Lawmakers might have largely taken off the last week before the beginning of the 2014 legislative session, but workers responsible for shuffling papers at the Capitol were not so lucky.
With the session looming -- and, with it, the opening-day deadline to file bills for consideration this year -- legislative offices were busily cranking out proposal after proposal. By 5:30 p.m. Friday, at least 101 bills had been filed -- on that day alone.
Not much else was happening in or around the Capitol. A few last-minute press conferences were held, and the denizens of official Tallahassee quietly prepared for what they all know is coming: two months of controlled chaos.
SENATE SHOWS ITS HAND:
After months of playing it close to the vest, the Florida Senate laid its cards on the table this week, releasing a 453-page gambling measure that, without changes, has a slightly better chance of passing the Legislature than a casino customer has of hitting a jackpot.
The bill (SPB 7052) would authorize two Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida, create a gambling commission and allow voters to decide if they want to control future gambling expansions. The Gaming Control Board would oversee the Department of Gaming Control -- with five members appointed by the governor and requiring Senate confirmation. That agency would replace the state's Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering.
As for the giant casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade counties? Bidders would have to pony up $125 million just to play -- though, unlike the casinos themselves, the state would refund the money to any losers -- and then pay annual $5 million license fees while seeing their games taxed at 35 percent.
Despite the Senate's apparent desire to consider gambling legislation, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, insists his chamber will not pass any measures unless Gov. Rick Scott renegotiates a deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Weatherford also wants any changes approved this year to be subject to a statewide referendum and require 60 percent approval for passage.
"I will defer to our committees on the substance of the Senate gaming bill," Weatherford said in a statement Monday. "However, as I have said all along, the House will approach gaming in a comprehensive manner which means any change must include a constitutional amendment on the future of gaming expansion in Florida and a renegotiated Seminole compact."
Scott has given no indication whether he intends to wrap up talks with the Seminoles in time for lawmakers to approve a new deal before the legislative session ends May 2. Scott also said he opposes the gambling commission included in the Senate plan and which Weatherford also supports.
GRADING ON A CURVE?
One of the biggest policy battlegrounds over the past few years has been public education. And while some of the more sweeping measures dealing with K-12 schools had already been filed before the week began -- witness the voucher expansion bill the House has put forward -- there were still plenty of ideas ready to pop.
Some of the biggest remaining changes are to the state's system for grading schools. Almost everyone agrees that the accountability system needs to be put on hold in some form and for some period of time. The prescriptions for how long and exactly how to do that are what causes debate.
The leading contender is likely a bill that would follow Education Commissioner Pam Stewart's proposal for dealing with new state education standards and the new tests on those standards that will be introduced in the 2014-15 school year. Under that bill (SPB 7060), schools would not face penalties for the grades they receive in 2014-15, but the grades would still be tallied, and the system for handing out those marks would be simplified.
While school districts and teachers have called for the grading system to be suspended and allow for a "transition period," Stewart has insisted that the grading should go forward, helping to establish a starting point for future cycles.
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, filed legislation (SB 1638) that would more radically change the system. The grading system would be paused for three years. Over the same time frame, a state test could not be the "sole determiner" of whether a student graduates or gets promoted to the next grade level.
"Florida's accountability system is no longer credible in the eyes of the public -- from the adoption of new standards, the selection of a new assessment, to the awarding of school grades," said Montford, who doubles as the chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
Montford's bill would also alter the state's performance-pay law, approved by the Legislature in 2011, by lowering the portion of a teacher's evaluation that has to be based on test results from 50 percent to 30 percent. Another 20 percent would be based on other measures of a teacher's performance.
And it would delay for three years -- from July 1 of this year to July 1, 2017 -- the date when new employees are required to enter the state's performance-pay system. A companion bill (HB 1197) was later filed in the House by Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary.
PRESCRIPTION FOR CHANGE:
Health care could also spark some conflicts in 2014, though no one expects the GOP-dominated Legislature to seriously consider a potential expansion of Medicaid paid for almost entirely by the federal government.
Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, jumped into the fight over trauma care with a bill (SB 1276) that would overhaul the way Florida approves trauma centers and ensure that three disputed facilities remain open. The bill could also short-circuit a debate about how the Florida Department of Health determines where new trauma centers should be allowed to open.
It would allow trauma centers in operation on July 1 to remain open -- a proposal that likely would ensure the continued operation of trauma facilities at Blake Medical Center in Manatee County, Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Pasco County and Ocala Regional Medical Center in Marion County.
A major lobbying battle is expected, with the HCA health-care chain backing the proposal while big hospitals in the Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Gainesville areas lining up to oppose it.
HCA has argued, in part, that allowing more trauma centers would better meet the needs of injured patients in various parts of the state.
"I think it (the bill) presents a clear path to moving forward,'' said Stephen Ecenia, an attorney for the company.
Other hospitals see things differently. Mark Delegal, general counsel for the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which represents public and teaching hospitals that have long operated trauma centers, said his group thinks current laws offer a proper balance for determining whether needs exist for new trauma centers.
Delegal described the part of the bill that would ensure the continued operation of the disputed HCA trauma facilities as the "big enchilada." Also, he said a "proliferation" of trauma centers would reduce the volume of patients going to the highly specialized facilities, which could ultimately affect quality of care.
Grimsley also proposed a measure that would allow advanced registered nurse practitioners to prescribe controlled substances -- but stops far short of a House plan to expand nurse-practitioner powers.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he opposed a bill approved by the House Select Committee on Health Care Workforce Innovation that would allow nurse practitioners to provide care without physician supervision.
Grimsley's bill would keep physician-supervision requirements, though it would make some other changes such as expanding the drug-prescribing powers of nurse practitioners.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers pushed forward dozens of bills in the final week before the 2014 legislative session begins.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Certain legislators will file legislation they know will not pass because they will be able to demagogue during their campaigns and say, 'I filed it but couldn't get it passed.' This happens in every state in the union and on the federal level. People use bills to accentuate their beliefs on certain issues. And those who want to be able to stand up and say, 'I support the Second Amendment, I support the rights of law-abiding gun owners,' are going to want to be able to vote on some pro-gun legislation and sometimes against anti-gun legislation." -- National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, as the Legislature considers a series of gun-related bills.