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8 posts from May 16, 2013

May 16, 2013

Scott reappoints agency heads Senate failed to confirm

Gov. Rick Scott reappointed three agency heads to their posts today, and they'll get another shot at Senate confirmation next year. If that doesn't happen, Surgeon General John Armstrong, Corrections Secretary Michael Crews and Department of Economy Opportunity executive director Jesse Panuccio will be out of a job.

Although the Senate confirmed dozens of Scott appointees during the session, there were many others who were passed over. Many were for specific reasons, such as Armstrong, who rubbed senators the wrong way, and members of the board overseeing the controversial Florida Polytechnic University. In other instances, the Senate said it simply ran out of time.

In total, the governor reappointed 42 people to their positions, including dozens of board and commission members. He has 45 days after session to reappoint anyone who failed to receive Senate confirmation, though if it happens two years in a row that person must leave the position.

"I am honored to continue serving Governor Scott and this reappointment is a reflection on the great work of the dedicated staff at DEO," Panuccio said via email. "Florida's economy is thriving and I look forward to driving the Governor’s pro-growth economic policies forward."

Here is Scott's statement on the three agency heads:

Continue reading "Scott reappoints agency heads Senate failed to confirm" »

After Democrat brinksmanship, House group reaches immigration deal

@MarcACaputo& @FrancoOrdonez

A bipartisan U.S. House group hammered out an immigration-reform deal late Thursday after years of closed-door meetings and last-minute brinksmanship from a top Democrat.

The final agreement, which could be drafted into legislation by June 1, came together after California Rep. Xavier Becerra dropped what sources said was a blanket objection to denying immigrants healthcare benefits after they become legalized as part of a pathway to citizenship.

The House members and their aides refused to discuss many particulars, although it’s clear that portions of their bill are more conservative than the plan from the Democratically controlled Senate.

The House plan would call for a citizenship path that last 15 years – two years longer than the Senate version.

But it’s not too conservative, either.

“It’s pretty clear if we’re going to pass legislation, it has to be bipartisan,” Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Miami.

“The reason this has been a long arduous and difficult process – again if I had drafted it myself it would have been different – but the fact is you have to keep both parties on board.”

Continue reading "After Democrat brinksmanship, House group reaches immigration deal" »

Miami-Dade commissioners mull over extra Dolphins cash


More than $1 million was left over from the nearly $4.8 million nonrefundable payment the Miami Dolphins made to Miami-Dade for a special election.

Now county commissioners must decide how to spend the cash.

Miami-Dade required the team to pay for a scheduled May 14 election on a proposed Sun Life Stadium renovation, to be paid for in part with public dollars. The referendum was canceled after Florida lawmakers failed to pass Dolphins-backed legislation in Tallahassee — leaving the county with the extra elections money.

Dueling proposals on what to do with it emerged at a committee meeting Thursday.

Commissioner Barbara Jordan said the money should help establish a low-interest loan program for small businesses. Commissioner Juan C. Zapata said it should be divided evenly among the 13 commissioners to fund summer programs for children or mom-and-pop business grants.

“I really see this as being an incubator of something that is sorely needed, to grow our small businesses,” Jordan said of her plan.

Said Zapata: “I like both ideas.”

So did the rest of the economic development and PortMiami committee. Commissioners decided to forward both alternatives to the full board for a vote.

Will Weatherford gets a Half True on his Medicaid claim

The Florida House did the nation a solid by refusing to expand subsidized health insurance to 1 million low-income Floridians, argues Speaker Will Weatherford.

Weatherford was instrumental in blocking a proposal favored by the Florida Senate and Gov. Rick Scott that would have used $51 billion in federal Medicaid dollars over 10 years to provide private health insurance to people below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2013, that is $15,865 for an individual and $32,499 for a family of four.

People arguing in favor of Florida expanding Medicaid, one of the biggest facets of President Barack Obama’s health care law, argued it is paid for by taxes Floridians already sent to Washington. Weatherford tried to diffuse that, saying he could not support widening the program because more federal spending by an unreliable government will escalate the country’s debt woes.

"Congress has not passed a budget in four years, and each year the federal government spends over a trillion dollars more than it has, leading to a national debt approaching $17 trillion," he wrote in a May 9 column. "Expanding Medicaid would require borrowing more money, drastically expanding our deficit."

Does the Medicaid expansion drastically raise the deficit? Read more from PolitiFact Florida.

Senate President Gaetz slams TaxWatch 'turkey' list in sharp-tongued missive

Even before TaxWatch published its annual list of budget items they consider "turkeys," Senate leaders had gone out of their way to defend their decision to fund projects that may not have been in state agencies' initial budget requests. Today the group released a list of $107 million in spending it believes Gov. Rick Scott should veto, just like it does every year in the days before the budget is signed.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, isn't amused. He didn't mince words about what he thinks about TaxWatch and its list of turkeys. He calls the report "arrogance of the elite" and says the group is "irrelevant 364 days a year."

Gaetz argues that teacher pay raises could be considered "turkeys" using the TaxWatch definition and that the group put meaningful and helpful programs on it suggested veto list. Scott is expected to sign the budget and unveil his actual vetoes either Monday or Friday. 

Here is Gaetz's long, but entertaining statement:

"The TaxWatch list is built on the unconstitutional perversion that if an appropriation isn't recommended by unelected agency officials it shouldn't be considered in conference by elected legislators. This is an arrogance of the elite who spend too much time in Tallahassee and Washington listening to the echoes of their own invented wisdom and thinking they're hearing the voice of God.

"No agency put in its budget a $3,500 raise for Florida's most effective teachers, yet that was funded. No agency testified before the Legislature asking for a raise for state employees who had been without one for six years, yet we passed it. No bureaucrat in the Department of Education asked for a career-technical pathway to a high school diploma or an online pathway to a university degree, but we funded them. Not a whisper of criticism from TaxWatch on any of these and a hundred other similar items. So, apparently, their indignation is not only ill-informed but selective.

Continue reading "Senate President Gaetz slams TaxWatch 'turkey' list in sharp-tongued missive" »

Former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina charged with tax evasion, secret payments


Former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, who lost a bid for Miami-Dade County’s top political position, was charged Thursday with tax evasion for allegedly making loans at sky-high interest rates and failing to report secret cash payments, authorities said.

Robaina, 47, who was at the center of Hialeah’s “shadow-banking” industry, is accused of receiving the undisclosed cash payments as interest on more than $1 million in personal loans he made to old friends and associates, including convicted Ponzi schemer Luis Felipe Perez.

Robaina has been indicted on charges of conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service by committing tax evasion and other crimes. The IRS began investigating his finances in 2010, while authorities were making their case against Perez, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence.

IRS agents examined Robaina’s bank and other financial records for any deposits that seemed out of the ordinary for evidence that, they say, shows the former politician evaded paying his full share of taxes. Robaina lost to Carlos Gimenez in the 2011 Miami-Dade mayoral race.

Under federal law, if a person receives any kind of interest payment on a loan, that income must be reported to the IRS and it may be subject to taxes.

Perez, who cooperated with prosecutors as part of a plea agreement, maintains that he paid Robaina a combined interest rate of 36 percent, with half the payments in checks and half in cash, until he ran out of money in 2009.

He says he directed his drivers to deliver the cash in envelopes — with the mayor’s name or initials written on them — to the home of the late Rolando Blanco, their mutual friend who matched them up in their loan deal.

Blanco’s son, Roberto, testified about the alleged payoff arrangement before the federal grand jury in Miami, according to sources familiar with the IRS investigation. Roberto Blanco, who was spotted by a Miami Herald reporter entering the grand jury in 2011, received immunity from prosecution, the sources said.

Hialeah’s unofficial banking system flourished from Blanco’s home to City Hall.

More here

Florida TaxWatch bags 107 budget 'turkeys' worth $107 million

Florida TaxWatch finds 107 line-item projects in the new state budget totaling $107 million that it says Gov. Rick Scott should veto because they bypassed the Legislature's own standards for transparency and competitiveness.

They run the gamut of state spending, from improvements at colleges to programs for the disabled to renovations of historic buildings to museums. Miami-Dade had more projects on the list (18) than any other county. Among the projects that made the statewide list:

* $14 million for a science and technology building at Gulf Coast State College in Bay County.

* $4 million for the Clearwater Aquarium Film Project.

* $2.3 million for IMG Academy, a sports academy in Bradenton.

* 1.5 million for a Dan Marino Jobs Program for Children with Disabilities.

* $1 million for a Black Cultural Tourism Enhancement Commission.

* $1 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

TaxWatch, a non-profit tax research group supported by many of the state's largest businesses, also said lawmakers did a better than usual job this year of limiting pork-barrel spending. "We actually think the Legislature showed some restraint," TaxWatch's Kurt Wenner said at a Tallahassee press conference on Thursday.

Many of the projects that made the TaxWatch turkey list are there because they appeared for the first time during the last stage of the budgeting process, during brief conference committee meetings that Wenner said fell far short of what Floridians deserve in terms of government transparency. Conference committee meetings typically ratify in a few minutes budget decisions already hashed out in secret by a handful of legislators.

"Generally, what they consist of is having (budget) offers read," Wenner said. "They are public meetings, but the decisions are not public."

-- Steve Bousquet

After Scott priority fails to get 80 votes, legislative staff flip-flop on supermajority clause

After Gov. Rick Scott’s highly prioritized manufacturing tax cut passed the Florida Legislature without receiving a two-thirds vote majority, legislative staff analysts have had a change of heart and now believe such a supermajority was not necessary. 

Last month, staff analysts in the Florida Senate said emphatically that a two-thirds vote was required, because the proposed sales tax exemption for manufacturing equipment would put a significant dent into local government revenue. 

“Therefore, this bill requires passage by 2/3 of the membership of each chamber,” the  legislative analysis dated April 2, 2013 states. The House analysts also raised the two-thirds vote as a possibility, and a top official in Scott's office told the Herald/Times in February he believed a supermajority vote was required.

On May 2, an amended version of the bill cleared the House in a hurriedly cast 68-48 vote, with all Democrats and a few Republicans voting against it. Despite falling short of the 80-vote supermajority previously cited, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, quickly declared the bill passed, and brushed aside concerns about its constitutionality. Democrats immediately promised to sue.

“We think it is extremely constitutional,” Weatherford said after the contentious vote, stating that he had discussed the issue with legislative legal staff. He followed up with a statement asking “Who would sue to stop a tax cut”?

Now, the non-partisan legislative analysts in the Florida House have backtracked from their initial claim that the bill might need a two-thirds majority and have fallen in line with the House Speaker’s position on its constitutionality.

An updated staff analysis from the Florida House, dated May 15, strips all references to Article VII, section 18 of the Florida Constitution (the portion protecting local governments from unfunded mandates). All previous staff reports had at least cited the constitutional clause, highlighting the requirement for a two-thirds majority vote when local government revenue is at stake. The Senate had been more definitive about the 2/3 vote requirement than the House, and a new analysis was not done by the Senate.

A spokesperson for Weatherford said final bill analyses traditionally do not include information about constitutionality.

Whereas initial staff analyses mentioned Department of Economic Opportunity estimates of up to $115 million in lost revenue for the state, the updated review does not cite any cost figure. DEO has estimated that the tax cut could cost cities and counties up to $26 million per year.

The final bill analyses does not cite those numbers, or any others, only stating that “it is not anticipated the provisions would significantly affect the authority of the counties and municipalities to raise revenue in the aggregate.”

The words “significantly” and “aggregate” are key, because the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote for any bill that has a significant impact on local governments revenue-collecting abilities. A sales tax cut for manufacturers will likely reduce the amount of revenue coming in to local government coffers.

Under the bill, the revenue loss for local governments—estimated at $13 to $26 million per year—far exceeds the $1.9 million threshold needed to qualify as a “significant” impact. But the Legislature's legal team has seized on the term “in the aggregate” to justify the bill’s constitutionality.

"Based on our staff's estimate, it does not have a significant impact," said Ryan Duffy, a spokesperson for Weatherford.

Case law on the issue is not definitive, so a lawsuit could set a legal precedent for the future.

Of note, the bill has changed since the first staff analyses, but the final version would still have a annual impact on local government revenue. Under the original bill, the sales tax cut would have kicked in this year and lasted forever. The updated bill creates a three-year tax cut period starting in 2014. It could save manufacturers more than $140 million per year, when state and local tax savings are combined.

The proposal was one of Scott’s top priorities for the 2013 session, as the governor said eliminating taxes on machinery will help “build up” manufacturing jobs in Florida.

Scott, who is expected to sign the bill soon, recently wrapped up a “victory tour” across the state to celebrate the bill’s passage.

“Manufacturers in Florida have been disadvantaged for too long because we were one of few states that taxed the purchase of manufacturing equipment,” Scott said in a statement. “With this legislation, Florida is now on a level playing field.”

He added “I look forward to signing this bill into law.”