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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Haunted Houses?

April 14, 2017 - 4:15pm

It could seem at times this week like Tallahassee was being visited by the Ghost of Sessions Past. The hope is that the phantom will not bring about the same results as those old meetings.

Once again, a program known as the Low Income Pool, or LIP, was in the headlines because of its potential effects on the budget --- something that helped cause a special session in 2015. And once again, lawmakers were putting some hefty policy ideas into the budget process --- something that caused the session to nearly collapse in 2011.

But not every sound in Tallahassee was an echo. A crisis of recent vintage --- what to do about an Orlando-area prosecutor who refuses to seek the death penalty --- was generating headlines of its own. That was less likely to upend the session, but it was part of a battle that could last until after lawmakers have left the Capitol.

LET'S MAKE A DEAL

The chief concern for legislators over the next 2 ½ weeks will be hammering out how to spend somewhere between $81.2 billion and $85.1 billion to run the state for the year beginning July 1. And the first part of that is figuring out where in that $3.9 billion range the final budget will land.

"We still have a lot of work to do," said House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, specializing in understatement.

Senate and House budget plans did not prove to be overly controversial on their own. The Senate approved its version unanimously Wednesday, despite some sniping among Republicans. The House followed suit on Thursday, though as a more partisan chamber, it acted on an 89-26 vote that still featured support from members of both parties.

The biggest clashes were destined to be between the chambers, despite an unexpected windfall announced Wednesday by Gov. Rick Scott and the federal government: a total of $1.5 billion for LIP, which provides money to help care for poor and uninsured patients.

That appeared to be about $900 million more than the program will receive in the current year, and Scott was quick to applaud President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, for the increase.

"Working with the Trump administration to secure a commitment of $1.5 billion in LIP funding for our state will truly improve the quality and access to health care for our most vulnerable populations," Scott said.

It could also ease (or exacerbate) the budget impasse between the two sides, though by how much is unclear. Federal and local funds are used in LIP, and the details were still being considered as the week ended. In any case, there were already signs that House and Senate leaders might disagree as much on how to use the money as they do on everything else.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, welcomed the agreement but said it would take time to figure out how much the funds could help other areas of the budget.

"I think it's too early to tell exactly how we would do that and what the logistics would be," Negron said. "But it's a very positive development for putting our budget together."

The House, which unlike the Senate did not include any LIP money in its spending plan, didn't seem eager to use the money to ease some of its proposed budget cuts. Such a move would bring the plan closer to the Senate's budget.

"We would probably like to use it either (in) tax cuts or put it straight into reserves and shore up some more reserves for the out years," Trujillo said.

Add that to a list of disagreements about local education property taxes, whether to authorize bonding in future years to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee and myriad other issues that usually have to be worked out during budget negotiations.

"Neither side --- the House or the Senate --- has the right to dictate unilateral terms of surrender to the other side," Negron said.

It was too early for either side to blink, but it was also getting late in the session for both chambers to be holding their ground. If they hope to end the legislative session on time May 5, lawmakers will have to work out their differences by May 2 because of a legally required cooling-off period for the budget.

THE CONFORMING BILLS STRIKE BACK

Six years ago, the session was almost derailed by cramming broad swaths of policy into "conforming bills" --- legislation meant to tweak state law to bring it in line with the budget. Senators rebelled and the session went into overtime, with the whole thing crashing to an end in the predawn hours of a Saturday.

There is not, as of yet, quite as much policy being sent to the negotiating table. And Senate leaders --- including Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who has himself been a rebel --- indicated no heartburn so far.

Still, there are a few big-ticket items heading to the budget conference, such as a sweeping set of changes to education policy.

The most controversial proposal (HB 5105) would create the "Schools of Hope" program, meant to encourage charter schools to set up near academically troubled traditional schools. The House budget sets aside $200 million for qualifying charter schools, making the issue eligible for the budget talks.

The Senate has yet to take up the “Schools of Hope” proposal in a substantive way, but the House approved it Thursday on a party-line vote, 77-40, after about three hours of debate.

Opponents slammed the legislation as part of a long-running trend toward giving charter-school operators greater influence in the state's public education system.

"This is not a school of hope," said Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens. "This is a Band-Aid that has a sore festering underneath it."

But Republicans argued that Democrats were in the thrall of the state's main teachers union, the Florida Education Association, and were less interested in looking out for children and parents.

"They want an option," Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, said of parents in the areas affected by the program. "They don't care what it is. ... They just want education for their kids."

Only slightly less controversial are bills that could lead to local school districts sharing construction dollars raised from local property taxes with charter schools, and an overhaul of the contentious Best and Brightest bonus program for teachers.

It's possible, and perhaps likely, to see the Senate going along with some version of those education bills. It's far harder to see the Senate considering a measure that would place new public employees who don't select a retirement plan into the state's 401(k)-style investment plan rather than into the traditional pension system.

The House legislation would also bar newly elected officials, including state lawmakers, Cabinet members, judges, county commissioners and school board members, from joining the traditional pension plan after July 1, 2018. They would receive retirement benefits through the investment plan.

Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, pushed an amendment would have eliminated the controversial revisions while authorizing changes in the annual pension contributions paid by state government, school districts, county governments and other public agencies.

The Senate in past years has rejected attempts to limit the traditional pension plan. The new House bill would tie such revisions to the annual contribution changes that are required to make sure the pension system is fiscally sound for the long term.

Ausley warned that if the House bill is rejected by the Senate, it could hurt the financial stability of the $149 billion pension fund. The Senate version (SB 7022) only has the contribution changes and would bolster the fund by $149.5 million.

"The Florida retirement system is at risk of being underfunded," Ausley warned. "This (the House approach) is a very risky move."

Rep. Matt Caldwell, the sponsor of the bill, defended the legislation, said it would protect employees who don't make a selection by placing them in the investment plan, where they could keep their contributions and investments if they left government jobs.

"The odds are it will be to the benefit of the employee," said Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers.

SEE YOU IN COURT(S)

Meanwhile, the battle between Scott and Central Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala continued, this time with Ayala filing lawsuits against the governor in federal and state courts over her removal from nearly two-dozen capital cases because of her refusal to seek the death penalty.

Ayala went to federal court and the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday challenging Scott's authority to strip her office from handling the cases. She argues that prosecutors have broad discretion in deciding whether to seek death for defendants accused of first-degree murder.

One of the challenges accused Scott of "unnecessarily and precipitously" creating confusion regarding criminal prosecutions, and of doing so "just to score political points."

"It bothers me," Scott told reporters Tuesday when asked about Ayala's challenges. "I think every citizen deserves a state attorney who is going to prosecute the cases."

In the federal case filed in the Middle District of Florida, Ayala's lawyer Roy Austin argued that Scott's ouster of Ayala is a violation of the 14th Amendment right to due process and violates the rights of voters who elected Ayala to represent them.

While the Florida Constitution authorizes the death penalty, it does not require state attorneys to choose it, Austin said.

"There is no mandate that any prosecutor in Florida ever seek the death penalty," he told The News Service of Florida.

But Bernie McCabe, the state attorney in Pasco and Pinellas counties, said prosecutors are obligated to uphold Florida law, even if they are not forced to by the Constitution.

"I think if you're going to be the state attorney and you're sworn to uphold the laws of the state of Florida, you've got to do all of them," McCabe said. "If you accept this job, you have to accept that the governor can remove you from a case if he thinks that's in the best interest of justice. That's just the way it is."

STORY OF THE WEEK: The House and Senate approved their respective versions of the state budget, setting the stage for negotiations on a final spending plan.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Privacy is privacy. Remember the old chicken ad, parts is parts? Well, privacy is privacy and it's very dear to the hearts of women."---Barbara DeVane, a lobbyist who represents the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women, urging the Constitution Revision Commission to preserve the Constitution's privacy clause, which has been used to strike down legislation restricting abortion.


READ MORE FROM SUNSHINE STATE NEWS

Clock Ticking as Florida Legislature Disagrees on How to Implement Medical Marijuana

Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez Jumps in Against Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

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DON'T read this article: Or you will hate "politicians' and the machinations they go through to acquire and spend TAXPAYER monies ! ! !

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