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The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

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 spokeswoman Katie Betta 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 to six years 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 double the amount of time after a crime is committed that victims can report a rape and see the state take action.

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.

The legislation — sponsored by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, and Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando — has been sent to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature or veto.

The bill also corrects a 2011 error by the Legislature that made sexting an unenforceable crime. Attempting to stop charging minors with child pornography for sending inappropriate pictures of themselves, lawmakers made sexting a civil offense. No court has jurisdiction over juvenile civil crimes.

Now, sexting will be punishable by a small fine and community service for a first offense.

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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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House postpones vote on Uber insurance bill

After the Senate passed a bill Thursday requiring drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft to be insured, House leadership on Friday postponed a vote on its version.

The two plans present starkly different visions for regulating ridesharing companies in Florida. And House sponsor Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said he was unwilling to change much of what’s in his bill.

Under both proposals, drivers would need to secure up to $1 million in coverage. That's where the bills' similarities stop.

The Senate plan (SB 1298), which passed by a 28-12 vote Thursday, requires ride-sharing drivers to have insurance regulated by the state, starting next year. It also requires insurance for properties listed on short-term home rental companies like Airbnb.

In the House, proposed legislation (HB 817) has a much wider reach, requiring deep background checks for drivers and opposing local regulations.

Gaetz is entering a larger debate, pitting Uber and Lyft against taxi companies and local governments.

Cities and counties, including Hillsborough County, have for the past few years tried to regulate or get rid of Uber and Lyft. …

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Capitol Buzz: 5 things to watch today in Tallahassee

Despite gridlock over the state budget, the House and Senate are scheduled to hear dozens of bills on Friday. Among them:

* The Senate will take a final vote on a proposal that would require women to wait at least 24 hours before having an abortion (HB 633). If it passes, it is headed to Gov. Rick Scott.

* Also up for final approval in the Senate: HB 279, which broadens the list of vaccinations that pharmacists can give. The proposal by Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, is intended to expand access to health care.

* The House, meanwhile, will take final action on a controversial bill that would eliminate permanent alimony (HB 943).

* There will also be a vote on HB 817, which would both require Uber and Lyft to insure their drivers and prevent local government from regulating the companies.

* State representatives will also begin discussion on a massive prison reform bill (HB 7131). The proposal would replace the chief inspector general of the prison system and most of his top staff, and require prison guards to wear body cameras, among other things.


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Senate advances bill relating to disclosure of fracking chemicals

Despite warnings that they were creating a “roadmap” for companies to circumvent the state’s public records law, a divided Senate committee advanced a bill Thursday that could allow oil and gas companies to shield the chemicals used in the fracking process.

The measure, SB 1582, builds on legislation pending before the House and Senate that imposes new rules and penalties on oil and gas activities known as fracking, while banning local governments from prohibiting the controversial activity.

Both bills are heavily criticized by environmental groups, who warn that the proposed regulations are so narrowly written that they do not apply to chemical fracking, or acidization, which uses chemicals to dissolve rock rather than fracture it, a process they believe is most likely to be used in Florida because of its shallow rock bed.

“These bills are nothing more than ‘Trojan Horse’ legislation that will pacify the public, while forbidding local residents to decide whether or not they want fracking in their community,” said Kim Ross of ReThink Energy Florida, an environmental advocacy group.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 11-7 for a public records exemption bill that allows oil and gas companies to appeal to a judge to avoid disclosing the chemicals used in the high-pressure fracking process, as required in two bills pending before the House and Senate, SB 1468 and HB 1205.

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Not a threat, a promise: Senate won't confirm Scott agency heads

Senate President Andy Gardiner says he has no plans to confirm a dozen of Gov. Rick Scott's agency heads before the May 1 end of the regular legislative session.

The Orlando Republican said two weeks ago he wouldn't play political games with Scott's agency heads, and he reiterated Thursday that he isn't. If they aren't confirmed, Scott can reappoint them within 45 days. If they're not confirmed in the 2016 session, they'll lose their jobs.

"Historically they have two years to be confirmed. I think some of our senators have concerns about some of the responses from secretaries," Gardiner told reporters. "By no means would we be playing games or threatening or anything like that."

Speaking one day after Scott threatened to veto Republican senators' bills and budget items if they reject his package of tax cuts, Gardiner said with a wry smile: "Certainly I hope nobody's threatening anybody in this process." …

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Death, polls and jobs: Fact-checking claims about Medicaid expansion

A feud over Medicaid expansion that stretches from Tallahassee to the White House means the Florida Legislature may not pass a budget by the time the session ends on May 1. PolitiFact Florida has been fact-checking the fight over whether more poor Floridians will be able to qualify for heavily subsidized health insurance.

The federal government is offering billions if Florida expands Medicaid, paying 100 percent of the expansion at first and gradually downshifting to 90 percent in later years. The program currently eats up a sizable portion of the state budget.

The state Senate has supported the idea of some type of expansion, while the House remains opposed. Gov. Rick Scott has taken different positions on Medicaid over the years, but has settled into opposition during the session. He’s upped the ante on that by declaring he intends to sue the federal government.Full Story

Backyard gun range ban finds new life

After a House committee in March killed a bill to limit shooting rights on residential property, the full House revived it Thursday by tacking it onto another piece of legislation.

The original bill was filed by Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, after a local man started constructing a gun range in his yard, much to the dismay of his neighbors.

Currently, it’s legal in Florida to shoot a gun on residential property unless it’s done “recklessly or negligently.” Gun rights activists have said this is sufficient to cover any dangerous gun activity.

Despite loud opposition from the National Rifle Association, the amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, passed easily Thursday in the House.

In debate, Rouson said he was thankful the ban on what have been called backyard gun ranges could possibly be passed into law.

“This bill will take care of those types of situations,” he said. “It’s about public safety, and I’m so grateful that the NRA and Police Chiefs Association have worked together to make this a good product.” …

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