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2015 Legislative Session: A Preview from the Capitol

Published: February 24th, 2015

Brittany O. Finkbeiner Cari L. Roth

In November 2014, voters reelected Governor Scott who ran on a platform of tax cuts and job creation, and approved Amendment 1 by a landslide to allocate state funds to conversation efforts.  These actions by Florida voters foreshadowed the big issues for 2015, which are outlined below. The bill filing process is nearly complete. The bills to be considered during the 2015 Legislative Session will continue to be filed through the first day of Session on March 3.

Water Policy

As the 2015 Legislative Session draws closer, it has become clear that water is going to be one of the major issues legislators will address.  House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island), whose family business is agriculture, and Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) have jointly stated their intent to work together on achieving a number of common priorities.  The joint priorities include “sustainable statewide funding and policy strategy for water and natural resources, while implementing Amendment 1,” which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November, with 75 percent support statewide.  Harmony between the chambers is a good sign for reaching consensus on an issue as complex as water policy. Continued cooperation among legislative leadership is a distinct possibility, with Speaker Crisafulli actually being a constituent of President Gardiner’s.

The House published its water bill first, a comprehensive 89-page package by the House State Affairs Committee that has already passed all of its committees before the start of Session.  Some of the bill’s highlights include increased emphasis on public-private partnerships with landowners for conservation efforts, springs protection, and streamlining of the state’s patchwork of sometimes duplicative or conflicting regulatory schemes.

The Senate has also produced a number of water bills for the upcoming Session. SB 918 by Senator Dean mandates a new database of conservation lands and a consolidated annual report on water quality and quantity.  The bill also contains a 5-year planning process for water resource projects to be funded and establishes the Florida Water Resources Advisory Council to rank and recommend water projects for funding. Additionally, Senator Dean has filed a series of bills that create trust funds as repositories for Amendment 1 funding as well as a bill that directs 33% of documentary stamp tax collections to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund for the implementation of the amendment.

Estate Planning and Taxes

Apportionment of estate taxes will be considered during the upcoming Session to set the order and priority for the payment of estate taxes by updating existing statutes to take into account federal estate tax law changes and by codifying existing case law on a number of substantive points. Separate legislation will extend the age for “gifts to minors” in specified circumstances under the Uniform Transfer to Minors Act, and another measure being considered will bring the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act to Florida, allowing access to the digital records by a legally appointed  fiduciary.

Tax Restructuring

In late January, Governor Scott unveiled his proposed budget for 2015-16, which reflected his goals of cutting taxes and making Florida more business friendly. Governor Scott is proposing $673.2 million in tax cuts. The largest cut, in the amount of $470.9 million, comes from a 3.6 percentage point reduction in the state portion of the communications services tax. The Governor has also proposed an increase the standard corporate income tax exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.

Additionally, the Governor has continually expressed concern that Florida is currently the only state in the country that imposes direct a sales tax on commercial rent.  Last year, legislation to reduce or repeal the tax has stalled.  During the 2014 Legislative Session, bills were proposed in both the Florida House and Senate to reduce the amount of sales tax required on commercial rent under Section 212.031, Florida Statutes, but did not become law. Several bills that address this issue have already been filed for the 2015 Legislative Session.

Gaming

The controversial topic of dog racing will also be on the agenda for 2015.  Multiple bills dealing with Florida’s greyhound-racing industry have been filed in both chambers, with a focus on the health of the racing animals.

Real Property

Chapter 558, Florida Statutes, provides a method for resolving construction defect disputes before filing a lawsuit. Companion bills by Representative Passidomo and Senator Richter provide additional notice requirements under the chapter for construction defects and provides sanctions for frivolous claims.

State Legislators and Governor Scott have publicly expressed concern about Florida’s condominium termination process under section 718.117, Florida Statutes, by which investors purchase units in bulk and terminate the condominium form of ownership for conversion to rental property after paying market value to remaining unit owners.   In some cases, this has had an adverse impact on unit owners who owe more on their mortgage than the current market value of their units.  Legislation to provide more protections for homeowners in the termination process has been filed in both chambers.

Please check 2015 Florida Legislative Update: Dean Mead Capitol Report periodically as we give you updates as the Legislature’s interim work continues, and for any relevant legislation, the full text of each bill and any amendments can be found on the legislative web sites. (http://www.flsenate.gov; http://www.myfloridahouse.com; and http://www.leg.state.fl.us.)

Dean Mead’s Governmental Relations, Lobbying & Administrative Team:

Peter Dunbar’s practice focuses on governmental, administrative, and real property law. Drawing on a distinguished background of public service, he represents and advocates on behalf of a variety of private and public interests before the Florida Legislature and the Executive Branch departments and agencies of Florida state government.  Mr. Dunbar began his long career in Florida government in 1967 as a staff director in the Florida Legislature.  He served as the Pasco County attorney and later served for 5 terms as a member of the Florida House of Representatives. Upon leaving the Legislature, he held the posts of General Counsel and Director of Legislative Affairs for Governor Bob Martinez and later served as the General Counsel at the Department of Financial Services. Mr. Dunbar served as Chief of Staff during the transition from the Martinez administration to the administration of Governor Lawton Chiles, and he is former Chairman and 2-term member of the Florida Ethics Commission.

Mr. Dunbar was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1972, and during his professional career has worked extensively in the field of real property law and with the law governing condominiums and community associations. He is a member of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers; he serves as an adjunct professor at FSU College of Law; and he has been selected by his peers as a member of Florida Trend’s Legal Elite Hall of Fame. He may be reached at pdunbar@deanmead.com.

Martha Edenfield focuses her practice on governmental affairs, environmental land use and administrative law. Now in her 30th year of private law practice in Tallahassee, she has gained a wide variety of experience representing clients before the Florida Legislature, the Governor, the Cabinet and state agencies. Ms. Edenfield utilizes her political leadership skills to advocate for her clients and coordinate a legislative team. Ms. Edenfield has extensive experience as legal and governmental counsel for agricultural trade groups, industrial associations, medical professionals and local governments. She may be reached at medenfield@deanmead.com.

Cari Roth has 30 years of public and private sector legal and legislative experience and is a recognized leader in government relations and environmental and land use law. Her broad knowledge of state government and the people in it, combined with her attention to detail and bottom line approach to solving client problems makes her an effective advocate in the halls of government.

Her legal and legislative practice focuses on state and local government issues, including land use, water and environmental law, growth management and infrastructure issues, and intergovernmental relations. She also has significant experience in special district law.

Most recently, Ms. Roth served as chair of a statewide firm’s land use and government consulting practices. Prior to that, she worked for four years as General Counsel and Assistant Secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs in Tallahassee where she played a lead role in negotiating major growth management legislation. As General Counsel, she was involved in many inter-agency efforts, particularly those with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida Department of Transportation and all the regional Water Management Districts. She may be reached at croth@deanmead.com.

William “Bill” Townsend practices in the areas of state and local taxation and multi-state taxation. He has represented clients in various states on issues in administrative and judicial actions relating to sales, corporate income, business and organization taxes and telecommunications taxes, as well as state taxation of intellectual property, electronic commerce taxation (E-commerce) and unclaimed property (escheat) issues.

Additionally, Bill represents clients on legislative tax matters, including the taxation of computer services, corporate income tax issues and sales tax exemption matters. He has an extensive background in structuring business transactions to minimize state tax impacts. Bill has also assisted representing new businesses and expanding businesses in dealing with Enterprise Florida and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. He has also represented clients in dealings with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation on matters dealing with liquor and tobacco issues. He may be reached at btownsend@deanmead.com.

Brittany Finkbeiner focuses on Real Property and Administrative law. Prior to going into private practice, Ms. Finkbeiner served as a chief attorney for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Florida Condominiums, Timeshares, and Mobile Homes. In addition, she’s worked at the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, The Florida Senate Judiciary Committee and as a legislative aide for the Florida Senate. She may be reached at bfinkbeiner@deanmead.com.