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The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Capitol Buzz: Things to watch today in Tallahassee

Five days left, but of what?

Monday was supposed to mark the start of the final week of session. But after the House and Senate failed to find common ground on the budget last week, there's little doubt that lawmakers will have to extend past May 1 or come back to Tallahassee in May or June.

In the meantime, there are policy issues to tackle.

* The Senate will take final action on SB 382, which would tighten the regulations on assisted living facilities. One provision would require additional inspections for facilities that have already had violations.

* Also up for a vote is HB 321, which eliminates some of the barriers to HIV testing.

* Senators also discuss 14 cases involving people who were either killed or injured on account of government negligence and awarded more than $200,000 by a jury. The lawmakers must decide whether to approve the awards by passing so-called claim bills.

* The House has a much lighter schedule. The 13 bills on the calendar include a ban on powdered alcohol (HB 1247/SB 998/ ) and a prohibition on using drones to snap pictures on private property (HB 649/SB 766).


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Obama: 'Jeb Bush, do you really want to do this?'

Jeb Bush was a popular topic at the White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday in Washington. President Obama joked about Bush marking himself as Hispanic on a voter registration form and then, mocking the whole celebrity-laden dinner, had his alter ego ask, "Jeb Bush do you really want to do this?"

In 2013, Obama poked fun at Marco Rubio's age.

President Obama on April 25, 2015:

Good evening, everybody.  Welcome to the White House Correspondents Dinner –- the night when Washington celebrates itself.  (Laughter.)  Somebody’s got to do it.  (Laughter.)

As always, the reporters here had a lot to cover over the last year.  Here on the East Coast, one big story was the brutal winter.  The polar vortex caused so many record lows, they renamed it “MSNBC.”  (Laughter.)

But of course, let’s face it, there is one issue on every reporter’s mind and that is 2016.  Already, we’ve seen some missteps.  It turns out Jeb Bush identified himself as “Hispanic” back in 2009.  Which you know what, look, I understand.  It’s an innocent mistake.  Reminds me of when I identified myself as “American” back in 1961.  (Laughter and applause.) …

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Winner and loser of the week in Fla politics

Gov. Scott celebrated new Wawa convenience stores in Fort Myers last week

Governor's Office

Gov. Scott celebrated new Wawa convenience stores in Fort Myers last week

Winner of the week

Marco Rubio. It doesn't mean a great deal that about 10 months before any voting begins, polls last week from Quinnipiac University and Fox News showed Rubio leading the Republican presidential field. But it does point to his viability and underscores how Jeb Bush is no shoo-in, with a whopping 17 percent of Republican primary voters surveyed by Quinnipiac saying there is "no way" they could vote for Bush.

Runnerup: Andy Gardiner. The Senate president may not get his way on the budget and expanding access to health insurance, but at least he showed enough courage of his convictions to hold a public and open forum for senators to discuss Medicaid. Not so for Florida House leaders, who went behind closed doors to exhort House members to fall in line behind them.

Loser of the week

Pam Stewart. Florida's education commissioner was "exasperated, frustrated, dismayed, angry" as Florida's computerized testing system failed yet again and forced teachers and students across Florida to cancel testing for the day. They may be even more exasperated, frustrated, dismayed and angry over the latest testing debacle than Stewart. …

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GOP columnist: Rubio can't be trusted on Senate plans

Republican commentator Chris Ingram continues his longtime argument against Marco Rubio in a Tampa Tribune column today. Ingram suggests Rubio will run for his Senate seat if his presidential bid falters, something Rubio says he will not do.

Rubio has also denied allegations that the Republican Party of Florida paid for personal items, and the Florida Commission on Ethics cleared him of wrongdoing in 2012, though an investigator had hard words.

Writes Ingram:

Knowing politicians avoid risk helps understand why people such as Atwater, Weatherford, Buchanan or Jolly likely will not jump in this “open” race. But you ask, “What is the risk?”


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Rubio touts his experience before Des Moines Register edit board

Marco Rubio is in Iowa Saturday and made the required stop to the Des Moines Register editorial board, and made the case why he is ready to be president. In a new variation on his answer, Rubio called himself the "chief administrative officer" of the Florida House.

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'Get a life,' Mitt Romney tells graduates in Jacksonville

Mitt Romney had advice Saturday for graduates at Jacksonville University: Get a life.

"That phrase is actually pretty good advice for all of us,” Romney said. “Get a life, have a life, live your life in full. Embrace every fruitful dimension of life that you possibly can.”

“The country needs all of you to serve. America faces daunting challenges: generational poverty, looming debt, a warming climate and a world that is increasingly dangerous and tumultuous. Washington appears inept, powerless and without an effective strategy to overcome any of these. America needs your passion, your impatience, your participation.”

“I am asked what it felt like to lose to President Obama. Well, not as good as winning. Failures aren't fun, but they are inevitable. More importantly, failures don't have to define who you are.

“Engaging in your world means accepting that hurt, confronting it, and endeavoring to ascend above it so that you can keep pursuing a fulfilling and abundant life.” …

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Bush retreat to draw 350 to Miami

More than 350 Jeb Bush donors and supporters will gather at a high-end South Beach hotel on Sunday and Monday, according to his Right to Rise PAC.

"This is a great opportunity for supporters of the Right to Rise PAC to get to know one another and the team, to receive updates on the PAC's activities, and to provide ideas and feedback," reads a background sheet.

Sally Bradshaw, David Kochel and Mike Murphy -- the top three people in the Bush organization -- will lead briefings on the PAC, and there will be panels on "covering topics including, economic growth and how we can best help people rise up the income ladder based on hard work, merit, and earned success, and foreign policy and the need to reengage in the world."

"There will be panels discussing the outreach the PAC is doing to non-traditional GOP communities."

Bush will also have lunch with a contest winner. The campaign said 12,331 people entered the contest.

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Despite $600 million offer from House, Florida Senate refuses to back off Medicaid expansion

It was intended to be an offer the Florida Senate couldn’t refuse: Give up the quest to expand Medicaid and the Florida House would set aside $600 million in state money to protect hospitals and county health departments facing extreme budget cuts.

But the Senate did refuse the offer late Friday, thrusting the 2015 legislative session into near chaos with just one week to go before its scheduled end.

Senate leaders had only a few hours to respond to the House proposal, the latest in a round of offers volleyed between the gridlocked chambers. When they did, they made clear they weren’t backing away from their model for Medicaid expansion.

"The Senate is aware of the House’s longstanding opposition to simple Medicaid expansion as contemplated by the [Affordable Care Act]," Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in a letter to the House. The Senate proposal "is not the simple Medicaid expansion the House has long opposed. [It] is a new, market-based, consumer-driven alternative with conservative guardrails that will protect Florida taxpayers if the federal government fails to meet its commitments."

Read more here.

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Senate rejects House budget offer

The Senate doubled-down on its Medicaid expansion plan Friday, rejecting a proposal from the House to use $200 million in state money to help safety-net hospitals absorb a potential loss of $1.3 billion in federal health care funding.

The House made its offer -- which did not include expansion -- Thursday in hopes of jump starting stalled negotiations over the state health care budget. But Senate leaders insisted that providing coverage to more than 800,000 low-income Floridians was the better solution.

"(The House's) response indicates their continued unwillingness to deal with insurance coverage," said Senate Budget Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "And I understand that. I’m not surprised to see that. And our response indicates that we are not prepared to walk away from that."

Lee said using $200 million in state money to replace some of the Low Income Pool, a federal-state program that helps hospitals pay for uninsured and Medicaid patients, would be like charging Floridians twice for the same services, since Floridians already pay federal taxes.

"It is not an optimal situation," he said. …

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Marco Rubio's finances an opportunity -- and a curse

Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican presidential candidate

DIRK SHADD | Times (2012)Wire

Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican presidential candidate

A preview of our Sunday profile of Marco Rubio's finances:

Marco Rubio nearly quit politics.

He was so broke in 2001 that just as he began his ascent in the Florida House, he and his wife had to move in with her mother. Rubio decided to leave Tallahassee and practice law full time.

He got in his car to think and wound up at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables, where he had gotten married three years earlier. He knelt to pray. “Why had God allowed me to come so far only to let me fail?” he recounted in a 2012 memoir.

“I imagined telling my children someday that I had once been the majority whip of the Florida House but had lost my job and had to leave politics to make a living. … I left the church still worried but resigned to accept whatever happened. On my way back to my mother-in-law’s house, my cell phone rang.”

A headhunter had a lead on a job at a Broward County law firm. The $93,000 salary allowed Rubio to move his family into their own home. And race ahead with his political career. …

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House prepares to adopt changes to prison system

The investigative staff at the Department of Corrections would face an overhaul, officers who injure inmates could be subject to felonies, and the state would start a pilot project to put body cameras on prison guards, under a bill set to be given preliminary approval today in the Florida House.

The proposal is the first part of a bi-partisan agreement between the House and Senate to address questions of inmate abuse, allegations of staff cover-ups and evidence of organizational troubles that have been festering in the state’s prison system for years. The agency and its staff are also under investigation by both state and federal law enforcement agencies.

“There’s a lot of problems in the prison system and this is a monumental step forward – and it’s only the beginning,’’ said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who negotiated the compromise with Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker.

The changes are included in an amendment by Trujillo to SB 7020. The second element of the deal, not included in the bill, is a promise to create a select committee of legislators to provide oversight of DOC, review treatment of inmates, investigate grievance trends and monitor implementation of provisions in the bill beginning this fall.

Evers began investigating DOC in January in the wake of several reports in the Miami Herald and other news organizations that exposed suspicious inmate deaths, questionable use of force and allegations of agency cover-ups. 

Faced with opposition from Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, the proposals no longer include elements that would have taken authority over the agency away from the governor. Evers originally proposed creating an independent oversight commission that would have the ability to investigation allegations of wrongdoing at the state’s largest agency. The Senate plan also would have required that DOC secretary to be appointed by the governor and Cabinet, with confirmation by the Senate. 

The compromise leaves the accountability of the agency and DOC Secretary Julie Jones to the governor, but Evers and Trujillo said the Legislature will create a select committee with the special authority to subpoena witnesses and put people under oath to clean up what lawmakers believe is an inability of DOC to police itself.

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Senate passes abortion waiting period, sends bill to Gov. Scott

After the most emotionally-charged debate of the session, the Florida Senate on Friday passed a requirement for a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can undergo an abortion. The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it.

The vote was 26-13, as every Republican voted for it and every Democrat present voted against it. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, was excused Friday to attend a funeral.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, revealed for the first time that his wife Victoria was seriously ill 29 years ago and was four months pregnant at the time and was advised to have an abortion. She considered it, refused to have an abortion and gave birth to their daughter, Erin.

"I'm glad she had 24 hours to think about it," Gaetz said.

Democrats said the bill represented the annual assault on women's rights by the Republican controlled Legislature.

Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, called the bill "unnecessary government intrusion into the lives of women." Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, criticized a provision that a woman who was raped must prove it with a police report to obtain a waiver from the 24-hour wait. …

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After three years of debate, Legislature passes growler bill

On Friday, the Florida House voted unanimously to legalize 64-ounce growlers, which, though a standard size in the industry, have long been illegal in this state. The Senate approved the legislation (SB 186) last week.

The legislation, which is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature or veto, allows craft breweries to sell the half-gallon jugs of beer, a move they say is necessary to foster growth.

“This day has been a long time coming,” House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, said on the floor Friday. “It was a lot harder than it should have been, and a lot of you have lived through this craziness with me.”

The bill passed Friday does more than allow growler sales, although that’s where the debate started three years ago. Beginning July 1, breweries will also be allowed to open up to eight tap rooms, where customers can sample beer, buy a pint or fill their growlers.

Brewers have been doing this for some time by way of an exemption in state law meant to encourage tourism.

Limits to purchases from craft distilleries will also be raised under the bill. …

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Lawmakers extend statute of limitations on rape cases

Lawmakers have voted to extend the statute of limitations for rapes to be reported and prosecuted.

Dubbed the 43 Days Initiative Act in honor of Danielle Sullivan, who reported a rape 43 days too late, the bill (SB 133) will up the amount of time after a crime is committed that victims can report a rape and see the state take action.

The legislation — sponsored by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, and Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando — has passed both chambers, but lawmakers need to iron out the length of the new statute of limitations before it can be sent to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature or veto.

Senators on Friday passed an eight-year statute of limitations. The House had already passed a six-year time frame. The Senate's version has been sent back to the House for approval

Right now, victims have four years to report rapes. When the victim is a minor, charges can be filed and prosecuted at any time, and the bill doesn’t change that.

Supporters say the statute of limitations extension is important because victims often struggle with coming forward for some time. …

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House offers $200 million to help hospitals, begin budget negotiations

In a last-ditch effort to end the budget stalemate, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli on Thursday offered to set aside $200 million in state money for the hospitals and county health departments that would be hurt by the end of a federal-state program known as the Low Income Pool.

It doesn’t back down from the House’s position, now 3 years old, to not expand Medicaid.

The House offer of extra money, which would come from reducing proposed tax cuts and spending on K-12 education, could be used to draw down an additional $305 million in federal funds, Crisafulli said, meaning about $505 million would help hospitals shoulder the cost of treating uninsured, under-insured and Medicaid patients.

Crisafulli conceded that the amount would be less than the $1.3 billion Florida hospitals had hoped to receive from the federal government.

"It's a conversation starter," he said.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said that Senate President Andy Gardiner hadn't yet had time to review the proposal. But earlier in the week, Gardiner recommended dedicating as much as $600 million in state money in the absence of the LIP dollars.

Read more here.

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