January 23, 2013

Enviros now asking for gov and Cabinet to delay action on Glades leases

In a letter today to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet, the Florida Wildlife Federation, 1000 Friends of Florida and the Everglades Law Center are asking them to delay action on a controversial item before them today that would grant no-bid contracts for 30-year leases to farm on Everglades land to give the state time to negotiate shorter terms.

"We question the wisdom and prudence of locking up state-owned land with new 30-year leases that make these lands unavailable for future environmental restoration projects,'' wrote Manley Fuller, Charles Pattison and Lisa Interlandi.

They also questioned a provision in the proposal that would allow Florida Crystals to lease the land under the condition that the leases could be terminated early on 2,200 acres of it if the state needed it for Everglades clean-up. The group said that offer has no guarantees.

"Upon reviewing the language presented to us yesterday, it appears it will take multiple years to invoke these provisions, some of which are so complex and onerous that it is questionable that they could ever be invoked,'' their letter said.

The decision could be a difficult one for Gov. Rick Scott as he faces re-election. His decision to enter into a settlement with sugar growers and the federal government last year is seen by environmentalists as an admirable achievement on an otherwise rocky environmental record.

The writers concluded with this sentence: "We believe the short delay would evidence your serious commitment to the stewardship of public lands."  Download Ltr-Scott-final-EAA_leases-012313

January 22, 2013

Scott and Cabinet to vote on no-bid deal to renew sugar leases

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet will be asked on Wednesday to agree to a no-bid contract to allow two major agriculture companies to farm on Everglades land for another 30 years, a deal that would include pouring tons of phosphorous-laden fertilizer onto the site the state is spending billions to clean-up.

The request from Florida Crystals and A. Duda and Sons is supported by the state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard and South Florida Water Management District officials. But environmentalists aren’t happy.  Download 012313_BOT-Attachment-4

“The State of Florida is putting 13,952 acres of state land off the table as a possible solution to future problems,’’ said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida at a meeting of the Cabinet aides last week. “It is passing up an opportunity.”  Download Lee letter on EAA Lease Extensionsf

Environmentalists have agreed to allow Florida Crystals to continue sugar farming 7,862 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area because they believe the company is “holding the state hostage” and won’t allow a crucial next step to go forward in the Everglades clean-up plan if they don’t get the deal. 

But environmentalists strongly oppose the Duda deal, which would allow that company to continue to grow vegetables on 6,089 acres of land and pump 339 tons of fertilizer each year into the Everglades, exacerbating the clean-up problem the state is spending billions to fix. They want the state to require Duda to reduce its phosphorous run-off in exchange for the favorable no-bid contract. Full story here. 

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May 08, 2012

Florida Cabinet trip to the Keys doesn't come cheap

Accompanied by staff and security, Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members descended on the Florida Keys Monday night, 590 miles from their Tallahassee base.

The elected officials are in Marathon, one of the northern Keys, to discuss water quality and emergency management, among other things. It's the second time this year the Cabinet is vacating Tallahassee to interact with citizens around the state, said Lane Wright, a spokesman for the governor's office.

These Florida field trips aren't cheap, especially when home is the out-of-the-way Tallahassee, where flights are often expensive and inconvenient. That's especially true when it's destination middle-of-nowhere, population 8,000.

Scott shoulders some of the bill by buying his own food and flying two of his staff on his private jet. But for him and his aides to attend alongside Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and their staffs, the cost to taxpayers is at least $5,180.

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March 20, 2012

State will buy 2 mansion-area lots, despite lawsuit

Gov. Rick Scott and a unanimous Cabinet voted Tuesday to spend $580,000 for two lots adjacent to The Grove, a historic site near the Governor's Mansion that was once the home of territorial Governor Richard Keith Call.

But this is no ordinary real estate transaction. One of the lots is also home to the law office of Steven Andrews, who sued Scott during the 2010 governor's race and once issued a subpoena on candidate Scott just before he held a press conference.

The state has had the right of first refusal on the two lots since 1986. Anticipating the vote, Andrews filed a lawsuit last week in state court in which he said he agreed to buy one of the lots last fall, and that then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning expressed no interest in the state acquiring it last December. "You have to question what the motivation is," Andrews told The Florida Current

Scott said there's "no correlation" between Andrews' past criticism of him and Tuesday's decision. Rather, he said, obtaining the lots will address a serious parking problem around the mansion and honor the legacy of former Gov. LeRoy Collins and his wife, Mary Call Collins, who lived in the Grove in their later years.   

"He (Collins) and his wife Mary kept that property up, and they made sure that the state owned it. I think it's important for the history of the state, and for Tallahassee, to continue to improve that piece of property," Scott said after the 4-0 vote at a Cabinet meeting. "I think having access to Monroe (Street) will be a real benefit." State officials envision a day when the stately mansion is visible to passing motorists on Monroe Street, the major north-south route through downtown Tallahassee.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner told reporters the state is interested in acquiring even more property in the area, including lots occupied by a tire repair store and a pawn shop. Detzner says the state's long-term goal is to make the Grove an interactive visitors' center celebrating the state's history. The budget awaiting Scott's approval has $2.5 million for "The Grove -- purchase of adjacent properties and development.

-- Steve Bousquet

November 01, 2011

Scott, Cabinet get lots of bad insurance news

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet got a lot of news about Florida's insurance industry Tuesday, and all of it was bad.  

State Consumer Advocate Robin Westcott, who works for CFO Jeff Atwater, reported that a work group on car insurance fraud completed its work without finding common ground on reform. "Nobody agreed on anything," Westcott said of the panel of representatives of doctors, hospitals, clinics, lawyers, and consumers. "Everybody was interested in protecting their access to this benefit."

Florida motorists are required to carry $10,000 of personal injury protection, but corruption is so rampant in the PIP program that one Miami-Dade insurer charges annual premiums of more than $3,000 (the same coverage cost $500 just three years ago). "That's crazy," Scott said, calling PIP "a $900 million tax" on Floridians. Tampa and Miami are among the nation's leading PIP fraud centers, as profiteering motorists stage accidents and file phony claims, working in collusion with pain clinics, chiropractors and lawyers. 

State officials voiced criticism that the task force could not get detailed information on claims from car insurance companies. PIP fraud is now hitting taxpayers' pocketbooks so hard that it promises to be a major issue in the 2012 legislative session, as special interests fight over a pot of money consumers pay. But Westcott's work group couldn't provide any path to a solution.

On property insurance, the picture was equally gloomy, with the only consolation the fact that another unusually quiet hurricane season is coming to an end. Scott Wallace, chairman of Citizens Property Insurance Corp., said the state-run insurer of last resort would have to impose $1,100 assessments on homeowners to pay for a catastrophic once-in-100-years hurricane. Citizens insures 1.4 million Florida policyholders.

Gov. Scott got Wallace to concede that many struggling homeowners could never afford to pay that, meaning they would default on their mortgages and lose their homes. "You would never organize your life like this," Scott said.   

-- Steve Bousquet

April 14, 2011

Cabinet heads to Panama City next week for anniversary of BP oil spill

Cabinet members have moved their Tuesday meeting to Panama City, marking the eve of the BP oil spill's one-year anniversary.

Gov. Rick Scott, hammered this week by critics who want him to take tough legal action against BP, will extend his visit through Wednesday to talk to Pnahandle residents about their recovery and remaining problems.

Cabinet members Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam are also planning oil spill-related events.

"The governor wants to have the Cabinet meeting in Panama City to showcase the region and show that Florida’s beaches are beautiful, the seafood is great and encourage people from all over the world to visit the Sunshine State," said Scott spokeswoman Amy Graham. Details of the events have not been finalized, she said.

The agenda is light on official business.

Members will honor Mike Jones, the security officer credited with saving Bay District School Board members' lives when a gunman stormed into their meeting. Jones shot the gunman, Clay Duke, several times after Duke opened fire on the superintendent and members. No one died except Duke, who shot himself in the head after Jones shot him. 

The meeting will be at 1 p.m. at the Bay County Government Center, 840 W. 11th St.

March 09, 2011

Scott, Cabinet OK new clemency restrictions

Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet approved a new policy on clemency Wednesday that will require many ex-felons to wait five years before they can seek restoration of their civil rights. The new policy erases the streamlining of the Jim Crow-era clemency process, adopted four years ago by former Gov. Charlie Crist and a different Cabinet.

The vote was 4-0 as Scott was joined by Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. All four officials are Republicans.

Scott said the changes would "protect public safety and create incentives to avoid criminal activity." He said people convicted of felonies should be required to submit an application to regain the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for public office or hold one of dozens of professional licenses.

The policy allows non-violent offenders to regain their rights without a hearing after being crime-free for five years after being released from prison. For certain classes of violent offenders that require clemency hearings, the waiting period is seven years.

A delegation of Florida sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors spoke in favor of the changes. The new policy, in a 24-page rule change, was originally spearheaded by Bondi, a former Hillsborough County prosecutor. "I believe that there should be a waiting period, and I believe someone should have to ask for their rights to be restored," Bondi said.

"The application process ensures accountability," said Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, a supporter of the new policy.

Critics said the change would worsen Florida's high rate of recidivism because ex-offenders will now face new barriers in trying to become productive citizens. "Once a person has paid their debt they should be quickly and fully integrated back into the community," said Danielle Prendergast of the ACLU of Florida. The NAACP, League of Women Voters and Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho also spoke against the new policy.

State Sens. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, spoke in opposition, as did Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee. Siplin criticized the Cabinet for tight restrictions on public testimony. Before speedily adopting the new policy, the board limited testimony to 30 minutes, with no speaker permitted more than two minutes of speaking time.

"Why the rush to go back to where we started from?" Joyner asked.

-- Steve Bousquet

March 02, 2011

ACLU, NAACP meet with Bondi on civil rights issues

Leaders of the ACLU and NAACP met with Attorney General Pam Bondi Tuesday to lodge their concerns over a Bondi proposal to impose lengthy waiting periods for ex-offenders seeking to regain their civil rights.

Bondi opposes the current streamlined civil rights restoration process instituted four years ago by Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet. She says all petitions for clemency should come before the governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency, following a wait period of three to five years. Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet are expected to approve Bondi's changes March 8.

ACLU of Florida executive director Howard Simon called it a "crisis" that hundreds of thousands of discharged ex-felons in Florida still can't vote, serve on a jury or hold any of dozens of professional licenses. He called it an "ugly" legacy of a post-Civil War constitutional convention that sought to block freed slaves from voting. Simon said giving ex-cons their rights back will increase their chances of becoming productive citizens and reducing the recidivism rate in state prisons.

"This is a huge problem for the state of Florida," Simon told reporters afterward. "We're only going to increase the problem by delaying the period of time for the restoration of civil rights."

Joining Simon at the meeting with Bondi was Dale Landry, leader of the NAACP Tallahassee branch.  The two men praised Bondi for meeting with them and for her support for "de-coupling" the civil rights restoration process from an ex-felon's application for job licenses. 

-- Steve Bousquet

February 14, 2011

Poll: Floridians unhappy, impatient and pessimistic about state's economy

A majority of Floridians are increasingly pessimistic about the future of the state, agree with Gov. Rick Scott that state government is wasteful, disagree with him that tax cuts and immigration reform are the solution, and believe that the state's business and elected leaders rarely have the state's best interest at heart, according to a new poll commissioned by Leadership Florida.

According to the survey of 1,220 Floridians between Jan. 3 and 16 by The Nielsen Company, 45 percent of respondents say the state is in worse shape than five  ago or is getting worse. No surprise there since five years ago Florida was at the peak of its real estate bubble and the economy hadn't tanked. What is surprising is the response they have to years of job creation efforts by everyone from local officials to the state Legislature and Cabinet: 55 percent say the state is doing a poor job creating jobs.

That's either going to be music to the ears of the "Let's Get to Work" governor, or a warning that Floridians are terribly impatient, said John Streitmatter, chairman of Leadership Florida, the non-profit leadership training organization.

“Because Gov. Rick Scott has identified job creation as his top priority and Floridians say it is their top priority as well, these survey results would seem to indicate an opportunity for him,” Streitmatter said in a statement. “At the same time, Floridians have told us they are also very impatient with all levels of government right now, which means that today’s challenge could very quickly turn into tomorrow’s disappointment for the governor and the people.”

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January 19, 2011