The Florida legislature will convene on Tuesday, Jan. 12 for the start of its annual, 60 day session. The top priority is ironing out a state budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. But to get there, lawmakers will have to address dozens of other issues.
Florida’s Medicaid costs are rising despite legislative efforts such as Medicaid Managed Care, to control them. Part of the blame is being placed on growing prices for prescription drugs. The legislature is again looking to find ways to shrink, or at least slow, the price creep. After years of trying plans to tap into federal dollars from the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) to add more low income people to Medicaid is off the table. But that hasn't slowed rising demand for services.
- Ambulatory Care/Recovery Care: Several House-backed proposals are going before lawmakers, including an expansion of ambulatory care and recovery care centers. Such facilities handle smaller surgeries and the legislature wants to let them treat more conditions and keep patients longer in order to avoid higher hospital fees.
- Scope of Practice: Nurses and Physicians Assistants could get even more authority to prescribe medications under Sen. Denise Grimsley’s SB 152. The measure has been before the legislature in the past, but has faced opposition from the Florida Medical Association. Meanwhile, Rep. Cary Pigman, who is a doctor, wants to let nurses who receive certifications in other states practice in Florida. His HB 1061 would make Florida part of a 25-state compact. He says both measures are needed to increase the number of available medical practitioners to treat a growing number of people with health insurance.
- Balanced-billing: Governor Rick Scott is calling for more transparency in hospital billing, and he’s accused some hospitals of price gouging patients. Balance billing is what happens when patients get a bill for services not fully covered by their insurer. Three years ago, a plan in the Florida legislature would have made it far easier to find out what health care services cost. The proposal -- brought by future House Speaker Richard Corcoran -- would have expanded a state requirement that certain providers post prices of common procedures. It was killed in the Senate and opposed by the Florida Medical Association. But the bill would have applied to hospitals, ambulatory care centers, diagnostic imaging businesses and doctors who work in hospital settings. All are places where patients could get unexpected bills. Much of it comes when patients have to go to emergency rooms, and the average consumer may not know whether a provider is in, or out of network. Florida’s insurance consumer advocate has proposed a fix that would keep emergency room patients from getting balance bills from providers that aren’t in their network plan.
- Charter Schools: are once again eyeing local tax dollars when it comes to school maintenance and construction. Meanwhile a massive charter school reform bill has started moving in the House—the proposal by Rep. Manny Diaz creates standard charter school contracts while requiring schools to provide more financial disclosure.
- School Accountability/Cut Scores: Florida lawmakers will continue to tinker with the state school accountability system. The state is grappling with how it should grade schools now that a new, statewide standardized testing system is in place. Some want tougher grading standards, which could result in more schools earning F’s and D’s. Others want Florida’s to apply a stricter grading system. They say such an alignment will give Floridians a better understanding of how students, and schools are performing. State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has proposed a middle ground of sorts, which would result in fewer changes to school grades.
- Disabled Floridians: Senate President Andy Gardiner backed several disability-related bills in the 2015 session, but they were dropped when the session ended early. One of Gardiner’s children has Downs Syndrome, and the lawmaker has become something of a disability rights advocate. But Sen. Don Gaetz , R-Niceville, is picking up where Gardiner left off, with Senate Bill 672. Gaetz’ plan would expand the Personal Learning Scholarship program, which helps families pay for private school tuition, digital devices and other fees. Some have raised questions about the eligibility requirements for the PLSA. They say that students enrolled in public school or juvenile justice programs wouldn’t get that extra funding. But Senator Gaetz says the dollars should go to students in need. Gaetz’ proposal would also help students with special needs transition into post-secondary ed. Approved institutions could offer degree or certificate programs, and build a new link to education and resources.
- Financial Independence: Some Florida senators are moving forward with plans that could help people with disabilities become more financially independent. Venice Republican Nancy Detert wants to encourage more businesses to hire people with disabilities. Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, wants to establish a financial literacy program with help from banks and credit unions. A Government Oversight Committee proposal would expand the state’s employment of people with disabilities.
- High School Sports: The Florida High School Athletics Association is trying to hold on to its position as the main high school sport organizing body. But bills by several lawmakers could allow schools to join other athletic organizations by sport, and cap some fees charged by the FHSAA. Other measures would make it easier for students to transfer schools and maintain eligibility to play sports.
- Best and Brightest: Senate Education chairman John Legg wants to make changes to a program that gives $10,000 to teachers who performed well under the SAT. The program wasn’t vetted by the Senate and slipped into the budget during negotiations. Teachers groups say the program is unfair, because it could reward teachers who took the SAT decades ago.
- Seminole Gaming Compact: Governor Rick Scott has signed a $3 billion gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, The plan lets the tribe continue banked card games at its Florida facilities. It would also allow some counties that have approved resolutions, to operate facilities. But the plan still has to be approved by the legislature, and its reception has been lukewarm.
- Decoupling: The new agreement contains language that could pave the way for decoupling at pari-mutuel facilities. That could let pari-mutuels continue offering card games without a requirement to continue holding horse or dog races. Groups like the United Florida Horsemen worry it could hurt the horse breeding and competition industry while casino-backed entities benefit.
- Fantasy Sports: Meanwhile, Senate President-Designate Joe Negron has introduced a plan to regulate Fantasy Sports systems like Fan Duel and Draft Kings. The sites have been banned in some states and deemed gambling by regulators in others. But Negron says they are games of skill. The gaming compact proposes banning fantasy sports in Florida, but House Speaker Steve Crisafulli says banning fantasy sports would turn three million Floridians into what he calls “immediate criminals.”
A plan to bring a non-euphoric strain of Medical Marijuana to sick Floridians has languished for more than a year. What will the legislature do to fix it? And what role will two constitutional amendments to legalize the drug have in Florida?
State officials have awarded licenses for the five nurseries that will grow medical marijuana under provisions passed in 2014. But squabbling among those growers—and others who weren’t granted licenses—threaten to derail the process further. There are thirteen challenges spread across the five licensees. Meanwhile, medical marijuana activists behind a constitutional amendment that narrowly failed in 2014 say they’re ready for this year’s ballot. The organization has gathered one million petition signatures, and officials say this puts them in good position to meet the requirement of almost 700,000 verified supporters. Policy changes could be right around the corner in the state Legislature as well. Lawmakers instrumental in passing the 2014 non-euphoric marijuana measure want to let terminally ill patients use pot to treat pain. Unlike existing law, patients would have access to marijuana with higher levels of THC if that proposal passes.
- Prison Reform: During the past year, Florida’s prison system has been troubled by a slew of issues, which include inmate abuse allegations. With a new Secretary in place, prison officials have been working with the Florida Legislature to implement several prison reform policies to address excessive use of force incidents—some of which may have led to the arrests of multiple correctional employees across the state, particularly in the Panhandle. And, as the 2016 legislative session draws near, more reforms could be on the way.
- Juvenile Justice Reforms: There are already some juvenile justice reforms moving through the legislative process, and it will be a main priority for the upcoming Senate President. It includes a measure expunging the criminal records of certain juveniles and another allowing judges to have more of a say in charging juveniles as adults. That discretion currently lies with prosecutors, and still mostly does after a recent legislative change in the House bill. The Senate bill still carries the original language.
- Rape Kits backlog: A couple months, Governor Rick Scott pledged millions of dollars to help process thousands of untested rape kits. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement just released survey results that the state has more than 13,000 untested DNA samples, and the findings will soon be presented to Florida lawmakers. It’s a priority for Attorney General Pam Bondi as well several Florida legislators who have filed bills—some moving through the process—to help take care of the backlog.
- Human Trafficking: Florida remains among the top states for human trafficking. Most people recognize it through prostitution and sexual slavery, but labor trafficking is a growing problem. Florida lawmakers are continuing to make human trafficking bills a priority, and a new law just took effect to help raise awareness about the practice. Signs must now be posted in multiple areas, like rest stops, emergency rooms, airports, and strip clubs.
- Enterprise Florida: Governor Rick Scott and Senate Leaders are at odds when it comes to financing the state’s public-private business recruiting arm, Enterprise Florida. Scott wants more money for the group, and has claimed its running out of money to recruit companies to the Sunshine State. The Senate argues Enterprise Florida has spent the dollars it has, and thinks the organization needs to do a better job of making sure companies fulfill their obligations in order to get state support. Now the Governor has proposed a set of reforms in exchange for the legislative giving Enterprise Florida $250 million. The money would be used to create a new trust fund that wouldn’t be tapped until companies reach their job creation goals. But it would earn more interest while it waits. Deals over a million dollars would have to be approved by the House Speaker, Senate President and Governor. “This money is significant," Scott has said. "$250 million to work with our cities, work with our counties, and work with companies to get more regional offices, more corporate offices…it’s important that we fund this to get more jobs in our state. More high paying jobs.”
- Tax cuts: Governor Rick Scott is proposing $1 billion in tax cuts for the 2016-2017 budget. Scott’s proposal includes giving manufactures a permanent sales tax break on equipment and machinery. He also wants to do away with income taxes for manufacturing and retail businesses. And Scott is pushing for a reduction in the commercial lease tax. It would last through 2017 and reduce the tax on commercial leases by 1 percent. The governor’s tax proposal also includes some plans that hit a little closer to home, including sales tax holidays for back-to-school and disaster preparedness. Floridians have enjoyed similar holidays for the past several years, but the governor wants to expand those holidays—letting people taking advantage of the sales tax savings for 10 and 9 days respectively. Scott’s proposing another year of sales-tax-free textbook purchases for students.
- Fracking: Groups opposed to the oil drilling method are already planning protests for the beginning of session. So far, an industry bill pushed by Republicans is already moving through committees and likely to pass the House again this year. It sets up a regulatory framework that backers say will give the state firmer control of the drilling activities. However, it lets drillers conceal the composition of the chemicals they pump into the ground by classifying them as trade secrets. It also prevents local governments from imposing fracking bans, so it’s not clear how it would affect an anti-fracking ordinance in Bonita Springs. This year’s fracking bill calls for a one-year moratorium while a new study is conducted.
- Water: A pair of Republicans from Stuart have filed identical bills appropriating $200 million a year for Everglades restoration, or about a quarter of the environmental funding voters ordered set aside for the environment when they approved Amendment 1. The South Florida Water Management District would get $32 million of that. Rep. Gayle Harrell is one of the sponsors. The other is Sen. Joe Negron. Negron will be the next Senate president and preside over the 2017 session, making 2016 the most influential year in his political career. The money would be used to stop tons of phosphorous from fouling Lake Okeechobee. That, in turn, would reduce polluted Lake Okeechobee water from damaging the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon, the two major water bodies in Negron’s district. Other bills will also seek more funding to establish minimum flow levels and nutrient loading in Florida’s biggest natural springs. A large water management proposal failed last year amid legislative disagreements, but the House and Senate are poised to bring the measure back this year.
- Solar: Lawmakers will begin the 2016 legislative session knowing that an environmental group’s drive to deregulate the small-scale sale of solar energy is not going to appear on the 2016 ballot. Three of the state’s largest investor-owned utilities fought the issue tooth and nail. The industry’s sound-a-like initiative, which opponents claim was designed to confuse voters, will remain active, although it does little to change the status quo. It’s not clear how that will affect a constitutional amendment being pushed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg and chairman of the transportation committee. Critics say his amendment was also designed to confuse voters. It promises to deregulate solar power, but critics say it also frees utilities to gouge solar customers still tied to the grid, a necessity for most of them. Like the power companies, Brandes argues deregulating solar energy forces utilities to subsidize the competition.
- Concealed Carry/Guns on Campus: A plan to allow licensed concealed carry at Florida’s public colleges and universities is back before the Florida legislature. It’s opposed by campus administrators and some law enforcement, who say college kids and guns is a bad mix. But proponents like Florida Carry and the National Rifle Association argue it would allow students to protect themselves, and they point to issues such as campus sexual assaults and shootings to back up their point. The bill is currently stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it died last session.
- Open Carry: Meanwhile another plan to make Florida an open carry state is working its way through the legislature. The bill is proposed by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. But some law enforcement agencies are concerned open carry in Florida could put officers and the public in danger. The Florida Sherriff’s Association is opposed. “The opposition is to creating an environment that is not safe for Florida not good for families, not family friendly, not good for tourism and not good for our economy,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The state’s police chiefs have agreed to back open carry if lawmakers will amend the bill to clarify what officers can and can’t do as well as shielding them from frivolous lawsuits.