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467 posts from March 2011

March 30, 2011

Amid firefight from parimutuels, Jones withdraws destination casino resort bills

Faced with an onslaught of opposition from Florida's powerful parimutual gambling industry, Sen. Dennis Jones today withdrew his bill to allow for "destination resort" casinos in Florida.

Jones, R-Seminole, said that the push by the parimutuel industry to use the bill to lower their tax rate forced him give up on the effort this year.

"As we started to gain some acceptance, the parimutuel industry attacked us with the idea they wanted another tax cut and I was unwilling to do that after we gave them a 15 percent tax cut last year,'' he said. "They apparently had the votes to ride on the back of this industry. I'd rather have nothing than something I don't like."

Under the plan, Florida would allow four to five casino resorts to bid for a chance to operate full casinos, including slot machines, blackjack, roulette, baccarat and craps embedded in a massive convention resort. The bidders would pay a $50 million application fee and be offered an exclusive contract to operate the games, with the resorts at least 75 miles apart.

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House kills bill to release online travel companies from taxes in 12-11 vote

After an afternoon of heated debate, the House Finance and Tax Committee voted 12-11 against a bill by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, that would prohibit online travel companies from paying any additional tourism taxes on the wholesale cost of the hotel rooms they sell over the internet -- essentially exempting them from paying a tax on the retail cost. 

As the committee continued to meet, members scrambled to come up with Plan B. Their options are to persuade someone who voted against the bill to reconsider his vote, take it up again and reverse the vote or postpone the bill so it doesn't die.

The measure is the fourth year the multi-million battle over tourism taxes has come before lawmakers, but this year it has taken on a new twist. Brodeur's bill would exempt online travel companies from paying additional tourist development taxes rather than try to force the companies to pay taxes on hotel rooms at the same rate the hotels pay. 

At issue is the practice by online travel companies such as Expedia, Orbitz and Hotels.com that buy up blocks of hotel rooms from hotel owners at wholesale rates. Then, the company marks up the price of the room, markets it, and sells it online to customers. But rather than remit taxes based on the rate charged customers, they pay sales tax and local tourism taxes based on the wholesale price and keep the difference.

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Ethics law moves in Senate, after rocky debate

Four years after she first filed the legislation, Sen. Paula Dockery's ethics bill finally got a hearing -- and a favorable vote -- in a committee Wednesday, but not before some of her colleagues voiced their displeasure with portions of the measure.

Senate Bill 86, sponsored by Dockery, a Lakeland Republican, would block lawmakers from voting on issues that would directly benefit them, their relatives or their employers. They would also have to disclose those conflicts of interest before abstaining from a vote.

Last week, the bill was unexpectedly stripped from the Government Oversight and Operations Committee agenda by the office of Senate President Mike Haridopolos without explanation. Haridopolos' office later said his chief of staff removed the proposal from the agenda because it was too long.

At the same committee Wednesday, the bill was amended -- over some senators' objections -- to allow legislators to vote on the annual state budget as long as they disclose line items that may create a conflict of interest. The state Ethics Commission will also get new authority to initiate investigations without a written complaint if commissioners sign off on the probe unanimously.

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House committee passes pension bill

A House Republican plan that would force public workers to pay 3 percent into their state pension plan won approval on its final stop in that chamber.
The plan would also close the deferred retirement option program to new participants and raise the retirement age.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Mitch Workman was passed on a party-line vote – and to the jeers of the firefighters, teachers and other public workers who packed the room.
“Shame on you!” someone shouted.
Rep. Ed Hooper, a Clearwater Republican and retired firefighter, called it the hardest vote of his career.
But he said he knew that “something’s going to change in the pension world in the next 45 days.” So the choice, he said, boiled down to the House version or the Senate’s, and the House bill “is the best in the building.”

Rep. Ron Saunders, the House’s Democratic leader, said the bill would make public workers the only ones in Florida subject to what is essentially an income tax.
“If that’s not an income tax, show me what an income tax is,” he said.

Haley Barbour is Tallahassee bound

Mississippi Gov. and likely Republican presidential candidate Haley Barbour is planning to make a trip to the Capitol of then most important swing state in the nation to rub elbows with the House Republican caucus on April 7 at 7 p.m.

Senator briefly proposes state oversight of Broward school district

Tucked into a catchall education bill heard in a Florida Senate panel Wednesday was language to create a state oversight board to manage the embattled Broward school district.

Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican, proposed an amendment to his Senate Bill 1696 to mention Broward and the creation of an oversight board. The bill, under the title "Public School Accountability," deals with a variety of policies, including rules for middle schoolers to move on to high school and to screen new pre-kindergarten students.

The seven-member board -- appointed by the governor, the Senate President and the House Speaker -- would provide "advice" and assess the district, at the district's expense.

At the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee on Wednesday, Wise, the panel's chairman, withdrew the amendment -- for this year.

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Senate panel clears charter schools expansion

A major proposal to expand charter schools sailed through the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee Wednesday, two days after also moving forward in a House panel.

Senate Bill 1546, backed by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, would make it significantly easier for charter schools -- which are publicly funded but privately run -- to receive approval, increase enrollment and expand.

Under Thrasher's measure, charter schools that contract with universities and community colleges would have to be approved by school districts. Charters would also be eligible for a "high-performing" designation that would make it much more difficult for districts to deny operators' applications to grow or set up new shcools.

Thrasher quoted President Barack Obama praising charter schools as "laboratories of excellence."

"They're not a silver bullet, but they certainly have made a difference in driving student achievement in some areas of our state," Thrasher said, while acknowledging that "in some instances, we've had a couple that haven't been that good."

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Third-party group launches campaign against new EPA water regulations

PolitiFact Florida takes a look -- a long and detailed look -- at a campaign-style commercial being shopped around by a group opposing propsed EPA water quality standards for much of the state. The main claim of the ad is that drainage canals would have to meet the same water quality standards as natural river systems.

Is that right?

David Rivera makes the top 10

On Smart Politics list of the 10 most prolific press release writing offices in the House. The Miami Republican finished 10th on the list -- tops was former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom the site said issued "five times the House average and more than 34 other members combined."

Rivera -- who has sought to project an air of normalcy while investigators in Florida look at his finances -- was pegged by Smart Politics as one of the "particularly active freshmen.."

His 57 press releases, the site said, "lead the way among freshmen and are the 10th most among any House member this year, although he does 'double dip' at times" -- noting that in addition to week in review releases and "expected statements on high-profile events" such as President Obama's State of the Union and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Rivera "also occasionally releases a duplicate statement in Spanish."

His last release? Tuesday when he announced that he had met with the new Ambassador of Panama to the U.S. He said he and Mario E. Jaramillo discussed, among other matters, the approval of the free trade agreement between Panama and the United States. Rivera has said -- by press release -- that he'd work to block passage of the South Korea Free Trade Agreement if agreements with Panama and Colombia aren't passed.

Marco Rubio not taking sides in Miami-Dade mayor's race -- or the US Senate primary

The Florida Republican -- who supported the recall effort -- says he's staying out of the Miami-Dade mayor's race -- and won't say for whom he might vote.

"I know everyone who is running, I think they're all good people but I really haven't given any thought to it yet," he said. "I hope they'll earn my vote, just like every other voter out there whose vote has to be earned."

He 's also staying out of the Republican primary for U.S. Senate -- despite the GOP'ers who are interested in running invoking his name as often as they can. 

"I think the best role I can play is to ensure that the parties federal efforts are well organized and funded," he said. He plans to campaign with the nominee, adding, "I intend to continue to work with Sen. Bill Nelson on all the key issues that involve our state...but when election time comes I'm going to support the Republican nominee."