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This could be a busy year for Gov. Rick Scott and most members of the Florida Cabinet. Scott may be angling for Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's seat; Attorney General Pam Bondi is widely considered a candidate for a job in President-elect Donald Tr...
Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jan. 3, 201712:00 PM EST

Officials will have to juggle many moving pieces for 2017

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by: Brandon Larrabee The News Service of Florida

The first person to say it is unclear — most seem to attribute the phrase to Hall of Fame baseball manager Casey Stengel — but 2016 seemed to prove the old quote: “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

Journalists have an additional warning from the late, great Peter Jennings: “I don’t think a reporter should give advice or make predictions.”

But what would the beginning of a year be without a bit of forecasting about what will happen? And while the Florida political world can always be counted on to produce an offbeat story or two, we can expect a few things to dominate the conversation in 2017.

Moving on to the midterm elections

Now that the 2016 presidential election is done, there’s only one thing for politicians to do — gear up for the 2018 midterm elections.

And the best way to do that might be to pack away a few accomplishments and talking points in 2017.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott is angling for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson, potentially setting up a battle between two of the state’s perennially underestimated politicians.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of would-be candidates possibly lining up to fight for Scott’s current job — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, former Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham and Democratic trial lawyer and mega-donor John Morgan are just some of the marquee names who could jump into the contest.

For those not interested in the governor’s mansion or the Senate, three Cabinet posts will be up for grabs in 2018. Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi are barred by term limits from running for re-election, and Bondi might be headed to Washington, D.C. to be part of the Trump administration.

A few candidates likely will make announcements before the middle of the year, but signs of who is serious about taking the plunge will be clear long before then.

Preparing for battle over incentives

One of the key battles already shaping up for the 2017 legislative session focuses on whether the state should continue to spend tens of millions of dollars to attract tourism and business investment to Florida.

Corcoran is an outspoken opponent of the spending.

“When you’re taking money out of the masses’ pockets and then giving it literally — to the Democrats’ argument — to the top 1 percent, to the detriment of everybody else, that is de facto socialism,” Corcoran said.

Scott is just as determined to provide incentives to attract businesses, in this case $85 million worth.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, also supports some level of spending.

“I don’t know the magic number, and ... obviously we have to look at the budget and see what we’ve got, but I support the concept of funding some incentives to go find jobs,” he said.

A recent blow-up over a state tourism-promotion contract with Miami rapper Pitbull hasn’t helped matters.

Corcoran, Negron take command

Every other year, when a new House speaker and Senate president take office, Capitol denizens debate whether and how the leaders will get along.

The attention is particularly keen after Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, formally moved into their new roles following the November elections.

Corcoran is almost universally viewed as a smart, hard-driving conservative who is willing to grind things to a halt if necessary to avoid compromising on certain issues.

At least in public, Negron is more laid back and tends to the wonkish side on policy fights.

They also have different priorities.

The Senate president has floated an additional $1 billion in higher education spending and new investment in the Everglades.

Corcoran appears to be more interested in changing how Tallahassee works, implementing new lobbyist disclosure and budgeting rules.

How those goals might come together — or collide — will determine how smoothly the 2017 session will go.

Pinching pennies, a billion at a time

Cramping everyone’s room to maneuver are economists’ projections of how much money the state will bring in next year.

The economy is still growing at a modest clip, but potential new income is being gobbled up by tax cuts and growing demand for services like education and Medicaid.

It’s incredibly hard to lock down exactly how much extra money the state will have to spend because there are several different ways of looking at it, but what’s clear is that lawmakers won’t have much room for budget add-ons.

That will be particularly true if lawmakers want to once again hold local education property taxes steady regardless of rising home values, something that could consume $400 million in state money.

Negron has acknowledged some of his spending priorities will have to come from cutting other areas of the budget, but that could cause its own headaches in the form of advocates who support the programs on the chopping block.

A year of fixes for lawmakers

In addition to whatever they might want to do, lawmakers will also have to deal with a to-do list from the Florida Supreme Court and voters.

The court, for example, struck down a new death penalty law because it did not require unanimous jury recommendations to impose death sentences.

The court also found unconstitutional parts of the workers’ compensation insurance system.

Meanwhile, voters approved allowing full-strength medical marijuana to be used in the treatment of numerous conditions.

But the regulatory structure, and who could make a lot of money off the amendment, has to be approved by the Legislature.

Lawmakers during the past few years have passed measures to allow limited uses of medical cannabis, but even that has resulted in a legal and regulatory morass still being sorted out.

Examining the Florida Constitution

After the 2017 session, a 37-member Constitution Revision Commission is expected to start working on a series of recommended changes to the Florida Constitution.

The once-every-20-years process will be steered by people appointed by Scott, Corcoran, Negron and Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, along with Bondi (or her replacement if she joins Trump’s administration).

It could mark Republicans’ best chance to try to roll back provisions of the Constitution they’ve found nettlesome in recent years.

Court rulings on vouchers to pay for private school tuition could be targeted. So could judges themselves; Corcoran has floated the idea of a term limit for new judicial appointments.

And lawmakers are likely to be interested in finding some way to avoid another long legal battle under the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments that voters approved in 2010.

Possible solutions include an independent redistricting commission (which could draw bipartisan support) or finding some ways to weaken the amendments (not so much). The one catch is that any changes to the Constitution would still have to win the approval of 60 percent of Florida voters, and that has proven to be a difficult hurdle in recent years.

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