Florida Legislature Leaves Town Without Drawing New Congressional Districts

Florida Legislature Leaves Town Without Drawing New Congressional Districts

By Gray Rohrer, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida lawmakers adjourned their special session Friday without drawing new congressional districts, a breakdown between the Republican-led House and Senate that likely will leave the task to the courts.

Democrats immediately slammed GOP leaders for the dysfunction and costs, including the $8.1 million in legal fees spent defending the original congressional maps thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court.

Democratic Rep. Janet Cruz estimated the cost of the session at $2 million. “When are we going to stop wasting taxpayer money?” Cruz asked.

According to state officials, special sessions have averaged a cost of $156,411 during the past 14 years, but most of those were only for a few days. The final cost of the latest two-week session hasn’t been tabulated.

Lawmakers already held a three-week special session in June to resolve a budget dispute between the House and Senate. They will head to Tallahassee again in October for an extra three-week session to redraw state Senate districts.

On Friday, GOP House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said the Senate’s district plan would not be approved by the courts.

“It is without malice toward the Florida Senate that I say I believe their map was flawed,” Crisafulli said.

Although lawmakers have until Tuesday to draw new maps, the meltdown means the courts will likely be forced to draw the 27 districts. Florida Gov. Rick Scott could step in, but a spokeswoman said he would not call lawmakers back into special session to try to force a compromise.

Things deteriorated Friday as each chamber refused to accede to the other’s plan. The dispute culminated in Sen. Bill Galvano, a Republican and lead Senate redistricting negotiator, abruptly walking out of a joint meeting with his House counterpart, GOP Rep. Jose Oliva, before it was adjourned, a serious breach of protocol.

“I think that that probably speaks to the nature that this has taken,” Oliva said after Galvano walked away frustrated because Oliva repeatedly rejected his pleas to begin formal negotiations to resolve their differences.

Galvano was upset at Oliva’s assertion that the Senate’s redistricting plan would be seen by the courts as favoring GOP Sen. Tom Lee.

Lee amended a map drawn by legislative staffers earlier in the week that would keep his area of eastern Hillsborough County within District 15. In the base map preferred by the House, that district stretched into southern Lake County.

“We’re not going to not do an amendment because a member is from a certain region,” Galvano said.

The special session was called by Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, a Republican, after the state Supreme Court threw out the previous maps in July. The court ruled GOP operatives used members of the public as proxies to submit maps favoring the Republican Party, in violation of the Fair Districts amendments approved by voters.

Central Florida’s voters were at the heart of the dispute between the chambers. In the House’s map, District 10 is kept entirely within western Orange County, but in the Senate version it is pushed into Lake County, giving up Latino voters in Orange County to District 9.

Latino lawmakers in Central Florida — Republicans and Democrats alike — favored the Senate plan because it kept more Hispanic voters in District 9, creating a larger voting bloc for Hispanics.

Even if state courts draw the congressional districts, federal courts could have the final say.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Florida) is suing to stop her District 5 seat, which snakes down from Jacksonville into Orlando, from being redrawn to a Tallahassee-to-Jacksonville district. The Florida Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to redraw the district from east to west instead of north to south.

Democrats, far in the minority in both chambers, took the opportunity to criticize the leadership, especially given the Legislature’s inability to pass a budget in the regular session.

“Don’t forget we were here last month, not for the maps but because of their ineptitude. I mean, it’s the summer of ineptitude at this point,” said Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne, who has filed a bill to set up an independent commission to draw new districts.

Photo: Florida State Capitol, Matt Spence via Flickr

Florida Gov. Scott Signs Law To Require 24-Hour Wait For Abortions

Florida Gov. Scott Signs Law To Require 24-Hour Wait For Abortions

By Gray Rohrer, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Women in Florida will have to wait 24 hours and make at least two appointments before getting an abortion under a bill that Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Wednesday.
HB 633 includes exceptions for victims of rape, incest, domestic violence, and human trafficking, but those seeking abortions must provide proof of those situations with a police report or medical documents.

“We are blessed in the state of Florida to have a governor that stands for life,” said GOP Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, who sponsored the bill.

The waiting period “will empower women across our state to make an informed decision on this life-changing procedure,” she added.

The contentious bill, which takes effect July 1, was fought by Planned Parenthood and other abortion-rights groups, which criticized it as imposing nonmedical requirements on abortion and creating undue burdens on low-income and rural women, who will face additional costs.

“This law targets women who already have the least access to care and forces abortions later in pregnancy,” said Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and CREDO Action, a progressive advocacy group, collected 13,900 petitions asking Scott to veto the bill and delivered them to his office last week.

“These restrictions are part of a coordinated, national strategy to end access to safe, legal abortion,” Planned Parenthood said in a news release.

Democrats also slammed Scott for signing the bill.

“It comes as little surprise that Rick Scott would embrace this demeaning, anti-woman measure that limits the freedom Florida women have in making medical decisions,” the Florida Democratic Party said in a release.

The bill passed on a party-line vote in the Senate, with Republicans in favor and Democrats voting against. Six House Republicans voted against the bill, including Rep. Tom Goodson, and one Democrat voted for it.

“The importance of this bill is to give women an opportunity to reflect on a major decision that they are about to undertake — a major medical procedure that will have lifelong effects, not just physically but mentally as well,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, a Republican who sponsored the Senate version.

Sullivan said it was too early to say whether the law would lead to fewer abortions in Florida because some women seeking abortions change their minds during the waiting period.

“I would think there would at least be probably a few because they’ll have more time to think about it. Only time will tell,” Sullivan said.

(News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Florida House Passes Religious Exemption To Block Gay Adoptions

Florida House Passes Religious Exemption To Block Gay Adoptions

By Gray Rohrer, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — The Florida House on Thursday approved $690 million in tax cuts and a bill allowing residents fleeing hurricanes to carry guns without a permit, but the bill attracting the most controversy allows private adoption agencies to reject gay couples if they have a religious or moral objection.

The vote for that measure (HB 7111) was 75-38, with most Democrats opposing the bill, calling it state-sponsored discrimination.

Representative David Richardson (D-Miami Beach), likened the measure to the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans in the 1960s, citing the sit-ins at the lunch counters of Greensboro, N.C., in 1960.

“If you’re open to the public, you’re open to the public,” said Richardson, the first openly gay member of the Legislature. “If the lunch counter’s open, it’s open for everyone.”

Republicans, however, countered that forcing religious adoption agencies to either go against their consciences or shut down would ultimately lead to less opportunities for children in need of foster parents. Also, gay couples can go to another of Florida’s 82 adoption agencies if they are refused, they argued.

Representative Scott Plakon (R-Longwood), suggested lawsuits were already being lined up to restrain religious adoption agencies from refusing gay couples.

“You may disagree with their beliefs, you may even think that they’re crazy, but they are their sincerely held beliefs,” said Representative Scott Plakon (R-Longwood).

Social conservative groups put pressure on Republican legislators after the House voted last month to strike down Florida’s ban on gay adoption. An appeals court struck down the provision in 2010 and the Florida Department of Children and Families doesn’t enforce the ban, but the statute has remained on Florida’s books.

The bill still needs to pass the Senate.

Most Democrats also objected to SB 290, which would allow residents under mandatory evacuation orders to carry firearms without a concealed weapons permit up to 48 hours after the order is given.

Representative Ed Narain (D-Tampa), said the bill would bring unintended consequences, especially for black males, similar to the “stand your ground” law.

“It’s the potential combination of these two (laws) that could mix and create a deadly scenario that none of us want to imagine or even consider,” Narain said.

But Republicans in favor of the bill said it was needed to protect property during hectic evacuation periods, especially firearms that aren’t protected through permits or licenses.

“What some people in this chamber don’t understand…is that you can’t get a permit or a license for a rifle or a shotgun,” said Representative Neil Combee (R-Polk City).

The bill passed 86-26 and now heads to Governor Rick Scott’s desk.

A bill garnering more bipartisan support was HB 7141, which cuts $690 million in taxes, mostly from cable, satellite, and phone bills. The cut to the communication services tax will save TV and phone users $470 million, with the average cable user spending $100 a month saving about $43 over 12 months. The cut is a top priority for Scott.

Although some Democrats bemoaned parts of the bill cutting sales taxes on gun club memberships and providing a sales tax holiday for some firearms and ammunition on July Fourth, the bill passed 112-3.

The Senate has advanced individual tax cut bills but because of the uncertainty surrounding the Medicaid budget that the chamber is waiting to pass its preferred tax-cutting measures.

Photo: Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program via Flickr

Florida Gov. Scott Hints At Opposition To Medicaid Expansion

Florida Gov. Scott Hints At Opposition To Medicaid Expansion

By Gray Rohrer, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The fight over expanding Medicaid to cover 800,000 more people in Florida took another twist Monday, as a statement released by Gov. Rick Scott hinting at his opposition to expansion set off a ripple through the state government and health care circles.
Scott has previously stated he wants to focus on his priorities of cutting taxes, keeping tuition low, and boosting K-12 education funding instead of making a push for Medicaid expansion, something he came out in favor of in 2013.

But with the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, threatening to end funding for the Low Income Pool, a Medicaid program paying hospitals for care for low-income and uninsured patients, Scott raised doubts about expanding the underlying Medicaid program.

“Given that the federal government said they would not fund the federal LIP program to the level it is funded today, it would be hard to understand how the state could take on even more federal programs that CMS could scale back or walk away from,” Scott said in a statement first released to The Associated Press.

Asked if the statement meant Scott was now opposing Medicaid expansion, a spokeswoman for the governor declined to elaborate.

LIP, funded mostly through county and federal funds, is a $2.2 billion program set to end June 30.

Should Scott ultimately oppose Medicaid expansion, it would be a reversal of his previous position.

“While the federal government is committed to pay 100 percent of the cost, I cannot, in good conscience, deny Floridians the needed access to health care,” Scott said during a February 2013 news conference.

Original Medicaid expansion plans under the Affordable Care Act would offer coverage to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or $33,000 for a family of four. The expansion plan would cost $52 billion in federal funds over 10 years, with the federal government paying the full cost for two years before phasing down to 90 percent, with the state covering the rest.

Because the Florida House refused to expand Medicaid two years ago, the cost would now be $47 billion over eight years.

“The law is clear: Federal funding for Florida’s Medicaid expansion covers 100 percent of the costs of newly eligible individuals through 2016 and will never fall below 90 percent. HHS has proven itself willing to work with any state interested in expanding Medicaid, and we have consistently said that a Florida solution would reduce costs for hospitals that are typically passed on to taxpayers and expand access to quality health care for more Floridians,” said Ben Wakana, spokesman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has pushed an alternative Medicaid expansion play known as Florida Health Insurance Affordability Exchange, or FHIX. It requires newly eligible Medicaid recipients to pay co-pays, premiums, and be employed or looking for work. It would also end if the state didn’t receive approval or financial support from the federal government to pay for it.

Gardiner isn’t budging from his support of the expansion plan, despite Scott’s hints and a weeks-long period of standoff budget negotiations with the House, which has refused to take up expansion. He said the federal government won’t likely extend funding for an alternative LIP program if the state doesn’t expand Medicaid.

He also suggested Scott’s tax cut and other priorities could take a hit given the uncertainty over LIP and the state health care budget, which takes up about 30 percent of the overall budget.

“The Senate also shares the Governor’s commitment to tax relief and record funding for education; however, if our state is forced to make up the difference of $2.2 billion in hospital funding, every area of our budget will be impacted,” Gardiner said.

Mainly because the Senate has built both the expansion plans and an alternative LIP plan into its budget and the House includes neither in its spending plan, the two chambers are $4.2 billion apart. And since House leaders are so staunchly opposed to expansion, the budget talks are at an impasse before they’ve even begun.

Meanwhile, Scott and state lawmakers are hoping to negotiate a deal with the federal government to provide an alternative to LIP. Those talks are bogged down as well, however.

Florida Agency for Health Care Administration secretary Liz Dudek released a statement last week saying CMS had cut off LIP negotiations; CMS retorted that was incorrect, they were still in touch with state officials.

(c)2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr