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13 posts from January 24, 2014

January 24, 2014

Lawmaker championing charter school bill has ties to industry

House leaders picked state Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., of Hialeah, to shepherd a controversial bill that would revamp the way hundreds of charter schools statewide enter into agreements with local school boards.

Yet, in the eyes of some observers, Diaz has a clear conflict of interest: He has direct ties to the charter school industry.

The Republican lawmaker has been named dean of Doral College, a newly minted private university run by the state’s largest for-profit charter school management firm.

Diaz said he was tapped to manage the charter school bill because he understands both sides of the issue. He previously worked for the Miami-Dade school district for 20 years. He is vice-chair of the K-12 Subcommittee, which is part of the House Education Committee.

“I was asked to run [the bill] in a fair and balanced manner and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.

But Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association, said having Diaz oversee the proposal is another example of the Legislature favoring charter schools.

“They aren’t even trying to be subtle anymore,” Wright said. “Lawmakers have abandoned any obligation to [traditional] public schools.”

Read more here.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott formally removes Sweetwater mayor from office


Florida Gov. Rick Scott formally removed Manny Maroño from office late Friday, a day after the former Sweetwater mayor was sentenced to more than three years in prison for accepting bribes.

Scott had suspended Maroño, once one of his close Republican allies, in August, after the feds arrested him as part of an FBI corruption sting. Maroño pleaded guilty in November to honest-services fraud for illegally splitting $60,000 in a sham federal grant with lobbyist Jorge Forte.

A federal judge sentenced Maroño on Thursday to three years and four months in prison. He will surrender March 31.

Miami-Dade mayor slams Jackson hospital in veto over union workers' pay


In an unexpected slam at the Jackson Health System, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez criticized the public hospital Friday for agreeing to give its employees a generous bonus, as he once again vetoed county commissioners’ move to restore union workers’ pay.

The mayor’s harsh words toward Jackson could make it more difficult, or at least more uncomfortable politically, to resolve ongoing contract disputes with seven labor unions. Both employees and commissioners have said they would like all unions to be treated the same.

Despite his veto, Gimenez indicated that he’s willing to compromise with commissioners, who had voted to no longer require most employees to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs. The contribution, in place for four years, had been scheduled to expire Jan. 1.

The veto paves the way for Jackson unions, the Public Health Trust and commissioners to approve tentative agreements Jackson reached this week with its two unions, which are among the seven at impasse with the county over the healthcare contribution.

The agreements would phase out the contribution, with 3 percent going away now and the remaining 2 percent on Sept. 30. That’s the potential compromise Gimenez said he and Jackson Chief Executive Carlos Migoya discussed last week before the commission vote.

What they did not talk about, according to Gimenez, was something else Migoya agreed to: giving eligible Jackson workers a one-time, 3 percent bonus.

More here.

Scott call for corporate filing fee cut has Crist link

Gov. Rick Scott released another small piece of his proposed $500 million tax and fee reduction package Friday.

Like his proposal to roll back auto tag fees by about $400 million, the latest proposal appears to have a link to his likely opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Scott will ask the Legislature to reduce corporate filing fees by $33 million next year for businesses that must submit annual reports to the Department of State's Division of Corporations. Some of those fees were increased in 2009, when Crist was governor and Kurt Browning was secretary of state. State officials decided too many businesses were ignoring the law and getting away with it, and the state was desperately looking for new revenue during a recession.

According to a release from the governor's office, the changes would reduce about 50 different corporate filing fees and the penalties associated with late filings, taking into account the number of months the filing is late.

Florida businesses have been smarting because of a change in state law a few years ago that increased penalties for corporations that miss the filing deadline. The governor's office did not release specifics on which corporate filing fees would be reduced and by how much, or how the penalties might change.

Scott's latest proposal is a recommendation to the Republican-controlled state Legislature, which writes the annual budget.

-- Steve Bousquet

Dem poll: Charlie Crist up about 5 over Rick Scott, 49-44


Another day, another poll in Florida’s governor’s race.

Charlie Crist leads Gov. Rick Scott by nearly 5 percentage points in a poll conducted by Hamilton Strategies, a firm that typically surveys for Democrats.

Crist’s 49-44 lead over Scott has grown since Hamilton’s last poll a year ago, when it showed a dead heat of 41-41. (Note: Crist's lead isn't a solid 5 points in this poll due to rounding).

The poll results are nearly identical to one taken by Scott’s pollster, Tony Fabrizio, in November. That survey, of 1,000 likely voters, showed Crist up 49-45. That survey also indicated Crist could win a Democratic primary by as many as 13 points over Sen. Bill Nelson, for whom Hamilton polls.

The Tallahassee consultants who leaked this latest Hamilton survey, however, didn’t indicate whether a Crist-Nelson matchup was polled.

It also didn’t contain information about how Scott would do against Democratic former state Sen. Nan Rich or what influence Libertarian Adrian Wyllie would have on the race, if any.

Earlier this week, another Democratic-leaning firm, Public Policy Polling, released a survey that was far less brag-worthy for Crist, showing him leading Scott 43-41 percent – a 10 point drop since September when the former governor led the incumbent by 12.

PPP's Democrat-Republican-Other breakdown for its 600-person poll: 41-34-24%. Hamilton's Democrat-Republican-Other breakdown for its 700-person poll, conducted Jan. 14-20: 40-41-19%. (Note: PPP robo polls, and doesn't survey cellphones)

Prior to PPP's survey, a Quinnipiac University survey showed Crist up by 7 points, a decline of 3 over Scott. Hamilton is the only recently released public survey that doesn’t show Scott narrowing the gap.

This Hamilton poll also indicates that Scott isn’t persuading voters that he’s a better governor, despite the economy improving on his watch – just as it crumbled during Crist’s term.

The poll showed 49 percent of those surveyed approved of the job Scott had done as governor, compared to 55 percent who approved of the job Crist did; 48 percent disapproved of Scott’s job performance while only 36 percent disapproved of Crist’s.

Nevermind: Precourt walks away from the job he wanted

Thanks but no thanks.

That's what former Florida House Majority Leader Steve Precourt told the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority on Friday in its offer to hire him as the agency's executive director.

But it wasn't on the terms he wanted. Precourt wanted the $185,000 job, and left his job as state representative for Orlando to take it

It all looked like a done deal, too, until Jeffrey Ashton, state attorney for the Ninth District, which covers Orange and Osceola counties, asked the agency to hold off on hiring anyone until it concludes its investigation into how the previous executive director left the agency.

On Wednesday, the board voted to ask Precourt to serve month-to-month. Precourt declined the offer Friday. He only had until November to serve as representative, so it's unlikely he'll file and disrupt a race that has already launched the 2020 House Speaker contest

Here's the release from the Orlando-Orange Expressway Authority: 

(Orlando, FL) -- Steve Precourt, P.E. today declined an offer to become the next executive director of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority. At their meeting on Wednesday, the Expressway Authority board asked Mr. Precourt to serve on a month-to-month basis pending the outcome of an investigation by Ninth Circuit State Attorney’s office.

“I am disappointed that Mr. Precourt has chosen not to join us. We wish him well in his future endeavors,” said Walter Ketcham, Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority chairman.

The Expressway Authority will continue operating under the transition plan developed by former Executive Director Max Crumit, P.E. prior to his departure in September 2013.

The next steps in the process of hiring an Executive Director will be discussed at the next meeting of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority board, which is currently scheduled for February 26.
The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, established in 1963 by the state legislature, is responsible for the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of a 109-mile limited-access expressway system to serve the metropolitan Orlando area. The Expressway Authority's system includes SR 408 (Spessard L. Holland East-West Expressway), SR 528 (Martin Andersen Beachline Expressway), SR 417 (Central Florida GreeneWay), SR 429 (Daniel Webster Western Beltway), SR 414 (John Land Apopka Expressway) and State Road 451. The Expressway Authority was the first to bring Electronic Toll Collection to Florida with the inception of E-PASS in 1994. Today, more than 500,000 Central Florida residents have E-PASS. The Expressway Authority is a job-building engine for our region. Since 2009, the Expressway Authority work plan has supported nearly 10,000 local jobs.

State says marijuana amendment clears signature hurdle; next step is court approval

The Florida Division of Elections today confirmed that the proposed constitutional amendment to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes has received enough valid signatures to make it to the ballot. That leaves the only remaining hurdle: court approval of the language. 

The number of signatures validated: 710,508. The number needed by the Feb. 1 deadline: 683,149.

"This is an amazing feat,'' said Ben Pollara, of United for Care, the organization working to get a medical marijuana initiative on the November ballot. "I have to admit, less than a year ago I never thought we'd see this day - but thanks to your support and hard work, we were able to make history together...The only thing holding up official certification and placement on the ballot is the ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, which could come anytime between now and April 1."

The petition drive succeeded in part because of the substantial financial backing of Orlando trial lawyer, John Morgan. Morgan contributed more than $2.5 million to the initiative effort, much of it in the final weeks as the group hired hundreds of petition gatherers to collect the signatures needed in time to have them verified by the Feb. 1 deadline.

Under state law, the group needs 683,149 valid signatures, and must have its language approved by the Florida Supreme Court in order to make it to the ballot.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate President Don Gaetz and Gov. Rick Scott have all argued to the court that the justices should reject the language as misleading.

The proposed amendment would allow people to buy marijuana at state-regulated dispensaries if they obtain written permission from a doctor who attests that they need it for medical reasons. The amendment prohibits people from growing their own marijuana and allows the Legislature to shape the details of the enforcement provisions.

Recent polls have shown that voters throughout the state, from both parties and amid all demographic groups, strongly support the sale of marijuana for medical use, even though federal law prohibits it.  Medical marijuana is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia and is legal for recreational use in two states, Colorado and Washington.

The shift in attitude is changing opinions in the Florida Legislature as well. Legislators in the House have proposed a bill to allow for the decriminalization of a strain of marijuana that is low in the psychoactive properties, THC, and high in properties that help to control seizures. One strain, known as Charlotte's Web, is considered medically promising for children who suffer from severe seizures.



2 top Miami-Dade County Commission aides jump to Jackson Health System


Miami-Dade County Hall, which has long been a recruiting pool for other local government agencies, has lost a pair of commission aides to the Jackson Health System.

Eddie Borrego, the chief of staff to Vice-Chairwoman Lynda Bell, begins a new job Monday as Jackson's director of corporate initiatives.

A few weeks ago, Donald Wolfe III, an aide to Commissioner Xavier Suarez, became the public hospital network's assistant director for intergovernmental affairs.

The new jobs came with salary hikes for both men, though their executive packages at the county might have been more generous than they will be at the hospital system. Borrego will be making a base salary of $105,000 a year, compared to $95,000 in Bell's office. Wolfe’s annual salary went up to $83,000 from $70,000.

Borrego's jump to Jackson in particular created a buzz because he's leaving Bell, his boss, as she gears up for a reelection campaign against challenger Daniella Levine Cava. But he seemed to dismiss that suggestion.

"Commissioner Bell has been a respected public servant for many years and I’m honored that my service to her is a footnote of that legacy," Borrego said in an email. "I know that she will continue to serve her residents with honor and distinction.

"This new opportunity to join the Jackson family provides great professional development in a growing field. It has been a privilege to serve the residents of Miami-Dade at the County Commission, and I look forward to continuing that legacy of service at one of the nation’s most respected medical institutions."

According to Jackson, Borrego and Wolfe were hired to fill vacant positions, though Borrego's has been tweaked to fill new needs.

Florida's unemployment rate falls to 6.2 percent

An overview of the December unemployment numbers announced today:

Florida's unemployment rate fell from 6.4 percent to 6.2 percent in December, reaching the lowest point in five-and-a-half years.

Florida added 14,100 jobs over the month, a noticeable improvement from November but shy of the bump some expected given other early indicators. Job market watchers had been anticipating rosy numbers following a report earlier this month from payroll processor ADP estimating Florida added 25,230 private sector jobs in December, second only to Texas.

Most of the growth came in south Florida, driven by 22,300 new jobs overall in the broad Miami-Fort Lauderdale region. Tampa Bay added a mere 1,300 jobs in the month, but still held on to its crown as the biggest metro job creator year over year, up 35,400 jobs.

To be sure, Florida's unemployment situation still has some severe problems: a disastrous makeover of the state's jobless benefits Web site has thwarted thousands from getting their checks and fueled the trend of discouraged jobless giving up their search. When people stop seeking work, they are no longer counted among the unemployed or as part of the labor force at all.

Read more here.

Ethics Commission reaches detente with Fresen

The months-long feud between the state Ethics Commission and state Rep. Erik Fresen came to an end on Friday, when ethics commissioners accepted a written agreement between Fresen and state Advocate Diane Guillemette.

The commission had previously rejected the stipulation, in which Fresen admitted to making mistakes on his financial disclosure forms.

The reason: Fresen refused to pay a $1,500 ethics fine assessed to him in 2003.

The penalty was assigned because Fresen did not file a financial disclosure after losing his job a legislative aide. Fresen’s attorney, J.C. Planas, said the lawmaker didn’t find out about the fine until 2012, at which time it was no longer enforceable.

But some members of the Ethics Commission insisted Fresen should pay anyway. They made their opinions known during contentious hearings in October and December. One commissioner likened the lawmaker’s actions to bank robbery.

The Ethics Commission conceded it had reached a stalemate with Fresen on Friday. Guillemette stressed that there was nothing they could do about the fine.

“We’re not in front of the commission today for non-payment of that fine,” she said.

The commission agreed to accept the agreement between Fresen and Guillemette, but not before offering strong parting words.

“I’m going to defer to the collective wisdom of what this group wants to do...” Commissioner Matthew Carlucci said. “But this gentleman owes a $1,500 fine and refused to pay up. I have to say that that does stick in my craw a little bit because other people have stepped up and paid theirs. That’s not an even playing field to me.”

Said Commissioner Linda Robison: “We don’t think it’s the right behavior for an elected official, but at the same time, we’ve done everything we can possibly do.”

It will be up to the House of Representatives to decide whether to punish Fresen for the errors on his disclosures.

After the ethics hearing, Planas said the mistakes were small, and noted that Fresen had fixed them. 

“He definitely comported with the spirit of the statute by being upfront about what he makes and owes,” he said.

Planas said Fresen had not been given preferential treatment as Carlucci suggested, but rather “singled out” by the Ethics Commission because he is a lawmaker.

“There are hundreds of former legislative assistant who probably did not fill out financial disclosures,” Planas said. “In reality, they [ethics commissioners] expect him to pay more because he is a legislator.”