Fresh off a year spent snared in gridlock over redistricting and the state budget, the Florida Legislature returns Tuesday for its annual 60-day session with fresh optimism that it will restore harmony to the process and put a halt to taxpayer-funded overtime.
The session, set two months earlier than normal, is expected to open with the passage of the top priorities of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando: a sweeping rewrite of state water policy and package of bills encouraging the advancement of students with disabilities.
Both proposals died when the House abruptly adjourned three days early last April, in violation of the state Constitution, leaving the budget unfinished.
The early passage of priority bills is designed to provide a cordial coda to a tumultuous year that saw two special sessions on redistricting end in impasse, another special session convened to complete the budget, and a prolonged Senate leadership fight that paralyzed any progress.
My hope is the 2016 session will get back to normalcy — as we call normal around here.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island
Each of those flare-ups became the tinder to an explosive year that has left emotions raw, spawned distrust of Gov. Rick Scott, and left the ruling Republican Party in disarray.
But while Gardiner and Crisafulli say they have mended their rift, many flashpoints remain — from gambling and taxes to guns and healthcare.
“While some people think the place is falling apart, the reality is it’s just part of the process,” said Gardiner, now in his 16th and last year as a legislator. “There’s not much that surprises me. I think what’s more surprising to me is that people are surprised.”
Crisafulli called it “an interesting and extraordinary year for all of us” and is confident the worst is behind them. “My hope is the 2016 session will get back to normalcy — as we call normal around here.”
Tax cuts, incentives
Two of the governor’s top priorities are all but dead on arrival. His $3 billion deal to allow the Seminole Tribe’s casinos to operate craps and roulette in exchange for more revenue sharing money has been rejected by lawmakers in the face of pressure from competing gambling interests. And his plan to cut $1 billion in taxes and spend $250 million in economic development incentive money has been rejected by legislative leaders as both misdirected and too much.
“We want to have significant tax cuts,” Crisafulli said, but the governor’s package of permanent, recurring cuts, “is not off the table so much as it’s just not possible.”
In a new push to diversify Florida’s economy, Scott wants to permanently repeal the corporate income tax paid by retail businesses and manufacturers, which would cost the state $770 million a year in revenues.
He also wants to reduce the sales tax on commercial leases from 6 percent to 5 percent, reducing state revenues $339 million over two years, and repeal the sales taxes on equipment purchased by manufacturers. His plan also includes a temporary sales tax break for college textbooks and revives the sales tax holiday on back-to-school supplies.
Crisafulli said the House can agree to tax cuts but not the recurring kind that will bind future legislatures. Plus, he said, lawmakers want to steer “record funding” to education and is looking at some state agencies “where we’re falling short” and might “need to boost pay.”
$600 million is the projected budget surplus
Gardiner echoed the call for tax cuts, noting that the Senate “will have over $1 billion in tax cut bills to pick and choose,” but he said legislators are also committed to increasing funds for severely cut mental health programs. He also wants to reduce the waiting list for services for persons with disabilities, address shortfalls at the troubled prison agency and expand education funding.
“You’ve got to put it all on the table and figure out what you can get to,” he said.
Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee, warns that the surplus estimated at $600 million — after annual growth in existing programs is calculated — is no panacea.
“Just because there’s a $600 million surplus doesn’t mean there’s manna coming from the sky,” he said. “In moments of austerity, we have to cut back in some significant areas, and this new money is not magical money that appeared from nowhere. A lot of it used to be in the budget.”
Democrats see conflict between Scott and his Republican colleagues as a problem of their own making.
“He is one of the few people I know in elected office that has followed through exactly what he said he was going to do,” said House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “He said he wanted to make government smaller, and he said he’s wanted to get rid of taxes, and he’s really come through. The problem is, there’s not been an honest measurement in terms of what the outcomes are.”
The result, Pafford said, is programs that were cut during the recession have not had funds restored, waiting lists for the disabled and the elderly have grown and public education is “gasping for air.”
“He does not feel a need to work with the Legislature and that is going to be a problem,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, the incoming Senate Democratic Leader. He blames Scott for spending more time attending ribbon cuttings at jobs events than managing the needs of the state.
“The governor has bragged about being singularly focused on jobs but by being singularly focused, he neglects everything else,” Braynon said. “The chicken is coming home to roost, and now we’re not able to provide services to the people of Florida.”
By contrast, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, the House’s budget chairman, said that after the turmoil of last session and the record budget vetoes that angered many lawmakers, the governor has been “more engaged with all legislators this year than ever before.”
The governor has asked legislators to let him control $250 million in business incentives money he says he needs to focus on diversifying a lopsided economy that he now suggests might not be able to keep pace with other states.
But dedicating a cash fund that massive to the governor and his economic development efforts, the management of which has been heavily criticized by the Senate, is opposed by the conservative tea party group, Americans For Prosperity, and is not being greeted warmly by either chamber.
“The House is not fans of corporate cronyism — $250 million going to specific businesses,” Corcoran said. The House prefers incentives that benefit an entire industry, he said, such as the manufacturing and retail tax breaks, and opposes development funds that allow the governor to “pick and choose.”
Contributing to the legislature’s resistance to the governor’s tax proposals is the perception that the cuts don’t do enough to help average Floridians in an election year.
“It is the Legislature that is directly accountable to voters, and what I hear people say is that they’d like to see tax cuts on things that affect them more directly,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. “If there is extra money, then the manufacturing tax cuts could be appealing, but I don’t think we should do that at the expense of tax cuts that affect everyday Floridians. I hope it doesn’t become a battle.”
Flores is among a growing group of Republicans opposed to the practice by counties, and accepted by the governor, of relying on the increase in property taxes from rising property values to pay for schools.
She has proposed a bill (SB 1222) that would tie increases in property tax rates to the growth in per capita income of Floridians, making it harder for cities and counties to raise revenue from rising property values.
Scott has stuck to vague talking points in defense of his tax cut plan but last week he launched a $1 million television ad buy featuring business owners, aimed at convincing state legislators to approve his complete tax-cut package to diversify the state’s tourism-dependent economy.
“That’s not the way to influence the Legislature,” Braynon said. “We’re not looking at television and saying, ‘Maybe the governor’s right.’”
The most controversial bill, however, is one that could solve much of the tax cut debate, if approved: the gaming compact. The Legislature must ratify the gaming compact signed between the governor and the Seminole Tribe, and, if accepted, could bring as much as $325 million a year beginning in 2017.
The $3 billion deal expands gambling by giving the tribe blackjack at all seven of its casinos and the exclusive right to operate craps and roulette in Florida. It also opens the door to additional slots casinos in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties but does nothing to lower the tax rates or give expanded gambling options to the tribe’s parimutuel competitors in South Florida or Tampa.
The deal, as written, is “very unlikely” to pass, Crisafulli told reporters. A lead negotiator in the Senate, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, last week predicted the issue will take two years to resolve because of the many competing interests.
“Whether it’s the parimutuels, the Indians or Disney World, everybody has a stake in the game,” Crisafulli said. “It is a very challenging issue to pass out of the Legislature. That’s just the reality. But can it be done? Certainly.”
Diaz, the House’s point man on the issue, said his chamber is unlikely to support any deal without an accompanying constitutional amendment that bans future gaming expansion, and the Miami-Dade delegation is unified in opposition of any proposal that does not send a proportionate share of the revenue back to Miami-Dade.
“My constituents care about making sure Miami-Dade County doesn’t get a bunch of expansion with no benefit,” Diaz said. “They don’t want to continue to be a donor county in every single part of the budget.”
Lawmakers also disagree over how to advance healthcare reforms. The House and governor want to punish hospitals and encourage more competition. They propose expanding the ability of ambulatory surgery centers to hold patients for more than 24 hours, end regulations relating to certificate of need and impose more pricing transparency over hospital salaries and costs.
But Gardiner and other Senate leaders say they want to treat all healthcare providers equally — imposing the same reforms on hospice and nursing homes — which could effectively tangle the issue.
A bill to require all licensed healthcare facilities, and doctors, to disclose their prices on 70 common services and 20 health problems by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, filed last week was immediately criticized by the governor’s office.
Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said it “simply doesn’t go far enough” because it doesn’t penalize hospitals for what the governor considers “price gouging.”
While the Medicaid expansion debate is not likely to resurface this year, a vestige of it will. Federal health officials warned Florida that the Low Income Pool, which helps hospitals cover the cost of charity care, will be capped at $608 million for 2016-17, down from $1 billion this year. Lawmakers must decide whether to help hospitals make up the difference by giving them state dollars or, as the governor has suggested, order the hospitals with larger cash surpluses to subsidize those without the same cushion.
There is $392 million less coming for 2016-17 in the federal funds provided for the Low Income Pool to help hospitals defray the cost of charity patients.
Guns are also a flashpoint. While proposals to allow concealed weapons permit holders 21 and older to carry firearms on college campuses and another to allow them to openly carry their firearms in public are moving in the House, the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, did not give the campus-carry bills a hearing last year and may not give either one a hearing this session.
Overshadowing it all is the election year tension prompted by Florida’s presidential primary — set for four days after the session ends — and the fact that redistricting has forced senators to run in 40 newly drawn, more competitive districts.
“I wouldn’t say it will affect every vote, but it’s going to be a factor. In races where two members are running against each other, they may be looking over their shoulder to see where the other is going to be on a vote,” said Diaz, the Miami Republican. “People are extra cautious in an election year, and they should be.”
Mary Ellen Klas: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas
▪ Jan. 12: Legislative session begins.
▪ March 11: Legislative session ends.
▪ March 15: Florida presidential preference primary.