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9 posts from February 28, 2013

February 28, 2013

A look at Harry Sargeant: 'The most powerful person no one knows'

Crist and Harry Sargeant

Former Gov. Charlie Crist calls him a "great patriot." Congressional investigators call him "a war profiteer" who walked away with an extra $200 million while providing fuel to American troops in Iraq.

At Florida State University, he is something of a hero — contributing more than a million dollars to athletic programs, the business school and his old fraternity.

Who is Harry Sargeant III?

Photo: Harry Sargeant, center, introduces Gov. Charlie Crist and Jordan's King Abdullah II at the presidential palace in Amman, Jordan, in 2007.

 A plaque at the Pi Kappa Alpha House on campus calls him "the most powerful man no one knows.'' The moniker comes from a 2008 Miami Herald story that noted his friendship with Crist and his wide-ranging business interests.

Sargeant, 55, is a billionaire former Marine fighter pilot, the owner of an oil and asphalt shipping company with global businesses including aviation companies and an oil refinery.

And in the tangled world of Florida politics, Sargeant is a Republican financial powerhouse.

He has long supported Crist while also helping former party chairman Jim Greer, despite the animosity between Greer and Crist since Greer was charged with stealing money from the GOP in 2010. Crist, now a Democrat considering an attempt to return to the Governor's Mansion, says Sargeant remains a close friend.

Campaign finance records show Sargeant has donated more than $1.5 million to Florida politicians and the state Republican Party since 2000, the year Crist ran for education commissioner.

In recent years, Sargeant has made headlines over fuel he supplied to U.S. forces in Iraq. The brother-in-law of the king of Jordan sued Sargeant in Palm Beach and won a $28.8 million verdict for being cut out of a $1.4 billion defense contract that allowed Sargeant to transport fuel through Jordan. (Sargeant is appealing.) A congressional oversight committee called for an investigation of payments to Sargeant's company, and last year auditors for the Department of Defense accused the company of overcharging the Pentagon by hundreds of millions. A federal investigation is ongoing.

Chris Kise, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents Sargeant, says the overcharging accusations came from Democrats who were angry at Sargeant's fundraising for Republicans. More from Lucy Morgan here. 

 

Legislators move closer to Medicaid expansion decision

Monday could be the day when House and Senate committees studying the health care law make a recommendation on whether the state should accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid. The committees will meet jointly in the morning then have separate meetings later that day, the last before the session officially begins.

To aide the decision-making, state analysts will provide updated estimates on the cost of expanding Medicaid and various other aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Already today they released new numbers on the cost to the state for implementing the law for its own employees and Friday estimators will discuss the cost of Medicaid expansion.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, the Land O'Lakes Republican who is chairing the House committee, said the hope is that the committee is able to make a decision on Medicaid expansion and health exchanges Monday. The Senate committee has already recommended the state not pursue setting up an exchange for now.

As of today, Corcoran remains "skeptical" on the plan to allow 1 million people to join Medicaid. "There's clearly cost issues, you've seen that through the testimony," he said.

Indications are that the Senate is leaning toward embracing Medicaid expansion, something that Gov. Rick Scott said he also supports. The House is more conservative, and leaders have been vocal in criticizing this provision of the law.

If the Democratic caucus holds strong in the House, they would still need 17 Republicans to support Medicaid expansion to get a bill passed. So far only one, Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has said publicly he will cross party lines.

Continue reading "Legislators move closer to Medicaid expansion decision" »

Sen. Bill Nelson: dock lawmakers' pay if fed workers get furloughed

@MarcACaputo

From a press release:

TAMPA – U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) will announce here tomorrow that he and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) are filing legislation aimed at having members of Congress’ paychecks docked the same percentage as any federal worker furloughed as a result of sequestration.

“No one should get paid for inaction,” Nelson said today.  “And Congress clearly hasn’t done the job to avert the sequester.

“Everyone expects us to work together and find a common ground,” the Florida Democrat added.  “But too many in Washington keep fighting for their own political side.”

Said McCaskill: “The federal workforce is looking at furloughs that would result in a sizeable pay cut—and there’s absolutely no reason members of Congress should exempt themselves.  We can and should reach a balanced compromise to replace these damaging across-the-board cuts, but until we do, this is an obvious step to hold Congress accountable for the job we need to get done.”

An announcement is set for Friday morning - the same day steep across-the-board federal budget cuts are to go into effect, absent a deficit reduction deal in Congress by midnight tonight.

The cuts are a result of the so-called sequester measure Congress passed during tense debt-ceiling negotiations in 2011.  Talks to avert the spending cuts have failed so far.  Democrats offered a plan that includes targeted spending cuts with some new revenues, but Republicans are insisting upon a deal without tax increases.

The Senate late this afternoon rejected rival proposals to stop the sequester, all but ensuring the automatic spending cuts will begin tomorrow.  Furloughs aren’t expected to start until at least mid-April.

Nelson plans to announce he’s filing legislation with McCaskill a day after he talked to the powerful Senate Appropriations chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who recently took to the Senate floor to talk about the devastating effect a furlough, or layoff of federal workers would have on the economy.  During a speech Tuesday she declared:

“If the workers are going to be cut 20 percent then I think Congress members’ pay should be cut by 20 percent.  I look forward to moving on that legislation in the coming weeks, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Gov. Rick Scott touts tax cut for manufacturers

Gov. Rick Scott talked up tax cuts for manufacturers at a St. Petersburg tech maker Thursday, touting his top legislative priority as a key to creating jobs.

Part of Scott’s $74.2 billion budget plan, the proposal would exclude the state’s 17,000 manufacturing firms from paying sales taxes on equipment.

Manufacturers are now offered a tax cut for new machinery if they prove it boosted productivity by 5 percent or more. Scott’s proposal would ax that requirement and ditch much of the tax break’s red tape.

“The fact that we have this sales tax puts us at a competitive disadvantage to other states,” Scott said. “It’s a barrier to putting more jobs in our state.”

Manufacturers employ about 5 percent of the state’s private workforce, state data show. Estimates show the tax cut would cost the state more than $140 million in revenue.

Scott spoke at Plasma-Therm, a manufacturer of etching machines that builds semiconductor chips used in smart phones, hard drives and TVs.

In 2010, CEO Abdul Lateef said the firm had made $50 million in revenue every year over the previous decade.

To pass, Scott’s tax cut would need two-thirds of the Legislature’s approval. Many Democrats have voted for business tax breaks before, but the party has recently slammed Scott as promoting “tax giveaways to special interest cronies.” Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, called it “trickle-down, voodoo economics.”

To help his proposal’s chances, Scott has toured the state and turned to an audience he once loudly rebuked. Last month, the former tea-party darling who criticized lobbyists during his 2010 campaign invited three-dozen of them to private briefings at the Governor’s Mansion to pitch his big interests.

In 2010, the Legislature and former Gov. Charlie Crist earmarked $43 million for a similar program, though only 35 of the state’s 17,000 manufacturing firms signed on. The Florida Manufacturers Association blamed the program’s poor showing on recession-era slowdowns and too much paperwork.

Government economists have worried the proposal could slam local governments who would lose out on tax funds. Out-of-state companies, they said, could also exploit a loophole to buy tax-free equipment without creating Florida jobs.

-- Drew Harwell, Tampa Bay Times staff writer

African-American leaders push for greater changes in voter reform efforts

Representatives of several groups, including clergy, student and civil rights organizations, say election reform bills under consideration in the Legislature don't go far enough to fix an election process that was marred by long lines, confusion and controversy in the fall.

“We have a process where a 102-year-old woman is standing in line” for hours, said attorney Phelicia Stiell,  local chair of the National Congress of Black Women, referring to Desiline Victor of Miami, who waited more than three hours to cast her ballot Nov. 6.  

Stiell, Elder Terry Price of the Tallahassee Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, William Tucker of the NAACP and FAMU student Ciara Taylor of Dream Defenders, a Florida coalition of young people of color, were the speakers during a press conference Thursday morning outside the Leon County Supervisor of Elections Office, across from the state Capital.

The election process, Stiell said, is “broken.”

With the legislative session starting next week, African-American community leaders are concerned that there hasn't yet been a lot of public testimony in bill hearings. And they want to be sure their voices are heard. 

"We know what is percolating in the House and we feel positive about that," Stiell said. "We want the Senate to follow suit. …but there is still work to be done."

A bipartisan-backed measure is headed for a House floor vote in the upcoming session that allows Florida’s elections supervisors to conduct early voting from eight to 14 days for eight to 12 hours per day, for a mininum of 64 hours and a maximum of 168 hours (72 more hours than under the curent law) and it gives supervisors a greater choice of early voting sites.

Voting changes passed two years ago, which many blame for problems in the fall election, reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to eight and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before the general election.

The proposed House bill leaves Sunday voting before the general election up to the discretion of the Supervisor of Elections office in each county.

While he’s a longtime supporter of early voting, starting the practice in Tallahassee in 1994, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said election supervisors know the needs of their communities.  “One size does not fit all,” he said. Early voting as we know it, officially began statewide in 2004.

The Sunday before the election is "is the day when our communities have traditionally marched to the polls,”  said Price, referring to a voting effort dubbed Souls to the Polls.

Stiell said election rights should be "across the board. It should not be one county has these hours and days and another does not."

"We want the Legislature to know that it's an important day to vote for a large group of people that they serve," Price said.

Among other voting issues of concern to the groups: Reinstituting voting rights for felons who have served their sentences and undoing a change that kept voters who have moved from one county to another from changing their addresses at the polls.

 

 

Weatherford: New thinking, not new money, for Florida Polytechnic

Recent statements made by House Speaker Will Weatherford about Florida Polytechnic University had us wondering whether he regretted his vote last year in favor of establishing the new school. He said today that he stands by his decision to support then-Senate budget chief JD Alexander's push for the university.

"I voted for it, we all voted," Weatherford said. "It was the budget. We didn't have a budget without Polytech. I think that was abundantly clear, and I think we all remember that process very well."

Earlier this week, Weatherford told the Tampa Tribune's editorial board that Polytechnic's creation was a "disaster." He later clarified his comments in an interview with the Lakeland Ledger, saying he was referring to recent reports that the school would be asking the Florida Legislature for an extra $25 million. The school has now indicated it will no longer request the additional cash. The Legislature couldn't afford that request anyway, Weatherford said.

"We are not in a situation where we can build out that campus with any more funds," he said today. "But that being said, now that it exists, a building is being built and we have a university that is moving forward we should be thinking creatively about how we can make this a success."

During the Tribune interview, Weatherford said Florida Polytechnic should consider forming an alliance with a major university outside Florida. Without giving the same level of specific today, Weatherford said that the school's Board of Trustees, the state Board of Governors and Legislature need to "get outside the box and think big about what we can do."

Defeated state rep spends unused campaign cash to pay girlfriend

Days after he lost his bid for re-election last fall, former Rep. Peter Nehr of Palm Harbor used leftover campaign money to pay his live-in girlfriend $22,000 for "consulting," records show.

Nehr made three post-election payments to girlfriend Kim Marie, a 47-year-old acupuncturist, listing them as "consulting, editing and fundraising" expenses on his campaign expenditure report.

The report lists her as living at a fictitious address in Palm Harbor, "2528 Glory Drive." Property, voting and other state records list Nehr and Marie as both living in a Palm Harbor townhome on Gloriosa Drive, which she owns.

Is this a violation of state law? Current law allows candidates to spend money after the election on thank you advertisements, for previous financial obligations and expenses needed to shut down campaign operations. Violations are subject to fines from the Florida Elections Commission.

The ethics revisions moving through the Florida and the Senate attempt to tackle the use of slush funds for CCEs and don't address this issue. More from Steve Bousquet here. 

Florida House release new app, Weatherford brushes off 2014 rumors

The Florida House of Representatives released a new mobile app that House Speaker Will Weatherford said will “set a national standard.”

The app, reported by the Herald/Times yesterday, will allow users to track the legislative process on their mobile devices, with features like live streaming from the Capitol in Tallahassee and tracking of bills.

“This is the way that people are communicating with their government,” said Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican.

The app is expected to be released next week, as the 60-day legislative session begins.

Read more about it here and see the House press release here.

After the press conference, Weatherford took questions from reporters on a range of issues, including Medicaid, Citizens Insurance, the budget sequester and Internet cafes.

He brushed off questions about a potential run for governor against Rick Scott, while continuing to differ from Scott on the key issues of Medicaid expansion and across-the-board $2,500 pay raises for teachers. 

“I think people who are saying those things must not know me well,” he said about those who are whispering about a 2014 primary challenge. “I’m busy enough trying to be the Speaker of the House… I’m not thinking of any of that stuff right now.”

Weatherford did not specifically rule out the possibility, but said that he doesn’t “have any plans to do anything like that.”

Continue reading "Florida House release new app, Weatherford brushes off 2014 rumors" »

Flubbed Putnam tweet sends followers to anti-Rick Scott poll

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a vocal critic of Gov. Rick Scott's Medicaid expansion reversal, wrote an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel today about Florida's agriculture industry.

The tweet encouraging his followers to read the op-ed won't do much to quiet rumors that he may challenge Scott's 2014 re-election bid. The link takes followers not to his op-ed but to a Sentinel poll asking "Who's Rick Scott's biggest political threat?"

Putnamtweet

The first choice on the list of possible challengers? Putnam.

Putnam spokeswoman Amanda Bevis tells us Putnam did not send the link -- it was her mistake. She posted the right link on his Facebook page. Here's the op-ed.

"I inadvertently converted the wrong link to a URL short enough to post," she said.