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February 07, 2017

'Alligator Ron' Bergeron considering run for Florida governor

via @adamsmithtimes

One of the more colorful business leaders in Florida, "Alligator Ron" Bergeron, tells the Tampa Bay Times he is considering -- "reasonably seriously" -- running for governor in 2018. 

"I've had an awful lot of people approach me," said Bergeron, 73, a rodeo champ, alligator wrestler, and eighth generation Floridian who grew up swimming in the Everglades and made a fortune in the development, road construction and cattle business. "I think I have to first of all look at my family and how it would effect my family and make the decision after that."

A Republican who describes himself as a "moderate conservative," Bergeron says private sector experience is critical in government, as is building consensus, listening, and bringing people together. He is a big fan of Gov. Rick Scott, but also is complimentary of Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, and likely Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam.

"We'd have to have a hitchin' post at the governor's mansion for my horse," mused Bergeron, who expects to make a decision within four months or so.

Asked if he would be capable of spending as much money as Scott did in 2010 -- about $75 million - Bergeron said, "I could," but has made no decision.

 "Getting the support of the people of florida. I think that's probably more important than financing your own campaign," said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commissioner who drives a gold-plated Hummer.

John Morgan versus Ron Bergeron: A political writer's dream.

--ADAM C. SMITH, Tampa Bay Times


Beyond the Bubble: a new political podcast that looks outside D.C.


Allow us, dear readers, to indulge in promoting a new political podcast put together by our parent company, McClatchy.

"Beyond the Bubble" will try to look outside of Washington, with news from our national D.C. reporters but also political writers in states -- including the Miami Herald and the Raleigh News & Observer. Florida and North Carolina are, after all, among the most interesting states in the country right now when it comes to politics.

Give it a listen, and let us know your thoughts as we experiment. In this episode, we tackle President Donald Trump's Cabinet picks, and the Trumpification of the Republican Party.


Rick Scott lashes out at Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran



Gov. Rick Scott lashed out at fellow Republicans in the Florida House on Tuesday, accusing them of not caring about jobs and of trying to kill his beloved job incentives and tourism marketing programs just to help House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s political future.

During a nearly 15 minute venting with reporters in Tallahassee, Scott ripped House Republicans for “lecturing” him about job incentives and for proposing legislation that would kill Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, two quasi-governmental agencies that are essential to Scott’s political agenda.

“When the House wants to stop Enterprise Florida, they are hurting our poorest communities. They’re hurting our rural communities,” Scott said. “When they want to say we don’t want to do any more marketing for Visit Florida what they are saying is that we don’t need any more jobs in tourism. Now what we’re seeing is, we’re seeing people that just want to run for higher office. They’re not concerned about what happens to other people.”

Scott was asked directly if he was saying the House was going after the programs because Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, might run for governor in 2018.

“It’s pretty clear, if you're not caring about people’s jobs you must be caring about something else,” he said. “I care about people’s jobs. What else can it be? How can anybody say they don’t want to help a poor family get a job. The only thing that would be is politics. You would never think this way in business.”

And there was more.

Continue reading "Rick Scott lashes out at Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran" »

Senate advances bill that could chill access to public records


OT_383003_KEEL_4_FLGOV05021 (1)State senators on Tuesday gave their first approval to legislation that First Amendment advocates say is a threat to open government in Florida.

The bill (SB 80) would make it more difficult to collect legal fees from government agencies when they illegally block access to records that state law says are supposed to be available to the public. Current law says judges must require agencies to pay attorney fees to people who successfully sue them over records, but Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube’s proposal would let the judge decide whether or not to award fees.

Senators on the Government Oversight and Accountability Committee approved the bill by a 4-3 party line vote Tuesday morning with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

It’s a top priority for the Florida League of Cities, Association of Counties and other local government groups. The problem, they say, are a small number of people who file complex public record requests with low-level agency employees in hopes of tripping them up and creating a legal violation to bring a lawsuit and win fees or a settlement.

“It’s a serious problem of harassment, and it’s been very abusive of numerous agencies,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who chairs the government oversight panel. “You saw law enforcement, you saw city governments, you saw nonprofits.”

But open-government watchdogs and First Amendment advocates say the bill would actually have a chilling effect on people who are trying to exercise their constitutional right to access public records.

Rather than clamp down on people trying to profit off open record lawsuits, the Senate bill would erode the public’s constitutional right to monitor what government is doing, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.

“People are not going to file lawsuits to enforce their constitutional right of access because they simply don’t have the money,” she said.

The courts are the only way members of the public can force agencies to relinquish documents when they’re illegally obstructing access, Petersen said. But lawyers can cost thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, and the possibility that a higher court might not award attorney fees would likely encourage public agencies to appeal cases, driving the cost higher, she said.

Similar legislation was filed last year, and the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, reached a compromise between the League of Cities and the First Amendment Foundation that passed the chamber unanimously but died when the House never took it up.

Garcia has filed the same bill this year, but Baxley said he has no interest in giving it a hearing.

Steube’s proposal, he said, would correct the problem, and lawmakers can find a compromise later.

Photo: Then a state representative, Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, debates on the House floor. Steube is now pushing legislation that government watchdogs fear will have a chilling effect on Florida's public record laws. (Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times)

Florida Senate’s state college reform plan 'has got big problems,' Sen. Tom Lee says

Galvano and negron


A comprehensive plan by Florida Senate leaders to refocus the state college system back to its original purpose of offering two-year degrees and of being a pipeline for the State University System stumbled through its first hearing this week.

The proposal (SB 374) is among a package of bills that are a priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, in his push to improve Florida’s higher education system this year.

Senate leaders have dubbed SB 374 the “College Competitiveness Act,” which Sen. Bill Galvano — a Bradenton Republican and top lieutenant of Negron in executing the higher ed reforms — says will “provide independence and greater opportunity for advocacy and oversight” of Florida’s 28 state colleges, which include Miami Dade College.

But some aspects of the bill arguably would have the opposite effect — namely by reining in the colleges’ freedom to add four-year degree programs and, in some cases, requiring legislative action to approve new four-year degrees.

Other reforms in the 254-page proposal include removing the state colleges from the purview of the State Board of Education — which oversees public education in grades K-20 — and, instead, putting the colleges under a new State Board of Community Colleges.

The measure advanced out of the Senate Education Committee on a unanimous vote Monday, with some senators — although vocally disapproving of the plan — resisting a “no” vote mainly as a show of good faith to Senate leadership.

“I just think it’s not ready for prime-time,” said Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican and former Senate president who asked a series of probing questions critical of the proposal. “I’m going to support it today out of deference to my Senate president, Sen. Galvano and Sen. [Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, the bill sponsor], but this bill has got big problems.”


More here.

Photo credit: Bradenton Republican state Sen. Bill Galvano, left, speaks with current Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, during the 2016 session. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

House targets 23 'flawed' incentives for permanent elimination

The suddenly endangered Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida are getting all the attention, but a House plan to overhaul state economic development programs would wipe 23 specific incentives off the books.

The House bill is an assault on Gov. Rick Scott's taxpayer-funded tool kit to attract jobs, and a House analysis says the incentives FullSizeRender(10) Scott supports are "impediments to normal market forces, operating in a manner where government selects winners and losers."

One incentive on the House chopping block is the Urban High-Crime Area Job Credit, with tax breaks to businesses that create jobs in areas of high crime and poverty. Corporate giants Publix, Walmart and Universal have benefited from it, and Miami-Dade has three job credit pockets, the most of any county.

Through 2012, the state awarded $21.9 million in such tax credits to businesses in 13 areas, including Tampa, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. The bulk of the credits, about $10.6 million, went to Orlando, where Universal Studios got a tax break for a Harry Potter attraction, the Orlando Sentinel reported, and Publix and Walmart got tax breaks for distribution centers.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, considers the incentives corporate welfare and wants to repeal them, saving about $160 million in appropriations and $86 million in tax credits based on the current budget. Nineteen other incentives would survive, including Space Florida, Black Business Investment Board, Hispanic Business Initiative and a rural job tax credit program.

In advance of Wednesday's hearing by the House Careers and Competition Subcommittee, a staff report cites "flawed statutory design" and "flawed administration" of the urban tax credit, with "overly lenient parameters for defining tax credit areas" and low or unmeasurable rates of return on investment, a metric often cited by Scott. The report concludes: "Repeal is the most appropriate course of action."

Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida would become parts of the Department of Economic Opportunity and would lose tax money. Other incentives targeted for elimination by the House are four tax rebates for pro sports franchises and eight incentives touted by Scott as necessary in the competition to lure jobs to Florida, such as the Quick Action Closing Fund. But the House sees little value and the report says six of every 10 approved incentive awards "do not result in successful projects -- they are either terminated, vacated, withdrawn or inactivated."

Plan to count computer coding as foreign language earns easy win in 1st Senate committee

Brandes coding 020617


A revived proposal to let Florida high school students count computer coding as a foreign language looks to be on an easy path to pass the state Senate again this year.

Members of the Florida Senate Education Committee offered no questions or commentary on the proposal before voting unanimously to advance the measure out of its first committee on Monday, after hearing strong support from the business community and personal testimony from a Broward County middle-schooler and his mother.

The bill has only one other committee, Rules, to clear before it would reach the Senate floor for a final vote after the 2017 session begins March 7. House committees have yet to consider their version of the bill (HB 265).

Full story here.

Photo credit: Ethan Greenberg, a sixth-grader at Silver Trail Middle School in Pembroke Pines, poses for a photo with state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, while his mom, Ryann, looks on after a Senate Education Committee meeting Monday in Tallahassee. Ethan and Ryann Greenberg spoke in favor of Brandes’ proposal to make computer coding count as a foreign language for Florida high school students. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau


February 06, 2017

Unanimous death jury vote gets first approval in Legislature


The Florida Senate took its first steps toward fixing the state’s beleaguered death penalty, clearing a requirement that jurors must unanimously approve a capital sentence through a criminal justice panel.

The chamber’s Criminal Just IMG_IMG_execution3_2_1_R_4_1_JF6U7L29_L188330077ice Committee voted unanimously to approve the legislation (SB 280) Monday.

Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, proposed the legislation in response to rulings by the Florida Supreme Court that declared the state’s death penalty sentencing unconstitutional. Last year, lawmakers increased the standard for a death sentence to a 10-2 jury vote, but the justices said it should be unanimous.

Bracy dropped a proposed change that would have directed the courts to retroactively give all of the nearly 400 inmates on death row a new sentence, saying he “didn’t have the votes.” The court signaled it plans to give new sentences to those sentenced after a key 2002 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet some have raised concerns that the Legislature’s piecemeal attempt to fix constitutional problems with the death penalty ignores a broader point and that lawmakers should consider a more holistic rewrite.

“We’ll be back here again,” Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said. “We do just enough each year just to make us feel good and then we have to come back and redo it again.”

Similar legislation has been filed in the Florida House, and Republican legislative leaders in both chambers appear eager to pass a bill soon that will allow state attorneys to continue prosecuting capital cases.

Photo: Miami Herald file

Sugar growers play hard ball: tell legislators they won't willingly sell their land

EvergladesSugar cane growers and other farmers who own some of the largest parcels of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area told the Florida Senate Monday that they will not willingly sell their land to build a water-holding reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, setting up a possible stand-off in the power struggle over the future of Everglades clean-up.

The owners, which include sugar giants U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, said in a letter delivered to the Florida Legislature Tuesday, that they "do not support any governmental acquisition of additional farm lands south of Lake Okeechobee to solve issues that are being caused north of Lake Okeechobee and in Martin County.

The letter is signed by 12 individuals representing 14 companies who farm in the EAA. Their argument: any attempt to buy land to store water south of Lake Okeechobee "simply cannot store enough water to stop the discharges from Lake Okeechobee when our region is inundated from heavy rains."

The proclamation has the potential to create a steep hurdle for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who has proposed spending $2.4 billion to buy 60,000 acres from "any willing seller" to build the reservoirs to store water. The goal is to avoid the damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee that foul the estuaries on the east and west coasts with toxic algae, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency last year.

Absent enough willing sellers, the Senate proposal, SB 10, requires that the state exercise its right to negotiate the purchase of U.S. Sugar land, which does not want to sell. 

Increasing water storage has been part of the Everglades restoration plan for nearly 20 years but progress has been slow and incomplete. Negron and environmentalists now want to speed up the construction of the storage reservoir in attempt to avoid the damaging discharges. 

The National Academies of Sciences, which issues an annual assessment of the $16.4 billion state-federal Everglades restoration project, recently reported that water storage projects have been consistently underfunded and incomplete. Of the 68 projects originally envisioned by the plan in 2000, only six are under construction and none are fully done.

Although the original plans called for about 1 million acre-feet more of storage -- the equivalent of about two feet of water in Lake Okeechobee -- current plans only provide 364,000 acre feet. The latest NAS report concluded those original estimates might be vastly underestimated and, instead, the high level of pollution in Lake O will likely require more capacity to clean water than previously thought.

Despite those scientific warnings, the agricultural community sounded their fierce opposition to the bill by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, calling it a "job-killing bill is based on political science not real science." The Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee is scheduled to hear the bill on Tuesday.

“We are not willing sellers,” said John L. Hundley, chair of the Board of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida in a statement on Monday. “Taking our farmlands out of production to pursue a plan that is not science-based will not fix the problems in the coastal estuaries. Instead, taking fertile farmland will punish the thousands of hard-working farm families and farming businesses in our rural Everglades Agricultural Area.”

The group noted that in 2016, more than 2.9 million acre-feet of water entered Lake Okeechobee from the north resulting in 2.5 million acre-feet being discharged east and west from Lake Okeechobee. Combined with an additional 2.8 million acre-feet of local basin run off in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie watersheds, the total discharges to the estuaries exceeded 5 million acre-feet during 2016.

"With this immense volume of water, it's impossible to store our way out of this problem,'' they said in their letter. "... Buying more land does not fix the problem."

But Eric Draper, director of Audubon of Florida, noted that Bradley's bill "provide three different options for increasing storage in the EAA" and, because it may take several years to complete construction of the reservoirs, "none require immediate impacts to farmers.

"Much of their land bought 20 years ago for restoration is still being farmed,'' he said. 

Negron and Bradley have said that buying land is just one piece of the puzzle to stopping the damaging discharges that from the lake but the delay must end.

Speaking to reporters last week, Negron said that of the four experts who made presentations to the Senate committee last month, including South Florida Water Management District director Pete Antonacci, "all agreed that we do need additional storage capacity south of the lake" and the debate not is "when it should be done but how it should be done."

"Let's make a decision and let the water management district select the best place,'' he said. "The time for talking is over and the time for action is now."