With the 2014 session past the halfway mark, work for some Capitol insiders has only just begun.
It won't be long before the pizza boxes start piling up outside offices where legislative budget writers and their staff --- and the lobbyists looking to slip line items into the state's $75 billion spending plan --- are soon to be holed up as they iron out differences between the two chambers' proposals.
But the budget won't be the only focus during the second half of the session. It's also "Hail Mary" time for players whose proposals are still in limbo.
The lights haven't gone out yet on House Speaker Will Weatherford's high-priority bill --- already approved by his chamber --- that would allow illegal immigrants who have attended at least four consecutive years of Florida schooling to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities, up to four times cheaper than the rates most pay now. The Senate version (SB 1400) will get another committee hearing next week.
And parents of children with a severe form of epilepsy are keeping their fingers crossed while House and Senate leaders work out a deal regarding a strain of marijuana that doesn't get users high but is believed to put an end to life-threatening seizures. House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who has serious concerns with the proposal, agreed this week to give Rep. Matt Gaetz's proposal (HB 843) a hearing. The plan has become a priority of Gaetz's father, Senate President Don Gaetz, which almost certainly enhances its chances of survival.
Others are already celebrating at the midway mark. Gov. Rick Scott spent three days signing into law election-year measures that would help military veterans, cut costs for drivers and crack down on sexually violent predators.
Meanwhile, the gambling industry may be holding a wake. Despite some high-pressure lobbying, hefty campaign contributions and a big chunk of taxpayer change spent on a gambling study, Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter announced on the Senate floor Thursday that a sweeping gambling bill "isn't in the cards" this year. There's a bright spot on the horizon for lobbyists and the industry, however. Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, who was at the podium when Richter said his gambling plans didn't pan out, promised that the chamber would deal with the issue next year.
But for the vast majority of those whose issues remain unresolved, game on.
SENATE FOLDS ON GAMBLING OVERHAUL
It wasn't much of a surprise when Richter told the Senate he lacked the votes to advance a "big, huge proposed committee bill" that would have authorized two casino hotels in South Florida.
But Richter's announcement on the floor officially confirmed weeks-long speculation that any gambling overhaul was dead this year.
"It has become increasingly apparent to me that, even on our committee, reaching consensus on a 400-page gaming reform bill just is not in the cards," Richter, R-Naples, said. "We don't have a consensus in the committee."
Richter's efforts became nearly Herculean after Weatherford laid out two requirements --- a sealed deal between Scott and the Seminole Tribe of Florida and a constitutional amendment giving voters future say over gambling expansion --- for passage of any gambling legislation.
Now, Scott holds the cards for any expansion as he renegotiates a $1 billion, five-year deal with the Seminoles set to expire in mid-2015.
The elements of any new deal hinge on the tribe's exclusive rights to have certain games at its casinos, even if only in specific geographic areas, and revenue paid to the state. Federal law requires any revenue-sharing agreement with the state to include something of value for the tribe, and the feds have to sign off on any compact struck between Florida and the Seminoles. The state Legislature has to authorize the deal as well.
"I think we can reasonably expect an agreement soon that may significantly alter revenue-sharing or exclusivity provisions. If we put the gaming reform cart in front of the Seminole compact horse, we run the risk of getting policies at cross-purposes. The wiser course is to be patient and to address comprehensive gaming reform in the context of a compact ratification," Richter said Thursday.
Gardiner, an Orlando Republican and gambling foe who will take over as president after the November elections, gave gambling lobbyists gathered in the Capitol's fourth-floor rotunda hope, even as Richter dashed this year's dreams.
Addressing Richter, Gardiner said that, although he disagreed with Richter on some gambling issues, work on the bill "allowed us to air that out in public and put everybody on notice that several of us will be here next year and we will be pursuing a gaming bill," Gardiner said. "I look forward to being here next year and congratulating you on passing that gaming bill."
HOUSE AND SENATE READY FOR BUDGET TALKS
The chambers on Thursday approved plans to spend about $75 billion in the budget year that begins July 1, setting up negotiations between the two sides over how much to devote to priorities ranging from education to child welfare to the environment.
"The differences aren't as extraordinary as they have been in some years, so I don’t think we should have much difficulty getting to allocations relatively quickly," said House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.
Despite squabbling on both sides of the Capitol about elements of each proposal, the measures passed by lopsided margins. The House approved its $75.3 billion blueprint on a 100-16 vote, with most Democrats joining the Republican majority in voting for the bill. The Senate followed that up by almost unanimously passing its $74.9 billion budget, with the biggest dust-up centered on an effort to split up the joint College of Engineering operated by Florida A&M University and Florida State University.
The Senate budget already included $10 million for FSU to begin the planning and construction of an on-campus, stand-alone engineering school. An amendment authored by Sen. John Thrasher --- a St. Augustine Republican widely believed to be a front-runner to become FSU's next president --- also put $3 million in operating funds behind the idea.
But black lawmakers said the proposal evoked memories of a painful time when the law school at historically black Florida A&M was shuttered in favor of a similar school at FSU.
"The fear of the (alumni) of Florida A&M University and many others in this state, particularly those of color, is that this is the beginning of the end of our institution," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, one of the last graduates of the original FAMU law school. " ... I want to know that the lights won't be dimmed and the door closed on the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering."
Thrasher, who helped reopen the FAMU law school in 2000, said he hoped the proposal would strengthen FAMU's program, in part by getting rid of a requirement that students at the school meet the same admissions requirements.
"If I thought for one second that this was not going to enhance the Florida A&M University engineering school, I wouldn't do it," he said before the amendment was approved on a voice vote.
SCOTT SIGNS HIGH-PROFILE BILLS
Scott signed three sets of bills this week, extending olive branches to at least two sets of constituents as he seeks re-election.
Flanked by military veterans in Panama City on Monday, Scott signed the "Florida GI Bill," modeled after the World War II-era program and intended to make Florida the most military-friendly state in the nation.
The wide-ranging measure (HB 7015), rushed through the Legislature the first week of session as a priority of Weatherford and Gaetz, provides university tuition waivers for veterans, pays for military and guard base improvements, is aimed at increasing employment opportunities for veterans and allocates $1 million a year to market the Sunshine State to vets.
Scott tied his own experiences when leaving the U.S. Navy to wanting to support veterans and active duty service members.
"I remember when I got out of the Navy back in the early '70s, it was not a good time to get out of the service in this country," Scott said."Our veterans were not respected; it was a tough time. We're going to make sure that is this is the most military-friendly state for active-duty members, but also for all the veterans."
During a ceremony Tuesday in the Capitol's Cabinet meeting room that included sheriffs, prosecutors, lawmakers, sexual-assault victims and victims' family members, Scott signed into law a suite of measures (SB 522, SB 524, SB 526 and SB 528) aimed at cracking down on sexually violent predators. Scott and other speakers said the bills will make Florida's children safer.
Supporters hope the bills will prevent a repeat of incidents such as the kidnapping, rape and murder last year of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle in Jacksonville, a case that drew widespread attention. A registered sex offender, Donald Smith, has been arrested in the case.
More broadly, supporters hope the legislation will address problems raised in an investigative report by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The newspaper reported that the commitment of sexually violent predators under the state's Jimmy Ryce Act had slowed to a crawl. Also, it found that since 1999, nearly 600 sexual predators had been released only to be convicted of new sex offenses --- including more than 460 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.
The bills make numerous changes to the state's criminal and civil-commitment laws. As an example, SB 526 would lead to mandatory minimum sentences of 50 years in prison for what are known as dangerous sexual felony offenders.
Scott capped the bill signings Wednesday with a politically-charged ceremony in the Capitol that had the tone of a campaign event even though it was on government property. Scott gave final approval to a measure (SB 156) that will roll back vehicle-registration fees that were increased in 2009 amid state budget woes.
Scott repeatedly noted that the unpopular fee increases were enacted under former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is seeking to unseat Scott during this November's election.
"We're going to right the wrong of this 2009 tax increase that Charlie Crist enacted," Scott said.
One of Scott's "critical" priorities for this spring's legislative session, the reduction is expected to save Floridians between $20 and $25 per vehicle registration, with the total depending on the size of the vehicle.
Kevin Cate, a spokesman for Crist's campaign, responded to Scott's announcement by saying the "ridiculous press conference" exposed the current governor's "political desperation."
"Everyone knows that Charlie Crist signed one of the largest tax cuts (a property tax cut) in the history of Florida and was also forced to make tough decisions to prevent devastating blows to teachers, students, first responders, and our most vulnerable Floridians,” Cate said in an email.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter told the chamber he lacks the votes to get a comprehensive gambling package out of his committee and will not present the bill next week.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "The conference should be fantastic. It will either be really short or long and awesome, and I'm hoping for long and awesome. Both Hukill and I have the same machismo for the tasks we've had ahead of us this year, which was to cut taxes, so it ought to be fun either way, because the end result either way is a tax cut." --- House Finance & Tax Chairman Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, on pending talks with Senate counterpart Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange.