Legislature poised to approve $83 billion budget, end session

By Brandon Larrabee
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - To the extent that any legislative session is remembered, the 2017 edition might be remembered as much for what lawmakers didn't do as for what they did.

Supposedly must-pass bills on workers' compensation and medical marijuana turned out not to be as must-pass as originally thought. A gambling bill that lawmakers said was closer to becoming law than ever before? Dead long before lawmakers stopped work Friday night on most issues.

And, most prominently, the nearly $83 billion spending plan for the year that begins July 1 remains unapproved. The Legislature will return Monday to vote on the budget and a package of related bills.

Even if all that legislation is approved, though, this Legislature will not be able to avoid being one of the least active in terms of bills passed since at least 1998, as far back as online records go.

By the end of the Friday, the House and Senate had passed 231 bills. That's the same number approved by lawmakers during the 2015 regular session, which blew up with the House going home three days early. No other session since 1998 has passed fewer than 264 bills.

Not everyone is dismayed by that turn of events. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said Friday night that passing a small amount of legislation could be a good thing.

"What we do way too much of is all this other stuff on the periphery that really doesn't have any kind of a dramatic effect on people's lives. ... We come up here and work deals for the special interests and we pass all the special-interest bills. So, yeah, I think when you constrain the number of bills, I think it says that the focus was on doing the people's will and not the special interests' will," Corcoran said.

And some of what lawmakers did pass could still be undone by Gov. Rick Scott. The governor's budget priorities were almost universally rejected in the final agreement, leading to speculation he might veto the entire budget --- an extraordinarily rare move. And even if he signs the overall spending plan, Scott could use his line-item veto to strike specific projects dear to top lawmakers, or wield his veto pen against policy bills.

A legislature that did historically little could end the year with even fewer concrete accomplishments.

Kill bills

Despite Corcoran's attempts to portray the failed bills as little more than the checklists of powerful interests, at least one measure watched outside the Tallahassee bubble died on the last day: a bill to implement the medical marijuana constitutional amendment approved by voters last year.

Even that, though, was undermined by a fight in the shadows over control of the state's potentially lucrative marijuana industry.

The key fight: how many pot dispensaries the state should have. The final House version of the legislation (HB 1397) would have imposed a cap of 100 retail outlets for each of the state's medical marijuana operators --- down from an unlimited number in an earlier bill. The Senate had proposed a cap of 10, at least for the time being.

With the failure of the House and Senate to reach agreement, state health officials will be responsible for putting the amendment in place, but those officials have been harshly criticized by legislators, patients, vendors --- and judges --- for their handling of the state's current medical marijuana regulations.

"The Legislature at some point in time needs to have a bill that implements Amendment 2. It's disappointing that we didn't get it done this session,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who spearheaded the bill in the Senate. “We just couldn't bridge the gap, and that just happens sometimes.”

Lawmakers also couldn't bridge a gap Friday night on closely watched legislation aimed at holding down workers' compensation insurance rates. A cap was at issue in that case, as well; this time, it was a limit on attorney fees.

“Every small business, every business owner in the state is watching what we do,” said House Insurance & Banking Chairman Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican who led the way on the House's proposal (HB 7085).

But critics said a limit on attorney fees in the House bill could have prevented injured workers from having adequate legal representation in disputes with insurance companies.

“The House bill will absolutely restrict the access to courts,” said Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat who is a former state insurance consumer advocate.

Lawmakers were trying to address a pair of Florida Supreme Court rulings that played a key role in state regulators later approving a 14.5 percent increase in workers' compensation insurance rates. That hike started taking effect in December.

The House proposed capping attorney fees at a maximum of $150 an hour, while the Senate proposed $250 an hour. In a last-ditch bid for an agreement, the House upped its proposal to $180 an hour, but the Senate adjourned Friday night without considering it.

By the time those proposals collapsed on Friday, House and Senate leaders had already given up on overcoming an impasse on slot machines that bedeviled an attempt to pass sweeping gambling legislation.

The two chambers were divided over whether to allow slots at pari-mutuels in eight counties --- Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington --- where voters have approved the machines. The legislation centered on trying to reach an agreement, called a compact, with the Seminole Tribe and resolving a series of gambling-related court decisions affecting the deal with the tribe.

“We thought this was going to be the year, as opposed to the other years where we've come close. This one went much further along but unfortunately, as we've seen the last several years, the two sides were unable to reach an agreement,” said lobbyist Nick Iarossi, who represents pari-mutuel facilities in Melbourne and Jacksonville that want to add slots.

Asked whether the legislature's failure to pass a gambling bill weakens the state's position to negotiate with the tribe over a future compact, lead House negotiator Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, said there were no talks with the tribe ongoing.

“We're not any weaker or stronger. We just are nowhere. That's the unfortunate reality that we find ourselves in,” he said.

Chaos theory

Lawmakers attempting to move big legislative projects were hampered by problems large and small, some well out of the control of the Legislature and some created by the actions of individuals.

Education policy at times became bogged down because of an unforeseeable personal challenge: Sen. Dorothy Hukill, the Port Orange Republican chosen to chair the Senate Education Committee, missed the entire legislative session as she was treated for cancer.

House members said that slowed down work on issue-by-issue legislation --- several of those measures were eventually folded into a massive budget conforming bill expected to be approved Monday.

"We sent several single bills over there, and they didn't have a chance to get heard," said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah.

Other disruptions were choices. Corcoran, for his part, never made a secret of his intention to shake up Tallahassee. He held fewer discussions with reporters than his recent predecessors, but when Corcoran did hold court, it was hard to skip. Anyone could become the target of a verbal bomb.

In his session-opening address, Corcoran shrugged off rumors of a special session as no big deal, then added: "anyone waiting for us to slow down, to drop the big ideas, to stop trying to shake up the system, to cower in the face of attacks, or to cave to the demands of special interests, here's our message to you: We will not."

The House speaker became perhaps the central character of the legislative session. His feud with Scott over economic development incentives and tourism marketing turned increasingly hostile and at times personal.

Corcoran's hard-charging negotiating style frustrated some of the senators who worked with him on the budget, most notably Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican with his own reputation for legislative brawling.

"I haven't seen to the extent that we've seen it this year, of deciding so many issues as a part of the budget process," Latvala said at one point, in a clear shot at the speaker. "I've never seen that before. But that's driven strictly by the guy that wants transparency, from the other end down there."

Latvala went even further in a Facebook post-Saturday afternoon.

"Yesterday Corcoran said he was fighting for the soul of the Republican Party," he wrote. "Too bad if his vision of the Republican Party has no soul!"

But it was ultimately effective. Several Capitol insiders gave the House a pronounced advantage on the deals that were struck, and Corcoran got a coveted victory: no economic development incentives were included in the budget, and the state's tourism marketing agency was severely reduced.

Senators also had to deal with a late-breaking distraction when Miami Republican Frank Artiles confronted Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, at a private club near the Capitol in late April and launched a verbal tirade.

Artiles called Gibson, who is African-American, "girl," a "bitch," and a "f---ing ass----", and also used the n-word (or a derivative) when referring to Republican senators who backed Senate President Joe Negron in a leadership race. He also used a derogatory term to refer to Negron.

Under fire from Republicans and Democrats, Artiles first attempted to save his career with an apology. But he might have in some ways compounded the problems by seeming to blame the use of the racial slur on having grown up "in a diverse community."

"We share each other's customs, cultures and vernacular. I realize that my position does not allow me for the looseness of words or slang, regardless of how benign my intentions were," Artiles said.

It wasn't enough. Within days, he was forced to resign.

"It is clear to me my recent actions and words that I spoke fell far short of what I expect for myself, and for this I am very sorry. I apologize to my friends and I apologize to all of my fellow senators and lawmakers. To the people of my district and all of Miami-Dade, I am sorry I have let you down and ask for your forgiveness," Artiles wrote in his resignation letter.

Fait accompli

Even with the distractions, lawmakers were able to push through some major accomplishments.

The House and Senate approved one of Negron's top priorities for the session: a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, something supporters hope will keep water bodies east and west of the lake from being periodically doused with polluted water.

Negron was forced to compromise. The state could bond up to $800 million --- two-thirds of what the Senate initially sought --- to speed construction of the reservoir.

“This legislation provides a clear plan to address this plague on our communities in a manner that respects the interests of the agricultural community and private landowners,” Negron said.

Treasure Coast residents blame polluted water releases from the lake for algae outbreaks.

The proposal, which reflects a number of changes sought by the House and which anticipates the federal government agreeing to pay half the costs for the reservoir, also caps annual state funding at $64 million, down from a proposed $100 million.

At least one must-pass bill quickly sailed through the Legislature: a fix for the state's death penalty.

The new law, which Scott signed in short order, requires juries to decide unanimously whether defendants convicted of capital crimes should be put to death for the sentence to be imposed.

The Supreme Court ruled in October that an earlier overhaul of the state's death penalty structure was unconstitutional because it didn't require unanimous jury recommendations for death sentences. The issue deals only with the sentencing phase of capital cases, not the guilt phase, which requires unanimous jury verdicts.

But some death-penalty experts maintained that, even with the unanimous jury recommendations, Florida's law remains problematic.

Requiring unanimous jury recommendations is "only one step in a long journey," said 10th Judicial Circuit Assistant Public Defender Pete Mills.

"Florida's death penalty still has problems of constitutional magnitude, including but not limited to the failure to limit the scope of its application, racial disparities, geographic disparities, and execution of the mentally ill," said Mills, chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association Death Penalty Steering Committee.

The Legislature also moved to apologize for some of the state's old crimes against its own citizens.

Both the House and the Senate approved an apology for the physical and sexual abuse of boys who were sent to the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, and a related facility in Okeechobee, from 1900 to 2011.

"It brought tears to my eyes because it was a good feeling that they had admitted to the wrong that they had done to us," said Johnny Lee Gaddy, a 71-year-old Brooksville resident who was sent to Dozier as an 11-year-old in 1957.

Lawmakers also apologized to the "Groveland Four," a quartet of black men killed or sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being dubiously accused of raping a white woman in 1949.

The resolution dealing with the incident also asks Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet to pardon the men --- Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas.

"We cannot go back to this terrible event and undo it," said Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who sponsored the measure in the Senate. "But we can acknowledge our wrongs. And we can bring peace and healing and closure to the families who have suffered for so long."

Lawmakers hope to add the budget to that list of achievements when they reconvene Monday for the final day of the extended session. The budget includes a modest increase in per-student spending through the state's main funding formula for public education, $521 million in Medicaid cuts for hospitals, and none of the business incentives Scott sought.

Related bills would also overhaul the state's higher education system, encourage charter schools to locate near academically struggling traditional public schools, expand the state's "Best and Brightest" teacher bonus program and give state employees their first across-the-board pay raise since 2013.

Barring a major upset, the package is expected to be overwhelmingly approved. And then the judgments on the 2017 legislative session can truly begin.

News Service of Florida