July 14, 2017

Critical audit of Suwannee River water district exposes downside of deep cuts

Suwanee RiverOfficials in charge of the smallest water management district in Florida were making a big mistake: they appeared to be keeping millions of dollars acquired from land sales instead of returning it to the state’s general fund — and they had no paper trail.

The Suwannee River Water Management District, which oversees land and water resources in a 15-county rural swath of north-central Florida, failed to properly account for more than $26 million, according to a critical audit recently released by the Florida Auditor General.

Weak budgetary controls led to $22.5 million in “questionable costs,” auditors found. Officials had transferred $13.3 million of it into the district’s operating account without proper authority. They may have overspent some areas of the budget and directed money to other areas to make up for shortfalls. They set aside $3.8 million “in the event of an economic crisis” without authorization, and they steered $1.7 million “to cover routinely anticipated budget shortfalls” without explanation.

Auditors concluded that accounts were “misclassified because district personnel misunderstood” standard accounting requirements and budget staff members were “somewhat new to the process” so they couldn’t explain how and why it happened.

Why is this a problem? In plain language, if you don’t know how to track the taxpayers’ money, you risk spending too much of it, the auditors said.

“Absent effective budgetary controls, including budgetary monitoring controls, there is an increased risk that district expenditures will exceed established budgeted amounts and available resources,” the report concluded. Read more here:  Auditors find millions in ‘questionable costs’ at water district

Photo: This is a view of the Suwannee River near White Springs from 2010. Susan Cocking Miami Herald file photo

June 29, 2017

Florida lawmakers tell Trump to back off Atlantic drilling

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON - A large, bipartisan contingent of the Florida House delegation has a firm message for President Donald Trump: Lay off plans for oil drilling in the Atlantic.

“Opening the Atlantic to seismic testing and drilling jeopardizes our coastal businesses, fishing communities, tourism, and our national security,” reads a letter signed by the Florida lawmakers and dozens of others. “It harms our coastal economies in the near term and opens the door to even greater risks from offshore oil and gas production down the road. Therefore, we implore you not to issue any permits for seismic airgun surveys for subsea oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean.”

The letter was sent to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and was signed by Florida Reps. John Rutherford, Darren Soto, Bill Posey, Alcee Hastings, Matt Gaetz, Charlie Crist, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Frederica Wilson, Brian Mast, Dennis Ross, Val Demings, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Yoho, Kathy Castor, Francis Rooney, Al  Lawson, Ted Deutch, Ron DeSantis, Lois Frankel, Vern Buchanan and Stephanie Murphy.

The Trump administration announced in April it was exploring opening up the Atlantic for oil and gas exploration.

The letter (see below) was organized by Rutherford, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat.

Continue reading "Florida lawmakers tell Trump to back off Atlantic drilling" »

June 02, 2017

Is man-made climate change real? Don't ask top Florida Republican leaders


Of Florida’s top three Republican leaders, only one of them — Senate President Joe Negron — is willing to say, grudgingly, that human activity contributes to climate change.

Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran won’t go there.

Asked repeatedly Friday if man-made climate change is real, as a broad consensus of scientists have long concluded, Corcoran refused to answer. 

“We should do all we can to protect the environment,” he said.

That doesn’t answer the question, he was told. 

“Whatever,” responded Corcoran, of Land O’Lakes. “I’m not going down that path.”

A day after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the international Paris climate agreement, the three most powerful men in Florida government declined to acknowledge the threat of rising seas to one of the nation’s most vulnerable states.

Instead, Scott, who has touted his friendly relationship with the president, defended Trump’s decision.

“He’s doing exactly what he said he was going to do on the campaign: He’s focused on American jobs,” Scott said. “The Paris accord clearly was not focused on American jobs. And it’s no different than we’ve done here.”

More here.

Photo credit: Matias J. Ocner, for the Miami Herald

May 26, 2017

New DEP secretary’s cell phone is primary contact for business he says he doesn’t run

Noah ValensteinFlorida’s new Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Noah Valenstein, flatly denied this week he had any role in the political consulting and polling businesses he turned over to his wife when he came to work for the governor in 2012.

But the company web site on Thursday still listed his personal phone number as the contact. It was the same phone number Valenstein used on his application for the DEP job.

“Thank you for raising this issue to my attention,” Valenstein said in an email to the Herald/Times. “I have asked my wife to immediately remove my cell phone number from her company’s website. Upon entering public service in 2012, I removed myself from the business and my wife has owned and operated it since.I was not aware my cellphone number remained on her website and neither was she.”

The companies, Voter Opinions, LLC, and Campaign Facts, LLC, (with website Facts2Win.com) are income-producing businesses for Jennifer Valenstein. Started by Noah Valenstein in 2010 out of their Tallahassee home, the companies have been paid nearly $1 million by candidates and political committees.

When Noah Valenstein was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to serve as his policy coordinator for energy, agriculture and the environment in December 2012, Valenstein revised the paperwork to make Jennifer the registered agent. Both are lawyers.

Since then, the company has continued to operate, serving legislative campaigns and the political committees of groups that do business with the governor, his agencies or want to advance his fortunes.

Committees that have hired Valenstein’s companies include those run by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate President Joe Negron, the business lobbyist groups Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the House Republican Campaign Committee, Sens. Wilton Simpson and Kathleen Passidomo, former Sens. John Thrasher and Frank Artiles, former House Speakers Steve Crisafulli and Will Weatherford, the Florida Medical Association, several current House members, and former state Rep. Matt Gaetz, now a congressman. Story here. 

May 23, 2017

New DEP secretary, Noah Valenstein, says there's no conflict in political side businesses

Noah Valenstein@MaryEllenKlas

When Noah Valenstein, the newly appointed head of the Department of Environmental Protection, was applying in April to be the state's top environmental regulator, he left one thing off the application: Companies he started and his wife runs have been paid nearly $1 million by politicians and lobbying groups, many of whom sought to influence the administration’s policy or advance the governor’s political fortunes.

Valenstein, the current executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, was appointed DEP secretary Tuesday by the governor and Cabinet. He was hired by Scott in December 2012 as the governor’s policy coordinator for energy, agriculture and the environment and worked in that position until he left for the water management district — its board is appointed by Scott — in October 2015. He took a three-month leave of absence in 2014 to advise Scott’s re-election campaign.

Before he joined the governor’s office, Valenstein was director of legislative affairs for the non-profit Everglades Foundation from August 2011 until December 2012.

But while Valenstein was holding each of these policy jobs, his wife was also operating two political consulting and polling companies that Valenstein started: Campaign Facts, LLC, and Voter Opinions, LLC. Each catered exclusively to Republican candidates, advocacy groups and political committees.

In a statement to the Herald/Times, Valenstein said he has removed himself from the businesses, but he would not explain how he distances himself from the special interests that contribute heavily to the party, candidates and political committees that hire the companies.

“When I began my job as Policy Coordinator at the Governor’s Office in 2012, I immediately removed myself from all aspects of these businesses,” Valenstein’s statement said. “As Secretary of DEP, I will continue to remain independent of these matters, and I will take every precaution to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.” Read more here. 

April 17, 2017

In a breakthrough for Senate President Negron, Scott endorses reservoir plan with some conditions

Gov. Rick Scott added some tension to the feud between the House and Senate over priority legislation and on Monday endorsed Senate President Joe Negron's proposal to build a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee on existing state lands to reduce the need to discharge polluted water in fragile estuaries.

But the governor added a new proposal, urging legislators to find $200 million to loan the federal government to accelerate improvements to the Herbert Hoover Dike.

“I support storage south of the lake in the A2 Reservoir which utilizes state-owned land and does not take people’s private land,'' Scott said at a rare press conference about a pending legislative issue. "This is a big step toward protecting our pristine environment. This additional storage, in conjunction with our currently planned projects around the Lake, will help reduce harmful discharges to the estuaries in South Florida."

Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who has shepherded the bill through the Senate with a 36-3 vote last week, met with Scott early Monday said the announcement was "a huge step forward in bringings this in for a landing."

"The legislative process is about compromise and I look at the governor's statement today as nothing other than a positive development,'' he said. "Everybody doesn't get everything in this process...We now have the governor's endorsement, all we need is our House partners to get on board."

Scott said that he wants the state to lend the federal government $200 million to help accelerate the repairs to the dike by three years. The federal government has committed to repairing the dike by 2025 and, Scott said Monday.

"My goal is for the dike to be completely repaired by 2022, and I look forward to continuing to work with the Trump Administration to complete this, which would substantially reduce future discharges,'' he said. 

Bradley said that leaves many unanswered questions, such as where the money will come from and how the state will get paid back for its loan to the feds.

"Those of us in the Senate want to learn more details about what assurances we will have from the federal government that they would pay us back that $200 million,'' he said. "That is a federal responsibility of course and it's important the federal government maintain its responsibilities. They own the dike, maintain the dike. They built the dike and it is their responsibility."

Scott added what Negron has emphasized, that money for the project not be taken from existing restoration projects, such as the building the C43 and C44 canals.

"Also, it is important to me that whatever is passed does not impact any person’s job,'' he said. And embracing the position of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the governor said: "We have dedicated record funding toward Everglades restoration and I am confident we have the funds available to get these projects done without taking on more debt."

Bradley said the Senate plan does not call for bonding in the first year but leaves open the door for bonding in future years to pay for land under the state's existing bonding authority. Bradley said he wants to see how the governor envisions the plan working without that.

"We need to see the cash flow,'' he said. 

When asked if the governor, whose political committee has accepted $425,000 from U.S. Sugar, said he has not spoken to the sugar industry about Negron's retrofitted proposal which many farmers have rejected.

Here's the governor's statement:

Continue reading "In a breakthrough for Senate President Negron, Scott endorses reservoir plan with some conditions" »

April 13, 2017

Florida lawmakers ask feds to keep listing manatee as endangered

via @learyreports

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota is leading a push to reverse a federal decision to downgrade protections for manatees.

“This decision was disappointing and potentially very harmful to the survival of the iconic Florida animal,” reads a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “Based on widespread opposition from the public and scientists, we urge you to overturn this decision and restore manatees to endangered status.”

The letter said, “during the public comment period for the downlisting rule, nearly 87,000 comments opposed the rule with only 72 comments in support. We would also note that the scientists invited by the Fish and Wildlife Service to formally review the downlisting plan opposed weakening manatee protections.”

Letter signers included Reps. Kathy Castor, Daniel Webster, Alcee Hastings, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch, Frederica Wilson, Val Demings, Darren Soto, Stephanie Murphy and Charlie Crist.

Read the letter below.

Dear Secretary Zinke,

We urge you to reconsider and reverse the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision last week to downgrade protections for the Florida manatee.

This decision was disappointing and potentially very harmful to the survival of the iconic Florida animal.

Despite the agency’s assertion that a downlisting from endangered to threatened would not affect federal protections for the manatee, the move could cause a broader reassessment of critical state and local protections for the animals.

In fact, just days after this rule proposal was announced, the Brevard County commissioners approved a resolution requesting that the Florida Legislature review slow-speed zones currently in place for boats and called for a reconsideration of the state’s Manatee Sanctuary Act, which established protections for manatees and their habitats in several counties, including Sarasota and Manatee.

As you may know, the manatee at one time was on the brink of extinction. We cannot support any action that could lead to such conditions again.

Manatees face a variety of threats to their existence, including watercraft collisions, habitat loss and red tide. Additionally, the warm water springs manatees depend on during the winter months are disappearing. We also would note that manatee deaths are on the rise, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

During the public comment period for the downlisting rule, nearly 87,000 comments opposed the rule with only 72 comments in support. We would also note that the scientists invited by the Fish and Wildlife Service to formally review the downlisting plan opposed weakening manatee protections.

Based on widespread opposition from the public and scientists, we urge you to overturn this decision and restore manatees to endangered status.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Photo credit: Associated Press

April 12, 2017

Senate approves plan to store and clean 78 billion gallons of Everglades water

EvergladesAfter more than 20 years of mapping the need for a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, the Florida Senate voted 36-3 Wednesday for an ambitious proposal that will set in motion the $1.5 billion project.

The proposal, SB 10, is a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and will use state and federal money to build a deep-water reservoir to store and clean water before it is released into the Everglades and to avoid toxic discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. The proposal now moves to the House, where it will be woven into negotiations over the budget.

The plan will create at least 240,000 acre feet of storage — that’s about 78 billion gallons — south of the lake by converting 14,000 acres of state land now used as a shallow reservoir to build a deep-water reservoir.  It accelerates the timeline for the reservoir and requires congressional approval. Half of the cost will be shared by the federal government because it is already on the list of projects intended to repair the ailing Everglades. Story here. 

April 11, 2017

99 apply to run Florida's DEP


The application process still has two weeks to go, but the resumes are piling up from candidates wanting to be Florida’s next leader of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Already 99 people have applied to replace Jon Steverson, the head of DEP who resigned suddenly in January, according to the Florida Cabinet which has posted the names of all 99.

Currently the agency is being led by Ryan Matthews, who had been the deputy secretary for regulatory programs before he was appointed as interim secretary back in February. Matthews is not among the people to have applied so far for the permanent job.

The Cabinet has set a goal of having a final vote on a new DEP leader by May 23.

April 06, 2017

Because Miami: DeVos drops in on rapper Pitbull's charter school


via @KyraGurney @harrisalexc

President Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary paid a whirlwind visit to Miami on Thursday, making her first stop at a public university since taking office.

Betsy DeVos started the day at CARE Elementary, a Christian school in Overtown, before visiting Florida International University, where she toured a nursing simulation lab and took questions from students and faculty. Then, her carefully choreographed visit took a very Miami detour — a meeting with the rapper Pitbull at a charter school he supports in Little Havana.

Standing on stage alongside Armando Christian Pérez, also known as Pitbull, DeVos was greeted warmly as she addressed a gym full of students at SLAM, a charter middle and high school backed by the rapper.

“I know that many of you are blazing the trails in your family and showing what can be done if you’re just given the opportunity,” DeVos said. “I want to encourage you, encourage you in your studies, encourage you to continue to pursue the passion that is inside of you, whatever that may be.”

Then DeVos met with students and school leaders to talk about the charter network. After the meeting, she lauded Miami for the city’s embrace of school choice options, including charter schools.

More here.

Photo courtesy of David Fisher