Top Issues of the 2017 Legislative Session
The Florida legislature will convene on Tuesday, March 7 for the start of its annual, 60-day session. The top priority is ironing out a state budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. But to get there, lawmakers will have to address dozens of other issues.
Rick Scott vs. Richard Corcoran vs. Joe Negron
An intra-party fight among Republicans is dominating decisions downstream ahead of the 2017 legislative session. Scott is pushing an agenda focused on his main priority: “jobs”. But his plans to grow the state’s business recruitment and tourism agencies is running head-long into opposition from House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a possible 2018 gubernatorial candidate. Corcoran is also bumping heads with Senate President Joe Negron over the latter’s desire to spend more than $2 billion on a reservoir to store polluted water runoff south of Lake Okeechobee. There’s also disagreement over how to address gambling in the state, with the Senate pushing for major changes, and the House focused on how to restrict proliferation of gaming.
Business Enterprise Florida/Visit Florida: Governor Rick Scott is butting heads with the Florida House over its plans to cut the state’s tourism development arm, Enterprise Florida, and eliminate the business recruitment agency Enterprise Florida. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has decried what he sees as a corporate welfare system rife with abuse.
Gambling Overhaul: The Florida Senate has a plan that would renew a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, regulate Fantasy Sports systems like Draft Kings and Fan Duel, allow pari-mutuels to de-couple animal racing from their gambling activities and honor local government referendums on slots. But a competing house measure takes a different approach. It essentially freeze gambling as it is now—meaning a provision that requires pari-mutuels to run a certain number of live events, like dog races, would continue. The Seminole Compact would be extended as-is for another 20 years, and pari-mutuels not currently offering slots wouldn’t be allowed to offer the games in the future. House leaders view the Senate’s plan as a gaming expansion. Senate leaders view the House’s proposal as a mechanism for tying the hands of lawmakers for the next two decades.
Environment Lake Okeechobee Land Buy : Senate President Joe Negron wants the state and federal government to split the cost of a $2.4 billion reservoir on 60,000 acres of farmland South of Lake Okeechobee. It’s already part of a massive Everglades restoration plan, but he wants to speed it up by borrowing against Amendment 1 dollars. House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Governor Rick Scott are opposed on fiscal grounds, saying they don’t want to increase state debt. Negron and environmentalists say it’s needed to store polluted lake runoff and prevent algae blooms that fouled South Florida beaches and threatened tourism. A Senate bill would force the South Florida Water Management District to exercise an option on a previous agreement with U.S. Sugar if no willing sellers can be found, but it stops short of calling for eminent domain. The House is in no mood for major public works projects, and more importantly, doesn’t want to anger Big Sugar, a major source of campaign donations.
Fracking: Senate Pro-Tempore Anitre Flores of Miami is signing on to a hydraulic fracturing ban filed by her Republican colleague, Dana Young of Tampa. A Central Florida Republican is sponsoring the bill in the House, but such a move would go against Speaker Richard Corcoran’s free-market principles. Worse for fracking opponents, House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues sponsored an industry backed bill last year and is still smarting from the Senate’s refusal to pass it. Senate President Joe Negron is refusing to give a fracking ban his full throated endorsement. The bill is not likely to pass, at least as a statewide prohibition.
Campus Carry: A plan to allow licensed concealed carry at Florida’s public colleges and universities is back before the Florida legislature. Campus administrators oppose it, saying college kids and guns is a bad mix. But proponents like Florida Carry and the National Rifle Association argue it would allow students to protect themselves, and they point to issues such as campus sexual assaults and shootings to back up their point.
Gun-Free Zones/Open Carry:Some Florida Republicans want to expand the number of places and circumstances under which gun owners can carry their firearms. That includes places previously off-limits, such as public college and university campuses, public schools, government offices and airports. Their argument: people have a right to defend themselves, and criminals don’t abide by gun-free restrictions. There’s also a measure that would allow victims of gun violence in private businesses that don’t allow guns, to sue. Republican Sen. Greg Stube is the main sponsor of the measures. Last year the Senate managed to kill both the Open Carry and Campus Carry gun bills.
Stand Your Ground: During a pre-trial immunity hearing for Stand Your Ground cases, the accused must convince a judge their self-defense claim is legitimate to avoid a trial. But, under a bill by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, that burden would be shifted to prosecutors in Stand Your Ground cases. Bradley says his bill will correct a misinterpretation of the Stand Your Ground law by the Florida Supreme Court. In its majority opinion in 2015, the high court ruled that shifting the burden of proof to state attorneys would make them have to prove their case twice. But, Bradley says he agrees with the dissenting opinion, and hopes his bill clarifies the law’s legislative intent.
Education Recess: A group calling itself the “Recess Moms” is once again pushing the state to make uninterrupted free play mandatory in the state’s public schools. Not all of them have recess policies, and districts have put the blame for getting rid of recess on the state’s testing requirements. But numerous studies show that recess is beneficial for students. A measure mandating recess failed last year in the House over whether the decision is one best left to local school districts.
Higher Ed Overhaul: The Florida Senate and its leader, Joe Negron are pushing an overhaul of the state’s public college and university system. The changes are largely focused on the state’s colleges are governed and run. Negron wants to tamp down on those schools’ ability to offer four-year baccalaureate degrees, which he views as mission creep. Many colleges offer programs similar to those at the state’s universities. And turf battles between colleges and universities have emerged in the past. Negron’s plans would push colleges to form more partnerships with their university counterparts and move the schools out of the purview of the state board of education and into a new governing board. It would also require colleges and universities to adhere to a four-year graduation rate, instead of the six-year rate now used to judge schools, establishes a fixed, block-tuition rate, for universities and expands the funding amount of Bright Futures scholarships to the highest-performing students.
Healthcare Certificate of Need: Florida’s Republican leaders will try again to repeal limits on the number of hospitals, nursing homes and hospice facilities. The process is called Certificate of Need, and requires approval from the state before such facilities can be built. Supporters say repeal is necessary to increase competition and lower costs. But opponents like the Florida Healthcare Association and hospice groups argue the move could result in over-building, lowering the quality of care, and funding to all facilities.
Medicaid Block Grants: Florida lawmakers have tried for years to get a handle on Medicaid—the insurance program for the poor. Despite efforts to control costs through programs like managed care, the number of Floridians enrolled in Medicaid continues to rise. This happened despite the state refusal to expand the program to even more people through the federal government’s Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Now state Republicans see the possibility of that law being repealed as an opportunity to push Medicaid block grants. That means the federal government would hand over total control of the programs to the states and give them a fixed amount of money. Senate President Joe Negron says there are likely to be benefit cuts and coverage losses under a block grant scenario.
Ambulatory Care/Recovery Care/ Concierge Medicine: Several House-backed proposals are going before lawmakers, including an expansion of and recovery care centers. Such facilities handle smaller surgeries and the legislature wants to let them treat more conditions and keep patients longer in order to avoid higher hospital fees. Another measure, that would allow patients to pay their doctor’s directly for care instead of using insurance companies, is also back before lawmakers. It’s called direct primary care, or concierge medicine.
Immigration: Florida Republican lawmakers are looking to pass several measures aimed at refugees and immigrants. HB 83 increases penalties for certain serious crimes if the crimes are committed by an undocumented immigrant. There's a memorial asking the federal government to change federal law to let states require proof of citizenship to register to vote. SB 1030 would require refugees go through a state background check as part of Florida's participation in the federal refugee resettlement program, and there’s a push to remove Florida from that program completely—though it is largely symbolic. Undocumented students would be required to pay out-of-state tuition—a reversal from a few years ago when the state approved in-state rates for those students.
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