Saturday, April 1, 2017

Stumbling and Bumbling in Tallahassee

How are we doing as we approach the mid-point of Florida's 2017 legislative session? Not particularly well. Here's a quick look at where things stand.

Budget-wise, the chambers are $2 billion apart -- the Senate pegging expenditures at $83.2 billion compared to the House at $81.2 billion. Governor Rick Scott proposed $83.5 billion. It looks like Florida will have a small surplus, followed by a $1.3 billion shortfall next fiscal year and a $1.9 billion drop the year after that. That means long-term expenditures, particularly those involving guaranteed payouts, are getting close scrutiny.

Differences between the Senate and House show up in a number of high-profile areas.

Education - Public school spending will increase from the current level of $7,204 per student to $7,414 if the Senate gets its way or to $7,223 if the House prevails. The smart money says the House wins on public school funding but loses on its proposed boost for charters.

In higher education, the Senate wants to raise the status of Florida's universities by expanding the Bright Futures scholarships for top students and rewarding schools for high four-year graduation rates (current average is 47%). Scholarships for needy students would also be increased.

The House plan is more modest but includes money to attract top-level professors and researchers. Because the more ambitious Senate proposal is tied to property tax increases, odds are the House wins with no tax increase and pared-down spending.

Gambling - A thorny issue for years, Florida gambling has the two chambers miles apart. The more conservative House wants to hold the line, leaving the Seminoles with exclusive rights to blackjack and other "banked" card games (HB 7027). The Senate, on the other hand, wants Florida to become "a humid Las Vegas," throwing the doors open to slot machines in counties where they are approved and adding craps and roulette to Seminole casinos (SB 8). The Senate would also allow dog and horse tracks and frontons to jettison money-losing racing and jai alai -- de facto converting them to casinos.

The battle lines are clear. The House says limit gambling and keep Florida family-friendly. The Senate says raise the stakes and pump tax revenues. Best bet is a compromise, heavily weighted toward caution.

Tourism and Economic Development - Gov. Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran have been waging war over state money for luring tourists and businesses. Scott wants it and the Speaker doesn't. Likely outcome is scaled-back funding -- perhaps $25 million each for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida.

Medical Marijuana - Passed by a 71% vote last November, the constitutional amendment expands pot use for an array of diseases and "other debilitating medical conditions." In a first step toward implementing the amendment, the House wants to ban pot smoking, keep marijuana out of foods and prevent its use in vaporizers (HB 1397). Supporters of Amendment 2 are apoplectic. Sick people need weed in all forms, they say. Bongs, brownies, gummy bears. And the Senate is jousting with the House over the number of growers and distributers, pitting tax revenues against safety and control. Look for lots of lawsuits.

Polluted Waterways - To buy or not to buy, that is the question. We're talking about land south of Lake Okeechobee, that centerpiece of nutrient pollution. Senate President Joe Negron says the land is  needed for a reservoir to store and clean off-flows to the Everglades (SB 10). Opponents, including many in the House and even U.S. Representative Francis Rooney, say the $2.4 billion price tag is excessive. A better approach, they say, is the stepwise Everglades Restoration Plan, already underway. Will Negron's $2.4 billion be approved? Forget about it.

Beaches - A favorite hand-wringer in Tallahassee, Florida's beaches get a lot of press but very little money. That won't change. The Senate is touting $50 million per year for renourishment plus additional money for replacing sand lost in past storms (SB 1590). The House has a companion bill (HB 1213), and passage is likely. But think about it. $50 million for 825 miles of shoreline. Collier County won't get a penny.

Fracking - A knee-jerk target of the uninformed left, fracking always evokes anguish among environmentalists. Attempts to ban or regulate hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells failed in 2015 and 2016. And they just failed again. The Senate wanted to ban (SB 442), and the House wanted to study (HB 451). So, again, nothing will happen. The right path is a no-brainer: Impose a moratorium on all enhanced recovery (not just fracking), and task the DEP with conducting a thorough study on likely effects on drinking-water aquifers. Then legislate.

Home Rule - Insidious attacks on home rule were mounted this year in the form of HB 17 and SB 1158. The bills sought to give the state authority to regulate local businesses, a body blow to cities and counties throughout Florida. Huge pushback appears to have derailed both bills.

And so the legislature stumbles and bumbles into its second month. Its grade so far? Maybe a C-. But an F is within reach. With ongoing rancor between Scott, Corcoran and Negron, odds are no better than 50:50 that a budget can be struck before June.

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