It's time for denizens of Tallahassee to get their last week of rest and recreation --- or at least sanity --- before the whirlwind of activity begins. In the words of a House video from this week: "Session Is Coming."
And over the last week, the pieces for session continued getting put into place, even if it seemed at times like the House was preparing to knock the entire board off the table. Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, continued a pitched battle with Gov. Rick Scott over the fate of economic development incentives. Meanwhile, one of Corcoran's lieutenants poured cold water on Senate President Joe Negron's plan to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee.
Elsewhere, things were a little more settled. The Florida Supreme Court allowed capital punishment cases to proceed, even after the justices' ruling that the way the state's death penalty is currently imposed is unconstitutional. Lawmakers were on the track to fixing that.
It all set up one of the more unpredictable legislative sessions in a long time --- and sessions have a way of being unpredictable to begin with.
It's been a while since Punxsutawney Phil reportedly saw his own shadow earlier this month, but it looks like the Capitol is still in for at least six more weeks of fights over Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.
The latest volley began Monday, when Corcoran --- who has led the charge against business incentives --- said he was willing to allow Visit Florida to remain alive, as long as it lost two-thirds of its funding and subscribed to a list of conditions
Scott's response? A spokeswoman called the "massive cut" a threat to Florida families that rely on the tourism industry.
Corcoran's offer was to amend a contentious bill (HB 7005) that seeks to abolish Enterprise Florida, the state's business-recruitment agency, and Visit Florida, its tourism-marketing arm.
The amendment would place a series of new requirements on Visit Florida, which would receive $25 million in the budget year that begins July 1 if it agrees to what Corcoran's office described as "accountability and transparency measures."
Scott's budget request is slightly different, in the sense that it asks for $85 million that would go to Enterprise Florida for business-recruitment incentives and $76 million that would go to Visit Florida.
Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said Scott has already been working on changes at Visit Florida, including a change in leadership.
"More than a million Florida families rely on jobs in our tourism industry and are threatened with this massive cut," Schutz said in a statement. "Unfortunately, some politicians in the Florida House think fighting for jobs is simply hysteria and don't understand that jobs are not expendable to families who have to put food on the table."
Nonetheless, the House Appropriations Committee voted 18-12 to approve the measure and send it to the House floor.
"Jobs and capital (are) coming to the state of Florida because we have that good business climate, not because of Enterprise Florida," Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican sponsoring the measure, said after Tuesday's Appropriations Committee vote. "You hear the discussion today, it's almost as if all the jobs are going to go away if the government doesn't continue to actively intervene in the markets, and that is not who creates wealth."
That prompted Scott to continue to crank up the rhetoric, calling the House bill a "job killer."
"I know some politicians who have voted for this job killing bill say they don't necessarily want to abolish these programs but instead want to advance a 'conversation,' " Scott said in a statement that mirrored lines from an editorial he released on Monday. "This is completely hypocritical and the kind of games I came to Tallahassee to change. Perhaps if these politicians would listen to their constituents, instead of playing politics, they would understand how hurtful this legislation will be to Florida families."
GETTING HOT IN HERE
Economic incentives aren't the only flash point that built up over the past week.
A key House Republican made it appear doubtful the House will take up, as written, a $2.4 billion proposal by Negron, R-Stuart, to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee to ease the impacts of polluted water releases into estuaries on the east and west coasts.
House Government Accountability Committee Chairman Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, said advancing Negron's proposed 60,000-acre reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area --- atop what is now farmland --- would be "non-starter" if it displaces other projects, such as the $600 million C-43 reservoir along the Caloosahatchee River west of the lake.
Also, the House has little appetite to borrow money through bonding the state's portion of the costs --- the federal government would be asked to cover half --- for Negron's proposed land acquisition and reservoir construction.
"I'm dubious that the bill, as it's currently structured, could actually be accomplished the way it's envisioned," said Caldwell, who brought U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., to a meeting Wednesday of the state House Natural Resources & Public Lands Subcommittee.
The two chambers are also at odds over gambling legislation. One plan, the Senate's, would vastly expand the state's gambling footprint; another, the House's, would essentially maintain the status quo.
The overwhelming endorsement of the House and Senate plans by key committees sets the stage for critical negotiations between the two chambers, Gov. Rick Scott's administration and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Appropriations Committee voted 14-2 to approve the Senate bill (SB 8), while the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee voted 10-5 to approve the House measure (PCB TGC 17-01).
One positive sign: Unlike in previous years, the bills are moving early in the process, receiving critical votes before the session begins --- something legislative leaders are quick to point out. But the vastly different approaches, and a lack of a sense of urgency on the part of the House, keep the chances of a successful outcome a crapshoot.
"I'm not 100 percent sure where the middle ground's going to end up, but I can tell you if it comes down to expanding gaming, that's going to be a non-starter in the House," House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee Chairman Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, said.
The House plan centers on cementing a new agreement, called a "compact," with the Seminoles, who last year won a federal court decision regarding a 2010 agreement with the state that gave the tribe "exclusive" rights to operate banked card games, such as blackjack, at most of its casinos.
The Senate's industry-friendly proposal, meanwhile, includes a variety of factors --- including an expansion of slot machines and blackjack at pari-mutuels --- that the House, at least for now, maintains are off-limits.
Sen. Bill Galvano, the Senate's chief gambling negotiator who also was instrumental in crafting the 2010 deal with the tribe, likened the current situation to the three-way stand-off in the finale of the classic Western movie, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."
"The House has a product out there. There was a time the tribe was waiting to see where each chamber was. But now we know," Galvano, a Bradenton Republican slated to take over as Senate president after the 2018 elections, told reporters after Thursday's meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "It's time to reel it in."
DEATH PENALTY BACK ON TRACK
The state law allowing the death penalty might be unconstitutional, but cases where capital punishment is on the table can still go forward, the Supreme Court ruled Monday. The decision was the latest twist in a year-long saga about Florida's method of imposing executions.
In a pair of October rulings, the state court ruled that a new law --- passed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Hurst v. Florida --- was unconstitutional because it only required 10 jurors to recommend death "as opposed to the constitutionally required unanimous, 12-member jury."
The October majority opinion in the case of Larry Darnell Perry also found that the new law "cannot be applied to pending prosecutions."
But in an apparent reversal of that decision Monday, the majority ruled that capital cases can move forward, even before lawmakers fix the statute.
The majority in the 5-2 decision was comprised of Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices R. Fred Lewis, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, along with newly seated Justice Alan Lawson, who joined the court at the end of December.
The majority on Monday decided that the new law can be applied to pending prosecutions --- and is constitutional --- "if 12 jurors unanimously determine that a defendant should be sentenced to death."
But in her dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente argued that what could be a "temporary" fix, until lawmakers address the issue, could lead to more litigation.
"Such concerns are precisely why it is for the Legislature, not this (Supreme) Court, to enact legislation curing the act's fatal 10-2 provisions, assuming the Legislature intends for the death penalty to continue to be imposed in Florida," Pariente wrote in a dissent joined by Justice Peggy Quince.
The Legislature, in the meantime, is looking to fix the problem. The House Judiciary Committee voted a day after the court's ruling to require a unanimous jury decision to condemn defendants to death. The measure (HB 527) is part of a fast-moving process aimed at getting a bill to Scott by the end of the first week of the legislative session.
"One thing I found that disturbed families more than anything else is uncertainty," House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls, a Republican from Palm Harbor who is a former prosecutor, told the committee. "It really truly revictimizes them once again. … We will do our small role for those families in ensuring that we have a death penalty statute that is legal and those cases can move forward."
But Herman Lindsey, who was convicted of murder in 2006 and who spent more than a year on Death Row before being exonerated by the Florida Supreme Court in 2009, told the committee that, while the measure would fix the issue regarding unanimity, the law is still troubled.
"The problem that I have with this bill is that it's sort of like putting a Band-Aid over something that needs to be stitched up," he said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, continued escalating their feud about how much to spend on business incentives in the budget year that begins July 1.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "You want to know the difference between our country and all those other nations out there; (it) is the fact that we have a judiciary that keeps everybody else in line."---Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, on legislation that would impose term limits on state appellate court judges.