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19 posts from March 27, 2013

March 27, 2013

Digital Domain CEO hits back at damning IG report, blames Scott-Crist politics

Digital Domain debacle, take two.

The former CEO of Digital Domain is hitting back with an alternative script after an Inspector General report slammed the process that helped the now-defunct Port St. Lucie film studio get $20 million in taxpayer grants. 

John Textor said the claim by Gov. Rick Scott and Enterprise Florida that the Digital Domain deal was some kind of widely discredited proposal that had been blacklisted by Enterprise Florida, only to be slipped into the budget later by aggressive lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist—is complete fiction.

In fact, Textor said, Enterprise Florida actually recommended that Florida taxpayers chip in about $11.4 million to help Digital Domain bring jobs to the state.

An email Textor provided to the Herald/Times shows that an Enterprise Florida representative wrote Textor on March 18, 2009, saying that the organization would “present to [the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development] relative to a one-time award of $6.1 million” and other awards for a “total potential FL economic incentive package” of $11.4 million. The email, not included in the IG report, said Digital Domain would be required to create 300 jobs. 

EFI never went through with a recommendation to OTTED (which is required for  economic incentives grants to be awarded), but Textor has a very different explanation for why that did not happen.

According to Enterprise Florida’s account, the organization refused to support funding because Digital Domain’s finances were “extremely weak” and its business model was suspect.  Textor has a different story, and questions Enterprise Florida’s credibility by pointing out that the organization believed Digital Domain’s business plan was strong enough to receive an $11.4 million incentives package. 

Textor believes that he and others are being thrown under the bus as a way for Gov. Rick Scott to attack the Crist administration, which was in charge when Digital Domain received funding by getting special language tacked onto the state's budget.

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Polytechnic will fight to remain a standalone university

The state's newest university is having to convince lawmakers that it deserves to remain that way.

House Speaker Will Weatherford continues to suggest that Florida Polytechnic University may be better off as a branch of another school instead of the state's 12th public university. Lawmakers who control education funding have questioned whether Polytechnic needs the $27 million it is slated to receive this year.

The school's interim leader would like to respectfully disagree. The school was given its independence last year, and the Polytechnic Board of Trustees is working toward that, said Ava Parker, the interim chief operating officer.

"This board is committed to developing a plan for Florida Polytechnic as an independent university," Parker said. "We believe that there is a place in the system for Polytechnic. We think it definitely will fill a need that's not being currently met within the system."

But to do become the state's "high-tech jobs" university, the school says it needs money. Already the Polytechnic board has decided against requesting $25 million in additional funding. But now, its expected $27 million allocation is in jeopardy.

The Florida Senate said last week that it would hold off on budgeting money for Polytechnic until the school justified why it was needed. The Senate's education budget now includes funding for Polytechnic, but not all that the school believe it is due.

Parker said she will work on that.

"We're looking forward to working with both sides to ensure that both sides match and that we are again fully appropriated at the $27 million re-occurring amount," she said. "We believe that we can demonstrate that we need that budget amount in order to adequately build the vision and implement the university."

Charter-school advocates ask for recurring facilities dollars

The House Choice and Innovation in Education Subcommittee held a workshop on Wednesday to take up the controversial issue of charter-school funding.

Charter schools receive public dollars for teacher salaries and educational materials. But unlike traditional public schools, which can levy property taxes for construction and maintenence, charter schools do not have a recurring revenue stream for capital needs.

For the past several years, Florida's charter schools have received dollars from the Public Education Capital Outlay fund. But supporters say the funding is spotty.

“If we do not resolve this issue immediately, then school choice will cease to exist in Florida,” said Rep. Janet Adkins, a Fernandina Beach Republican, who is sponsoring legislation that would provide a recurring stream of general revenue for charter-school construction and maintenence. 

The workshop included emotional testimony from charter-school parents, students and principals.

Doug Rodriguez, the principal at Doral Academy in Miami-Dade, pointed out that the waiting list for his 3,000-student school includes more than 2,000 names.

“We have to have legislation in this state that allows charter schools to operate in a way that is fair and makes sense, but in a way that doesn't inhibit their ability to operate in this state and serve children,” said Rodriguez, a former principal at Miami Central Senior High.

The idea of providing public funds for charter-school facilities has long been contentious. Parent groups, school districts and the teachers' union point out that some charter schools are run by for-profit managment companies. What's more, in many instances, the public funds would be supporting private buildings.

After the meeting, Adkins told The Herald/Times that she doesn't expect her charter-school funding bill to pass this year. "We're going to focus on securing funding in this year's budget," she said.

But don't count the powerful charter-school lobby out just yet. Insiders say charter school advocates might make a run at the dollars later this session.

Florida Senate remembers Larcenia Bullard

Members of the Florida Legislature, past and present, remembered former Sen. Larcenia Bullard for her smiles and friendly personality during a memorial service in her honor. Nearly all mentioned receiving her customary embrace, the "Larcenia bear hug."

Senate President Don Gaetz said Bullard, who died March 16, stuck to her convinctions and never held grudges. "She was a proud and fierce Democrat, but she was never ever a bitter partisan," Gaetz said.

Bullard, who died at age 65, recently attended the Legislature's opening day with her son, Dwight, who won the Miami Senate seat she vacated because of term limits. Her husband, Edward, is a former state representative.

"Some political dynastices are built on money, some on power," Gaetz said. "The Bullard dynasty -- and it is a Bullard dynasty -- is built on love.”

Several Senate veterans attended today's  memorial service, including Al Lawson, Nan Rich, Rod Smith and Tony Hill. Lawson said there were many stories about Larcenia Bullard he couldn't repeat in public, but he shared a few of the ones he could.

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Senate passes transparency bill -- to create a task force

Five months after pulling the plug on a $5 million budget transparency program, the Florida Senate passed a bill Wednesday to create a task force to increase transparency but moved no closer to offering the public real-time access to budget data. 

The measure, SB 1764, would consolidate most of the state’s nine so-called transparency web sites, allowing the public access to employee data, budget documents and contracts.  But before the new web site is available, a task force will be created to recommend a design for consolidating them.

The bill also creates four positions in the Department of Financial Services to manage the contracting system. But for public records advocates, the Senate’s effort is too little too late.

“The public should be able to follow our money in real time and be afforded an opportunity to participate in the budget process,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of the independent government watchdog group Integrity Florida.  “It’s disappointing to see lawmakers continue to delay the public launch of a consolidated budget tracking website.”

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FAMU updates state on accreditation issues, no timetable on Marching 100 return

The panel overseeing Florida's state universities said it is pleased with the way Florida A&M University is working to correct its issues. FAMU provided the Board of Governors an update on its action plan and the school's most pressing concern: being removed from accreditation probation.

Solomon Badger, chairman of FAMU's Board of Trustees, said the school hopes to be back on track "as soon as possible" but estimated it could take another year to 18 months to fix all of the issues. Earlier this month, he suspended the search for a new president, saying the accreditation probation and other problems should be fixed before a permanent leader is hired.

State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan said he supports Badger's decision. "Trying to find a world-class president when the issue of re-accreditation hangs literally in the balance is a very difficult thing to do," Brogan said.

FAMU will submit a written report to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools by late August, interim President Larry Robinson said. A SACS committee will visit the campus a month later. The accrediting organization will decide in December whether or not to remove FAMU from probation, extend the probation or implement more serious sanctions.

During a break between meetings, Robinson also talked about the return of the Marching 100 band, suspended since the November 2011 death of drum major Robert Champion. The school tried to hire a new band director in January, but talks broke down the day of the planned announcement.

Robinson said the search has resumed and candidates are being vetted. A final decision about the status of the band will be made by the end of the semester, or mid-May, he said.

Miami-Dade, Miami mayors bash Marlins ballpark financing deal in Sports Illustrated


The two men who perhaps benefitted most, politically, from the mostly publicly financed Miami Marlins ballpark -- Carlos Gimenez and Tomás Regalado -- had quite a few choice words for the team in a profile of Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria published by Sports Illustrated.

In Miami Herald alum S.L. Price's story, (finally) posted online here, Regalado has this to say about the ballclub: "The residents of Miami were raped. Completely."

As city commissioner, Regalado was in the minority opposing the ballpark deal. He is now the city's mayor.

Gimenez, for his part, stubbornly opposed the deal as county commissioner and is now Miami-Dade mayor. "For me, it's the gift that keeps on giving," Gimenez told SI about the Marlins. (Though he also told The New York Times that the Marlins' deal as "poisoned the well" for the Miami Dolphins, for example, who want some public dollars to renovate Sun Life Stadium.)

"They're looked at as carpetbaggers," Gimenez also told SI of the Marlins. "These guys aren't from here. That's not to say that you have to be from here, but they're just tone-deaf. Everything they do backfires on them."

Eagles or Gators? It's a House (and Senate) divided

You would think a legislator who went to Florida Gulf Coast University -- and whose last name, Eagle, is the same as the school nickname -- would be cheering for his alma mater to stomp the Florida Gators in the Sweet 16 bracket in the NCAA college basketball tournament. 

But deep down, Rep. Dane Eagle is a Gator. He later transferred to UF, and Gator pride runs deep in Florida's Capitol, which is why he says he hasn't yet decided whom to root for on Friday night.

"I'm still thinking about it. It's going to be bittersweet either way," said Eagle, one of two state lawmakers who have attended FGCU in the school's brief history. He says FGCU's incredible Cinderella story is creating lots of buzz, and lawmakers with no ties to either school are rooting for the Gators to lose.

Eagle's 13th-floor Capitol office is decorated with Gator memorabilia, with no Eagle bling in sight. But Eagle asked his sister, an FGCU student, to get him a blue-and-green T-shirt at the FGCU bookstore. "I'm jumping on the bandwagon, that's for sure," Eagle said.

A total of 27 state lawmakers have degrees from UF, some of them from the law school in Gainesville.

Chris Cantens, legislative aide to Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, has good reason to root for the Eagles: Brother Joey is the university's director of basketball operations.

Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, works at Florida Gulf Coast as budget manager for the college of arts and sciences. Rodrigues' roommate during legislative sessions, Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, who has a graduate degree from the University of Miami (also in the Sweet 16), says he's rooting for FGCU "out of spite."

"I want Florida to lose, and then I want to rub it in the face of the Florida alums, who are quite nasty up in the Capitol," Artiles said.

Another Gator-hater is Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, an FSU graduate. "Florida is the last team I want to win," Braynon said.

Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, chairman of the Miami-Dade delegation, is focused on the 'Canes upcoming matchup with Marquette on Thursday night. "Florida has had a powerhouse basketball program for awhile," Gonzalez said. "It's great to see the 'Canes in the mix, too."

-- Steve Bousquet, Kathleen McGrory and Katie Sanders

-- With reporting by Kathleen McGrory and Katie Sanders, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Jim Greer sentenced to 18 months in prison

Jim Greer, hand shaker, party thrower, power seeker, former head of the Republican Party of Florida, was sentenced in Orlando on Wednesday to 18 months in state prison.

Greer, 50 and a father of five, last month pleaded guilty to money laundering and theft charges, admitting he had created a company called Victory Strategies to siphon to himself and an associate some $200,000 of party donations.

Wednesday's sentencing in Courtroom 6B at the Orange County Courthouse marked at least the legal end of a years-long saga that was unflattering for state Republicans but could’ve been worse.

Follow the story here.

As tides turn on nuclear fee, House leaders allow a hearing, hint at more to come

The Florida House broke its silence on the controversial nuclear cost recovery law Wednesday and, for the first time in years, allowed a workshop hearing into the controversial 2006 measure that allows electric utilities to charge customers for nuclear plants before they are built.

For years, legislators in both the House and Senate have filed bills to repeal the measure, alleging that it's a bad deal for customers, but the proposals never got a hearing. This year, three Republican senators have filed legislation to modify the law, the Senate conducted a hearing on the measure last week and the House followed on Wednesday.

The law has allowed Progress Energy to charge customers $1.5 billion for nuclear development costs before the plants go online.  Florida Power & Light customers paid $300 million for nuclear development costs that the company says will help pay for a 500 megawatt nuclear power expansion at its existing plant in St. Lucie County. The project will be completed this year and FPL plans to use the nuclear fee to pay for additional nuclear projects at its Turkey Point plants.

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