After a strange and at times exhausting 2015, Florida’s government and political establishment is bracing for what could be another intriguing year. The legislative session that kicks off in January might not be as bizarre as last year’s gathering, but everyone will be watching body language to see if things will go smoothly in 2016. And another election is on tap in the biggest swing state in the nation.
Here’s a look at stories that will likely drive discussion in the Capitol, and perhaps a few other parts of the state, in the coming year:
FLORIDA, FLORIDA, FLORIDA. ONCE AGAIN: Whether or not the Republican presidential nomination is snagged by one of the state’s favorite sons — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio or former Gov. Jeb Bush — Florida is likely to find itself in the center of the race for the White House. That’s a familiar place for the Sunshine State. It will be very difficult for the GOP to win the presidency without Florida, and nearly impossible if Democrats hold onto key states Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Expect the major party nominees to spend plenty of time on the Interstate 4 corridor, along with other key Florida media markets.
CLOSER TO HOME: Not that the state will lack its own eye-catching political races. The race for Rubio’s Senate seat could feature fiery primaries on both sides. Democrats will pick between hard-charging liberal Congressman Alan Grayson and the more-moderate Congressman Patrick Murphy. The GOP primary pits Congressman Ron DeSantis, Congressman David Jolly, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and businessman Todd Wilcox. Meanwhile, former Gov. Charlie Crist will take another shot at a political comeback, this time running as a Democrat in a Pinellas County congressional district.
REDISTRICTING FALLOUT CONTINUES: As the state nears the five-year anniversary of public hearings that kicked off the once-a-decade redistricting process, the end of the long slog might finally be in sight. A new version of a congressional map — adopted by state courts after the Legislature’s first efforts were found to violate a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering — might be set. But that plan is now the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, who argues that the map hurts African-American voters. Meanwhile, a Leon County circuit judge has chosen a state Senate redistricting plan crafted by voting-rights groups, though legislative leaders still could appeal his decision. Even if the legal disputes end, though, politicians will be scrambling to learn new districts — and perhaps even change addresses — ahead of the November elections.
PUTTING THE LEGISLATURE BACK TOGETHER AGAIN: After four regular and special sessions filled with grinding conflict between House and Senate leaders in 2015, the Legislature will return early to try to get back on track. Lawmakers are scheduled to begin work in Tallahassee on Jan. 12, instead of the usual March date for the opening of the 60-day session. (The Legislature agreed to try out the earlier time frame long before anyone knew about the budget and redistricting fights that dominated 2015.) At the top of the agenda might be simply showing voters that Republicans can govern again, after three of the four gatherings in 2015 ended in failure. One thing that might help is the resolution of a years-long leadership fight between Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. A deal between the two men will allow Negron to become Senate president in November in exchange for Latvala heading the chamber’s powerful budget-writing committee.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS: The collapse of last year’s regular session, meanwhile, leaves lawmakers with some mop-up work to do. A water policy bill that was supposed to be one of the marquee measures of the 2015 session never made it over the finish line, meaning lawmakers will take another crack at the proposal. Legislators will also look to extend some education programs, such as teacher bonuses for good scores on college admissions tests, that were put in place on a one-year basis as part of a final budget agreement. And the Legislature is expected to continue with efforts by Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, to help Floridians with disabilities.
HIGH STAKES SESSION FOR GAMBLING: Could this be the year that an extension of the Seminole gaming compact finally gets done? Maybe. Gov. Rick Scott announced in December that his administration had struck a deal with the tribe that would lead to the Seminoles paying the state $3.1 billion over seven years in exchange for adding craps and roulette to its current casino operations. But gambling bills are always difficult to get through the Legislature, and the agreement will almost certainly need to be modified to get the necessary approval from the House and the Senate. And every Texas Hold ‘Em player knows that no hand is over until you see the river card.
JOBS, JOBS, JOBS AND TAX CUTS, TAX CUTS, TAX CUTS: Scott has made bringing new jobs to Florida central to his political identity, and might be pinning his hopes of higher office on continuing to bring down the state’s unemployment rate. A plan for $1 billion in tax cuts and a $250 million revamp of the state’s efforts to recruit economic development projects are at the heart of his 2016 legislative agenda. But lawmakers are already skittish about some of Scott’s ideas, particularly when it comes to pouring so much revenue into tax cuts when there are still questions about how much the state will have to spend in later years. With an election looming in November and the GOP firmly in control of state government, Scott will be able to sign a tax-cut bill at the end of the session, but the size is still to be determined.
HIGH NOON FOR GUN BILLS: After a new round of mass shootings across the nation in 2015, lawmakers are set to take up bills that supporters say would help Floridians protect themselves and opponents say will only make the problem worse. The battles are likely to focus on two key gun-rights bills: one that would allow the 1.45 million people in Florida with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry firearms, and another that would allow them to hold onto their handguns while on state university and college campuses. The campus-carry bill could face the stiffest opposition, because higher education leaders strongly oppose it. Critics include former Republican Sen. John Thrasher, who is now president of Florida State University. At least one law-enforcement group, meanwhile, has already signaled it could support the open-carry bill under certain conditions.
THIRD YEAR’S A CHARM? The Department of Health is still working on implementing a bill lawmakers passed in 2014 to allow limited forms of medical marijuana for patients who suffer from severe spasms or cancer. The process of making rules for the new market and picking who can distribute the non-euphoric types of pot has been drowned in a sea of administrative challenges and bureaucratic wrangling. Meanwhile, some lawmakers are working on legislation that could broaden the types of marijuana that are available to at least some patients. Also, supporters of much-broader legalization of medical marijuana are gearing up to try to pass a ballot initiative in November, after barely falling short in 2014.
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida