April 27, 2013

Lawmakers agree on pay hikes for state employees

TALLAHASSEE -- For the first time in seven years, state lawmakers have agreed to give Florida’s employees automatic salary increases, ending a bleak stretch for a 150,000-member workforce that’s weathered cutbacks, pay reductions and slashed benefits.

The House and Senate agreed Saturday to pay those making less than $40,000 an automatic $1,400 across-the-board increase. Those making more than $40,000 will receive a $1,000 raise. On top of that, merit raises of up to $600 could be available as well.

In all, for those 70 percent of employees who make less than $40,000, it could mean a bump between 5 and 10 percent.

“You can’t make up for all of the damage of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression in one year,” said Doug Martin, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 50,000 employees. “But this is very significant. This is very meaningful. This is a good day for state employees.”

The deal was struck between the House and Senate Republican leaders as they negotiate next year’s $74 billion budget, which goes into effect on July 1. The raises, however, don’t kick in until Oct. 1.

“Both (the House and Senate) wanted to recognize the fact that our co-workers in state government throughout Florida work hard every day and we appreciate their contribution to state government and their fellow citizens,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “Both (Senate President Don Gaetz) and House Speaker (Will Weatherford) wanted to, as our revenue picture has improved, wanted to show that in a tangible way through a salary increase.”

It’s similar to an automatic pay raise of $1,200 Gov. Rick Scott proposed for all state workers.

The proposed legislative increase will cost about $200 million, plus an additional $10.3 million for Florida Highway Patrol and Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers and staff. For the 4,000 employees in state law enforcement, they will get the same automatic pay raises that state workers do, but will receive an automatic 3 percent increase with a 2 percent raise for those with five years experience.

“We’ve had an issue with state law enforcement,” Negron said, explaining the difference in compensation for law enforcement. “Wwe spend a lot of money training the troopers, then they get hired away by local governments. They are in high demand.

“The current system if you have eight or 10 years experience, you’re making little more than someone who is just starting. That’s why we set it up that way,” Negron said.

Snag in budget talks involves not Medicaid, teacher pay or tax breaks, but license tags

TALLAHASSEE -- A behind-the-scenes effort by a Brandon company to maintain its monopoly on the manufacturing of state license tags has snagged the final hours of negotiations of the state’s $74 billion budget.

On Friday, the House and Senate closed out the transportation portion of the state budget, agreeing to throw out language that the House wanted that would have reserved the job of making state license tags to PRIDE, which oversees the current manufacturing of plates.

“The Senate respectfully believes that it’s better not to limit the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles when they look for cost saving alternatives for manufacturing license plates,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “And we prefer that that be a competitive process rather than limited to one particular vendor.”

House Appropriations Chair Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland agreed, and said the House was comfortable with dropping it.

So eyebrows were raised Saturday morning when Negron announced that he and McKeel were re-opening negotiations on transportation.

“I just wanted to let people know that we may have issues to discuss with proviso at a later meeting in case anyone was interested in that,” Negron said. “I just do that to make the process more transparent.”

What exactly is the issue?

Negron didn’t say at the 10 a.m. meeting, but the Times/Herald has learned it could be the license tags that appeared to have been settled just a day ago.

Although it sounds mundane, license tags are big business.


Continue reading "Snag in budget talks involves not Medicaid, teacher pay or tax breaks, but license tags" »

April 24, 2013

Time running out for Weatherford's pension overhaul

Upon becoming Florida House Speaker last year, Will Weatherford said pension reform was going to be one of his top priorities.

But with a little more than a week left in session, Weatherford has for the first time acknowledged time is running out on passing his legislation.

“Nobody ever bats 1.000,,” Weatherford told reporters Tuesday. “No one ever expects to get everything single thing they asked for at the beginning of session.”


Continue reading "Time running out for Weatherford's pension overhaul" »

April 21, 2013

Florida budget talks about as clear as gumbo

One of those watching state lawmakers discuss budget negotiations this weekend was Gov. Rick Scott’s spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers.

A newcomer to Florida, Sellers was the spokeswoman for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal before joining Scott’s office last year. With this being her first legislative session in Tallahassee, Sellers said Saturday she was impressed after watching the Conference Committee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations explain how they were divvying up $11.2 billion.

“In Louisiana, these meetings are held in smoky back rooms,” Sellers said. “The public never gets to see this.”

But for lobbyists, reporters, members of the general public, and even most lawmakers, there is more than just a hint of Cajun flavor in how lawmakers decide the budget.

Yes, the meetings are held in public. But the meetings are after the fact. The chairs merely announce the spending decisions that were made behind closed doors among the chamber leaders. If you weren’t in the room when that decision was made, good luck understanding the rationale for the spending, or, more importantly, what was swapped for it or who asked for it.

Continue reading "Florida budget talks about as clear as gumbo" »

April 18, 2013

As Weatherford's pension bill stalls, concerns of blowback grow

It’s the “other” pension bill this session.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, thought he was sponsoring one of the most important bills this session, one that would address what he called a crisis with municipal and county pensions. Of the nearly 500 pensions, more than half were troubled, he said.

For years, the Florida League of Cities has been pushing a fix that would allow cities more revenue from insurance premium taxes now being used for extra pension benefits for police and firefighters. Ring and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, sponsored SB 458 that they said would give cities more flexibility in how they use those revenues to help pay down pension debt.

Their bill passed the Senate last week with wide bipartisan support. It was sent over to the House on Tuesday, where it has sat ever since. Meanwhile, the companion bill, HB 1399, has been stranded at the House Appropriations Committee since April 5.

On Thursday, Ring said he was growing frustrated by the inaction.

“I thought the House would have taken our bill and moved it by now,” Ring said. “This bill addresses a crisis, and I just hope it doesn’t get tied to what’s happening on the FRS bill.”

Ring is referring to the clash between two other pension bills. Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford is championing HB 7011, which would require new state, teacher, county and university hires after Jan. 1, 2014 to enroll in investment plans rather than the state’s current pension. Meanwhile, SB 1392, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, would remove the requirement, but still encourage workers to enroll in investment plans.

Continue reading "As Weatherford's pension bill stalls, concerns of blowback grow" »

State budget talks begin with glad tidings, but will good mood hold?

The size of teacher and state worker raises, a possible 6 percent university tuition increase, and whether or not millions will be spent on affordable housing are just some of the issues to be determined as the House and Senate begin budget negotiations this week and next.

On Thursday, House and Senate leaders agreed on general revenue allocations of $26.99 billion in general revenue, which makes up about a third of the state’s $74 billion budget. (General revenue comes from the sales tax, the corporate income tax, documentary stamps and various other taxes and fees. The other two thirds are federal grants and state trust funds.)

The proposed spending is about what the House proposed in its initial proposed allocation in March. The Senate initially proposed $26.8 billion.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz say there are few major differences this year than in years past. Thank an overall surplus of more than $3 billion for that.

The mood was upbeat Thursday as lobbyists and agency officials packed the Capitol to watch Weatherford and Gaetz introduce the beginning of budget negotiations between the House and Senate.

“As I walked into the room and took a good look around, what’s abundantly clear is that there appears to be a budget surplus this year,” Weatherford said. “That’s a good thing. We haven’t seen that in a long time.”


Continue reading "State budget talks begin with glad tidings, but will good mood hold?" »

March 27, 2013

Senate refuses to pay for transparency contract, threatened with lawsuit

The lawyer for the company that entered into a $5 million contract with the Florida Senate to build a transparency web site has threatened to sue for breach of contract because Senate President Don Gaetz refuses to pay the remaining $500,000.

Kenneth Oertel, lawyer for the owners of Spider Data Services which signed the contract under the previous Senate president Mike Haridopolos, wrote in an email Tuesday that he has been authorized by his client to file suit and included a draft of the lawsuit.  Download Complaint - DRAFT

"Frankly, I do not see any point to the Senate’s refusal to pay,'' he wrote in an email to George Levesque, the Senate's general counsel. "If I have to file the suit, there is no realistic defense available to the Senate.  All that will happen is that the suit will be a media item and a lot of time will be spent pointing fingers.  This will not appear to be a flattering event for the Senate, and, at best, will create an embarrassing distraction.  I will be available if you wish to discuss this further to find a resolution.  If not, please understand this will be filed very soon."

His email came after Senate general counsel George Levesque told him that the Senate has no intention of paying what remains owed on the contract, which was signed by former Senate chief of staff Steve MacNamara under Haridopolos. MacNamara left Haridopolos' office to work for Gov. Rick Scott and arranged to have management of the transparency program transferred to the governor's office, which was given $2.5 million to pay for it.

Continue reading "Senate refuses to pay for transparency contract, threatened with lawsuit" »

March 18, 2013

Rarity in Tallahassee, surplus spending will bring gains to education

An improved economy and six years of relentless budget cuts have produced something that had been as rare as unicorns: a surplus.

The House and Senate on Monday released their allocations for general revenue spending next year, providing the first glimpse of how they’ll carve up a third of the state’s $74 billion budget in the coming weeks. (General revenue is derived from the sales tax, the corporate income tax, documentary stamps and various other taxes and fees; federal grants make up another third of the budget, while state trust funds make up the remainder).

The House’s proposed $26.9 billion in allocations was more detailed, including a target of spending $1 billion more in k-12 education, $300 million to restore the cuts from higher education last year, and the first across the board pay raise in over six years for “hard working” state employees. (Does the modifier mean it will be merit-based?)

That increase in allocations on education will provide one of the big dramas for the 2013 legislative session: whether lawmakers will agree to pay for Gov. Rick Scott’s across-the-board teacher raises of $2,500.

The raises are expected to cost about $480 million, which was part of the $14.3 billion education budget Scott proposed in January. In the House allocations, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and leaders set aside $14 billion in general revenue dollars for education. Of that, $10.6 billion is for lower education and $3.4 billion is for higher education. That’s a $300 million difference between Scott’s budget and the House allocation. Senate President Don Gaetz and his appropriation chair Joe Negron came down between the two, though closer to the House total, by setting aside $14.2 billion for education, or 1.2 percent more than the House.

While it might seem the House is low-balling education, its allocation is actually $1.6 billion more than its allocation at this same point last year, representing a 13 percent increase from what it proposed spending last year.

Continue reading "Rarity in Tallahassee, surplus spending will bring gains to education" »

March 08, 2013

Gaetz: Sequester creating budget uncertainty in Florida

Senate President Don Gaetz said the federal sequester is causing problems for Florida lawmakers as they try to build a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. People may argue the financial impact of sequestration and what should be done to avoid it, but it is already having real consequences, he said.

"What's not debatable is that sequestration has created a sense of uncertaintly and instability in sectors of the Florida economy," Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, said during a speech at the Capitol Tiger Bay Club meeting today.

Gaetz noted there are five military bases in the Panhandle region he represents. Directly and indirectly, the defense and aerospace industries employs thousands of people who are already being furloughed and could face layoffs, he said.

Calling the sequester "the cloud that hangs over both the governor and the Legislature and all the budget assumptions," Geatz said he hopes Congress and President Barack Obama can find a way to agree on a long-term solution.

"My greatest fear is that they will kick the can down the road another three or six months," he said.

Gaetz's comments about the political gridlock in Washington led one Tiger Bay member to ask the Senate president if he was eyeing higher office. Gaetz said he's focused solely on his current role. "I have no aspirations to run for governor or any other office."

March 05, 2013

Gaetz: With House opposition, Medicaid expansion could be non-starter

With House Speaker Will Weatherford doubling down on opposing Medicaid expansion today, it's sending a clear message to the Senate that the House may not budge on the issue, President Don Gaetz said today.

He pointed out that both the House and the Senate must approve legislation in order for it to go to the governor for approval. Gaetz said the House's hard line doesn't bode well even if the Senate is poised to support accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid.

With Gov. Rick Scott re-iterating his support of Medicaid expansion during today's State of the State address, that is two out of three "yes"es needed to get something done. But two out of three means no deal, Gaetz said.

"It sounds to me, from what I heard today stated in the Florida House, that the House of Representatives and the speaker are inclining toward 'no,' and if that's the case then nobody else gets to bat, the lights get turned off and we all go home on that issue," he said.

Instead, Senators have also begun looking at how other states are chosing to provide health care to poor, uninsured citizens outside of Medicaid. Lawmakers in both chambers seem especially intrigued by Arkansas, which received federal permission to use Medicaid expansion dollars to pay for people to purchase private insurance via health exchanges.