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11 posts from March 28, 2013

March 28, 2013

Charlie Crist and the curiosity surrounding his flight on Air Ramba

Is someone stalking Charlie Crist?

The former governor last month was a passenger on a private plane owned by Tallahassee lobbyist Dave Ramba, who runs an air charter service. The flight was chartered by Fowler White, a Tallahassee law firm, and nobody but Crist and the law firm knew about the flight.

Ramba said he was surprised when he was later asked by a client who came to his office demanding to know, "Why are you flying Crist around?"

Continue reading "Charlie Crist and the curiosity surrounding his flight on Air Ramba" »

Poll shows Floridians want texting ban; bill awaits next step

Ninety-five percent of respondents questioned in a poll released Thursday by the University of Florida would support a ban on texting while driving, but supporters are waiting to see if legislative attempts to get a law on the books pass the finish line this year.

“Ninety-five percent -- that’s pretty substantial. You don’t hear that often,” said Rep. Doug Holder, R-Venice, who has been trying to get a texting while driving ban passed for five years. 

If passed this session, House Bill 13, would make texting while driving a secondary offense, which means police would have to pull a driver over for another offense, like swerving, then the driver would be cited for both offenses. Florida is one of only five states without any type of restriction on texting while driving.

The House and Senate bills seemed to have momentum, quickly passing two subcommittees, but they’ve yet to be scheduled for their last committee stop.

Continue reading "Poll shows Floridians want texting ban; bill awaits next step" »

Florida universities anticipate big boost in state funding

The mood among Florida's state universities is far different than a year ago, when they felt blind-sided by state budget cuts and were powerless to prevent them.

House and Senate leaders say they plan to boost funding for the 12 public universities by over $100 million this year, in addition to restoring $300 million cut from university budgets last year. Some of the money will be tied to university performance.

The University of Florida and Florida State University would receive even more money, as much as $30 million, as part of a proposal to grant them special status as the state's top-ranked institutions.

House leaders are even considering a 6 percent tuition increase that would add $37 million to the schools' coffers.

"We're having a very good legislative session," university system chancellor Frank Brogan said this week.

Read more here.

Rick Scott's $1 million fundraising month

As Florida legislators sit on their hands with a fundraising ban for session, Gov. Rick Scott has been holding fundraisers and collecting cash -- $1 million of it -- for his political committee, Let's Get to Work. 

Admittedly half of it came in the form of a whopping check of $500,000 check from the St. Petersburg-based William L. Edwards Trust, with other large donations coming from health care, sugar, insurance, utilities, his appointees to boards and even other political committees.

Two of the biggest checks -- from the Treasure Island entertainment and finance mogul Bill Edwards  and Gary Chartrand, the governor's appointee to the Florida Board of Education -- came on March 26. That was the same day the governor launched his new web ad at his new campaign-like web site, ItsWorkingFlorida.com. The checks also came one day after the governor told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board that he couldn't support the $5,000 cap on campaign donations to statewide candidates (and $3,000 for everyone else) in the House campaign finance bill because it was too high. 

(Coincidentally, an amendment by Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, to the House campaign finance bill would have prohibited the governor from soliciting or accepting campaign money during the legislative session, as legislators are required to do. It was voted down by Republicans 71-43 last week on the floor.)

Nevertheless, Scott's campaign committee continues to accept checks of unlimited amounts. Since session began, Scott has held at least one fundraiser -- on March 12 outside of Tallahassee in Havana. According to his political committee web site, he collected $116,000 in checks that day and about $90,000 in the two days after it. 

The largest contributions this month include: 

Continue reading "Rick Scott's $1 million fundraising month " »

Joe and George Scarborough, meet Will Weatherford

Morning Joe co-host and former congressman Joe Scarborough mingled with a few House leaders at the Capitol Wednesday, including House Speaker Will Weatherford.

In tow: his brother George Scarborough, a Pensacola consultant mulling a run for the Panhandle House seat formerly held by Clay Ford, who died last week of cancer. George Scarborough lost the Republican primary for that seat to Ford in a 2007 special election.

"It wasn’t a meeting to discuss his brother’s potential candidacy for Ford’s seat," said Weatherford spokesman Ryan Duffy of the impromptu meeting. "The speaker had never met him and wanted to introduce himself and say hi."

The brothers met with speaker-designate Steve Crisafulli and had lunch with "old friend" Rep. Matt Gaetz, whose sister Erin is a producer on MSNBC's Morning Joe, at the Governor's Club.

"He's thinking about it," Gaetz said of George running for HD 2. Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, also likes another candidate for the seat, Gulf Breeze financier Ed Gray III, so he's not endorsing one over the other.

Senate seeks to cut auto tag fees -- at insurers' expense

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to roll back some of the controversial increases in car and truck registration fees in 2009. But this potential win for motorists would come at the expense of the powerful insurance industry, one of the Capitol's most influential lobbies.

By a 19-0 vote, the committee approved a bill (SB 7132) by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the chamber's lead budget-writer, to repeal a 1987 law that gives a 15 percent tax credit on the salaries
insurance companies pay to their full-time employees (excluding agents).

The estimated $220 million in new revenue would scale back some of the tag fee increases imposed in 2009 -- and signed into law by Gov. Charlie  Crist -- to balance the state budget. The House has not yet advanced a similar bill, but the tag-free rollback is an obvious priority of the Senate Republican leadership.

A parade of insurance industry lobbyists pleaded with lawmakers to leave the tax benefit intact, including venerable lobbyist Paul Sanford and Mike Hightower of Florida Blue, who is a major Republican fund-raiser. After listening to the testimony, even pro-business Republican senators
scolded the lobbyists and said a 26-year-old tax break needs to be reviewed.

"I love my friends in the insurance industry. But this is a conversation we need to have," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. "I hope my friends in the indurance industry will come back
with some ideas for us. Let's not just say no."

Negron first floated the proposal last week, and it caught the insurance industry
flatfooted, as several lobbyists acknowledged in their testimony Thursday. They missed a golden opportunity to rattle off a list of claims centers located in specific senators' districts, which might have tempered some senators' enthusiasm.

-- Steve Bousquet  

UPDATED On eve of Obama visit, Scott seeks feds' port money

On the eve of President Barack Obama's scheduled visit to Port Miami on Friday, Gov. Rick Scott criticized the president for being "late to the party" on seaport improvements. The governor said the state is awaiting tens of millions of dollars in promised federal money for improvements in Miami and Jacksonville.

In the past three years, Scott said, Florida taxpayers have invested $425 million in seaport-related improvements, notably the dredging of the Miami port channel, to improve international trade with Latin America and Asia and prepare for the expansion of the Panama Canal.

"We could not wait for the federal government to come to the table with their share of the project," Scott said. "When President Obama comes to the port of Miami tomorrow, we would like him to commit the federal government's reimbursement of $75 million Florida taxpayer dollars that we have spent on the federal government's share of the dregding project."

Scott said the feds also owe Florida for $36 million in improvements to a turning notch at JaxPort, the seaport in Jacksonville, to accommodate larger container ships and cargo volumes.  

The governor, who is up for re-election next year, has made port funding a cornerstone of his job creation efforts in the state. On a conference call with reporters, Scott was joined by Port Miami director Bill Johnson, president of the Florida Ports Council. 

UPDATE: A White House spokeswoman said the administration did help fund a $340 million loan for the port's tunnel project, and it awarded a $23 million grant to restore freight rail service between the port and the Florida East Coast Railway. The administration also put the dredging project on an expedited permitting timeline last summer.

"The President believes that the Port of Miami can enhance the competitiveness of workers and businesses throughout the region and in the nation as a whole," spokeswoman Joanna Rosholm said. 


UPDATED Teachers' union to lawmakers: Back off FRS

FEALeaders of the state teachers' union held a press conference Thursday morning to blast proposed changes to the Florida Retirement System.

Standing beside a basket of colorful plastic Easter eggs, Florida Education Association President Andy Ford and Vice President Joanne McCall said the pension proposals would deprive teachers of their nest egg. 

"Because of the actions of our political leaders, teachers have no expectation of continuing employment, no due process and a performance-based pay system that is not funded and based on bad or irrelevant data," McCall said. "Now they want changes to the pension system that guarantee retirement insecurity. These proposals make it more difficult to recruit and retain high-quality teachers."

The House is considering a proposal that would prohibit new hires from enrolling in the state pension plan; they would instead enroll in the defined-contribution system. The Senate bill would give employees a pension option, but would make the defined-contribution plan the default choice.

The teachers' union considers the Senate proposal "the more palatable plan," but doesn't see the logic in either.

Said Ford: "It's all about politics. Part of the ALEC legislative agenda is to change defined-benefit plans into defined-contribution plans."

Later in the morning, House Speaker Will Weatherford responded, saying the union was using "scare tactics."

"They have to ask themselves the questions: Should we keep spending $500 million a year to bail out a broken system? Or should we take that $500 million a year and invest it in things like teacher pay and investing in our education system and investing in our children?" Weatherford said. "I don’t think the unions want to have that conversation.”

Bill to outlaw bongs advances in Florida House

From AP:

The long pipes commonly associated with marijuana smoking may soon take a hit in Florida.

Legislation aimed at prohibiting the sale of glass and other pipes, commonly called "bongs," sailed through the House Business and Professional Regulation subcommittee on Wednesday.

The measure is sponsored by Rep. Darryl Rouson, a self-described former drug addict who says the accessibility of the pipes at hundreds of stores across Florida help perpetuate drug addictions.

He said the pipes can be used to inhale crack cocaine, hash and meth as well as marijuana. After the hearing, the St. Petersburg Democrat said he wants to "take away the convenience of addicts being able to go to the local corner store and buy utensils that can be used for illegal ingestion of drugs. And we want to help law enforcement."

State law now allows only certain retailers to sell the pipes if at least 75 percent of their sales come from tobacco products or they have no more than 25 percent of "certain drug paraphernalia" sales.

The bill (HB 49) would eliminate that exception and make any sale a first-degree misdemeanor. Second and subsequent violations would jump to a third-degree felony.

More here.

Fred Grimm column: Kids in isolation get shrug from Florida lawmakers

From Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm:

Reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been subjecting scores of immigrant detainees to solitary confinement, many of them for 23 hours a day, some for stretches of 75 days or more, brought a quick, angry response in Washington.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, reacting to a report in the New York Times, fired off a letter to the agency Tuesday, complaining of “an over reliance by ICE on the harshest forms of incarceration.” Schumer warned that unless the agency reduced the use of isolation cells, legislation would be written to force a change in policy. That same day, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she ordered ICE to provide her with some explanation for the cruel surge in the numbers kept in solitary.

The reaction in Washington was markedly more urgent than in Tallahassee, where the Senate criminal justice committee held a hearing last week looking into the Florida’s widespread use of solitary confinement for another kind of prisoner — children confined to state prisons and county jails. After a short hearing, a piece of proposed legislation to regulate the use of solitary for juvenile inmates was set aside without a committee vote. (The bill is scheduled to come up again next week, though there’s not much hope that it will pass.) Kids in solitary got not much more than a shrug.

More here.