’ll just let us do what we’re doing with them and that’s it,” Rooney, accompanied by lobbyist Brian Ballard, said.

DeSantis “listened to all of our concerns,” Rooney said.

“Obviously in the pari-mutuel industry you have a lot of diverging and diverse interests, but I think the governor did a good job, number one, just bringing us all together,” he added.

Almost a third of the meeting was devoted to a discussion of horse racing in Florida. Horse breeders and others stressed to DeSantis that the industry has a multibillion-dollar impact on the state’s economy.

Florida voters last year approved a constitutional amendment that will ban greyhound racing while allowing tracks to keep more profitable cardrooms and, for tracks that have them, slot machines, a process known as “decoupling.”

The proposed agreement under discussion also would allow horse tracks and jai alai operators to decouple, something the pari-mutuels have long sought but which jai alai players and the state’s horse breeders vigorously oppose.

“The governor spent over an hour intently listening and asking questions to better understand the pari-mutuels and issues related to the proposed compact,” lobbyist Nick Iarossi, whose clients include Melbourne Greyhound Park and Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, said in an interview. “He really is taking a thoughtful approach to meeting with all stakeholders to ensure he understands all the impacts before making a decision.”

While DeSantis is in the information-gathering phase, time on the legislative clock is running out, according to House Speaker José Oliva, who has indicated the House is unlikely to support a deal that treats the pari-mutuels harshly.

“I have had no formal conversations on gaming at this point,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said Friday, adding that it is getting “late in the process” to finalize a compact before the annual legislative session is slated to conclude May 3.

Even if lawmakers don’t approve a compact during the regular session, negotiations could continue throughout the summer. If DeSantis and legislative leaders settle on a deal with the tribe later, the Legislature could come back to Tallahassee for a quick special session to address the matter.

For now, pari-mutuel operators left the Capitol feeling reassured.

“I feel like he listened to us. I think he heard the economics, the jobs. I really was very impressed. I think he heard us,” Havenick said.

— Staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

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