Lawmakers are turning out the lights in the Capitol next week while some celebrate Easter, others observe Passover and, with any luck, all get some R and R as the clock winds down on the 2014 legislative session.
Although House floor action dragged on past 4:30 p.m. Friday in advance of the week-long respite, an empty fourth floor rotunda was eerily quiet. Perhaps the lobbyists and hangers-on were getting an early jump on the weekend, or plotting their strategies for the brief two weeks that will remain in the session when House and Senate members return April 21.
Gambling lobbyists may have already rolled up their tents earlier in the week after House Speaker Will Weatherford declared the issue dead for the rest of the session.
The Republican-dominated Legislature closed out the week with the House passing red-meat legislation dealing with guns, abortion and school vouchers on Friday, sending the items to the typically more moderate Senate with plenty of time for horse-trading on the issues before the session ends May 2.
In other bartering business, the two chambers teed up the remainder of Gov. Rick Scott's election-year pledge to cut $500 million in taxes and fees. Disparities in the House and Senate tax break proposals are eliciting little more than a yawn from some old-schoolers, including Weatherford, who called the variations typical of the "posturing" during the latter part of the session.
One major question remained unresolved Friday evening -- which legislators would attend the Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin' Festival? Curiosity seekers may want to do a little research on the annual event, where sirens deploying the right equipment coax the creatures out of their underground hiding places. Any relationship to activities around the Capitol environs is left to the imagination of the reader.
GAMBLING REALLY, REALLY DEAD:
Several weeks ago, Weatherford warned that the lights were dimming on prospects for any gambling legislation this year. This week, the speaker hammered the proverbial nail into the issue.
"I would say at this point the lights are out," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone call during a break in House floor activities Wednesday.
Weatherford's announcement didn't come as much of a surprise to gambling lobbyists and insiders, who read the tea leaves when he laid out two very high bars -- a successful deal between Scott and the Seminole Tribe of Florida and a constitutional amendment -- earlier in the session.
But Weatherford's timing may have been a little pointed. His comments came the day after Senate President Don Gaetz was involved in some heated sidebar huddles over a proposal that would eventually do away with greyhound racing. Gaetz, R-Niceville, dropped in on the debate at the Senate Gaming Committee on Tuesday, with his wife, Vicky, joining other animal rights supporters in the audience. Their son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, was also present for much of the hour-long discussion.
Before Tuesday's meeting, with "Johnny Depp," "Twiggy" and "Whisper" by her side, the Senate's first lady could not hold back the tears when asked why she was participating in a press conference about the perils of greyhound racing.
"I'm so passionate about it that I can hardly speak about it," Vicky Gaetz said. "It's just an issue I'm very passionate about, anything involving animals or children who are neglected or abused."
The Senate Gaming Committee was giving Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, another shot at her perennial effort to "decouple" greyhound racing from other gambling activities. Sachs, Grey2K and Matt Gaetz are among those who believe that greyhound racing is a thing of the past, costs the state money and has led to cruel treatment of the racing dogs by some operators who only use the dogs as a means to operate more lucrative poker rooms. The pari-mutuel permits allow the racetrack operators to operate card rooms and, in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, slot machines.
But despite pressure from the Senate's "first family," the committee stopped short of trying to eliminate greyhound racing and instead approved a measure (SB 742) that would force tracks to report injuries and deaths to the state.
The next day, Weatherford announced that even that proposal was a bust this session. The Senate president had no comment.
The death knell for gambling came after the Legislature spent $400,000 for a study, the Senate held a series of public workshops across the state on the issue and gambling interests on all sides contributed millions of dollars to campaigns.
A variety of groups -- including out-of-state gambling operators and the Florida Panthers hockey organization -- have intensified their demands for Florida to approve Las Vegas-style casinos this session after lawmakers rejected the idea two years ago. At the same time, the state's pari-mutuels, Disney World and its affiliates and the Seminole Tribe have balked at the proposal. Gambling-related groups on both sides of the issue have contributed over $4.6 million to lawmakers, candidates and political parties since the 2012 elections. Disney and its associated enterprises have contributed more than $2.2 million during the same time period.
ABORTION BILLS STIR EMOTIONS:
The House passed two abortion-related bills Friday, eliciting impassioned but cool-headed debate on the floor. In keeping with protocol established by previous leaders, Weatherford ordered young House messengers out of the chamber before the debate on the two proposals began.
One measure (HB 1047) would place additional restrictions on abortions, largely barring the procedures if doctors determine that fetuses have reached viability. The Senate Judiciary Committee heatedly debated a similar measure (SB 918) before approving it with a party-line vote earlier in the week.
Under current law, abortions in most cases are barred during the third trimester of pregnancy. But the bills would require that physicians conduct examinations before performing abortions to determine if fetuses are viable. If viability is reached, abortions would generally not be allowed -- a change that the bills' supporters say could prevent abortions around the 20th week of pregnancy.
Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, the sponsor of the bill, said the measure defines viability as the stage of fetal development when the life of a fetus is sustainable outside the womb through standard medical measures.
"This bill does nothing to take away a womans choice pre-viability," Adkins said. "The courts have decided Florida has the right to protect life at the point of viability."
But Democrats argued the proposed change doesn't provide protections for women or physicians when a woman's life is at risk, and that the measure imposes religious beliefs on people who don't hold the same convictions.
Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, objected that the proposal "puts womens lives and health in jeopardy" and "makes it much more difficult for a doctor to intervene and save a womans life."
Four Republicans joined a majority of Democrats who lined up against the proposal, which passed by a 70-45 vote.
"I believe in less government and I believe that the government should leave our private matters to us and not be as involved as we are. That's just the bottom line for me," said Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers.
Vanessa Cullins, a physician affiliated with the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said in a statement that lawmakers should be focused on expanding health care to the uninsured instead of restricting women's access to abortions.
As was pointed out time and again through the committee process, this legislation attempts to insert politics into a deeply personal and complex decision that should always be left to a woman, her family, her faith and her doctor. Each pregnancy is different. So why would our representatives vote for a bill that dramatically narrows health exceptions in a way that could well put womens health, or even their lives, in jeopardy?" Cullins said.
Another proposal (HB 59) would create a new penalty when fetuses are harmed during crimes.
The bill would address situations when pregnant women are attacked or murdered. Attackers could also be charged with crimes against unborn children regardless of the term of pregnancy.
Hollywood Democrat Rep. Elaine Schwartz called the bill "part of a war on women." Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, replied the proposal represents a "defense of the unborn."
House members voted 74-42 to approve the bill and in a voice vote certified the measure for the Senate, which had gone home.
SNIP, SNIP, SNIPPING AT ELECTION-YEAR TAX CUTS:
The House and Senate advanced divergent road maps that both would lead to $500 million in tax and fee breaks for Floridians and a boost for Scott, whose popularity remains low as he vies for a second term in the governor's mansion.
The Senate's plan would give Floridians a single sales-tax holiday during the next year -- rather than four proposed by the House -- and would include money for improvements at Daytona International Speedway, a bit of home cooking pushed by Senate Finance and Tax Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday backed an amendment to replace what has been billed as the House's "patchwork of awesomeness" tax package (HB 5601) with the Senate's "broad-based" measures, as lawmakers work to reach the half-billion dollar, election-year benchmark set by Scott.
The committee didn't vote on the bill. Instead the proposed changes to the House-approved measure -- put on a unique Senate committee journey this week --will be returned to the lower chamber, where members are not expected to fully welcome the changes.
The Senate's plan centers on a $64 million cut to the communications services tax imposed on cable and phone services. It also includes a tax discount on prepaid phone plans, expected to save phone users $1.4 million; and a measure that would reduce by 20 percent the insurance premium tax on Florida-based bail bond premiums, a $700,000 reduction in state revenue.
The chambers agree on the popular back-to-school tax holiday. But the House also wants discount periods on hurricane preparation, which Scott supported; energy-saving appliances; and gym memberships.
And the House package includes a permanent sales-tax exemption for car seats and bicycle helmets for kids; an expansion of the New Markets Tax Credit program for investments in low-income communities; a temporary lifting of sales taxes on the purchase of cement mixers; a $20 million loan program for television production companies; and a plan to reduce the sales taxes businesses pay for electricity.
Late Friday afternoon, Weatherford shrugged off differences between the two chambers' approaches.
"That's normal We are at the stage of session where sometimes, maybe on a big tax bill like that, there are some differences of opinion, maybe even some posturing, going on, he told reporters.
Weatherford balked at giving the Daytona race track, in the midst of a major renovation project, $2 million a year for 30 years in state sales tax dollars, however. The House package does not include those funds.
"That would probably be one we would probably not be supportive of," he said. "We have lots of time to iron out the differences, just like everything with the budget."
STORY OF THE WEEK: House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, announces that "the lights are out" on any gambling legislation this session.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "It's not bread and water, but it's pretty close. A steady diet of peanut butter, cabbage and sardines is not very appealing to anyone." -- Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Randall Berg on the Department of Corrections' kosher meal plan, comprised mainly of peanut butter, cabbage and sardines, served cold seven days a week.