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Florida's 2019 Issues

WATER

Ron DeSantis won the governor’s race without giving voters a clear idea of what exactly he would do once in office. One promise he made repeatedly was to clean up the state’s water, especially the polluted discharges coming out of Lake Okeechobee and into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. Against that backdrop, everybody in Tallahassee knows the Legislature has to do something this spring on water; the question is whether they’ll be able to agree on anything other than throwing more money at the problem and rearranging a few bureaucracies.

DeSantis’ top priority is getting a reservoir south of Lake O built, but unless the state is willing to front the federal government’s share, there may be a limit to how fast the project can move. And House leaders in recent years have resisted buying more sugar farmland for the reservoir and cannibalizing money ticketed for other Everglades restoration projects.

Meanwhile, other big policy changes — requiring stricter management practices for farmers, for example, or forcing homeowners off septic tanks and onto sewer connections — could alienate big campaign donors or large swaths of voters. There will also be scads of smaller projects and proposals in the mix, from establishing a red tide initiative at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota to deep water injection wells north of Lake O.

HEALTH CARE

Jose Oliva has been completely clear where he wants to flex his muscle this session: Injecting more competition into the health care system. Hospitals, in particular, are in for a beating as the House will push hard for policies such as eliminating certificates of need, allowing longer stays at non-hospital surgical centers, mandating pricing transparency, and redoing Medicaid reimbursement rates. Oliva is even exploring potential antitrust actions against some large hospital chains or challenging their non-profit status.

The House also wants to make what are known as scope of practice changes — allowing nurses, pharmacists and other health care practitioners to provide more services that currently only doctors can do. Doctors, of course, despise that idea. The scope of practice debates will pose an early test of DeSantis’ loyalties, since they pit Oliva and the Florida Medical Association — two important early supporters of his gubernatorial campaign — against each other. The Senate has in recent years been a bulwark for hospitals, and many senators will likely resist the House’s plans. But it’s a fact of life in the Capitol that when a House Speaker or a Senate president really wants something, he or she usually gets it.

Something else to watch: With a Trump ally (DeSantis) in the governor’s mansion and the Trump administration’s former Medicaid director (Mary Mayhew) now running the Agency for Health Care Administration, the Legislature may revive efforts to mandate work or community service requirements as a condition of receiving Medicaid benefits.

GAMBLING

Bill Galvano has been at the center of the gambling debates in the Florida Legislature for more than a decade — a public policy pit of vipers in which pari-mutuels, casino developers, online operations like DraftKings and FanDuel, Disney and the Seminole Tribe annually undermine each other and poison efforts to craft any sort of comprehensive plan for the state. Now that he’s in the Senate president’s chair, Galvano would love to finally get something done. One sign of how serious he is about it: He put Wilton Simpson, who will be his successor as president, in charge of handling the issue in the Senate.

It wouldn’t be shocking to see some sort of deal in which the House gets its health care package in exchange for the Senate’s gaming package. Then again, there’s a new complication this year: Amendment 3. That was the Disney- and Seminole Tribe-backed constitutional amendment that passed in November requiring a statewide referendum for any expansion of casino gambling, which the amendment defines as the types of games typically found in casinos. The amendment all but ensures that even if the Legislature passes gambling changes — whether a long-term compact with the Seminoles, a lower tax rate on slot machines at pari-mutuels or fantasy sports betting — they’ll be met with an immediate legal challenge.

HIGHER EDUCATION

Florida’s universities should be as nervous as hospitals this session. There’s a palpable backlash building against universities, particularly in the House, where lawmakers question the wisdom of investing enormous sums of money in sprawling academic campuses. That’s a big reason why University of Central Florida administrators have faced a legislative tar-and-feathering this winter for the school’s decision to use leftover operating dollars to pay for construction projects. “I think there’s a general sentiment that health care and education are almost identical industries,” says one House member. Adds another member in House leadership: Besides health care, university funding “will get the most attention.”

University leaders can’t count on the Senate to protect them. Senate leaders say they want to put more emphasis on Florida’s community colleges this session after the schools took a beating under former Senate President Joe Negron.

K-12

This could be another big year for the school-choice movement. DeSantis, who made former House Speaker Richard Corcoran the state’s new education commissioner, is a supporter of charter and private schools. And with the forced retirements of the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles’ last three Supreme Court appointees — each of whom has been replaced by justices chosen by DeSantis — lawmakers feel emboldened that the court won’t deem more radical changes unconstitutional. Expect lawmakers to give charter schools a bigger share of public school construction money and to expand the corporate tax credit scholarship program. And even before the session began, education staffers were working on plans to begin testing educational savings accounts — universal vouchers in which parents receive a set amount of money for a children’s education to use however they see fit, whether that involves a public school, a private school, a virtual school or home schooling.

BUDGET AND TAXES

Sales tax and corporate-income tax receipts, the two biggest contributors to the state’s general revenue, have grown faster than expected in recent months. But spending on Hurricane Michael recovery has sucked up a lot of the extra cash, and the threat of a recession is rising. Lawmakers will have to find a way to balance a relatively rosy short term against a much more uncertain medium term as they build a $91-billion state budget.

There’s been talk of commandeering economic development money the state got from the BP oil spill to help in Panhandle recovery efforts. Raising money via bonds could help: With Rick Scott out of the governor’s mansion, budget writers in both the House and the Senate appear open to the idea of taking on new debt to tackle an infrastructure backlog — something DeSantis is likely to support if it helps him get that southern reservoir built sooner. Expect yet another package of tax cuts, including another back-to-school sales tax holiday, and business lobbyists are optimistic that DeSantis and the Legislature will continue to reduce the sales tax charged on commercial rent.

One important story to watch: The impact of Amendment 5, the Scott-backed ballot measure that prevents the Legislature from imposing a new tax or raising an existing tax or fee unless it does so by a two-thirds vote. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has made it possible for states to extend their sales tax to online sales, which could be a lucrative source of new revenue for the state. Some lawmakers argue that extending an existing tax to online sales wouldn’t constitute raising a tax, but any legislation would almost certainly be challenged in court. There are arguments that the amendment could even apply to things like indexing tolls to inflation or changes to government procurement reform.

MARIJUANA

One of the grenades DeSantis threw in the blitzkrieg of his first two weeks in office blasted the Legislature for ignoring voters and failing to implement the 2016 constitutional amendment authorizing medical marijuana. The new governor wants the Legislature to allow patients to smoke marijuana and, more significantly, to dismantle the vertically integrated regulatory scheme that requires single entities to grow, process, transport and sell the product and severely restricts the number of licensees. DeSantis wants the Legislature to act early in the session, or else he’ll stop fighting legal challenges the state is in the midst of and allow the courts to impose their will. But getting the Legislature to make the changes will be tough, as marijuana issues already rival gambling as one of the most intensely lobbied subjects in the Capitol. Days before DeSantis called out the Legislature, a lawmaker deeply involved in marijuana policy said, “I think it’s going to be a tough lift to get something through the Legislature.”

ALL THE REST

- The February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland will remain an emotional flashpoint this year as lawmakers continue to debate further school security changes.

- Lobbyists seem unusually optimistic that significant tort reform could happen this session, as the Senate may not be happy with trial lawyers who helped finance Democratic challengers to several Republican incumbents last fall. That could mean changes to things like assignment of benefits clauses in property insurance contracts, bad faith lawsuits against insurers and PIP auto insurance.

- Airbnb, the vacation-rental industry, hotel chains and local governments will battle over how to regulate vacation rentals.

- Galvano wants to pass legislation reviving some enormous, and controversial, toll-road projects: The Heartland Parkway, from Polk County to Lee, and an extension of the Suncoast Parkway north of Tampa from Hernando County to the Georgia line — plus a connector linking the Suncoast with Florida’s Turnpike.

- There will be continuing efforts to strip cities and counties of their power to regulate everything from nursing home emergency preparedness to residential vegetable gardens.

- Criminal justice reform should get a lot of attention, especially the Legislature’s efforts to play a role in deciding how to carry out Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to many felons who have completed their sentences.

- Pressure is building to better address affordable housing and skilled workforce shortages, and a growing number of lawmakers are expressing interest in autonomous vehicle policy and infrastructure.

- Spooked in part by the prospect of a John Morgan-backed $15 minimum wage ballot measure, DeSantis and the business lobby could make a big push for changes that would make it harder to amend the state Constitution.

 

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