TALLAHASSEE — A legislative session that started out with early victories for House and Senate leaders ended in some disappointment for Gov. Rick Scott, but it provided broad-based tax relief and millions for construction projects that stand to benefit the Tampa area.
Local lawmakers played a major role in crafting the $82.3 billion budget, making sure it includes money for statewide and Tampa area projects.
They also made sure there is money to close the gap in the budgets of clerks of courts statewide, increase money for affordable housing programs and at-risk teenage girls, provide additional spending for public and charter schools, and ensure tuition for thousands of developmentally disabled children.
“We tried to take the long-term view of the budget process and fiscal condition in the state,” said Tom Lee, a Republican from Brandon and chairman of the Senate budgeting process. “We wanted to make sure we live within our means and leave sufficient revenues for future chairs and presiding officers in their administrations.”
Lee was pleased the Legislature secured money for local projects and supported the priorities of the State University System’s board of governors.
He was proudest of the $22.5 million secured for the Morsani College of Medicine. Combined with an allocation from last year, Lee secured $39.5 million for the $159 million project that will rebuild the University of South Florida institution as the linchpin of downtown Tampa redevelopment.
“That is probably my single crowning achievement in my two years as chairman of the appropriations committee,” Lee said.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, got an early personal win when the governor signed the Educational Options bill into law. The law provides educational and job training for children and adults with disabilities.
It also provides $73 million for the Personal Learning Scholarship Account, renamed the “Gardiner Scholarship Program,” $8 million for the Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Program and $3 million in startup costs to colleges and universities for the Residence Access Grant Program.
The budget also has $12.9 million to cover projected budget deficits for the 67 clerks of court.
And it includes $2.35 million in new funding for the PACE Center for Girls so it can continue operating REACH, an after-school outreach program for girls in Hillsborough, Duval and Broward counties, and expand enrollment at its 19 centers around the state.
Another measure signed by Scott was sponsored by Tampa Democrats Sen. Arthenia Joyner and Rep. Ed Narain and provides relief for survivors of children who were buried at the former Dozier School for Boys. They’ll get up to $7,500 for reburial of the bodies exhumed and identified by USF anthropologists. The bill also sets up a committee to create a memorial for victims of abuse at Dozier.
“This is the start of healing for our state,” Narain said, thanking Joyner for coming up with the idea and former Gov. Bob Martinez of Tampa for supporting it.
Narain also saw the successful passage of a law to remove Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith from the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, sponsored the Senate version.
And Narain succeeded in getting $1.2 million to relocate the Tampa Heights Youth Development and Community Center away from the path of highway construction.
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Other budget allocations for the Tampa area include $11 million for the Pasco-Hernando State College Performing Arts Education Center, $10 million for St. Petersburg College Student Services Economic Development, $2.75 million for a regional transportation training center at Hillsborough Community College and $6 million for repairs at the South Shore and Dale Mabry campuses, and $8 million for Florida Polytechnic to build its Applied Research Center and other projects.
There’s also $1 million for the $10 million renovation of the Tampa Theatre, $2 million for Ruth Eckerd Hall renovations, $1 million to repair the Lowry Park Zoo manatee hospital pool and $1 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium dolphin pool.
The budget also has $1 million for the Florida Conservation and Technology Center, a joint initiative by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, TECO Energy and the Florida Aquarium. The center expands on the popular TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach.
There’s also $3.49 million to help students attending Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Bradenton with their tuition.
The budget doesn’t include $5 million for major renovations at the riverfront Julian B. Lane Park in Tampa, which Mayor Bob Buckhorn lobbied for in Tallahassee.
Also absent are raises for most state workers, a $3 billion revenue-sharing deal with the Seminole Tribe and a $250 million economic development package that was a Scott priority.
“It is the elephant in the room,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, who as chairman of the Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Committee tried to push through the economic development package — which included language to reboot a film and television development incentive fund.
Latvala said it was for him personally “one of the most disappointing” parts of the session.
On the plus side, Latvala negotiated a win for 38 counties that had protested for more than a decade about charges by the Department of Juvenile Justice that they say are too high. Latvala got the 23 counties with outstanding lawsuits against juvenile justice to stand down and accept his bill in lieu of any financial settlement they may have received from the courts.
Latvala also helped get more money this year for several affordable housing programs and pushed through a measure that would let homeowners — especially those in the “sinkhole alley” region of Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties — buy limited sinkhole insurance policies.
One major disappointment for both sides in the negotiations was lawmakers’ failure to ratify a compact with the Seminole Tribe signed by Scott in December and a companion bill that would have allowed some expansion of slots and card games. The measures also would have allowed some pari-mutuels to phase out live horse and dog racing.
The effort became mired in negotiations with horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons over how much expansion of gambling would be allowed.
Now, billions in gaming revenue that would go to the state are up in the air, as are plans by the tribe to spend $1.8 billion and create thousands of jobs expanding its Tampa and Hollywood resorts.
The legislation also would have helped resolve a lawsuit the tribe filed last year against the state over whether it has the authority to continue operating blackjack games. A hearing in that suit is scheduled for October.
“The tribe is going to take time to carefully consider all of its options moving forward,” said Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminoles.
Also lost in the shuffle was a measure to legalize fantasy sports games. The sponsor of an amendment to the gambling bill withdrew it.
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Several significant policy measures were approved, some already signed into law by Scott, including reforming death penalty sentencing procedures, providing more school choice options, overhauling alimony procedures, fighting human trafficking and providing mental health treatment instead of jail for some convicts.
“It was a good session for civil rights,” said Michelle Richardson, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
A critical bill already signed into law last week attempts to fix the state’s death penalty sentencing process, which was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in December. The court found that a judge sentencing a person to death on the recommendation of a simple majority of jurors was unconstitutional.
The new law requires a 10-2 vote of a jury to impose the death sentence. Adding urgency for lawmakers was the number of cases pending before the Florida Supreme Court since the December decision, said Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, who sponsored the House version of the bill.
People in prison awaiting trial, those already in court or being arraigned, and those on direct appeal “want to know what rules to play by,” said Spano, who asked Speaker Steve Crisafulli to take the lead on the legislation.
The ACLU argues that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires a unanimous jury decision for a death sentence, but it said the change from a simple majority to 10-2 will save lives.
“You will still see people challenging the existing statute,” Richardson said.
Even more important to Spano was the human trafficking bill he filed, which Scott has signed into law. Spano has been working on bills combating human trafficking for several years. The law protects children from being prosecuted for prostitution, cracks down on massage parlors and raises penalties for trafficking.
Another big win for civil liberties is a bill by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, which says law enforcement agencies can only seize assets after a property owner is arrested and the property is thought to have been used in or gained through a criminal enterprise. It also requires the agency to demonstrate probable cause, with some exceptions. The measure was still awaiting the governor’s signature.
Richardson sees these steps as a “harbinger of criminal justice reform in the future.”
One bill that didn’t make it but cleared four committees would have stopped suspending the driver’s licenses of people who can’t pay their traffic tickets and fines. It was sponsored by Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa.
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A hard-fought measure by Lakeland Republicans Kelli Stargel in the Senate and Colleen Burton in the House places restrictions on abortion clinics, redefines the meaning of a third trimester and requires abortion clinics’ physicians to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The bill also prohibits the state from contracting with clinics for services like screening for disabilities and cancer and testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases if they also perform abortions or are associated with organizations that do provide abortions. That would effectively cut off funding to Planned Parenthood centers that have contracts with the state, including one in St. Petersburg and one in Tampa. The bill awaits action from the governor.
Immigration advocates claimed a victory in successfully blocking nine bills they called “anti-immigrant,” including legislation that would have forced county sheriffs to help federal immigration officials detain suspected unlawful immigrants and seek to block refugees from entering Florida.
“During this session we demonstrated that immigrants in Florida work to sustain Florida’s economy and that we count in our communities,” Francesca Menes, policy director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said in a news release.
Another measure they viewed favorably, which would have provided health care to 17,000 children of immigrants, was approved by the House, but the Senate took no action.
The NRA came up short this session with the death of bills to allow people to carry guns in the open, on college campuses and in airports. Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, were sponsors of the airport gun bill, which would have allowed people with concealed weapons permits to bring guns into areas of airports not under federal jurisdiction.
Rouson got through a bill to ban backyard shooting ranges; the measure was approved and signed into law by Scott.
Simpson succeeded in getting through a bill that criminalizes threats made against law enforcement officers, state attorneys, firefighters and other public officials. It also makes it a felony to submit false reports concerning the use of a firearm in a violent manner.
Another bill sponsored by Simpson consolidates the state’s land acquisition procedures into one statute and makes it easier for the Southwest Florida Water Management District to sell off small parcels of land if they are not contiguous with larger habitats and have no significant environmental value. The House version by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, was approved by both chambers.
Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, got a transparency in health care bill approved. It requires hospitals and insurance companies to publicize estimated costs for health care services and comes with a $4 million appropriation. The measure was approved and sent to the governor.
Bruce Rueben, president of the Florida Hospital Association, lauded the measure, which the association helped develop.
“This bill will help people make better informed health care decisions,” Rueben said.