News from Tallahassee for 3/2/15

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Gov. Scott faces big hurdles to push his legislative agenda posted on 3/2/15

by Steve Bousquet | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

On the night he won re-election in November, a beaming Gov. Rick Scott bolted on stage to rowdy chants of "Four more years!" Dismissed by pollsters as a likely loser, Scott clawed his way to victory, using his personal fortune to pay for a pounding barrage of TV ads that doomed rival Charlie Crist. Near midnight, a giddiness filled the ballroom of the Hyatt in Bonita Springs as a relieved Scott declared an end to a long, brutal campaign.

"You know what they say about democracy," Scott told supporters. "It's messy, but it's absolutely the best form of government there is." Messy doesn't begin to describe the start of Scott's second term. The gloss of victory quickly faded, replaced by the stench of the botched firing of a top state official, followed by recriminations from Scott's fellow Republicans and a lawsuit raising allegations of open meeting law violations.

Scott still has a negative job approval rating with voters. He suffered an embarrassing defeat when rank-and-file Republicans fired his personal choice for state GOP chairman, but recently held a reconciliation luncheon with the new chairman, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.

As Scott soldiers on, he faces an emboldened Legislature that threatens to challenge him on an array of fronts from water to prisons to tax cuts. With a solid Republican majority of battle-tested senators and a new, veto-proof supermajority in the House, the GOP-controlled Legislature is the elephant in the room in Tallahassee.

The governor took two days off last week from planning for the session to trudge through frigid Philadelphia in a search for jobs, still his highest priority. Scott is, above all, a survivor.

"He stays on message. He survives malapropisms. He survives staff problems. He survives fiscal issues because the guy just has a laser focus," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "This guy has proven that he's a survivor of whatever people can throw at him." Scott remains the most powerful one in the room. He has sole control of the line-item budget veto that gives him power to turn any legislator's wish list to dust.

"It's ludicrous to suggest the guy is a lame duck," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Palm Beach County Democrat. "The governor still has plenty of juice."

The mess that engulfed Scott was entirely self-inflicted. Eager to rearrange the deck chairs in Tallahassee, he and his chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, orchestrated the abrupt dismissal of Gerald Bailey, the highly regarded commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, with no explanation or vote. Their coup reinforced an image of Scott as the former hospital executive, a heavy-handed CEO shoving an employee out the door to make way for a favored successor.

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Gov. Rick Scott faces concern from fellow Republicans over 'tax increase' to fund schools posted on 2/26/15

by Steve Bousquet | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — In touting his plan for record school spending, Gov. Rick Scott is ignoring a fact that concerns some of his fellow Republicans: He wants property taxpayers to pay more.

Scott's $77 billion budget, awaiting review by the Legislature, includes $842 million more for public schools, raising per pupil spending to its highest level.

More than half of the increase would come from higher property taxes paid by homeowners and business owners as a result of growth in property values.

That's definitely a tax increase, a leading Republican legislator says.

"It is a tax increase if you're a property taxpayer who gets a tax bill that will go up next year compared to this year. Property taxpayers will look at that and say 'That's a tax increase,'" says Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, an architect of the next education budget as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

Gaetz said that as local property taxes account for a growing share of school district budgets, school boards deserve more autonomy.

"He who has the gold sets the rules," Gaetz said. "In this case , the state is contributing less and less of the taxpayers' gold, and local school districts are contributing more and more."

Gaetz, a Scott ally, is expected to support a budget that requires higher property tax collections. A former superintendent and school board member in Okaloosa County, he said the tax-hike question is not complicated for taxpayers: "If the check he has to write goes up, then he thinks his taxes go up," he said.

Scott's education budget, a starting point for two months of negotiations with lawmakers, includes $392 million more in property taxes collected statewide as the counties' share of school spending, known as required local effort, for a total of $7.6 billion.

The state-mandated property tax rate for schools would remain the same under Scott's proposal — about $5 for every $1,000 of taxable value — but the growth in property values would require taxpayers to pay more.

"Because property values are starting to increase, the required local effort actually generates considerably more dollars," said Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, a Republican. "Are people paying more taxes? Yes."

Scott took exception to calling his proposed increase in property tax collections a tax hike.

"Sen. Gaetz is right that we always need to find ways to lower taxes and the governor has said he wants to see legislation to prevent local governments from raising property taxes when home values are not rising," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said. "The Florida economy is booming –home values are up and state revenues are up. The last five budgets adopted by the legislature followed the exact same … funding policy used in this budget. This means we can cut taxes and invest more in education."

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10 big issues to watch during the 2015 Session posted on 2/24/15

by JIM SAUNDERS | NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

FL Capitol Bldg RotundaTHE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 23, 2015— Florida lawmakers will gather March 3 in the Capitol for the pomp-filled start of the 2015 legislative session. Then the real work begins. For 60 days, the House and Senate will grapple with hot-button issues ranging from standardized testing in public schools to reforming the troubled prison system. And that doesn't even touch on the one must-pass bill of the session: a roughly $77 billion state budget.

Here are 10 big issues to watch during the upcoming session:

BUDGET: Banking on a nearly $1 billion surplus, Gov. Rick Scott offered a budget proposal in January that included record per-student spending in public schools and $673 million in tax cuts. But a major question looms for the Republican-dominated Legislature as it prepares to negotiate a final spending plan this spring. A program that has funneled about $1 billion a year to hospitals and other health providers is set to expire June 30, and it is unclear whether state and federal officials can agree on an extension. If they can't agree, that would leave a huge hole in the budget. The program, known as the Low Income Pool, helps subsidize care for low-income and uninsured Floridians...

HEALTH CARE: The noisiest health-care issue during the upcoming session likely will focus on whether the state should accept tens of billions of dollars in federal money to expand Medicaid or to provide coverage through a similar private health-insurance program. But like the past two years, the idea appears dead on arrival in the Florida House. Health-care lobbyists, however, are working on a variety of other issues, including proposals to bolster the use of telemedicine in the state. The House and Senate could not reach agreement on a telemedicine bill last year but appear to be close to a compromise heading into this spring's session.

LAND AND WATER: Voters sent a strong message in November when they overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment requiring the state to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars a year for land and water projects. But one of the most closely watched issues of the session will be how the Legislature carries that out. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, have made clear that water issues will be a priority of their two years leading the Legislature. But at least part of the debate will focus on how to divvy up money between proposed water projects, which range from cleaning up natural springs and the Everglades to helping with local-government stormwater systems.

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Florida gov. may find it tough getting tax cut plans passed posted on 2/24/15

by GARY FINEOUT | AP

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- This was supposed to be a year of budgetary plenty in Tallahassee.

Florida's gradually rebounding economy is helping swell the state's bank accounts and Republican Gov. Rick Scott has grand plans to spend it on boosting school spending and slashing taxes and fees by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Initially, it appeared legislators would accept many of Scott's spending proposals during the 60-day session that starts next week. But the cheerful optimism GOP legislative leaders have shown recently is being replaced by the prospect of another round of bruising budget battles.

There are several reasons behind the cautious attitude. One of them is the likely loss of more than $1 billion in federal money the state has been receiving to pay hospitals that treat the poor and uninsured. Legislators could piece together a way to replace the money, but that may make it hard to go along with some items on Scott's wish list.

"There's a possibility that everyone is going to have to scale back their demands ... based upon what we find out over the next 60 days," said Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican and the Senate's main budget writer.

During a brutal re-election campaign, Scott made a series of promises to voters. He pledged to cut taxes by $1 billion over the coming two years, while still spending a record amount on public school students and setting aside more for environmental programs.

In late January, the governor rolled out a budget that stuck to those promises. Scott asked legislators to cut taxes by nearly $700 million, including proposals to cut deeply the taxes now charged on cellphone and cable TV bills as well exempting college textbooks from state and local sales taxes.

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Stadium funding plan stalls in committee posted on 2/20/15

by matt dixon | Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau

sun life stadiumTALLAHASSEE — A panel of state lawmakers Thursday declined to vote on whether to approve $7 million set aside for improvements to professional sports stadiums.

The issue has stoked tension as a collection of House members of the 14-member Legislative Budget Commission stood opposed to the plan, which vocally was supported by Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

The seven Senate members of the panel were likely to back the funding proposal, but four of seven House members were considered “no” votes, which would have defeated the plan. Rather than teeing the proposal up for failure, it was postponed and will be considered by the 120-member Legislature during the spring legislative session.

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, is the House’s top budget writer and one of that chamber’s top opponents of taxpayer funding of stadiums.

“This is a reversed perverse Robin Hood,” he said. “We are going to take from the hardworking taxpayers and give it to the rich people? I don’t understand it at all.”

The plan needed four votes from both the commission’s House and Senate members to pass.

The $7 million was included in 2014 legislation that created a process by which stadium owners could apply to the Department of Economic Opportunity, which is Gov. Rick Scott’s top jobs agency, for taxpayer-funded incentives.

Last week, lawmakers asked Amy Baker, the state’s top economist, to compile rankings of each application that had been approved. She ranked a stadium project for the Orlando City Lions, an expansion Major League Soccer franchise, in first place, followed by EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Sun Life Stadium in Miami and the Daytona International Speedway.

Teams of lobbyists hired by each entity to help secure funding quickly cleared a committee room in Florida’s Capitol after it became clear the commission was not going to vote. The issue sparked a behind-the-scenes effort as lobbyists tried to persuade at least one of the House “no” votes to flip.

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