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332 posts from March 2013

March 28, 2013

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.

Five Things To Know for Thursday's Legislative Session

TALLAHASSEE Lawmakers, lobbyists and laymen have a busy day Thursday before they leave town for the Easter holiday. Here are five things to watch in the Capitol and beyond:


The Florida Education Association, the state teachers' union, will hold an 8:30 a.m. news conference to discuss how changes to the Florida Retirement System would impact the teaching profession.


Speaking of those pension bills, the Senate will hear two of them Thursday when the Appropriations Committee meets at 9 a.m. The committee will also hear a buzzed-about proposal from Sen. Joe Negron that would limit how law enforcement agencies can use drones.


Also up in Senate Appropriations  Negron's plan to reduce the cost of car registrations. The bill, SPB 7132, would eliminate a $220 million annual tax credit for insurance companies, and use the money to decrease the cost of registering cars by about $12 each.


House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, will address the Board of Governors about his plan to more fully incorporate online learning into higher education. The meeting takes place in the student union at Florida A&M University, with Weatherford speaking at 9:30 a.m.


The House Appropriations Committee, which meets at 4 p.m., will consider a proposal to let universities raise the fees that support construction and maintenance.

Kathleen McGrory, Herald-Times Tallahassee Bureau

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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