Chamber forum catalogs 2014 legislative successes, failures

mjohnson@bradenton.comMay 9, 2014 

MANATEE -- School staff carrying guns, bigger craft beer containers and vacation rental restrictions were some of the items on the minds of local representatives back in their home districts this week following the close of the 2014 legislative session.

During a one-hour roundtable recap with about 100 business people and elected officials at the IMG Academy Golf Club Thursday morning, state Reps. Greg Steube and Jim Boyd and state Sen. Bill Galvano cast the 2014 legislative session as one that brought success, but also left a number of issues in the "to be continued" category. The session ended May 2.

The event, hosted by the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, gave Steube, Boyd and Galvano a forum to talk about the bills that passed and failed. Winners on their lists included cutting $500 million in taxes and fees out of the state's $77 billion budget, and Manatee County-targeted funds to pay for more beach renourishment projects and a new library at the State College of Florida's Bradenton campus.

Bills approved during the session await approval or veto by Gov. Rick Scott.

Calling the session "one of the best I can remember," Galvano said better economic times gave the Legislature room to refill the state's reserve funds and reduce fees and taxes.

"Those are dollars that are going back into your pockets," he said.

A successful issue for the Bradenton Republican was a bill that would provide state-paid attorneys to represent special-needs children in abuse cases and other legal matters. Galvano also championed a successful measure intended to reduce the number of stop-work orders issued to businesses ruled out of compliance with workers' compensation coverage requirements.

Boyd, a Manatee County Republican, was particularly hopeful about a bill headed to Scott's desk that will allow local governments to regulate short-term vacation rentals. While the bill does not include language concerning the length of stays at those establishments -- something Galvano advocated -- it still gives local government the power to say where and how they will operate.

"They can regulate them, they can zone them, they can manage them," Boyd said.

Steube said he was pleased to see several pieces of legislation he was involved with pass. A new tax measure that requires prepaid cellular phones and prepaid phone minutes to carry a surcharge to pay for enhanced 911 services was approved by both houses. Previously, that tax was applied only to land-line phones and cell phone users who have plans with cellular carriers.

The Sarasota Republican also authored a gun bill that authorizes local county tax collector offices to process concealed weapons permits. Previously, applications for those permits had to be submitted to regional Department of Agriculture offices. When signed, the new law will make signing up for a permit more convenient, Steube said.

Steube's success on the gun front was not complete. A bill he sponsored that would have allowed specially instructed school employees with law enforcement or military backgrounds to carry concealed weapons in schools failed in the Senate.

Steube pushed the bill as a method of protecting schools against mass shootings. He said he will bring the issue back next year, along with a request for funding to place resource officers in more schools.

Also a no-go was a raft of bills in the House and Senate that would have widened or restricted the rights of craft brewers to sell their beer outside of the state's three-tiered liquor sales and distribution system. Steube and Galvano said brewers and the state's distributing companies got involved in the negotiations, which produced several bills that worked at cross purposes. The initial thrust of legislation was intended to allow brewers to sell 64-ounce "growlers" of beer from their production facilities and to widen their rights to self-distribute their products.

Galvano said opposition from the distributors and a pull-back by the brewers didn't help the legislation. Brewers currently self-distribute using a 1963 law written to allow Anheuser-Busch to sell its beer at Busch Gardens.

"It was as if craft brewers were saying 'Look, don't do anything,'" Galvano said.

The top local issue to come up during the forum was the Manatee School District's struggle to repay $7 million in funds misappropriated from state and federal accounts.

That money has to be repaid by the end of June. Boyd and Galvano said they appealed to state Secretary of Education Pam Stewart for a longer payback schedule, but were unable to get any movement.

"We're going to keep trying, but we have to recognize that this is the reality," Galvano said.

The Manatee Chamber of Commerce holds two legislative roundtables every year. The first comes before the start of the legislative session in January.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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