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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Cabinet Takes the Show on the Road

February 5, 2015 - 6:00pm

Lawmakers returned to Tallahassee this week -- just in time for the center of attention to leave them behind.

Normally, the Cabinet's annual trip to the Florida State Fair is almost as much a sideshow as the event itself, an occasion for the governor and the three Cabinet members to escape the Capitol for Tampa. This year, though, the distractions of Tallahassee followed the quartet.

Gov. Rick Scott's handling of the forced resignation of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey continued to dominate the news and the Cabinet's agenda. Scott took responsibility for the botched handling of Bailey's departure.

Back at the Capitol, Scott's budget took some hits, largely from Democrats, as it began the normal trek for a governor's spending plan, from proposal to respectful hearing to being scrapped in favor of what lawmakers want to do. A $2 billion gamble written into the plan drew the most skepticism.

Speaking of, gambling was one of the few sins not up for debate at the Capitol this week. Some legislators bounced around the idea of "sin taxes," while sheriffs took aim at a proposal that would legalize medical marijuana and the Senate began a new discussion about super-sized beer bottles known as growlers. The only temptations Cabinet members faced in Tampa were the fried Oreos and other goodies on sale.

FAIR QUESTIONS:

Even before the Cabinet meeting, Scott's office was trying to run damage control on the controversy -- the word "scandal" has started appearing in some places -- surrounding Bailey's departure. On Monday, the governor's office pushed back specifically on claims that Scott's staff forced Bailey to resign immediately in December.

In an email to reporters, Scott's office said the governor didn't instruct anyone on staff to remove Bailey immediately. "Gerald Bailey was asked to work out his transition with his successor,'' the email said.

The email, which was in the form of frequently asked questions, also gave a simple "no" to the following question: "Does Gov. Scott agree that his staff decided to force Gerald Bailey to resign immediately without the governor's direct knowledge?" That answer became necessary because, the week before, Attorney General Pam Bondi suggested that maybe the firing was mishandled because Scott wasn't directly involved in some of the decisions surrounding Bailey's ouster.

Meanwhile, media organizations and open-government advocates opened up two new fronts in the battle. The Associated Press, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, Citizens for Sunshine and a St. Petersburg attorney filed a lawsuit alleging that the handling of Bailey's resignation violated the Sunshine Law.

The lawsuit focuses on conversations between Scott's staff and aides for other Cabinet members concerning Bailey's exit. The staff discussions were a way for Scott to work around the state's open-meetings laws, the suit contends.

Scott's office has said no laws were broken by the discussions.

Meanwhile, the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation wrote a letter to Bondi asking for a special prosecutor to look into whether the Sunshine Law was violated. (The News Service of Florida is a member of the foundation.)

"A prosecutor outside of Leon County -- one who does not reside and work in the same town as those under investigation -- should be appointed," wrote Barbara Petersen, the foundation's president. "Otherwise, public confidence in the investigation itself will be compromised."

But after the Cabinet meeting in Tampa, Bondi said she didn't have the authority to do that.

For his part, Scott acknowledged Thursday "it is clear, in hindsight, that I could have handled it better." But mea culpas aside, Scott and the Cabinet rejected a request by state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to reconsider the appointment of Rick Swearingen, who replaced Bailey.

Scott could get a second chance at handling the removal of agency heads. The Cabinet decided to start a process at its next meeting to consider Scott's move to possibly replace three others, including the state's long-serving insurance commissioner.

BILLIONS WORTH OF OPTIMISM:

While the governor was trying to handle criticisms of his human-resources practices, his budget was coming under siege from critics, particularly Democrats, who faulted the $77 billion spending plan for relying on federal health-care dollars to help balance the state's books.

Democrats grilled Scott's budget director, Cynthia Kelly, during a presentation before the House Appropriations Committee about Scott's proposal for the budget year that begins July 1. Many of their questions focused on a $2 billion pot of health-care money -- more than $1 billion of which is federal money that the government might no longer provide -- that Scott included despite the fact that the program is set to expire June 30.

Kelly said officials with the state's Agency for Health Care Administration were meeting with federal officials to try to negotiate an extension of the Low Income Pool, or "LIP," program. The federal government extended the program during the current budget year, but has given state officials no guarantees that LIP will be renewed again.

"It is my understanding that they are hopeful that they will be able to get an extension on those LIP funds and, that's why we included in our budget recommendations the continuation of the LIP program as it currently stands," Kelly said.

Democrats weren't satisfied with the explanation. The LIP program provides extra money to hospitals and other types of health providers that care for large numbers of poor and uninsured patients.

"My concern is, are we being fiscally irresponsible by including those dollars in this proposed budget when there is a very real chance and likelihood that those dollars will go away?" said Rep. Janet Cruz of Tampa, the top Democrat on the committee.

But another key part of Scott's spending plan was already moving. A proposal that would allow about 2,000 businesses to avoid the state's corporate-income tax got approval from the Senate Finance and Tax Committee. The panel unanimously backed a proposal (HB 138) by Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, that would increase a tax exemption on corporate income.

Under current law, the first $50,000 of a corporation's income is exempt from the tax. Hukill's bill would increase that exemption to $75,000. Scott proposed the same cut in his tax package.

That reduction, costing the state about $18.7 million annually, is just a portion of the $673 million in cuts that Scott wants. Most of Scott's tax-cutting zeal is focused on a reduction in the communications-services tax, applied to cellphone bills and cable and satellite television. The communications-services tax cut is projected to reduce state revenues by $470.9 million and save an average Florida family about $43 a year.

Hukill has a similar, though somewhat smaller, measure (SB 110) than what Scott proposed. Hukill said she will file an amendment that expands her bill to match Scott's proposal.

But even with the Senate moving forward with key parts of what Scott wants, Hukill said any final tax package remains a couple of months from being completed. She expected the package will follow a process similar to the 2014 legislative session in which lawmakers gave Scott his requested $500 million in election-year tax cuts, even if the cuts didn't exactly line up with his initial proposals.

MONEY FOR MISDEEDS:

Taxes might not be going down on sin, though. There might even be some support for making it more expensive to be naughty. Patrons of strip clubs and adult theaters would have to pay a state surcharge before going in, under a proposal being looked at by state lawmakers who also want to close a tax loophole enjoyed by roll-your-own cigarette shops.

The House Finance and Tax Committee, which is usually more averse to tax hikes, agreed Tuesday to further consider separate "sin tax" bills.

One proposal would impose entry requirements on adult establishments, including a $10 fee on top of any other existing admission charges. Also, it would require the business to keep records of customers.

The second proposal is intended to prohibit businesses from masquerading as roll-your-own "clubs" to avoid charging state and federal taxes on cigarette sales. Lawmakers said the proposal shouldn't be seen as a tax increase, but as leveling the field for businesses now charging the proper taxes on cigarette sales.

Committee Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said the proposals would discourage people from frequenting the businesses and could reroute revenue to such efforts as helping victims of human trafficking.

"Should the resources that go to rehabilitate victims of human trafficking come from all 19 million Floridians," Gaetz asked, "or should people who frequent adult entertainment establishments, which have become a focal point for that illicit trade, pay a disproportionate share to help rehabilitate victims?"

Other sins were also discussed this week. The Florida Sheriffs Association, meeting at Amelia Island, voted to oppose a bill (SB 528) filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, that would allow medical marijuana and set up a detailed regulatory structure involving patients, doctors, growers and retail stores.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is the association's legislative chairman, said Brandes' proposal included "loose language" that the sheriffs worried could allow "de facto recreational use" of marijuana. The organization helped defeat a November ballot measure that would have legalized medicinal pot.

Meanwhile, state regulators were grappling with how to set up a more limited version of medical marijuana that's already in law. A panel crafting rules regulations to jump-start the "Charlotte's Web" industry replaced a lottery system, scrapped by a judge in November, with a scorecard to pick five nurseries to grow, process and distribute types of pot authorized by the Legislature last year.

The 12-member committee also set an application fee at $75,000 and tried to find ways to avoid the need for legislative approval of the regulations in the hope of getting non-euphoric cannabis to sick children as quickly as possible.

The panel spent more than 25 hours Wednesday and Thursday hashing out a rule to provide a regulatory framework for the new industry.

And discussion of alcohol was also on tap this week, as the Senate Regulated Industries Committee tried to address the issue of "growlers" -- but the bill (SB 186) ended up getting put on the shelf instead.

The measure, by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is a straightforward proposal to end the state's prohibition on brewers being able to fill 64-ounce growlers for off-site consumption. Florida allows brewers to fill other size containers, but the half-gallon size is considered the most popular.

But some proposed changes in the bill failed an initial taste test with large distributors and some lawmakers, leading to the temporary hold.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet continued to discuss personnel issues following the forced resignation of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "You don't smoke medicine." -- Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, opposing a measure that would legalize medical marijuana.

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