September 15, 2015

Ag department requests conservation funds to buy new cars, repair roads

@MichaelAuslen

From the very beginning of writing next year’s state budget, it’s clear one of the flashpoints of last year’s process will be rearing its head: how the state should spend money set aside by voters on Amendment 1 last November to buy and conserve land.

In his request for the 2016-2017 budget, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam proposes spending some of the $700 million-plus Land Acquisition Trust Fund on replacing old cars, fixing roads and setting up technology services for the state forest service.

Putnam’s request for next year asks that from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund:

* $337,842 be spent to replace a dozen old vehicles in the Office of Agricultural Water Policy.
* $2.8 million pay for road repairs and material for the Florida Forest Service.
* $3 million be spent on construction and maintenance within the Florida Forest Service.
* Shift $1.2 million into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to pay for information technology services.

Budget items like this drew furious responses in the last budget cycle — the first since 75 percent of voters approved Amendment 1 — from environmental activists that pushed the constitutional amendment to secure an annual pot of money to buy land and water and conserve it.

“A new truck is not land acquisition, it’s not conservation,” said David Guest, Florida managing attorney of environmental legal firm Earthjustice. “I fear that the leaders of our state government are seeing this as an all-purpose slush fund for anything that has an environmental tint to it.”

The agriculture department has asked to set aside money from Amendment 1 for the Office of Agricultural Water Policy and the Florida Forest Service because of changes made to the budget by the Legislature last year, Putnam spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said in a written statement.

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Putnam makes new push for Florida forestry firefighter pay raises

@JeremySWallace

Three months after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a plan to give the state forestry firefighters a $2,000 pay increase, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is making a new pitch to get those raises.

In a new budget request for 2016 released on Tuesday, Putnam is asking the Legislature to give him $2.3 million to help him hand out $2,000 per-person pay raises to the state’s 959 forest fighters and support teams.  

“If additional funding for the firefighter positions is not available, the turnover rate will continue to increase,” the Florida Department of Agriculture’s annual budget request states. “The Florida Forest Service will lose critical expertise in its firefighter and fire management/support ranks, which increases the potential for fire suppression accidents because of lack of experience.”

The average annual pay for the state's 606 forestry firefighters is just over $27,000. Starting firefighters make just $24,000. And since 2006, they have had only one pay increase. In June, the state Legislature approved a $2,000 pay hike for them, but it was vetoed by Scott.

In vetoing the funds, Scott maintained that pay raises for state employees should be addressed on a statewide level, and not just for the forestry firefighters. The only other employees budgeted for a pay hike were workers for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Scott did not veto those raises.

The low pay has been one of the reasons why hundreds of the state's firefighters voluntarily travel west to fight fires in places like California, Oregon and Washington. Working out west after Florida's fire season dies down allows firefighters to supplement their incomes in overtime pay subsidized by other states and the federal government.

After court win, Miami-Dade police union asks county to pay up over impasse

@doug_hanks

MIami-Dade's police union recently succeeded in having Mayor Carlos Gimenez's 2012 veto of a labor contract declared illegal. And now the union wants a refund of the money Miami-Dade saved from that veto.

"Please consider this letter a demand for payment," union chief John Rivera wrote to Gimenez on Sept. 14. Rivera asked for the thousands of police employees to receive refunds on the 4-percent payroll deduction Gimenez succeeded in briefly imposing following the 2012 veto. Rivera estimated the refund would cost about $9 million, depending on whether interest is imposed.

Read Rivera's letter here.

The Gimenez administration plans to fight the demand before a state labor board. Gimenez lost a larger legal battle last week when the state Supreme Court refused an appeal over a lower court's decision limiting the mayor's veto power in labor talks.

While the county mayor can veto most votes by the County Commission, courts ruled he loses that authority when it comes a labor impasse. An impasse is declared when the administration and a union can't agree on a contract, and then turn to the commission to resolve it.   

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July 15, 2015

Adam Putnam fundraising numbers add to 2018 governor race speculation

@JeremySWallace

Florida Agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam has ramped up his fundraising activities, amassing nearly $2 million for a political committee he controls just since March.

Putnam, frequently mentioned as a likely candidate for governor in 2018, reported raising more than $460,000 just in June alone. He now has raised $1.8 million total for a political action committee called Florida Grown.

His biggest donors since March have included Jupiter beer distributor J.J. Taylor Companies, Manatee County insurance company FCCI and Little River Plantation Holdings, a company with ties to Mike Fernandez, a major GOP fundraiser in Florida. Each gave Florida Grown $100,000 each since April. Another $100,000 combined came on the last day in May from U.S. Sugar Corporation and South Central Florida Express Inc, a rail line owned by U.S. Sugar.

Putnam’s largest contribution came from another political action committee he previously ran called the Sunshine State Leadership Project. That fund transferred nearly $400,000 to Putnam’s new committee on April 30.

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July 02, 2015

Putnam's plea for pre-veto face time with Gov. Scott was ignored

Here's yet another backstory on Gov. Rick Scott's budget vetoes, and this one is likely to give Scott headaches at future Cabinet meetings.

As the budget time clock was ticking, Scott and his staff dissed Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

It began to unfold on Friday, June 19. As the Legislature was passing a budget, ending a three-week special session, Putnam immediately sought face time with the governor to argue his case for priority projects."I request a meeting with you at your earliest convenience," Putnam wrote.

Putnam's office hand-delivered a highly detailed four-page letter to Scott asking for "careful consideration" of his priorities, including $4.5 million for water-farming projects, $3.7 million to replace a dilapidated petroleum lab at Port Everglades and $2,000 raises for state forestry firefighters.

Not only did Putnam not get the meeting he wanted, but the request was ignored, and four days later Scott vetoed all three requests, among others.

"We never received a response," said Putnam's spokeswoman, Jennifer Meale.

Even though Scott signed the budget four days later, and a week earlier than required by law, his spokeswoman said there wasn't enough time. (The day before Scott signed the budget, Monday, June 22, Scott was on a prearranged seven-city fly-around to promote the $430 million tax cut package).

"The governor reviewed project information submitted to OPB (Office of Planning and Budgeting) staff during the regular session and during the special session up until the budget was finished by the Legislature," spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in a written response. "The governor did not take any additional meetings on special projects once the budget was finalized by the Legislature because we were up against a tight time frame to get the budget signed by June 30th.”

June 23, 2015

Putnam 'profoundly disappointed' in Scott's veto of firefighter pay raise

@JeremySWallace

Firefighters who battle forest fires in Florida will not be getting pay raises because of Gov. Rick Scott’s vetoes.

The Legislature has set aside $1.6 million in the state budget to give the state’s 606 Forest Service firefighters each a $2,000 a year pay raise.

“I am profoundly disappointed,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said on Tuesday after learning of the veto. “Our forest firefighters put their lives on the line. They are demonstratively underpaid relative to peers.”

The vetoes come as Florida fire fighters are battling an unusually high number of fires. On Friday the state was fighting 90 active wildfires, Putnam said. And since January the state has dealt with 1,440 fires on over 30,000 acres. The Florida Panhandle, North Florida and Florida Atlantic Coast are all facing a high wildfire threat.

 Putnam questioned the lack of consistency in the vetoes, noting other government employees in less dangerous jobs will get raises, but not the fire fighters.

“I’m even more disappointed that it wasn’t applied consistently,”  Putnam said. The helpful people who take your drivers license photo were allowed to receive a pay raise. And our forest firefighters who put their lives on the line were not.”

June 12, 2015

Jeb Bush secures endorsements from top Florida Republicans ahead of campaign kickoff

@PatriciaMazzei @learyreports

Jeb Bush will gain endorsements Friday from a host of top Florida Republicans, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

Bush will also be endorsed by 11 of the state’s 17 Republican members of the U.S. House.

The endorsements, obtained first by the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, come as Bush prepares for his official announcement on Monday in Miami, home also to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who has emerged as a strong candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

With people beginning to talk up Sunshine State showdown between Bush and Rubio, the list is a way for Bush to show off the depth and geographical range of his support.

Bondi, Putnam and Atwater plan to attend the event as do some of the congressional members, subject to duties in Washington.

They are: Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor; Vern Buchanan of Sarasota; Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville; Carlos Curbelo of Miami, Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami; David Jolly of Indian Shores; Jeff Miller of Chumuckla; John Mica of Winter Park; Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, Dennis Ross of Lakeland; and Daniel Webster of Winter Garden.

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March 04, 2015

Cabinet performance reviews: It's really not a new idea

As the aides to Gov. Rick Scott and his colleagues on the Cabinet revived the debate today over crafting a new policy about how to evaluate the performance of agency heads who report to them in the wake of the governor’s botched firing of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, some history:

If they had asked their predecessors, they would have learned that the practice had been in place for years and, on occasion used by this governor and Cabinet. 

Records and transcripts of Cabinet meetings reviewed by the Herald/Times show that the governor and Cabinet had a record of requiring a “performance review” of officials who reported to them.

The practice continued for the first year Scott and the three Cabinet officials came to office but then waned. DOR Secretary Lisa Echeverri did not have one in 2012 and her replacement, Marshall Stranburg, has never had one.

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February 03, 2015

Why won't the governor move the Cabinet meeting from the fair grounds? Some reasons


Florida Cabinet slideThe governor’s handling of the firing of former FDLE commissioner Jerry Bailey, and subsequent dust-up over Cabinet affairs, has prompted the three members of the Florida Cabinet to call for a through vetting of the personnel policies, hiring and firing and oversight practices the state Constitution tasks them with.

But there is one problem: the next meeting of the Cabinet is scheduled to be held in Tampa during the State Fair. It’s a tradition Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has welcomed for years, and is in keeping with the Cabinet’s practice of occasionally moving the business meeting to other parts of the state. 

Aware that the deliberation is likely to be serious, intense, and interfere with the light-hearted photo op with 4-H clubs, fried ice cream and giant slides, Putnam asked Gov. Rick Scott to shift the venue back to Tallahassee. Scott said no.

We asked the governor's communications office why. They refused to answer.

Attorney General Pam Bondi didn’t protest the failure to shift the venue but her spokesman released this statement: “Although the Attorney General is pleased to have the Cabinet meeting in her hometown to honor local heroes, she is prepared to discuss the recent issues involving FDLE at a Cabinet meeting anywhere in the state.”

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater also didn’t complaint but his spokeswoman released this statement: “The CFO initiated the call for the Cabinet to address the matter of how Cabinet Agency directors are hired and evaluated. He is ready to get on with this urgent issue. Be it at the Tampa Cabinet meeting or a Tallahassee Cabinet meeting, the CFO is ready to get to it!”

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January 28, 2015

Harsh new criticism leveled at Gov. Rick Scott over FDLE firing

Top state officials in both political parties leveled harsh new criticism at Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday for his decision to oust the longtime Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner absent public discussion with the three Cabinet members who also oversee the agency.

In his strongest criticism yet, Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said "we were misled" about Scott's true intentions to orchestrate Gerald Bailey's removal after a glowing three-decade FDLE career.

When asked whether he believed Scott's version of the truth or Bailey's, Putnam paused and did not give a direct answer.

"Jerry Bailey's a fine man. He served our state very well. The way he was treated at the end of his distinguished career was shabby," Putnam said.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, accused Scott of violating the Florida Constitution, which he is sworn to uphold, by not giving the Cabinet members any voice in the replacement of the FDLE commissioner.

"Hubris appears to be the organizing principle of our executive branch," Joyner said.

Developing story here.