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332 posts from March 2013

March 27, 2013

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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Gun-toting teachers? House education panel says 'yes'

A controversial bill that would allow schools employees to carry weapons on campus won the support of the House K12 Education Subcommittee on Wednesday.

If the proposal were to become law, principals and superintendents could designate school employees to carry concealed weapons. The employees would have to undergo extensive training, said Rep. Greg Steube, the Sarasota Republican sponsoring the bill.

Steube amended the proposal slightly before Wednesday's meeting; it now requires the firearm to remain on the employee throughout the school day. Steube also expanded the proposal so that it applies to both public and private schools.

"I’ve been getting feedback from principals all over the state about how strongly they support an initiative like this," Steube said.

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House OKs raises for teachers, remains silent on specifics

House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Erik Fresen rolled out his $20.2 billion proposal for education spending on Wednesday, and won the support of Democrats and Republicans on the panel.

But some observers raised objections.

Supporters of the Florida Virtual School, for example, took issue with a proposed tweak to the way Florida calculates per-student funding. They argued the new model would cost the state's online school about $35 million in public money.

Lady Dhyana Ziegler, who sits on the FLVS Board of Trustees, called the proposal “a direct and scathing attack on Florida Virtual School funding and course offerings.”

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Dolphins: We'll pay back more of stadium tax dollars

With the clock winding down on the Miami Dolphins’ quest for a taxpayer-supported stadium overhaul, the team called an audible Wednesday, announcing new concessions aimed at boosting support for the deal.

At back-to-back a press conferences in Tallahassee and Miami Gardens, the team announced it would be willing to repay much of the taxpayer financing it is seeking after 30 years, including nearly $50 million in state tax rebates.

It’s the most recent of several concessions made by the Dolphins, who are seeking taxpayer help despite the political uproar over publicly-financed stadiums in South Florida. (A widely criticized deal for a new Miami Marlins sparked the recall of former county mayor Carlos Alvarez).

“I hope the opposition sees how willing we are to work to make [the deal] better,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican sponsoring the effort. “And I hope a lot of the people who are opposed will be willing to come on board and help us with this great project for Miami-Dade County.”

Among the concessions: The Dolphins have agreed to keep the team in South Florida for three decades, snag at least one Super Bowl by 2017, allow Miami-Dade voters to decide on whether to raise hotel taxes and, possibly, cover the cost of that referendum vote. The team also offered to pay back much of the funding from hotel taxes and also pay penalties if the new stadium did not attract a certain number of high-profile sports events over the next 30 years.

According to a release from the Dolphins, the team would pay back a total of $167 million, including $120 million to the locals and $47 million to the state.

The Dolphins are hoping Miami-Dade County will raise the mainland hotel tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, to provide funding for a stadium renovation that could cost about $390 million. The team is also requesting up to $90 million in sales tax rebates from the state of Florida.

Juggling negotiations with Miami-Dade County and the state Legislature, the Dolphins are also up against a tight timeline. The team is hoping to get a referendum on the ballot in May. Owners from the National Football League are scheduled to meet May 22 to choose a site for Super Bowl 50, to be held in 2016.

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Senate refuses to pay for transparency contract, threatened with lawsuit

The lawyer for the company that entered into a $5 million contract with the Florida Senate to build a transparency web site has threatened to sue for breach of contract because Senate President Don Gaetz refuses to pay the remaining $500,000.

Kenneth Oertel, lawyer for the owners of Spider Data Services which signed the contract under the previous Senate president Mike Haridopolos, wrote in an email Tuesday that he has been authorized by his client to file suit and included a draft of the lawsuit.  Download Complaint - DRAFT

"Frankly, I do not see any point to the Senate’s refusal to pay,'' he wrote in an email to George Levesque, the Senate's general counsel. "If I have to file the suit, there is no realistic defense available to the Senate.  All that will happen is that the suit will be a media item and a lot of time will be spent pointing fingers.  This will not appear to be a flattering event for the Senate, and, at best, will create an embarrassing distraction.  I will be available if you wish to discuss this further to find a resolution.  If not, please understand this will be filed very soon."

His email came after Senate general counsel George Levesque told him that the Senate has no intention of paying what remains owed on the contract, which was signed by former Senate chief of staff Steve MacNamara under Haridopolos. MacNamara left Haridopolos' office to work for Gov. Rick Scott and arranged to have management of the transparency program transferred to the governor's office, which was given $2.5 million to pay for it.

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