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In Tallahassee, Bills Are Dying

Members, bills are dying.

Those four words --- or something like them --- have long been used by legislative committee chairmen and presiding officers to try to get lawmakers to focus on the task at hand or to move quickly through contentious agendas. The line also happens to fit what starts happening as the session enters its second half.
Some of this year's bills that are in trouble --- such as gun bills bottled up in the Senate by Judiciary Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami --- have been on the brink almost since the legislative session began. Others, like legislation to formalize a gambling agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe, are "heavy lifts," to use the phrase almost always attached to gaming bills. One high-profile health-care bill is already formally dead in the Senate.

But other fights live on. The House and Senate are still trying to reach a compromise on Gov. Rick Scott's two biggest priorities, tax cuts and a package of economic development incentives, though it's not clear how interested the governor is in compromising on either. And a House floor fight on education this week might act as a preview to even more controversial initiatives on public schools in the weeks ahead.

The more time that the Legislature spends on those proposals, the larger the number of bills that will die.

LET'S MAKE A DEAL

Scott came into the legislative session with two key priorities. And whether planned or not, the House and the Senate each seem willing to give him one. Lawmakers in the House favor a $1 billion tax cut, albeit one structured differently than the governor's idea, and the upper chamber is willing to go along with a $250 million "Florida Enterprise Fund."

That scenario makes it very likely that each side will get part of the governor's agenda, and Scott will end up with half a loaf (or maybe a little more) on both issues.

"I think it's important that everybody is going to have to give, everybody is going to have to give a little," Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, told reporters Thursday. "The House is going to have to give, the Senate is going to have to give, and the governor is going to have to give."

At the same time, Scott's economic development plans seemed to gain some momentum in the House, where the chamber moved closer to the Senate on a new process for approving incentives. But the funding for the effort remains a sticking point between the two sides.

"We've got to start sitting down with the Senate and you've got to look at the numbers," House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said. "I think the House is committed to doing as much as we can in tax cuts and that's what we've rolled out in our budget."

Both the House and Senate are now proposing that any incentive deals through the Florida Enterprise Fund would have at least a 20 percent local financial match. Projects would be intended to create at least 10 jobs, and no payments would be made until performance conditions are met.

The Senate incentives-policy proposal (SB 1646) also would require projected economic benefits to provide a 2.5-to-1 return on investment. The House measure (HB 1325), which initially stood at 5-to-1, has been moved down to a 3-to-1 return on investment.

The talks could affect the Legislature's one constitutionally required duty of passing a budget before the session adjourns. The tax cuts and incentives are at the heart of discussions about allocations --- how much money will be put in each part of the spending plan --- that must be done before budget negotiations begin. Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said those negotiations wouldn't begin until at least early next week.

SUPREME COURT AND SCHOOLS

The House floor was consumed this week with two issues: how to fix the death penalty after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down Florida's process for sentencing and whether to give parents more choices in education.

A compromise with the Senate on the death penalty, which emerged as an issue when the high court handed down its decision on the first day of the legislative session, overwhelmingly passed the House.

The bill would require at least 10 jurors to recommend the death penalty for the sentence to be imposed and would empower juries to decide whether defendants should die or be imprisoned for life without the chance for parole.

The House and Senate had been split on whether jury recommendations for death sentences should be unanimous, an idea supported by the Senate while the House proposed 9-3 jury decisions. Under current law, simple majorities of juries have been able to recommend execution to judges.

Crisafulli praised the legislation, saying lawmakers have complied with the Supreme Court ruling.

"Changing the requirement for a jury's sentencing verdict to be agreed upon by at least 10 of the 12 jurors has moved us to a position where we have gone beyond what was asked of us by the Supreme Court. These reforms will allow us to keep the death penalty in our toolbox to punish our most violent criminals," Crisafulli said.

The education legislation caused fiery clashes in the chamber. The House pushed through bills aimed at giving bonuses to teachers based partly on their scores on college admissions tests (HB 7043); easing the path for some charter school providers to open additional campuses (HB 7029); and allowing students to go to any school in the state that has open seats (HB 699).

Democrats hammered away at the provisions they found objectionable. House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, lambasted the bill that would allow high-performing charter school providers to more easily expand, saying that calling charter facilities "public schools" was a ruse.

"The rigged system that we have continues to channel public tax dollars to a private-school system that over time is diminishing our traditional schools," Pafford said.

Republicans responded, as they often do on choice bills, that approaches like charter schools increase the chances that students will get high-quality educations.

"We have to break the chains of the prison guards of the past who want to preserve just what was, and open these doors of opportunity for the future," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

TAKING A SHOT WITH SLOTS

Following months of negotiations between the Seminole Tribe and the state on a new gaming compact, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee approved legislation that would likely require more negotiations between the Seminole Tribe and the state.

"We are not back to square one, at all," committee Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told reporters after a meeting Wednesday at which the bill was approved.

Whichever square lawmakers are now on, the Senate legislation would allow pari-mutuels in at least six counties to add slot machines, a move that drove a wedge between the House and the Senate on the $3 billion deal signed by Scott and the Seminoles. Under the compact, the tribe would add craps and roulette to its casino operations in exchange for a guarantee of $3 billion in payments to the state over seven years.

The House is considering a less expansive proposal that would ratify the agreement and allow slots at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and at a new facility in Miami-Dade County, items permitted but not expressly authorized by the compact.

Under an amendment folded into the bill (SB 7072) by Bradley's committee, pari-mutuels could add slots in six counties where voters have approved the machines --- and other counties where voters sign off on them in the future. The six counties are Brevard, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington.

Sen. Joe Negron, who sponsored amendments adopted Wednesday and is set to take over as Senate president in November, insisted that the changes to the compact struck by Scott and the tribe were necessary to keep the measure alive.

"If you have a pure compact, and that's all you have, it's not going to pass out of this committee," Negron, R-Stuart, said before the vote. "It's very important that we have geographic concerns echoed in the amendment, and I think we can go back to the Seminole Tribe and negotiate out a compact."

House Regulatory Affairs Chairman Jose Felix Diaz, who worked with Bradley and Scott's top staff for months to nail down the accord with the tribe, said that he wants state economists to evaluate the economic impact of the Senate changes. As a result, a vote from the House Finance & Tax Committee, expected next week, will be delayed, Diaz said.

"This bill will be touch and go all the way through to the end. I'm optimistic that there's a path forward. I just don't know what it is," Diaz, R-Miami, said Wednesday evening. "It's going to take some creativity and a lot of time."

HOSPITAL BILL FLATLINES

During the 2015 legislative session, and the budget special session that followed, health-care bills were the hottest lawmaking fad. The Legislature was dealing with the fallout of a rapidly dwindling supply of federal money for hospitals, and Senate leaders were pushing for a version of Medicaid expansion. The House favored overhaul of health-care regulations, an approach that Scott seemed to share.

The hospital funding crisis has largely been resolved, and any Medicaid expansion is off the table for at least a few more years. But the idea of trimming some regulations has remained, and no potential change was more loaded than rolling back the "certificate of need" process for new health-care facilities.

A Senate version (SB 1144) ran into a wall of opposition from hospitals, nursing homes and hospice providers, and the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee voted 6-2 this week to kill it. The measure would have created exemptions to the certificate of need process, under which the state must review and give approval before new health-care facilities are built.

House Republican leaders want to eliminate certificates of need for hospitals. But the Senate proposal, sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, took a different approach --- proposing exemptions instead of an outright elimination and also including nursing homes and hospice providers.

The defeat of Gaetz's bill points to bipartisan opposition in the Senate to making major changes in the process and could signal the demise of the issue during this year's legislative session. Moments after the vote, Gaetz said supporters of revamping certificates of need could try to add the issue to another health-care bill, though it was not clear how that might happen.

"I haven't got a plan yet,'' he said.