March 31, 2014

Scott signs "Florida G.I. Bill"

Gov. Rick Scott signed the first substantive bill of the session Monday, creating a program that will waive out-of-state tuition fees for military veterans.

The "Florida G.I. Bill" will also connect veterans to potential employers, and pump money into continuing education and industry certification programs for active service members.

Scott, who served in the Navy, said he hoped the legislation would make Florida "the most military-friendly state" in the nation.

The veterans proposal (HB 7015) won unanimous support in both chambers in March.

Lawmakers were particularly proud of the tuition waiver program, which is named in memory of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. Under current law, veterans who are not Florida residents must pay out-of-state rates, which can be four times what residents pay.

The measure is expected to cost the state $11.7 million.

The new law also:

* Increases funding for the Educational Dollars for Duty program, which seeks to enhance the education level of Florida National Guard members.

* Creates Florida is for Veterans, Inc., a corporation tasked with promoting Florida to retired and recently separated service members.

* Encourages government entities to hire veterans, as well as current members of the reserves and the Florida National Guard, and the parents and spouses of service members who died in combat.

* Allows private businesses to create hiring practices that give preference to veterans and the spouses of disabled or deceased veterans.

* Helps healthcare professionals who received an honorable discharge to practice in Florida.

* Removes the one-year residency requirement so that veterans living in Florida can have immediate access to vacancies at state nursing homes.

* Provides $12.5 million in state funding for armories, and $7.5 million to acquire lands around three military installations: Naval Support Activity Panama City, Naval Station Mayport and MacDill Air Force Base.

One provision has been controversial: language encouraging military base commanders to work with the state education commissioner to create new charter schools.

Some educators are concerned that military commanders will be able to circumvent local school boards to establish their own semi-private schools.

Last year, the Hillsborough County School Board challenged a charter school looking to open on MacDill Air Force Base. The school's governing board later withdrew its proposal.

At a bill signing ceremony at the National Guard Armory in Panama City, military officials had high praise for the legislation.

"The support our military has received from our elected leaders in Florida is at the highest level in my memory," said Major Gen. Emmett R. Titshaw, Jr., of the Florida National Guard.

While Florida postpones use of SAVE to check voters, the website remains in use by agencies nationwide

A footnote on our story last week about Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s announcement that he will delay his “Project Integrity” -- or more commonly known as the noncitizen purge.

Detzner had planned a second round of searching for noncitizens on the voter rolls using the Department of Homeland Security’s SAVE data. But in February, DHS started to revamp the SAVE website -- a process that won’t be done before the 2014 election. On Thursday Detzner announced that he would delay the next round due to the website changes.

Only a handful of states have agreements to use SAVE for voter registration purposes -- and at least a couple of those states haven’t started using it yet for that purpose. Virginia just recently signed an agreement with DHS and has no timeline yet while Iowa is awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.

SAVE is more typically used for reasons that have nothing to do with voter registration such as to determine if someone is eligible for social services.

While Detzner decided to delay using SAVE while the website changes are underway, agencies nationwide can continue to access the data -- and are doing so.

Florida Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Michelle Glady told us that “DCF continues to use SAVE to determine eligibility.”

When DHS sent notices to SAVE users in February about the website changes it stated: “Please note that the SAVE System web address and the verification process will not change in [sic] with this release.”

Here’s the most recent notice from DHS to SAVE users about the website changes:

03/26/2014

Dear Customer,

The SAVE Program launched Phase I of the SAVE System redesign on February 23, 2014. This release featured an updated layout, along with several new home page functions, including a vertical navigation bar, a new welcome banner, and a “Quick Links” menu. We hope that our redesigned system offers you a more dynamic, user-friendly experience, and makes it easier for you to determine the eligibility of your benefit applicants.

We are still offering training sessions for Superusers and Supervisors to become familiar you with the new design, and offer you the opportunity to ask questions. Please contact your SAVE agency manager regarding upcoming training opportunities.

Our goal with this release was to improve verification services for our customers. We would love to hear your thoughts on the first phase of the redesign, and incorporate your valuable feedback as we prepare for Phase II. Please send your comments to the email address below with the subject “SAVE Redesign.”

 

Gov. Rick Scott's foreign trips increasingly rely on corporate contributions

Via @ToluseO at Bloomberg

Months before Florida Crystals Corp. won a no-bid contract to farm sugar on state-owned land, its top lobbyist and president met with Governor Rick Scott in the home of King Juan Carlos of Spain.

They got access during a 2012 trade mission underwritten by corporations including the company, which is co-owner of the Domino Sugar brand. The trip, intended to recruit businesses to Florida, also provided a lobbying opportunity for those already in the state. After the meeting at the palace, Florida Crystals executives joined Scott at a reception they sponsored, featuring Spanish omelets and dry-cured ham.

Governors increasingly are using corporate money to fund their excursions, often from businesses that stand to benefit from state decisions. While taxpayers traditionally paid for trade missions, at least 15 states have started collecting donations to cover costs, including six since 2010. Scott, a 61-year-old Republican, has tapped the private money most often, making 10 overseas visits in the past three years, twice the pace of his predecessor, according to public records.

“It’s an opportunity that the vast majority of people and companies never get,” said Hayden Dempsey, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former aide to the governor who went on the Spain trip. Scott, he said, was “very accessible.”

Continue reading "Gov. Rick Scott's foreign trips increasingly rely on corporate contributions " »

As David Beckham presses case in Miami, soccer deals a mixed bag across the country

@PatriciaMazzei

Miami-Dade County plans to charge David Beckham some amount of rent if he builds a Major League Soccer stadium on public land. But across the country, government hasn’t necessarily done well as professional soccer’s landlord.

Only two of 12 existing MLS stadiums have been built without local tax-payer funding for construction — as Beckham and his investors have promised to do — and on public property, a Miami Herald analysis has found. And the terms of those deals, in Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio, were quite different, leaving little in the way of a blueprint for Miami-Dade.

The county isn’t looking for precedent as it considers crafting its own agreement, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.

“I don’t look to the other stadiums,” he said. “What I said I want is fair market value for rent.”

“Fair” is subjective, but at least one of the two existing privately funded stadiums on public land seems to have gotten relatively cheap land for construction.

Last year, California State University-Dominguez Hills, home to the StubHub Center where the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA teams play, received just under $800,000 in rent and shared profits from the 88-acre stadium and sports complex, according to the university. That’s about $9,100 an acre.

For comparison, consider that in 2013, administrators for the state-owned fairgrounds in Ohio, which houses the Columbus Crew Stadium, said they took in about $335,000 from the 15-acre facility — about $22,300 an acre.

More here.

Gov. Rick Scott has "concerns" with PECO plan

It’s become one of the perennial fights in the Florida Legislature.

In one corner: cash-strapped school systems with aging facilities and billions of dollars tied up in debt service.

In the other: charter schools looking to build and refurbish facilities of their own.

Both want dollars from the Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) trust fund, an ever shrinking pot of money generated by a disappearing tax on cable TV and land-line telephones.

This year, the Senate, House and Gov. Rick Scott all want to split the K-12 portion between charter schools and traditional school districts. It’s a departure from recent years, when only charter schools landed the funds. The wrangling has already begun.

There is some common ground: Both charter schools and school districts support a bill that would shift revenue from an existing tax on commercial energy consumption to the PECO fund.

But the bill may be a tough sell to Scott.

“The governor’s budget prioritizes K-12 education, without creating more debt or permanently earmarking general funds, limiting future flexibility,” Scott spokesman John Tupps said in a a statement. “For these reasons, we have concerns about the proposal.”

Read more here.

Today in Tallahassee: Five Things to Watch

Hump week, the mid-point of the 2014 Legislative session, is here, and not a moment too soon. But don’t think that the pace is slowing down on bills. Even though it’s a Monday, typically a travel day for lawmakers, a number of high profile bills will be considered.

  • Public records will take a beating at the House Government Operations committee at 1:30 at 212 Knott Building. On tap is the curious HB 421, by Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, which would exempt the email addresses collected by county tax collectors to send tax notices. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 0538 is scheduled for a second reading on the Senate floor Friday. Although the intent is to prevent identity theft, the First Amendment Foundation has concluded that there’s no “factual evidence” to support the premise that any identities will be protected by this measure. If passed, could justify an avalanche for future exemptionsthat will further restrict public records. But wait, there’s more. There’s also HB 555, which would exempt recorded images from red light cameras; HB 865, which would exempt contact information of people involved in car crashes 60 days following a crash; and HB 1269, which would exempt public records for certain family trust companies.

 

  • Public records get a bit of support at the same meeting, with HB 1151, which is getting its first committee meeting. It would clarify existing records law, which should make it easier to access records.

 

  • The Senate’s Agriculture committee meets at 4 p.m. at 301 SOB to consider SB 1576, which seeks to restore and safeguard the state's natural springs with $378.8 million. It will also take up SB 1044, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, that would allow electric vehicle charging stations and alternative fuel stations to notify the state so their locations could be provided online.

 

  • Environmentalists have targeted HB 703 as one of the more troublesome bills of the session. Sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, it gets heard at the House’s agriculture and natural resources committee at 102 HOB at 4 p.m. It revises water permitting, and was heavily revised last week to make it palatable for environmentalists, but some say it still goes too far in easing regulation, especially in allowing 30-year water use permits for large projects in rural areas.

 

  • The Senate’s Ethics and Elections committee is slated to meet at 4 p.m. at 412 Knott Building to discuss SB 784, which would require the Florida Department of State to develop an online voter registration system and require the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to verify information submitted online. 

- Michael Van Sickler, Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

March 30, 2014

Report: Political investment by energy companies helps them buy into legis agenda

Update: Here's the report

To understand the influence of Florida’s largest electric companies in Tallahassee, look no further than your monthly bill.

You won’t see a line item for the “nuclear cost recovery fee” that Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy collect each month for future construction of new nuclear power plants. That’s because legislators last year voted down an amendment that would have required them to disclose the fee to customers, something they knew the two companies didn’t want to do.

Lawmakers allowed utilities to collect the fee in 2006, and when the companies tamped down their plans to build new facilities and used the money for other needs, such as upgrading existing nuclear plants, legislators kept the fee in place despite complaints from consumer advocates.

The legislative journey of the nuclear cost recovery fee is but one example of how Florida’s power companies control the legislative agenda in Tallahassee, according to a new report by Integrity Florida, a non-profit Tallahassee-based research and watchdog group. They say millions of dollars in campaign contributions and an army of lobbyists help keep corporate interests ahead of the public interest, and are calling on lawmakers to make the power companies more transparent and more accountable. 

“Our state’s monopoly power corporations have demonstrated how politically influential investments can be profitable,’’ said Dan Krassner, president of Integrity Florida and one of the authors of the report, Power Play: Political Influence of Florida’s Top Energy Corporations. “The volume of spending on campaigns and lobbying give this industry an outsized influence.”

The report was paid for with a grant from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), an advocacy group that wants Florida to adopt more electricity options. An advanced copy of the report, to be released Monday, was made available to the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times.

The utilities vigorously reject the allegations, calling SACE an “anti-utility organization.” Story here. 

March 28, 2014

State officials abruptly cancel talk by FSU professor

From our friends at the Associated Press:

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida officials have abruptly canceled a talk by a Florida State professor and writer who has been critical of the administration of Gov. Rick Scott.

Diane Roberts, who does commentary for National Public Radio and writes columns for various publications, was supposed to give a talk at the state-owned Mission San Luis on April 3.

Roberts planned to discuss Florida's environment and problems with the state's rivers, lakes and springs.

Brittany Lesser, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Ken Detzner, said an "internal decision" was made within the secretary's office to cancel the talk.

Lesser said that Roberts topic did not fit with agency programs such as historical resources. She said that Roberts has been asked to come back later to talk about "our mission and programs."

A year later, Weatherford and Latvala best of buds on pension overhaul

LatvalaweatherfordLast year, Sen. Jack Latvala led the Senate insurrection that upended a massive overhaul of Florida’s pension system, which had been one of the top priorities of Florida Speaker Will Weatherford.

"I've been telling Will for two or three months that he didn't have the votes over here. Now he sees it, black and white,” Latvala said minutes after Weatherford’s bill died in the Senate, 22-18.

But this year, the two have been fast friends. Not only did they pose in a March 18 selfie -- with the chummy Twitter caption of “a winning combination” -- but Latvala is sponsoring SB 1400, which would allow undocumented immigrant students to pay cheaper tuition rates, a top priority of Weatherford’s.

That experience of working on the immigrant tuition bill brought the two closer together, Latvala said, subsequently providing an opening on the pension issue.

“The speaker is a reasonable man,” Latvala said. “I have been encouraging him to look in some other direction than what he’s been trying (on pension).”

How will the two come together on the pension issue? Well, it’s not exactly clear yet, but there were some big developments this week that will play into it.

On Thursday, House Republican leadership delayed the long-awaited committee debut of this year’s House bill on pensions, which would prohibit all new employees, except for those in public safety, from enrolling in the state pension system and require them instead to enroll in private investment plans that don’t provide a guaranteed benefit.

Meanwhile, SB 1114 on pensions, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, was scrapped. A study that was to provide an analysis of how the changes would affect the pension system wouldn’t be ready until April 21, Simpson said in Thursday letter to Senate President Don Gaetz. (It’s already been widely speculated Gov. Rick Scott didn’t want the study to be done in time for this year’s session.)

Instead, Simpson said, he wants to resurrect the legislation he was pushing last year -- SB 1392. While Weatherford’s bill was automatic -- new employees had no choice -- Simpson’s bill last year would have given most new employees nine months to decide between the state’s pension system and private investment plans. If they don’t pick, they default into the private investment plan.

While a study would be required to make sure that this plan is feasible, Simpson said he hopes to use the one that was conducted last year.

“I believe that the special study conducted last year may still be valid,” Simpson wrote Gaetz. “Or that updating the study from last year could be done relatively quickly allowing us to consider passage of this legislation this year.”

Latvala helped Simpson craft that bill, and he said he supports it 100 percent this year.

“It would not surprise me if I become a co-sponsor,” Latvala said.

He said he doesn’t worry about losing union support. He said most don’t object to the bill. The only quibble they have is the default provision, where employees who don’t choose a plan are steered into the 401(k)-style investment plan. But he said unions have nine months to educate their members and if employees don’t choose in that time, it’s their own fault.

“It’s up to them,” Latvala said.

But Robert Ascencio, president of the non-profit Florida Public Employees, which advocates for state workers, said he still opposes the measure.

“It’s a bad bill,” Ascensio said. “What about the employees without bargaining units? Who’s going to educate them? This is intended to erode or phase out the Florida Retirement System.”

When asked if he was working with Latvala to pass Simpson’s bill instead, Weatherford was non-committal.

"Senators Simpson and Latvala have worked very hard, and I appreciate their efforts to reform the Florida Pension System,” Weatherford said in a statement. “We look forward to bringing a pension bill forward again this year. I am optimistic that we will reach an agreement to help strengthen the fiscal future of our state."

Vote on voucher bill puts pressure on Senate

A bill combining the proposed expansion of the school voucher program and the creation of education savings accounts for special-needs students moved forward on Friday, winning the support of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, called the vote "an important step toward providing more Florida students with more opportunities to receive a quality education."

"This scholarship program has allowed tens thousands of students to rise to their full potential, and more opportunities will mean a brighter future for more students," Fresen said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the Senate as we continue to make the expansion of school choice for Florida's families a priority."

Fresen said the bill could be heard on the floor as early as next week.

Friday's party-lines vote did two things. First, it set the stage for a bitter partisan battle in House.

"There is no secret that our minority caucus did take a position to oppose this bill," said ranking Democratic member Rep. Dwayne Taylor, of Daytona Beach. "They only take those types of positions when they see troubling bills that they have some major concerns. This was one of them."

Taylor acknowledged that some Democrats had supported the program in the past. But he said the proposed expansion was too much, especially without a provision requiring students in the program to take the state exams. 

The vote also turned up the pressure on the Senate to take another look at the voucher language. Recall that Sen. Bill Galvano withdrew a similar proposal last week, saying there was not enough time to develop solid accountability language.

Friday's hearing brought out strong opinions from members of the committee.

Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, raised questions about accountability in the private schools participating in the voucher program. "We still don't know what is going on in private schools that accept public dollars," she said. 

She also took issue with the House strategy to combine the voucher bill with the education savings account bill. 

"I think putting these two voucher programs together is simply a Hail Mary," she said.

But Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said lawmakers should focus on the children.

"I know there are many moms and dads in Florida who feel like their needs for their children are not being met, and they become frustrated with the bureaucracy that they meet in these public school institutions," she said. "Our goal today is not to save the public school institutions. Our goal today is not to protect the school enrollment. Our job today, members, is to ensure that Florida students get the very best education opportunities that they can. Period."