Legislative Preview 2015
Changing Dynamics: Gov. Rick Scott vs. lawmakers
Republicans solidified their control in the legislature, but look for a battle against Gov. Rick Scott
The Florida Legislature returns to Tallahassee on March 3 to convene its annual 60-day lawmaking session, following an election that saw Republicans reclaim a super-majority in the House of Representatives and maintain their control of the 40-member Senate.
Though most of the faces are the same, the dynamics will be different. Lawmakers are ready to assert more independence from Gov. Rick Scott, who was just re-elected with less than 50% of the vote.
Scott’s legislative agenda is relatively CHANGING DYNAMICS ADVOCACY modest — $1 billion in tax cuts over two years and an increase in public school spending to $50 per student more than the previous high — but he may struggle to win even that much.
New legislative leadership is in place: House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a 43-yearold Republican from Merritt Island who co-owns development and farming businesses; and Senate President Andy Gardiner, a 46-year-old Republican from Orlando who is vice president of external affairs and community relations for the Orlando Health hospital system.
Many of the major debates from a year ago have carried into this year, including whether to accept billions from the federal government to expand health insurance for low-income Floridians and how to overhaul the state’s patchwork of gambling regulations. But newer issues have also risen to the top of the agenda, including developing a comprehensive water policy and implementing a new constitutional amendment forcing the Legislature to spend a minimum amount on environmental projects.
Here is a closer look at those issues — and others likely to command the Legislature’s attention over the next two months.
The one major issue that both the House and Senate appear committed to tackling this spring is water. The Senate is expected to emphasize water quality, particularly as it relates to the Floridan aquifer. The aquifer's uppermost tier supplies most of the drinking water for central and northeast Florida and is the source of the state's springs. The House, meanwhile, is expected to focus more on water supply, providing incentives for water farming and alternative-water projects to maintain supply. The challenge will be kneading both approaches into a unified, long-term water policy. The issue draws a host of competing interests — environmentalists, home builders and agribusinesses, for example. But House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island) and Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) both appear to view water as a legacy issue.
Budget and Taxes
The two centerpieces of Gov. Scott's legislative agenda include boosting perstudent public school spending by $50 over its pre-recession peak and cutting taxes by $1 billion over the next two years. Lawmakers are certain to agree on higher public school spending, although some, particularly in the House, don't want to go as high as Scott wishes. A tax package, meanwhile, is always one of the final deals to come together each session because lawmakers must first determine how much they will spend on government programs before they know how much they can afford in tax cuts. Interest groups are already pushing different ideas: Telecom companies want the Legislature to cut the communication services tax; Realtors want a lower sales tax on commercial leases; and video game companies and television producers want new tax breaks for entertainment productions. Other ideas include further cuts to the state's corporate income tax and renewed sales tax holidays on back-to-school and hurricanepreparedness supplies.
More Floridians voted for Amendment 1 on the statewide ballot last November than for any candidate for statewide office. Three-quarters of the electorate supported the amendment, which requires the Legislature to dedicate at least one-third of the state's doc-stamp tax revenue to a land acquisition fund for the next 20 years. This year alone, at least $750 million will pour into the fund. But lawmakers must implement the measure, and they have signaled that they intend to take a very broad interpretation, using the money not just to purchase land but also for land "maintenance," including stormwater-runoff and water-treatment systems. Some lawmakers are also talking about using the money to pay large landowners, such as citrus growers whose groves have been decimated by greening, to store water. The discussion over how to implement the amendment is linked to both the broader water-policy debate and the state's nearly $80-billion budget, meaning this will likely be among the final issues settled during the session.
Lawmakers are already holding hearings about delays in implementing last year’s “Charlotte’s Web” legislation, which allows for the limited use of a non-euphoric strain of marijuana. And with Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan beginning to work on a new, much broader medical marijuana constitutional amendment for the 2016 ballot, lawmakers will also consider expanding their own law to encompass more illnesses or types of marijuana or both in order to take away what one legislator called the “sympathy factor” in Morgan’s campaign. Any legislation that passes this year will likely be narrowly focused on clarifying the original law; broader changes are more likely in 2016.
If the House budges on some form of Medicaid expansion, movement may only come as part of broader changes to Florida’s health care infrastructure. Some top House members are pushing for a wide array of controversial changes meant to upend a health care system they contend is dominated by protectionist and anti-consumer policies. Among the changes that could be in play are overhauling the certificate-of-need process for approving new hospitals, enacting telehealth policies allowing patients to consult with doctors all over the country and giving nurses more freedom to prescribe and dispense drugs. But changes are likely to face fierce opposition from entrenched health care lobbies, including hospitals, doctors and others. These will be some of the most heavily lobbied turf wars in Tallahassee.
Everything depends on the House. The Senate last year passed a plan that would have accepted billions of dollars for Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act and used the money to help low-income Floridians buy private health insurance. Various business groups, usually among the most influential voices in the Legislature, have also endorsed forms of Medicaid expansion. So, too, has Gov. Rick Scott. But any plan that includes accepting Obamacare money remains anathema in the House, which prides itself on being the most conservative wing of Florida government. "It's a non-starter for me," House Speaker Steve Crisafulli says. Some key senators are privately advocating for a burn-the-House-down approach to Medicaid, in which the Senate refuses to accept any other bills until the House moves on Medicaid. But other senators appear tired of being cast in the role of President Obama's champions in Tallahassee and are content to leave the issue alone unless the House moves first. Adding to the pressure to do something on Medicaid is the impending loss of more than $1 billion in federal money, known as the "Low Income Pool," that goes to Florida hospitals that care for the uninsured.
There may be no thornier issue politically this session than Common Core, the national education standards implemented this year in Florida. Republican lawmakers are under pressure from some constituents to scrap Common Core, which conservative activists claim amounts to a federal takeover of education. But backing away from the standards could hurt the presidential election chances of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush has remained a steadfast supporter of Common Core and having his home state suddenly turn its back on the standards would be embarrassing. A modest slowdown of some sort appears possible — but not a full-fledged retreat. Much as they have with Common Core, lawmakers have heard many complaints from parents upset with what they consider excessive testing in public schools. There appears to be support to possibly winnow the number of state-mandated tests or the number of practice exams.
With higher tuition apparently off the table, schools across the state will be seeking even bigger chunks of general revenue money from the Legislature. The University of Central Florida, for instance, is seeking $51 million for a campus in downtown Orlando. Meanwhile, the University of Florida and Florida State University will continue to lobby for extra “pre-eminent university” funding as they try to climb in national rankings. Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to push for more post-secondary educational opportunities for children with developmental disabilities, a priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner.
The committee assignment that turned the most heads in Tallahassee was the appointment of Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami), an ally of the state’s trial lawyers, to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee. The move has been interpreted by many in the business lobby to mean that tort reform is a dead issue this year. The one potential wild card is Gov. Scott, who could use his own political capital to push tort bills, including measures to change the way medical damages are calculated and to restrict “bad faith” suits against insurance companies. So far, Scott hasn’t been willing.
There already appears to be broad support for changes to local government pension programs that would, among other provisions, give local governments and their unions more flexibility to address unfunded pension liabilities. But supporters of state pension reform will likely to have to wait for at least two more years, until there is turnover in the Senate.
A long-running battle over the size of the state’s Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which provides belowmarket reinsurance to insurance companies, will resume this spring, pitting the private reinsurance industry, which wants to sell its own products, against Florida-only property insurers, who want to continue buying from the state-run Cat Fund, whose prices are lower because the fund is backed by all insurance policyholders in Florida. Another battle is brewing in the area of water mitigation — insurance companies want to impose restrictions on waterdamage claims that they contend can be unnecessarily inflated by mitigation companies.
The Legislature last year created a new framework in which state economic development officials evaluate and rank sports stadium and arena projects that seek state money. The initial wave of applicants — including a racetrack renovation project at Daytona International Speedway, a new soccer stadium in Orlando and renovated football stadiums in Miami and Jacksonville — will be back before lawmakers looking for cash. Other sports teams, such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Miami Heat, will be asking lawmakers to make changes that would allow money for smaller arena renovation projects.
The stars could be aligning for a deal between the state’s taxi companies and Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing companies. Current legislative leadership is relatively sympathetic to the taxi industry, so this may be the industry’s best chance to negotiate a modernized regulatory scheme that encompasses both themselves and their new competitors. There may also be a broader attempt to address civil liability responsibilities not just for ride-sharing companies but also for new entrants in other industries, such as Airbnb, the vacation-rental site operator.
Following the killings by police of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, more cities and counties are ordering police to begin wearing body cameras. The Legislature looks likely to step into the fray this year — not with funding for the body cameras, but with public-records exemptions for certain footage recorded on them.
Led by lawmakers from the Tampa Bay region upset with Duke Energy, there will be another push to impose stricter rate regulations on utilities and ethical reforms on the Public Service Commission. Among the proposals that will be in play are measures that would limit how much utilities could charge electricity customers for deposits and create new rules for those who lobby the PSC.
Late in last year’s session, the sponsor of a bill to allow grocery stores to sell liquor — without maintaining a separate store with its own entrance — conceded defeat and pulled his bill from consideration. Before he did, Sen. Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) gave a speech declaring Florida’s current regulations “archaic” and vowing to continue fighting. Emails show the talking points for that speech came from a lobbyist for Walmart, which has made ending the prohibition on selling liquor inside a grocery store one of its main priorities. Joined by other major retailers, including Target and Walgreens, the world’s largest retailer will renew the battle this year. On the other side of the fight is another powerful interest: Florida-based liquor retailer ABC Fine Wine & Spirits. The pivotal player may be Publix, one of the most influential companies in Florida, which has yet to take sides.
Some hope that the Legislature may finally adopt a comprehensive gambling framework this year. One factor: Lawmakers are facing a deadline. In May, a key provision expires in the state’s compact with the Seminole Tribe that gives the tribe the exclusive right to card games such as blackjack in exchange for annual payments that exceed $100 million. The Seminoles want to maintain exclusivity, but many competing interests are in play — from racinos that want lower tax rates to horse and dog tracks that want slots themselves to casino giants that want to build destination resorts. Doing nothing at all remains a possibility: When economists projected a $1-billion budget surplus for lawmakers to work with this year, they did not include any money from the gaming compact, which could make it much easier for lawmakers to let the deal lapse.
A consensus appears to be forming to allow brewers to sell beer in popular half-gallon “growlers.” But distributors and retailers are still pushing lawmakers to tighten a legal provision that allows microbreweries to sell their products directly to consumers, a much more controversial issue. There is also talk about trying to clamp down early on sales of “powdered alcohol”— an encapsulated form of alcohol that’s mixed with water to produce a cocktail.
Legislators to Know
Power in the Florida Legislature is heavily concentrated in the hands of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island) and Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando). Beyond the presiding officers, a handful of members in each chamber wields considerable influence, however.
House of Representatives
Rep. Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’ Lakes) — Many people in Tallahassee feel that Corcoran, in line to become Speaker after Crisafulli, is the most powerful person in the Legislature. That’s partly because Crisafulli got the job himself only after former Rep. Chris Dorworth lost reelection in 2012. But it’s also because Corcoran, a 49-year-old attorney who was Marco Rubio’s chief of staff when Rubio was Speaker, is skilled at legislative tactics and excels at building relationships with fellow members. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Corcoran will be the House’s lead budget writer. He will also be a central figure in any Medicaid and health care debates.
> Rep. Dana Young (R-Tampa) — Crisafulli chose Young to be his majority leader, charging her with keeping the House’s nearly 80-member Republican caucus operating in unison and, when necessary, muscling the Speaker’s priorities through any close committee or floor votes. The 50-year-old attorney is wellliked by her peers and deeply involved in internal legislative politics, making her ideal for the job of marshaling votes. She is the only woman with a leadership post in either the House or the Senate.
> Rep. José Oliva (R-Miami Lakes) — The 42-year-old CEO of Oliva Cigar has locked up the pledges to become Speaker following the 2018 elections, and his sphere of infuence is growing rapidly. Crisafulli handed him the chairmanship of the Economic Affairs Committee, overseeing heavily lobbied policy areas such as economic development and transportation. He and Corcoran are said to be very close, which serves to enhance each other’s power.
> Rep. Matt Caldwell (R-North Fort Myers) — The bow-tie-wearing Caldwell, a 33-year-old real estate appraiser, is close with Crisafulli, who chose him as chairman of the State Affairs Committee. It’s usually a relatively low-profle post, but this year it means that Caldwell will serve as the House’s point man on water policy, which may prove to be the defning issue of the session.
> Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) — One of Gardiner’s closest confidantes in the Legislature, Simmons will chair the powerful Senate Rules Committee, which determines which bills will be sent to the Senate floor. The 62-year-old attorney joined the Legislature in 2000 and has earned a reputation as one of its sharpest policy minds. Simmons this year will be a central figure in the debates about water, Medicaid and Common Core, among others.
> Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon) — Gardiner and Lee first bonded half a decade ago, when Gardiner was majority leader in the House and Lee was Senate president. The two crafted an ethics law that prohibited lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists and required lobbyists to disclose financial details of their work. Lee returned to the Senate in 2012, where he is now one of Gardiner’s top two lieutenants, along with Simmons. Lee, a 53-year old home builder, will be the Senate’s lead budget writer as chair of the Appropriations Committee. But he’ll also likely function as Gardiner’s chief political adviser, as former state Sen. John Thrasher did for former Senate President Don Gaetz.
> Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) — Flores will run the Senate’s newly created Fiscal Policy Committee, which will take charge of all the legislation with modest financial impacts that would otherwise have gone through Appropriations. The post will make Flores, the 38-year-old president of Doral College, an important gatekeeper for a wide range of bills, all of which will need her blessing before they can reach the Senate floor. The move also helps to spread power in a Senate that remains divided into competing factions over who will be Gardiner’s successor as president; Flores is a top supporter of Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart), while Rules Chairman David Simmons is helping Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater).
> Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) — The Clay County native, a 44-yearold attorney and former prosecutor, will be at the center of some of the session’s most contentious debates this year. As chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries committee, Bradley will referee heavily lobbied battles over gambling, marijuana and alcohol, among other issues. He will be in a prime position to put his stamp on the debates — such as by curtailing the Florida Lottery as part of any gambling packag