The real world invades session

TALLAHASSEE | Every once in a while, the generally abstract issues discussed during the legislative session intersect with something out of real-life, something more visceral than a bill full of clauses and subsections.

 

When Aramis Ayala, the new state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, announced that she would not pursue death sentences in capital cases during her time in office, it brought new life to a debate about state-sanctioned executions that had seemed to die down.

By the end of the day Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott had booted Ayala from a high-profile case and Republicans and law-enforcement officers were howling in outrage over the prosecutor’s decision.

There were also less emotional developments as the Legislature went through its second week. Lawmakers continued to grapple with how to handle a tight budget situation that got little better as the final verdict came down on how much money the state will have to spend in the year beginning July 1.

Meanwhile, some heavily lobbied pieces of legislation continued their trek through the process. But few of them were likely to stir up as much passion as Ayala’s decision.

The week started out well for supporters of Florida’s death penalty. On Monday, Scott signed a bill aimed at fixing a flaw that the state Supreme Court found in the state’s newest death penalty system.

“Governor Scott’s foremost concern is always for the victims and their loved ones. He hopes this legislation will allow families of these horrific crimes to get the closure they deserve,” Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in a statement early Monday evening.

The new law — the second death penalty “fix” in a year — came in response to a series of court rulings, set off by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January 2016 in a case known as Hurst v. Florida.

The Legislature last year hurriedly passed a law to address the federal court ruling, but the Florida Supreme Court struck down the new statute. Florida justices said the law was unconstitutional because it only required 10 of 12 jurors to recommend death, instead of unanimous jury decisions.

Critics of the death penalty still had problems with the new scheme, but it appeared to clear the way for prosecutors to move forward before the seemingly inevitable appeals began.

That’s when Ayala made her announcement, with the most immediate impact being on the case involving accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd.

Scott quickly appointed Brad King, state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, to handle the case of Loyd after Ayala refused to recuse herself.

Loyd is accused in the execution-style killing of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton in January. Loyd is also accused of the December shooting death of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon. Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis died as a result of a traffic crash during the hunt for Loyd.

“I am outraged and sickened by this loss of life and many families’ lives have been forever changed because of these senseless murders. These families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Markeith Loyd to the fullest extent of the law and justice must be served,” Scott said in a statement announcing the move.

For her part, Ayala cited numerous problems with the death penalty as the rationale for her decision, which she said she reached after “extensive and painstaking thought and consideration.”

The death penalty has not proven to be a deterrent to crime and the cases drag on for years, adding to victims’ anguish, according to Ayala.

Some Republicans suggested Scott might need to go further.

“I think she ought to be thrown out of office,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican considering a bid for governor in 2018.

Others were less fiery. Even some death-penalty proponents agreed that Ayala enjoys latitude regarding whether to seek death sentences.

“I’m a big supporter of local discretion on filing decisions,” Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is a former prosecutor, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday.

BUDGET PICTURE: STILL TOUGH

If lawmakers were looking for some relief from their fiscal heartburn when economic forecasters met to estimate the state’s future tax revenues, none was coming. The verdict of a Friday gathering — another $115.2 million by June 30, 2018 — did little to change the overall outlook for the budget.

“In terms of what they’re facing, they pretty much have the same picture,” said Amy Baker, head of the Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research, which helps develop the forecasts.

Lawmakers aren’t expected to face a shortfall in the budget year that begins July 1.

But by the following year, lawmakers could be $1.3 billion short of how much they will need to cover expected spending, with a $1.9 billion hole projected the year after that.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, indicated Friday that the revised forecast also didn’t do anything to change how leaders will shape their spending plans.

“As we evaluate our budget priorities, it is likely that funding for new initiatives will be offset by reduced spending on projects and programs added to the budget by prior legislatures,” Negron said in a statement issued by a spokeswoman.

The new forecast came a couple of days after the House’s top budget-writing committee heard ideas for potential cuts across state government.

Suggestions included cuts in payments to hospitals, reductions in spending on universities and scaling back early-learning and other public-education programs.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said how closely lawmakers follow the recommendations, which were couched as an “exercise,” remains to be seen. But he said a reduction in expected spending of about $1.4 billion is a “realistic goal” for the coming budget year.

“I think it’s a roadmap —- whether we decide to go down Road A or Road B —- but I think it’s a roadmap of how we’re going to craft our budget,” he said. “I don’t think anything’s set on stone as far as specific amounts.”

LOBBYIST IN CHIEF

Using the term loosely, the highest-profile lobbyist of the year so far might be Scott. He’s spent weeks banging away at House Republicans who want to curtail business incentives and tourism marketing money, and he shows no signs of letting up.

On Monday, Scott brought his roadshow through Tallahassee —- not coincidentally, where many of the reporters covering the session are located —- for a roundtable with business leaders and state officials.

At Danfoss Turbocor Compressors Inc., Scott declined to rule out vetoing the budget for the year that begins July 1 if it doesn’t include funding for business incentives. But he spent most of his time trashing legislation that would abolish business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida and overhaul tourism marketer Visit Florida, approved last week by the House.

As he has done at other stops during a recent media blitz aimed at saving business incentives, Scott singled out a local lawmaker: Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello.

“Why in the world would Halsey Beshears or anybody else vote to eliminate Enterprise Florida and decimate Visit Florida?” Scott told reporters after meeting with business leaders and state economic development officials. “This is about some family getting a job. I’m going to fight for those families all this session.”

More conventional lobbyists had their eyes on other legislation considered this week.

Four years after House and Senate leaders thought they had finally settled a decade-old turf battle between the state’s optometrists and ophthalmologists, the “eyeball wars” have returned.

The old compromise allowed optometrists to prescribe oral medications, but not perform surgery. But now, optometrists are seeking to expand their scope of practice to perform some surgical procedures. Optometrists maintain the proposal is an access-to-care issue, while ophthalmologists argue it would endanger patient safety.

The House Health Quality Subcommittee narrowly approved the proposal Wednesday by a one-vote margin, after two hours of testimony.

The measure (HB 1037) would allow optometrists who receive special training to perform certain kinds of surgery in which “human tissue is injected, cut, burned, frozen, sutured, vaporized, coagulated, or photodisrupted by the use of surgical instrumentation,” including lasers and scalpels, according to a House staff analysis of the bill.

But the chances in the Senate remain dicey.

Another big-ticket item, focused on key changes to the workers’ compensation insurance system, was approved by the House Insurance & Banking Subcommittee.

The panel approved a bill that deals with a series of issues, such as the duration of benefits for some injured workers and the amounts of money hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers get paid to provide outpatient care to workers.

But almost all of the debate focused on attorney fees, which business groups blame for driving up costs in the workers’ compensation system. The bill (PCB IBS 17-01) would allow judges of compensation claims to approve fees up to $250 an hour for workers’ attorneys.

And the decades-old prohibition on selling liquor in grocery and large retail stores narrowly continued to advance in the House on Tuesday.

The Government Operations & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee voted 7-6 to support an amended proposal (HB 81) that would end a Depression-era law requiring liquor stores and bars to be separated from groceries and other retail goods, an issue commonly referred to as the “liquor wall.”

Rep. Bryan Avila, the Hialeah Republican sponsoring the measure, rejected claims by opponents that his legislation, three years in the making, will increase access to liquor by minors and harm existing businesses.

“While shopping at Publix is a pleasure, certainly their argument is not,” Avila said. “The only reason the antiquated law is being opposed is to maintain the status quo.”

The House bill, which appeared to stall a week ago, remains controversial for many.

“The losers are clearly going to be the small businesses,” said Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Treasure Island Republican who voted against the bill.

STORY OF THE WEEK

Aramis Ayala, the new state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, announced that she would not pursue death sentences in capital cases during her time in office, escalating debate over the state’s death penalty.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“It ain’t right to put the apple schnapps next to the apple sauce.” — Pat McClellan, owner of the Flora-Bama lounge and package store in the Panhandle, on legislation knocking down the “liquor wall” for grocery stores.

 

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