2015 Florida Legislative Review

2015 Liberty First Network Legislative Review

“Our Liberty is never more in jeopardy than when the legislature is in session.” I am not sure sure who made that quote, but it really is true. We usually take a sigh of relief when the legislature finally “sine dies” to mark the end of the session and no more harm can come to our liberties, at least until the next session. But, over the last few years there has been progress made for liberty and we all can take pride for the hard work everybody has done in the fight for liberty, your phone calls and emails are making a difference.

The session ended abruptly three days earlier than the scheduled Friday, May 1st finish. The House adjourned early because of the contentious debate over expanding Medicaid. The House leadership was firmly in opposition to expanding Medicaid and the Senate refused to pass a budget that didn’t adopt their Medicaid expansion plan. Because the state Constitution requires the legislature to adopt a balanced budget, Senate President Andy Gardiner and Speaker Steve Crisafulli called a three week  “special session” that started on June 1st and finally adjourned with a agreed upon budget on June 20th.

What went well

Trends in the right direction.  Trending towards Liberty

After many years of advocacy in Tallahassee, we understand restoring liberty does not happen overnight, but with many years of never backing down. With that in mind we fight to at least accomplish positive trend lines, where we can see movement in the right direction, not just one year, but for many years. By establishing trend lines we can set a benchmark to improve upon each year.

  • Fewer bills filed -1,754-downward trend since 2011 with 2,523 bills filed
  • Fewer bills passed-231-downward trend since 2011 with 301 bills passed
  • Less funding for Florida Forever (Trust Fund for purchasing “Conservation” land) -During the Jeb Bush years, Florida Forever was being funded with $300 million per year. This year Florida Forever received $17.4 million.
  • Funding for Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund (A program that allows the Governor to grant millions of dollars to well connected Corporations) - In 2013 Gov. Scott asked for $278 million in economic incentives, but ended up only receiving $102 million. That number decreased further; in the 2014 session when he requested $95 million and only received $71 million. In 2015 funding for the so-called “economic incentives” was reduced even further to $43 million, about half of the $85 million he requested.
  • Fewer legislators supporting Common Core
  • Fewer legislators supporting corporate welfare
  • Fewer legislators supporting red light cameras
  • More vetoes by Governor

 

Medicaid expansion stopped!

The most contentious debate between the House and Senate during the regular session was the Senate’s Medicaid Expansion plan. The House leadership stood firm in opposition to expanding Medicaid and this opposition eventually led the House closing out their regular session days before the scheduled completion of the 60 day session. Without an agreement on Medicaid, the legislature could not complete the budget, which is required by the state Constitution.

The special session was called for a three week special session starting June 1st with the mission to complete the annual budget. The Senate’s plan to expand Medicaid would put Floridians on the hook for huge costs after the federal dollars run out. Medicaid currently provides substandard care to our most vulnerable and accounts for approximately 30 percent of the state’s budget. Grabbing federal dollars now will only harm the state budget in the future. Fortunately, the House did not back down during the special session and the legislature completed the budget without expanding Medicaid.

 

Amendment 1-The legislature dedicated the majority of funding to clean-up and restoration, and smaller amount for land purchases!

The Florida Water and Land Conservation Act, which was passed in the 2014 general election, requires that 33% of revenue from the Documentary Stamp tax must be allocated for conservation purposes to: “acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands.” Revenue estimates show that 33% of documentary stamp tax will bring in approximately $770 million this year, and Environmental groups wanted a large portion of the funding to purchase conservation land, despite the fact that almost ⅓ of Florida’s land mass is held in conservation. Governor Rick Scott had proposed $100 million for land purchases and Environmental groups wanted as much as $300 million.

The state currently has difficulty maintaining and protecting the conservation land it already owns. Before any additional properties are purchased for conservation purposes, existing waterways, estuaries, rivers and other water bodies presently endangered should be restored.

Despite heavy pressure from environmental groups the final budget for land purchases only allocated:

  • $17.4 million to the Florida Forever program.
  • $20 million for land acquisition for Kissimmee River restoration.
  • $15 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection program to acquire permanent easements. This program keeps property remaining with the property owner.  
  • $2 million for the Howell Creek wetlands acquisition.
  • $600,000 for the Helena Run Preserve

The Florida legislature did the right thing in making sure we properly take care of what the government already owns with the majority of funding going to clean-up, restoration and management.

 

Session analysis on Liberty First Network core issues

Budget Increased

The House and the Senate passed their final budget in special session at $78.7 billion, but quickly Governor Scott vetoed $461 million of special pet projects that legislators stuck in the budget last minute. Also in special session the House and Senate agreed on a $428 million tax cut package.      

Tax cuts

The Legislature passed a $428 million tax cut package:

  • Permanent 1.73 percentage point cut to the Communication Services Tax (CST) on cell phone and TV services.  A projected $20 per year savings for people paying $100 a month for cell phone and cable TV services
  • 10-day "Back to School" sales tax holiday (August 7-16)
  • Exemption of college textbooks and related course materials from sales tax for one year
  • Exemption of gun club memberships and fees from sales tax
  • Exemption of vehicles purchased by service members or their spouses overseas and brought back to Florida from sales tax.

 

As we reported earlier there are many positive trends, but our biggest disappointment is the wrong direction trend of spending. This year’s budget marked the third year in a row of a new record of spending. While we did receive mostly symbolic tax cuts in the amount of $428 million, we had over one billion in increased spending. This actually means we pay more in taxes than we would have if the legislature returned the surplus to the taxpayers. Milton Friedman said spending is taxation and we know government spending displaces private-sector activity. Every dollar that government spends means one less dollar in the productive sector of the economy. The Florida budget has increased by almost 10 billion over the last three years and this is the third year in a row that set the record for the highest budget. This is a trend we need to reverse.

 

Protecting Private Property Rights

Two bills passed this session that are good steps to protecting private property:

HB 383 Private Property Rights

HB 383 Amends the Bert Harris Act to create a new avenue for property owners to recover damages based on an “unconstitutional exaction” which means a government agency may not require a property owner to, among other things, perform off-site improvements or repairs to other properties he or she does not own and which are located miles away.

SB 766 Surveillance by a Drone

SB 766 prohibits a person, state agency or political subdivision from using aerial drones to capture images that could infringe on the privacy of property owners or occupants.

 

Regional Planning Councils

We started out the session with a goal to eliminate Regional Planning Councils and bills were filed by Senator Wilton Simpson (SB 484) and Representative Debbie Mayfield (HB 873). These bills as filed would have eliminated Regional Planning Councils.

The 11 Florida Regional Planning Councils receive millions of dollars of federal government grants to promote “Smart Growth” and “Sustainable Living” growth management plans. “Smart Growth” (such as 7/50 in south Florida) strip away our property rights, by pushing us into higher density urban centers, forcing us to give up our cars, use bikes, transit or walk to work and shop.

Regional Planning Councils comprise a fourth layer of government between the local city /county and the state government. This new layer of government diminishes the local control and authority of city and county governments for self-government through “home rule” as provided for in the Florida Constitution.

Unfortunately Senator Simpson filed what is known as “Strike-All” amendment to his own bill. A “Strike-All” amendment actually strikes all of the current language of a bill and inserts totally new language. The new Regional Planning Council bill by Senator Simpson not only did not eliminate Regional Planning Councils, but Senator Simpson guaranteed $2.5 million for Regional Planning Councils for this next year’s budget. Senator Simpson’s new bill does eliminate one of the 11 Regional Planning Councils (Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council) and moves those Counties to other existing Councils. Senator Simpson’s new bill also deletes some of the current statutorily-required duties of Regional Planning Councils. Senator Simpson’s bill was eventually amended to a comprehensive growth management bill SB 1216. We were able to have the $2.5 million appropriation removed.

 

Common Core

Education was a large topic this legislative session with many proposed bills on how to deal with high stakes testing, standards, curriculum and teacher evaluations. The Liberty First Network favored HB 743/SB 1406 sponsored by Rep Debbie Mayfield and Senator Dwight Bullard.

These bills would have returned control over many education issues back to the school districts. They also would have allowed for parents to have more direction for their children’s education choices and allowed lowered the high stakes nature of the testing. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, neither piece of legislation was heard in even one committee.

Senator John Legg’s bill SB 616 was the prefered legislation in the state senate. This bill took on a large amount of amendments as it went through the committee process and was seemingly moving closer to a bill worthy of support from the grassroots. The state house did not take that same approach and past a committee bill HB 7069.

While the house bill was a slight improvement over the current situation in education it was far from being considered a “good bill” for our teachers and students. In the end SB 616 took on a late amendment making it more resemble HB 7069.

What this year’s legislation does:

  • This legislation would suspend the negative consequences for the 2014-2015 school year for the Florida Standards Assessments.
  • It would remove the “end-of-course” exams in grades not subject to the FSA but would require teachers to use a district approved test to still be eligible for performance pay adjustments.
  • Restructures student assessment portion of teacher evaluations from 50% to 33% and allow more flexibility for school districts in teacher evaluations.
  • Limits class time used for state and local required testing to be no more than 5% of classroom time.
  • School districts struggling with the implementation of the FSA during the 2014-2015 year can opt for a one time baseline or diagnostic classification for their student’s test scores with a super majority vote of the local school board. If this option is taken the school district forfeits school recognition funding and designation as a “high performing” school district.
  • Eliminates 11th grade ELA and makes PERT test optional.

 

This was a disappointment but had some positive implications. The legislators are well aware that the grassroots is not going to let up on the issue of education and with the failures of the testing technology this pressure is not going to stop any time soon. Many legislators are very open to new solutions for some of the glaring problems, however, leadership is still holding tight to the over testing and new standards.

 

Craft Breweries

Florida has been 1 of only 2 states to ban the 64oz growler, popular in the craft brewery industry. A growler is a glass, refillable container purchased at craft breweries to take home beer. Previously, Florida allowed the 32oz and 128 oz growlers but would not allow beer to be sold in a 64oz sized growler.

Along with the fight for a 64oz growler, the license allowing craft breweries to operate was based on a tourist exemption created for Busch Gardens in the 60’s. With craft breweries working under that exemption the industry was in jeopardy with licensing.

SB 186 sponsored by Senator Jack Latvala allows for the 64oz growler and removes the need to prove the promotion of tourism within the licensing. This will stabilize the industry.

 

Gun Rights

SB 290 passed this session and allows Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a license during mandatory evacuations. This same bill died last year from opposition from the Florida Sheriff’s Association and a watered-down version passed this session.

Two good gun bills failed to pass this session. HB 4005 would have allowed people with Concealed Weapons Permit to carry a firearm on college and University campuses HB19 would have given Florida superintendents the option of hiring armed school safety employees on K-12 campuses. These two bills should have been common sense, the shooting tragedy last year at Florida State University clearly demonstrated that “gun free zones” only disarms law-abiding citizens and violates their right to protect themselves as well as the opportunity to stop a criminal and save lives. Unfortunately the Senate caved to pressure from the anti-gun crowd and the Senate versions of these two bills died in Senate committee. The two House bills had progressed all the way to House floor calendar and would have passed but for the Senate’s refusal to take up the bills in their committees.

 

Red Light Cameras

There were a few Transportation bills this session that included some good reforms for red light cameras, including a ban on tickets for right hand turns at red light camera intersections , limiting fund use to public safety, and more stringent crash reporting requirements. It also penalizes cities that refuse to submit crash data by withholding funds until they do.

HB 7071 was the House bill that started with these reforms and by the time it made its way through committees, only the ban on right hand turn tickets was stripped, while the other reforms remained. HB 7071 was a victim of the House’s early exit and died on the House calendar. The Senate stripped SB 1184 of all the good reforms in HB 7071, despite  a valiant effort by Senator Jeff Brandes to keep these reforms in the bill language. Even if the House had passed HB 7071, the Senate would not have taken up the bill.

 

Corporate Welfare

The good news is the trend that more and more legislators every session are starting to question the legitimacy of corporate welfare programs and this session legislation that would have given more subsidies to the film industry and sports teams died.

The Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) which houses most of the corporate welfare programs only exists to give powerful well-connected corporations our hard earned money and does nothing to create a business friendly environment for all businesses big or small and to create a level playing field. The DEO provides Tax refunds on corporate income, sales, ad valorem, intangible personal property, insurance premium, and certain other taxes as well as tax credits and financial grants.

The DEO was appropriated a total of $1.1 billion in the 2014-2015 budget, with about $118.9 million of that money going to the state’s private-public economic development partners, including $8.6 million for Enterprise Florida. In the 2015-16 fiscal year DEO will receive nearly the same amount of funding, $1.13 billion.

 

Summary

There was definitely positive action in this years session, the lack of of real change in Common Core and Red Light Cameras were the biggest disappointments. The key takeaway is that we are making headway in those fights, your phone calls and emails are making the politicians nervous. Resistance is Victory and if we don’t quit we will win. The legislators know that we are serious, backed by numbers and we will be back!

The Liberty First Network is not funded by special interests or large corporations. It is funded by people like YOU. If you want to continue to see us fighting the special interests and advocating for YOU in Tallahassee consider making a donation TODAY!!!

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