Photo: Colin Hackley
Gov. Rick Scott delivers his State of the State address in 2015. Late last year, he proposed a $79.3 billion budget for 2016.
The 2016 Florida Legislature: Once more with feeling
For Florida lawmakers, the year brings with it the chance to take a mulligan.
It was an ugly 2015 in Tallahassee.
The regular legislative session ended in chaos, with the House quitting three days early and killing hundreds of bills in protest after the Senate insisted that the two chambers agree on a plan to extend health coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Lawmakers then barely avoided a government shutdown by passing a $78-billion budget in a special session - only to see Gov. Rick Scott shred a sizable chunk of that spending plan. Two more special sessions followed, aimed at redrawing gerrymandered congressional and state Senate districts. Both were unsuccessful.
But as legislators return to the Capitol this month - for a 60-day session moved up from its usual March start time - there is a sense that 2016 could be different.
Elections loom, giving lawmakers extra incentive to get their work done on time so that they can get back to raising money and campaigning. A divisive leadership battle that has roiled the Senate for years has finally been resolved. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island) and Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Or-lando) have promised to move quickly on each other's top issues in hopes of scoring early victories that could brighten the mood considerably.
Scott is the wild card, as he has been since moving into the governor's mansion five years ago. The governor and the Senate have yet to reconcile after last year's health care debate. Senators accuse Scott of misleading them about the state of health care funding and then sabotaging them by reversing - for the second time - his position on Medicaid expansion. The governor, expected to run for U.S. Senate in 2018, is not happy that senators forced him into the health care debate and then repeatedly defied his wishes.
If both sides can start anew, the Senate will give Scott many of the tax cuts and business incentives he wants, and Scott will sign off on senators' personal priorities. If they can't, the Senate will fire most of Scott's agency heads, and the governor will once again take a cleaver to the budget.
Here is a look at some of the issues hanging in the balance:
If everything goes according to plan, the House and the Senate will send two bills to the governor during the first week of the session. One establishes a comprehensive water policy, a legacy issue for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli. The package updates water-quality standards for the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, making regulations more predictable for farmers but more enforceable for environmentalists. It also instructs regulators to devise minimum flows for the state's largest springs, creates pilot programs to encourage development of alternative water supplies and institutes a five-year program to prioritize state spending on water quality and water quantity projects. With support from Crisafulli and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, lawmakers likely will try to steer more money into waterfarming and water-storage projects, despite vetoes by Scott last year. Lawmakers, who would like to blunt election-year attacks by environmentalists that they have ignored last year's Amendment 1, may also devote a larger share of the budget to buying and cleaning ecologically sensitive land.
At the same time they pass Crisafulli's water bill, the two chambers expect to send the governor a package of reforms meant to help people with intellectual disabilities - a priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner, whose eldest child, Andrew, has Down syndrome. One component would establish a "Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities" at the University of Central Florida, which would oversee a program at the university for students with disabilities and serve as a clearinghouse for parents seeking information about similar programs at other Florida colleges and universities. Another piece of the package permanently enshrines into law an expansion of a program Gardiner created two years ago that provides $10,000 scholarships to families of children with disabilities that can be used for therapy, tutoring or other educationrelated services. Other provisions order state agencies to devise plans for hiring people with disabilities, require banks to provide financial literacy materials to customers with disabilities and recognize businesses that hire employees with disabilities.
After failing to force the House to consider a plan last year to accept billions of dollars from the federal government to expand health care coverage, the Senate will likely ignore the issue in 2016. That alone should help ease tensions between the two chambers. But health care issues aren't going away. Costs for the state's existing Medicaid program, which now consumes roughly a third of the budget, are expected to rise by another $600 million this year, primarily because of rising enrollment. And the federal government is expected to further reduce funding for the Low Income Pool used to reimburse hospitals for charity care - meaning lawmakers will have to decide whether to fill that hole with another $55 million or so in general revenue, on top of the $450 million they put into the program last year. Lawmakers are likely to spend considerable time debating a package of changes sought by House leaders - such as eliminating the certificate of need process for hospitals, allowing nurses more latitude in prescribing medication and permitting extended stays at independent surgical centers. Most of those issues are likely still so radioactive after last year's Medicaid fight, however, that few are likely to pass. One possible exception: Legislation making it easier for primary care physicians to open direct care practices that bypass insurance companies.
Meanwhile, the governor, who has become sharply critical of hospitals, will be pressing lawmakers to pass "transparency" reforms, such as requiring hospitals to post online the prices and average payments for all of their products and services.
Cuts Scott campaigned for re-election in 2014 promising to make $1 billion in tax cuts last year. Lawmakers gave him only about $400 million, and Scott now wants a full $1 billion this year. He won't get that - but both sides could agree on a figure of around $600 million, allowing the governor to fulfill his original campaign promise. Among Scott's specific proposals, it's a good bet that lawmakers will agree to permanently exempt manufacturers from having to pay sales tax on machinery and equipment. They may also go along with some corporate-income tax exemptions for manufacturers. But many lawmakers appear baffled by Scott's call to create an income tax exemption for retailers; that will be a very tough sell. Scott has also joined Florida's Realtors in calling for a reduction on the sales tax that businesses pay to rent commercial space, which has some support in the Legislature. But some lawmakers prefer tax cuts that more directly affect consumers (read: voters), such as another cut to the state's communications services tax and more salestax holidays on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies. Individual businesses and industries will also continue lobbying for their own carve-outs. Among those in play: The cruise industry wants to change the rules surrounding alcohol taxes paid by ships in port, while airlines such as Delta are pushing to eliminate a fuel tax break for lowcost carriers such as Southwest and use the savings to cut their own taxes.
If Medicaid expansion stays off the table, the issue most likely to explode may involve Enterprise Florida. Scott, who has made job creation the focus of his administration, wants $250 million put into a fund that he and EFIcan use for incentives for relocating or expanding businesses. That's about three times the amount the governor asked for last year - and the Legislature didn't come close to allocating that amount. Scott and EFIleaders also want to reduce legislative oversight of incentive awards and ease the return-on-investment threshold that projects must clear in order to land incentives. But the Senate will resist returnon- investment changes - and may even push to limit the types of businesses eligible for incentives, which Scott will oppose.
Republican lawmakers have complained for years that the Florida Supreme Court is dominated by activist judges who have repeatedly usurped lawmakers' authority, and their anger has been further inflamed by a series of rulings against the Legislature in the fight over redistricting. Now, led by Rep. Richard Corcoran (R-Land O' Lakes), who will succeed Crisafulli as House Speaker, the House plans to try again to pass "court reform." One proposed constitutional amendment would impose 12-year term limits on appellate court judges. Another adds two more justices to the seven-member Supreme Court, a significant change. The court is divided between five liberal-leaning justices and two conservative-leaning judges. One of the five must retire at the end of this year, and Scott will choose who replaces him. Giving Scott an additional two slots to fill could enable the governor to shift the court from a 5-2 liberal majority to a 5-4 conservative majority. But both ideas remain a heavy lift in the Florida Senate, which is traditionally more supportive of the courts. And even if the Senate signs off on the ideas, voters will have to approve them.
While the Senate isn't likely to refight the battle over Medicaid expansion, it will push more aggressively this year for a package of mental-health reforms - including forcing the Scott administration to seek more federal Medicaid money to cover behavioral health care. Other proposals include centralizing mental health and substance abuse services, overhauling licensing requirements and permitting for-profit companies to compete for contracts from the Department of Children and Families. Adding urgency to the debate is a Tampa Bay Times/Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigation that exposed the chronic understaffing and dangerous conditions for both patients and employees at state mental hospitals.
A year ago, Scott made record spending on public school education one of this chief priorities, only to run into resistance from a Senate that said more money was needed for health care. Now, K-12 funding has largely disappeared from the governor's pre-session talking points - and the Senate plans to champion the cause. One top senator predicted the chamber would push for a "very high education spend" this session. In the House, Speaker Crisafulli and his staff have been discussing an idea they call "emerging pre-eminence funding." The idea is to help mid-tier universities such as the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida that don't meet all the criteria for existing pre-eminence funding, which gives extra money to the University of Florida and Florida State University.
Education will be a big area for horsetrading: Crisafulli, for instance, wants to continue a school-uniform incentive program, while Gardiner will once again seek money for a proposed UCF campus in downtown Orlando.
No issue is as heavily lobbied in Tallahassee each year as gambling, an annual cage match among competing interests - including the Seminole Tribe, the Florida Lottery, south Florida racinos, local pari-mutuels, destination resort developers and many others. After months of negotiations, Scott and the Seminoles agreed in December on a new, $3-billion compact that would let the tribe continue running blackjack and add craps and roulette at its casinos but also open the door to new slots casinos in south Florida. The governor must now sell the package to lawmakers. But some of them want more for local pari-mutuels while others want to contract gambling.
Online fantasy sports betting has ballooned into a multibillion-dollar industry. It also appears to be illegal under a 25-yearold Attorney General's opinion. Now the industry's biggest players - DraftKings and FanDuel - are lobbying up, writing fivefigure checks to lawmakers and pushing legislation that would regulate their business. The industry says more than 3 million Floridians play fantasy sports online, including more than a few members of the Legislature. The debate could trigger an interesting clash in the Senate, pitting Gardiner, an uncompromising anti-gambling conservative, against his designated successor, Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart), who is sponsoring the legislation to legalize the industry.
Marijuana / Alcohol
Two years after the Legislature agreed to allow the medical use of a non-euphoric strain of marijuana, the law still hasn't been fully implemented amid a legal and rule-making morass. Lawmakers are advancing legislation this year to streamline that regulatory process and expand the original law, in hopes of having something in place before voters again consider a broader medical marijuana constitutional amendment in November. Meanwhile, Walmart and Target will resume their war with ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and Publix over whether to repeal a law that prohibits liquor from being sold in grocery stores.
It's an election year, which means lawmakers will make sure to generate a lot of sound and fury over social issues in hopes of mobilizing their bases. Already attracting statewide attention is a bill that would allow holders of concealed weapons permits to carry their firearms onto college campuses and another that would allow people to carry guns openly in public. One or both are likely to pass the House, but they'll probably die in the Senate. Some House Republicans are also pushing legislation that would rewrite the definition of the first trimester in a pregnancy from 12 weeks to 10.
After successfully lobbying for legislation a few years ago to clamp down on what it said were often bogus sinkhole claims, the insurance industry says it has a new crisis on its hands: Construction firms and attorneys who are persuading homeowners to sign over their policies and then submitting excessive or inflated claims. The industry wants lawmakers to curtail so-called "assignment of benefits" rights insurance policies. But they'll face opposition from trial attorneys.
If the session winds up in a standoff with the governor, the Senate holds a grenade: The ability to fire many of the senior people in his administration. The Senate, which must confirm most of Scott's agency heads, refused to act on almost all of them last year amid the health care standoff (the lone exception being Adjutant General Michael Calhoun). The governor immediately reappointed his people after the session ended, but that won't be an option again. If the Senate does not act this session, all the agency chiefs who have failed to win confirmation a second time - lawmakers call them "two-time losers" - will be out of a job. Those facing the guillotine include Secretary of State Ken Detzner; FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen; and Jon Steverson, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. One of the reasons the Senate wants to get some major legislation to Scott's desk early is to force him to sign or veto bills before it decides whether to blow up his administration.
Corcoran's Inner Circle
Rep. Richard Corcoran is the most powerful person in the Legislature. No one else is close. The Republican attorney from Pasco County, who chairs the House budget committee and will become Speaker of the House next year, commands the loyalty of dozens of GOP House members. He was instrumental in installing both the current Speaker and the one who will come after him. Here's a look are some of the people in his inner circle:
Rep. Carlos Trujillo (R-Miami): During Corcoran's race to become Speaker for the 2016-18 term, the turning point came when Trujillo, a 32-year-old trial lawyer from Miami, delivered the votes from the Miami-Dade delegation. The two have vacationed together with their families, and Trujillo is often mentioned as a possible budget chairman next year. Corcoran, once chief of staff to Marco Rubio when Rubio was Speaker, is also close to several other members from Miami, including Reps. Jeannette Nunez (who could get the coveted budget chairmanship if Trujillo doesn't) and Jose Felix Diaz.
Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami Lakes): After securing the support of lawmakers for his speakership in 2016, Corcoran helped Oliva, the 43-year-old owner of a cigar business, win his own race to become Speaker following the 2018 elections. The two have remained allies ever since. "There's not an inch of daylight between Richard Corcoran and Jose Oliva," says one current Republican House member.
Michael Corcoran: Richard Corcoran's brother is also one of the Capitol's most successful lobbyists, and founding partner of Corcoran & Johnston, which earns approximately $3 million a year in legislative lobbying fees from clients such as Florida Crystals, Walmart and Verizon. The brothers speak affectionately of each other but insist that Michael does not receive favorable treatment. But Richard Corcoran has taken an interest in some of his brother's issues in the past, such as earmarking state money for the private IMG Academy, an important client of Michael Corcoran's firm.
Matthew Bahl: A veteran Republican staffer in Tallahassee, Bahl is expected to serve as Corcoran's chief of staff when he formally takes the gavel later this year. Corcoran first brought Bahl into the Legislature nearly a decade ago, when Corcoran, then Rubio's chief of staff, hired Bahl to be director of the whip's office. Bahl later served as chief of staff himself under former House Speaker Dean Cannon, who is now a lobbyist in Tallahassee.
Rich Newsome: The founding partner of Orlando-based personal injury firm Newsome Melton, Newsome has known Corcoran for more than three decades. Newsome was one of the small group of family and friends that Corcoran invited to a reception last year to celebrate his designation as future Speaker. The friendship is emblematic of one of the more unlikely alliances in Tallahassee between Corcoran, a conservative Republican, and the state's trial lawyer lobby, typically a Democraticleaning group. The Florida Justice Association has become an important source of campaign cash for candidates Corcoran supports. And Corcoran's rise in the House has coincided with the chamber becoming less supportive of bills pushed by the business lobby that would further restrict civil lawsuits.
An Uneasy Truce
For more than three years, the Florida Senate has been an unhappy place. The chamber's Republican caucus, which controls 26 of 40 seats, was divided over whether Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart) or Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clear water) should succeed Gardiner as Senate president after the 2016 election. The feud bred paranoia and unpleasantness. Every vote, no matter how innocuous the issue, was refracted through the lens of the contest for the presidency - seen in terms of which candidate it would help and which it would hurt.
Some senators, who traditionally pride themselves on being more collegial than House members, spewed epithets behind each other's backs. The protracted contest "sucked all the joy out of public service," one senator says. Things may be different this year. In November, amid a second unsuccessful redistricting special session, Negron and Latvala struck a deal in which Negron will become president and will name Latvala his appropriations chairman. The agreement was sealed in December, when the Senate GOP caucus formally voted to make Negron the president-designate. It isn't all hugs and kisses, though. Some senators, particularly those had been backing Latvala, are privately upset at the arrangement. How well Negron and Latvala soothe those hard feelings will go a long way to determining how well the Senate functions this session.