February 04, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Legislative committees continue meeting in Tallahassee, while the state's top officials go to the fair. Here's what we're watching:

* They won't have an official cabinet meeting, but Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi will still be at the Florida State Fair in Tampa to help kick off the festivities. The governor will host a luncheon there at noon.

* At 9 a.m., the House Judiciary Committee will again take up the proposed "Pastor Protection Act," which allows clergy to turn away gay couples seeking to marry. The committee's vote was postponed last week.

* The House State Affairs Committee could vote to send to the House floor a proposal that changes the legal language of Florida's absentee voting to "vote-by-mail." That panel also meets at 9 a.m.

* The Senate Transportation Committee, also gathering at 9 a.m., will give a first hearing to a bill by Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, and Anitere Flores of Miami, which aims to outlaw the use of red-light camera devices in Florida.

* A bill dealing with cremation fees that counties charge is set for its final committee hearing in the House. The Regulatory Affairs Committee meets at 1 p.m.

January 08, 2016

Putnam caps 2015 with big fundaising haul


Florida Agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam ended 2015 with quite a bang, according to new campaign finance data.

On New Year’s Eve, the Polk County Republican who is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2018 when Gov. Rick Scott’s term in office ends, raised $275,000 from three donors for a political action committee he runs called Florida Grown PC.  Those donations included $150,000 from Florida Power & Light, $100,000 from Duke Energy, and $25,000 from U.S. Sugar Corporation.

It capped off a lucrative December for Putnam’s political action committee, which raised more than $755,000 for the month, according to Florida Grown PC’s records. For the year, Putnam raised about $4 million, making him second for the year to Scott when it comes to raising money for political committees of the sort. Scott has raised over $4.4 million for his Let’s Get to Work committee.

Politicians are limited in how much money they can raise for their traditional campaign accounts. But many elected officials have created political action committees that have no limit on the size of a donation that a person can give, though there are added restrictions on how the money can be used.

December 22, 2015

Virginia to no longer recognize Florida concealed weapons permits


Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam blasted a decision by the state of Virginia on Tuesday to no longer recognize concealed weapons permits from Florida and 24 other states.

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a Democrat, said effective February 1, 2016, his state will no longer recognize concealed weapons permits from 25 states that they previously recognized. That is because laws in those states “are not sufficient to prevent someone who is disqualified under Virginia law from receiving a concealed handgun permit,” Herring said.

Because Virginia will no longer recognize permits from Florida, Florida legally will not be able to recognize permits from Virginia. It all means Floridians wanting to carry a concealed handgun in Virginia would have to apply for a permit in that state to do so.

Putnam, a Republican who has jurisdiction over the issuances of Florida’s concealed permits doesn’t like the decision by Virginia. Florida has issued more than 1.4 million concealed weapons licenses.

“The real losers of the Virginia Attorney General’s decision are law-abiding gun owners in half the states in our country” Putnam said. “The Virginia Attorney General’s politically expedient decision to end reciprocity for concealed weapon licenses is a knee-jerk reaction that tramples on people’s Second Amendment right.”

He had company in blasting the decision. The National Rifle Association slammed Herring shortly after he held a press conference in Virginia announcing his decision.

"Plain and simple, Mark Herring is putting politics above public safety,” said Chris Cox, executive director of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. “This decision is both dangerous and shameful.”

Virginia bans people with a history of stalking, drug dealing or inpatient mental-health treatment from obtaining obtain a permit. They also bar people who have been convicted of two misdemeanors in five years or someone who is an “unlawful user” of marijuana or other controlled substances.

December 07, 2015

A push to crack down on credit card skimmers at gas stations


Florida needs tougher laws to prevent thieves from using credit card skimming devices at self-service gas station pumps to steal people’s identifications, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said during a stop in Tampa on Monday.

Putnam’s statements come after his agents discovered six skimmers at five gas stations around Tampa Bay in November. Since March, his agency has uncovered 166 skimmers at gas pumps around the state. One skimming device can victimize up to 5,000 people. 

Skimmers look like regular credit card readers, but thieves install them at self-service gas pumps to capture a person’s credit card information.

Putnam, whose agency also oversees the Department of Consumer Services, is backing state legislation that would increase penalties for people who install the skimmers and require gas stations to do more to prevent them from being installed in the first place.

The bill, which is being pushed by Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, is in its early stages. Both filed similar bills in November, but neither has been heard by any committees in either the House or Senate yet.

Putnam’s agency routinely checks pumps for skimmers at gas stations and has been trying to raise awareness of the problem by reaching out to the Florida Petroleum Council and the Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association.

November 27, 2015

Lawmakers seek to crack down on gas pump 'skimmers'


With the simple swipe of a credit card at a gas station pump, it’s become easier for identity thieves to steal customers’ information and rack up fraudulent charges in their names.

State Sen. Anitere Flores’ family knows this all too well; a close family member’s credit card information was stolen from a gas station “skimmer” two years ago in Miami, she said.

“Within hours, hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of charges — specifically gas station charges — were put on the card,” said Flores, R-Miami. “It was scary, but it was also a major inconvenience: canceling credit cards and changing account numbers. You shouldn’t have to go through all that just because you’re using the convenience of paying at the pump.”

With support from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Flores and Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, want to crack down on the use of skimmers by requiring gas stations to have better security measures and by increasing the penalties for criminals convicted of credit card fraud.

Skimmers are devices that illegally capture and steal credit- and debit-card information. State inspectors in Putnam’s department have located and removed 161 skimmers statewide since March alone.

More here.

November 23, 2015

Putnam 'disappointed, not surprised' at Scott's lack of pay raises

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam immediately criticized Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget, which has $1 billion in tax cuts but no pay raises for state forestry firefighters, who earn an average of about $27,000 a year. The full text of the statement Putnam issued Monday:

"I’m disappointed that the governor left Florida wildland firefighter salary increases out of his budget, but I’m not surprised after last year’s veto. With a starting salary of $24,000 per year, our firefighters are at least as deserving as those who got pay increases last year and those who have pay increases included in the budget this year. I look forward to working with the Legislature again to meet the needs of our wildland firefighters.”

Putnam was angry and disappointed that Scott vetoed $2,000 raises for firefighters after the Legislature approved them in June, and after ignoring Putnam's request that he be given a chance to make the case for them. Putnam is asking lawmakers to approve them again next year, as some firefighters have gone to the western U.S. to battle severe wildfires there to assist in public safety and to supplement their state pay.

At his budget announcement in Jacksonville, Scott said he opposes across-the-board pay raises to workers -- though last year he gave them to a select groups of state troopers and to driver's license examiners and next year would give them to FDLE crime lab workers.

"I think the right thing to do is what's in my budget," Scott said. "I've put in my budget a bonus plan for our state workers. It will be up to $1,500 and it will be tied to agencies hitting their goals, you hitting your goals and agencies continuing to find savings. We need to continue to focus on how do we make this state government more efficient."

November 10, 2015

Adam Putnam committee tops $3 million mark


Republican Adam Putnam, long thought be a top contender for governor in 2018, is growing one of the most dominate political fundraising committees in Florida.

New campaign finance reports show Putnam has topped $3 million in donations to a political action committee he runs called Florida Grown. In October, Putnam’s account grew by more than $600,000 thanks largely to Associated Industries of Florida and groups it is affiliated with. Three political committees with ties to AIF combined to give $450,000 in just October to the 41-year-old Republican.

Another $100,000 came from Skye Lane Properties, a Clearwater Company.

Putnam, a Polk County Republican, is in his second and final term as the state’s agriculture commissioner, after serving 10 years in Congress and 4 years in the state Legislature.

The $3 million raised for Putnam’s committee is second only to Gov. Rick Scott’s Let’s Get to Work Committee, which has raised $3.8 million through October, according to campaign finance disclosure records.

September 15, 2015

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


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


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


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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