The Florida Bar
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Week 9: April 28 - May 2, 2014

Legislative Session

Weekly Legislative Session Updates

Week 9 - April 28 - May 2, 2014

Sine Die! The work of the 2014 Legislative Session has concluded after adoption of a $77.1 billion budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year (as compared to $74 billion last session) and dealing with myriad other issues, including: (1) providing state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants; (2) legalizing a strain of medical marijuana to help children with a certain type of epilepsy, cancer patients and others with medical conditions that cause seizures or severe muscle spasms; (3) passing various school accountability measures, including an expansion of funding for IT industry certifications for middle and high school students; (4) adopting further ethics reform for local and state officials; (5) overhauling the state's child welfare system; and (6) reforming Florida's flood insurance requirements.

Moreover, the turnaround in Florida's economy led to our state's largest budget ever. The spending breakdown of the $77.1 billion budget includes:

  • $3.1 billion in reserves within the Budget Stabilization Fund, often called the "Rainy Day Fund"
  • $4.66 billion for Civil and Criminal Justice Funding;
  • $18.8 billion for Education, including $18.9 billion for Public Schools/K12 FEFP and $23.1 million in Public Schools/K12 Non-FEFP;
  • $2 billion for the Florida College System;
  • $4.4 billion for the State University System;
  • $31,877.9 million for Health and Human Services;
  • and $5.4 billion in General Government Funding.

In addition, the legislature passed roughly $500 million in tax cuts, a priority of Governor Rick Scott. Of that total, $400 million was used to roll back motor vehicle registration fees that were increased in 2009. Another $105 million in tax cuts include a hurricane preparedness sales tax holiday (May 31 - June 8), followed by a back-to-school tax holiday -- beginning in August -- on clothes, school supplies and some electronics, plus a lifting of the sales tax on energy-saving appliances for three days in mid-September. The tax plan also includes tax exemptions for children's car seats and bicycle helmets, college meal plans and specialty diet food for pets.

All of this activity resulted from months of legislative committee hearings starting back in September. Friends and foes alike commended Speaker Weatherford and President Gaetz for presiding over a smooth session that avoided petty squabbling, ensured proper vetting of issues and was fair.

Post-session, the focus now shifts to Governor Scott, who will review the budget line items and all the bills passed this session to decide whether to veto or approve the legislation. He should start to receive these bills in mid-May and early June, and then has 15 days to act on the fate of the bills once he receives them.

COURT FUNDING:
Great news. The House and Senate agreed upon a final court budget that contains all of the major budget items sought by the court. The final court budget was agreed upon during budget conferences held this week and is included in the General Appropriations Act.

Here are a few of the major highlights:
  • The total state court system budget is $501 million and includes $8.1 million for the court employee pay disparity package that was the top budget item for the courts this year. (In a related matter -- not included in the court budget but provided in other parts of the budget -- is extra dollars to address employee retention pay issues for Assistant State Attorneys and Assistant Public Defenders, totaling $9.6 million. Also not included in the court budget but important was the inclusion of a 2.5% competitive pay adjustment for Assistant Regional Counsels.)
  • Three District Court Judgeships are established - Two for the 2nd District and One for the 5th District.
  • $7.1 million is provided for construction of a new courthouse for the 4th DCA.
  • $2.9 million is provided for maintenance and repair of the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th DCA courthouses.
  • $5.5 million is provided for the post adjudicatory expansion of drug courts.
  • $9.6 million is provided for small county courthouse repairs and renovations in Calhoun, Jefferson and Washington counties.
  • Elimination of the current requirement for the courts system to pay for excess fees awarded to private conflict counsel after funds appropriated to the Justice Administrative Commission for that purpose have been exhausted.
  • Authorization for state agencies to pay Florida Bar dues and continuing legal education costs for employees required to be members of The Florida Bar.
  • $4.2 million is provided for attorneys who represent dependent children with special needs. This is a considerable increase from the $200,000 provided in earlier proposed budgets passed by both chambers.
  • The final budget package also deleted a provision that would have required the state courts system to present a detailed spending plan to the Legislative Budget Commission for Court Education Trust Fund monies -- a potentially cumbersome process.
UNAUTHORIZED PRACTICE OF LAW:
Currently F.S. §454.23 makes the unlicensed practice of law (UPL) a third-degree felony. Both SB 1496 by Senator Greg Evers and HB 7039 by Rep. Mike Hill would have exempted certain activities from the criminal penalties for UPL under that statute. The Florida Bar opposed this legislation and adopted the following position:

"Supports the exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Florida to define the practice of law in this state consistent with Article V, Section 15 of the Constitution of the State of Florida. In furtherance thereof, The Florida Bar opposes SB 1496 and HB 7039 in the 2014 Legislative Session."

SB 1496 and HB 7039 died in committee. However, the Legislature did pass HB 7037 which authorizes community association managers to perform a number of activities that are the subject of a proposed UPL opinion pending before the Supreme Court of Florida.

CIVIL LEGAL ASSISTANCE FUNDING:

The Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act (FACLA) provides legal assistance to the poor in a select and limited number of cases dealing with family law, juvenile law, entitlements to federal government benefits, including veterans' benefits, protection from domestic violence, elder and child abuse, and immigration. As reported last week, the Legislature has agreed to provide $2 million for funding civil legal assistance. Attention will now quickly be turned to persuading the Governor to accept this important appropriation that would provide civil legal assistance to over 8,000 families in Florida.

STUDENT LOAN ASSISTANCE:
SB 146 by Senator Jeremy Ring and HB 77 by Representative Jim Waldman would have created a student loan program for certain attorneys employed as an assistant state attorney, assistant public defender, assistant attorney general or assistant statewide prosecutor. Although both bills died, we are encouraged by the extra millions of dollars the Legislature provided for salary adjustments and merit pay for Assistant State Attorneys and Assistant Public Defenders.

ATTORNEYS FOR DEPENDENT CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS:
SB 972 by Senator Bill Galvano and HB 561 by Representative Erik Fresen require a judge to appoint an attorney for a dependent child with certain special needs. The legislation is consistent with the Bar's general position on children representation. Currently a court may appoint an attorney to represent a child in a dependency proceeding, but the representation is not mandatory. The bill contains legislative findings that recognize there are already existing organizations that provide effective representation to children, and that funding under the bill is not intended to supplant existing monies.

UPDATE: Wonderful news! HB 561 passed both chambers of the Legislature this week and is on the way to the Governor's desk. This legislation was the result of a strong joint effort by the Bar's Legal Needs of Children Committee, the Statewide Guardian Ad Litem, Children's First and other children support organizations -- and the incredibly hard work of the legislative sponsors, Sen. Bill Galvano and Rep. Eric Fresen.

PROSPECTIVE JUDICIAL VACANCIES:
SJR 1188 by Senator Tom Lee. The Senate staff report summarizes this measure as follows: "This proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution would require the Governor to prospectively fill a vacancy that will occur due to a justice or judge reaching the mandatory retirement, failing to qualify for a retention election, or failing to be retained in office at an election. Currently, the Governor's authority to appoint a Supreme Court Justice or district court of appeal judge does not manifest itself until the expiration of the sitting judge's or justice's term. Additionally, under the existing timeframes for filling a judicial vacancy, the potential exists for a judicial office to be vacant for 120 days after a vacancy occurs. Under the amendment, the existing timeframes for a judicial nomination commission to nominate individuals to fill a prospective vacancy begin at the conclusion of the qualifying period for retention or immediately following the general election in which the voters do not vote to retain a judge or justices. In some cases, the amendment will require an outgoing Governor to appoint an individual to fill a judicial vacancy that under current law may be within the purview of an incoming Governor."

The sponsor of the measure, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued the amendment is needed to avoid constitutional confusion when, in January of 2019, due to mandatory retirement, the terms of three Supreme Court justices will end on the same day that an incumbent Governor leaves office and a new Governor's term begins.

In an unusual move, SJR 1188 passed the House without any discussion of the measure in any House committee. In debate, the proponents of the amendment responded that no committee hearings were needed because the voters will have an opportunity to either accept or reject the proposal. The measure passed the House by a vote of 74-45, strictly along party lines. Because this is a proposed constitutional amendment it was required to pass by three-fifths, or 72 votes.


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For more detailed information on specific legislation tracked by the Bar, visit the Legislation Committee's webpage on the Bar website at this link:
http://www.floridabar.org/cmdocs/bd160.nsf/WDOCS

Information on all bills of general interest within the profession can be found in the Bar's “2014 Legislation of Interest to the Legal Profession” at this link:
http://www.floridabar.org/DIVEXE/GCBillReport.nsf/WDOCS?OpenView


[Revised: 02-09-2015]