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14 posts from April 18, 2013

April 18, 2013

As Weatherford's pension bill stalls, concerns of blowback grow

It’s the “other” pension bill this session.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, thought he was sponsoring one of the most important bills this session, one that would address what he called a crisis with municipal and county pensions. Of the nearly 500 pensions, more than half were troubled, he said.

For years, the Florida League of Cities has been pushing a fix that would allow cities more revenue from insurance premium taxes now being used for extra pension benefits for police and firefighters. Ring and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, sponsored SB 458 that they said would give cities more flexibility in how they use those revenues to help pay down pension debt.

Their bill passed the Senate last week with wide bipartisan support. It was sent over to the House on Tuesday, where it has sat ever since. Meanwhile, the companion bill, HB 1399, has been stranded at the House Appropriations Committee since April 5.

On Thursday, Ring said he was growing frustrated by the inaction.

“I thought the House would have taken our bill and moved it by now,” Ring said. “This bill addresses a crisis, and I just hope it doesn’t get tied to what’s happening on the FRS bill.”

Ring is referring to the clash between two other pension bills. Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford is championing HB 7011, which would require new state, teacher, county and university hires after Jan. 1, 2014 to enroll in investment plans rather than the state’s current pension. Meanwhile, SB 1392, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, would remove the requirement, but still encourage workers to enroll in investment plans.

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State budget talks begin with glad tidings, but will good mood hold?

The size of teacher and state worker raises, a possible 6 percent university tuition increase, and whether or not millions will be spent on affordable housing are just some of the issues to be determined as the House and Senate begin budget negotiations this week and next.

On Thursday, House and Senate leaders agreed on general revenue allocations of $26.99 billion in general revenue, which makes up about a third of the state’s $74 billion budget. (General revenue comes from the sales tax, the corporate income tax, documentary stamps and various other taxes and fees. The other two thirds are federal grants and state trust funds.)

The proposed spending is about what the House proposed in its initial proposed allocation in March. The Senate initially proposed $26.8 billion.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz say there are few major differences this year than in years past. Thank an overall surplus of more than $3 billion for that.

The mood was upbeat Thursday as lobbyists and agency officials packed the Capitol to watch Weatherford and Gaetz introduce the beginning of budget negotiations between the House and Senate.

“As I walked into the room and took a good look around, what’s abundantly clear is that there appears to be a budget surplus this year,” Weatherford said. “That’s a good thing. We haven’t seen that in a long time.”


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Ana Alliegro: Hair today, gone tomorrow

Ana Alliegro, who the Miami in FBI want to interview about her relationship with former U.S. Rep. David Rivera and the corrupt campaign of failed Democratic primary campaign of Justin Lamar Sternad, told Miami New Times last week that she is innocent of any wrongdoing and is "laying low" in Nicarauga as the owner of a local beauty salon.

Her business venture in the Central American country apparently turned out to be a bust.

On Monday, La Prensa, a national newspaper based in Managua, reported that Alliegro had hastily closed her "upscale beauty salon" just "days" after opening it on Calle Libertad - Liberty Street -- in Granada.

The newspaper reported that Alliegro had "the appearance of a wealthy businesswoman" but bolted the lakeside city in western Nicaragua after being in town for only about three months.

"She lived there for a few months and established a beauty salon that was open just a few days and this week they started to take the furniture out," La Prensa quoted unidentified people as saying. "I don't know where she went."

Another unidentified person told the newspaper that Alliegro, who told locals that she was from New York, said she had been in Estelí before coming to Granada.

Estelí is located about 150 miles north of Managua and is one of the country's larger cities.

In the New Times interview, Alliegro said she would return soon to Miami to renew her passport.

Apparently, the lack of a passport didn't keep the Cuban-American from traveling around Central America.

La Prensa reported that Costa Rican immigration authorities said Alliegro had entered Nicaragua from Costa Rica on March 1, traveling from one country to another without a problem.

Alliegro has refused to talk to The Miami Herald ever since it unmasked the criminal campaign of Sternad and her role in it.

She claimed she was never a consultant for Sternad, who was used as a proxy to trash Rivera’s political opponent, Democrat Joe Garcia.

Sternad pleaded guilty March 15 to federal campaign-finance and conspiracy violations. Sternad is cooperating with federal prosecutors.

“I was taken advantage of and used by others,” Sternad said when he pleaded guilty in federal court.

Read La Prensa story here (in Spanish)

House passes two abortion-related bills after heated exchanges

Following hours of fiery debate that included accusations of female infanticide and eugenics, the House passed a bill that would ban abortions based on sex or gender by 71-44 on Thursday.

It was the third successful abortion bill to pass the House in two days.

House Bill 845, sponsored by Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, would require a doctor to sign an affidavit that a woman is not seeking an abortion based on sex or gender. A person who performs, or actively participates in a sex/gender abortion can be charged with a third-degree felony; not reporting a sex/gender abortion can also result in a fine up to $10,000.

In his closing statement, Van Zant said the bill is necessary because "race and sex selection abortion is prevalent throughout America, including Florida," though no specific figures were provided.

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Sen. Marco Rubio talks immigration on U.S. Senate floor

Speaking on the Senate floor on Thursday, Senator Marco Rubio defends and promotes the Gang of Eight's immigration bill. Here remarks released by his Senate office:

 “As far as the economy of the United States, a couple points. First of all, you can’t compare this bill to nothing, you have to compare it to what we have now. And what we have now is worse. What we have now is costing our economy. You have people in this country illegally, they get sick, they go to the emergency room, and the tax payer pays for it. You have people in this country that are having children, who are U.S. citizens and they go to our schools. They are driving in our streets without a driver’s license, which means they have no car insurance – which means all of us have to pay more in car insurance as a result. This is not good for us, it’s obviously not good for them, but it’s not good for us. What we have today is devastating and horrible for our economy. We can’t continue to have this, we have to fix this problem, and we have to fix it in a way that is fair to the people that have done it the right way, and fix it in a way that makes sure that this never ever happens again. And I believe that the bill we are working on does that. And I look forward to the input that my colleagues have.

 “One more criticism I hear, ‘It’s being rushed through.’ That’s just not true. Just yesterday we voted on a series of amendments that I had less than twelve hours to review. And these amendments dealt with a fundamental right, the Second Amendment constitutional right. This bill has been online already for 48 hours. The Committee on Judiciary won’t even begin to consider amendments to this bill until next month. People are going to have three to four weeks to review it. It’s posted on my website, people can go on there now and see it. And beyond that, it will be available all these weeks, then it is going to go through an extensive committee process, then it will be brought here - hopefully to the floor - where we can debate it openly as well. Look, I am not claiming the bill is perfect – I am sure it can be improved. And I hope my 92 other colleagues will work hard to improve it, because we have an opportunity to do something important.

 “My last point I address to many of my fellow Americans who share my deep commitment to upholding the Constitution of the United States, to limiting the size and scope of government, to encouraging the free enterprise system as the best way to create economic opportunity. America is a nation of immigrants, but both Republicans and Democrats have failed to enforce our immigration laws, and as a result we have millions of people here illegally. We are not going to deport them. So let’s secure the border, and let’s identify these people – let’s undergo a background check, get in the back of the line, pay a fine, pay taxes, no federal benefits. We all wish we didn’t have this problem, but leaving it the way it is, it’s amnesty. We have to solve this problem, and I hope we will.”

Miami makes maquinita arrests as mayor does gambling about-face

A week after Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill outlawing video gambling machines — “maquinitas,” as they’re known locally — Miami police swept through the city’s small bars and marketplaces Thursday, confiscating 10 machines and making six arrests.

While that show of force was under way, a career politician who once championed a law to make the machines legal took center stage at a highly publicized event in which 48 of the machines were crushed by bulldozers, and speakers told of the evils maquinitas brought to Miamians.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, whose first major action as mayor was the creation of an ordinance that would reform the pesky maquinita movement his former police chief tried so hard to destroy, suddenly transformed himself into New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia circa 1942, who in a historic photograph wielded a sledge hammer to destroy a slot machine.

“I was not in favor of the maquinitas, I was in favor of regulating the maquinitas,” Regalado said Thursday, stepping away from the bulldozers that were crushing the glass and wood remnants of 48 video gambling machines at the city’s sanitation yard in Allapattah. “Now they’re illegal, and we applaud that.”

More from Charles Rabin here.

Trauma center battle heads to House and Senate floors

The Senate budget committee ended a marathon meeting by approving legislation that would drastically change the state's process for approving new trauma centers. As was the case in the House,this was accomplished by tacking on language to a seemingly benign bill to loosen state restrictions on opening new hospital trauma centers.

The changes to SB 966 stand to benefit hospitals in rural areas and facilities owned by for-profit companies like HCA. Long-standing trauma hospitals spoke against the measure as it was being amended today, saying the changes could hurt them financially and affect quality of care.

Mark Delegal, a lobbyist for the state's Teaching Hospital Council, said the final Appropriations Committee meeting was not the place to introduce such sweeping legislation that has been the focus of years of disagreement.

"Why in the world on the last week of committees in the Legislature would somebody bring a bill and not file a bill of this complex nature in the Health Policy Committee, work it through the process?" Delegal said. "Worst yet, the same tactical maneuver was used in the Florida House, last-minute amendment brought to the process. So, this is the kind of stuff that those who work in this process should not do, I don’t think.”

Hospitals made the same arguments Tuesday when the House Health and Human Services Committee amended then approved HB 817. The 12-5 vote included both Republicans and Democrats on each side.

Several members of the Senate Appropriations Committee said they had concerns about the bill and wanted to see changes before a floor vote, but nearly all voted to keep it alive. Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Tampa, said she was the only "no" vote.

Committee Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said he supports the bill because he believes more rural hospitals should be allowed to create trauma units. 

"I've heard from representatives of and citizens that live in rural areas that are very concerned that they don't have access to the level of trauma care that they need," he said.

Arcade owners file lawsuit asking court to halt ban on their machines

The owners of two senior arcades in Broward County filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging Florida’s new law that tightens the rules prohibiting them from operating slots-like games.

The arcade owners, represented by constitutional law expert Bruce Rogow and Michael Wolf of the Florida Arcades Association, are asking the court to block a portion of the legislation that passed as a result of the federal and state investigation into Internet cafes operated by Allied Veterans of the World.

Lawmakers rushed into law the bill to ban the machines after state and federal officials arrested 57 people on racketeering and money laundering charges for operating a fake charity and illegal gambling houses.

Legislators used the crackdown to clarify the law and target machines operated by adult arcades and Miami’s maquinitas, which also operate slots-like games they considered illegal.

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House passes 'foreign language' bill opponents say is 'anti-Shariah'

After a contentious debate, the House on Thursday passed legislation that bans the use of foreign law in certain cases by a vote of 79-39.

While the  bill's sponsor, Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, couldn't point to any Florida cases where the law would have been needed, he called it a "preventive" measure.

The bill doesn't mention any specific foreign country or religion, and only applies to cases involving issues like divorce, marriage and child custody, but opponents objected that the measure is rooted in fear and anti-Shariah legislation.

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Dolphins bill heads to Senate floor, but trouble could be brewing in House

The Miami Dolphins have given a full embrace of a Senate plan that would help the team renovate its stadium, even as a much different House plan has stalled in the committee process.

The bill, SB 306, cleared its final committee Thursday and heads to the floor next. It would require the Dolphins to compete with other sports teams for a state tax break of up to $3 million per year. Teams would compete for a pot of $13 million in tax breaks, and would be ranked based on potential economic impact.

The House version of the bill does not include those provisions, and has stalled for the last two weeks. The chair of the House Budget committee has no plans to hear it anytime soon. If the House decides to spike the bill, the Dolphins' efforts at a taxpayer-supported stadium upgrade could die in Tallahassee.

Though the Senate version has additional stipulations that are not in the House bill (which offers a carve out specifically for the Dolphins), the team has embraced the bill that’s currently moving.

“We’re appreciative of the efforts that continue to move this forward,” said Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, who has traveled to Tallahassee for each of the bill’s seven committee stops in the Legislature.

While requiring competition for state tax breaks, the Senate bill still offers a carve out for Miami-Dade to raise its mainland tourist tax, potentially bringing in tens of millions of dollars for the team to rebuild its stadium. The tourist tax dollars could help the team generate up to $289 million while the state tax break could bring in $3 million annually for several years, according to an agreement with the county. The team’s stadium renovation could cost more than $350 million, and the Dolphins have agreed to pay back some of the tax dollars used for the project. 

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