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Politics

Weekly Roundup: A Budget Starts to Blossom

June 12, 2015 - 6:30pm

Like the flora speckling the Capitol grounds, tensions between GOP House and Senate leaders appear to be wilting as lawmakers prepare to finalize a budget before the special session ends next week.

Appropriations subcommittee chairs congratulated one another on jobs well done before passing unresolved "bump issues" to the budget chiefs, who cordially took up the mantle midweek with no apparent memory of who would be left without a dance partner.

While the Legislature concentrated on the state's $70 billion-plus spending plan, Gov. Rick Scott this week signed into law dozens of bills passed during the regular session, drawing the wrath of conservative Christians for endorsing an adoption-related measure while receiving praise from the same people for authorizing an abortion waiting period.

Across the street, the third branch of government rattled the cages of counties by siding with the online-travel industry in a drawn-out political and legal dispute.

So against the backdrop of all the downtown drama, we give gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson the last word. Thompson invited the reader "to answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?"

STATE SPENDING SORTED OUT … SORT OF

House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, on Friday cleared up one of the biggest sore spots in the budget, reaching agreement on the Low Income Pool, or LIP, program.

The LIP issue helped derail the regular legislative session and prompted the special session that started June 1. Under the deal reached Friday, lawmakers agreed to divvy up about $2 billion in local, state and federal funding for hospitals. The federal government is reducing the so-called "LIP" program --- which steers money to hospitals and other health providers that serve large numbers of poor and uninsured patients --- from $2.2 billion in the current budget year, which ends June 30, to $1 billion next year. In an effort to offset that drop, the legislative proposal would use state money to draw down other federal funds to boost payments to all hospitals for Medicaid services.

The two chambers also edged closer to agreement on education and environmental projects this week, trying to remove stumbling blocks to a final deal on a state spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1.

Senate leaders, stung by an unsuccessful effort to persuade the House to accept billions of dollars of federal money to expand health-insurance coverage for low-income Floridians, had argued it was hypocritical to turn down that funding and then borrow money for other projects.

"We sort of felt like it was somewhat inconsistent to whip out the credit card, as I've said previously, and at the same time try to keep the budget from growing from accepting federal dollars in other areas," Lee said Thursday.

SCOTT SIGNS CONTROVERSIAL ADOPTION BILL

Ignoring the demands of religious conservatives, Scott on Thursday signed an adoption measure (HB 7013) that will provide up to $10,000 to government workers who adopt foster children. The proposal also includes what one critic called a "poison pill" --- a provision repealing the state's decades-old ban on gay adoption.

Pushback from social conservatives about the repeal of the ban led the House to approve another measure --- dubbed the "conscience protection" bill --- that would have protected faith-based adoption agencies from lawsuits or loss of licensure for refusing to place children with gays. That bill died in the Senate.

John Stemberger, president of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council, tweeted that Scott had signed a "bad homosexual adoption bill putting faith-based agencies at risk."

But Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who played a key role in getting the gay-adoption ban repealed, said in a prepared statement that Scott did the right thing in signing HB 7013.

"This is a momentous day and an important advance for civil rights,'' said Richardson, who is gay. "It's also great news for children who will be adopted into loving homes."

Scott sought to bridge the divide in a letter accompanying the signing of the bill Thursday. Noting that the gay adoption ban hasn't been enforced since it was struck down by the 3rd District Court of Appeal in 2010, he wrote, "It is my hope and expectation that the Legislature will take future action to make clear that we will support private, faith-based operators in the child welfare system and ensure that their religious convictions continue to be protected."

JUST IN TIME FOR SUMMER VACATIONS …

Five of seven Florida Supreme Court justices sided with Expedia, Travelocity and other online travel companies in a dispute centered on whether the companies have to pay tourist-development taxes on the full amounts they charge when customers book hotel rooms. The companies serve as sorts of middlemen between travelers and hotels, charging customers for room rentals and fees related to providing the service.

At least 20 counties argued that the companies should pay taxes on the full amounts, while the industry argued that the taxes are owed only on the portions of the money that go to room rentals. The companies contended, at least in part, that the other portions are service charges, which are not subject to the hotel bed tax.

Justice James E.C. Perry, in an opinion Thursday joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justice Peggy Quince, pointed to what he described as the "plain language" of the state's tourist-development tax law.

"In so doing, we have determined that the TDT (tourist development tax) contains no language, as the counties assert, that clearly directs that it should be applied to the markup charges and service fees associated with merchant model transactions for hotel room rentals,'' Perry wrote.

But Justices R. Fred Lewis and Ricky Polston dissented, with Lewis writing that the "plain and ordinary language" of the law required the taxes to be collected on the full amounts charged by the online-travel companies.

"The total consideration charged is the total amount charged to the customer to reserve the hotel room, regardless of whether that reservation is made through an OTC (online travel company) or directly through the hotel,'' said Lewis' dissent, which was joined by Polston.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "What I would like is a public apology from Governor Scott for his knee-jerk reaction to ask for my resignation where no probable cause or evidence presented itself to implicate me to the issues with Allied Veterans." --- Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who was forced to resign two years ago amid revelations that a company she co-owned provided consulting services for Allied Veterans of the World, the entity at the center of an investigation into illegal gambling in the Internet cafe industry. The Florida Commission on Ethics this week found probable cause that Carroll did not properly report income from consulting work but cleared her of potentially more-serious allegations regarding her dealings with the now-defunct Allied Veterans.

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