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January 29, 2016

Sending a message? House and Senate budget plans reject Gov. Scott's request for additional prison staff

Julie JonesDespite reports by three independent auditors that turnover and understaffing at Florida's prison system has created a security risk throughout the state, neither the House nor Senate budget proposals give the governor his request to hire 734 additional corrections officers.

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones made the request for for $18.4 million in December, amending the governor's original proposal which actually asked for more money for staffing needs -- $28 million. Jones said 734 new officers were needed to allow the agency to transition from 12-hour shifts to 8-hour shifts after the audits concluded that the long hours contribute to staff fatigue, inmate-on-inmate violence, and "allegations of inmate abuse, mistreatment, and staff misconduct."

The governor's first draft of his budget, released in October, asked for $28 million to hire 272 additional staff and provide enough money to pay overtime to allow for critical posts to be sufficiently staffed during periods of both planned and unplanned staff absences. The audits showed that prison security is at serious risk because critical posts are frequently left unmanned or understaffed.

But rather than heed those requests, the initial budget proposal from the Senate authorizes 23,892 total positions at the department -- the same number authorized this budget year, but also sets aside $4.3 million in "salary incentive payments" for current employees. The House's proposed budget gave the agency 184 additional positions, for a total of 24,076 -- far short of what the agency was seeking. 

If the agency wants to hire more positions, both the House and Senate include identical language allowing Jones to ask the Legislative Budget Commission for money to hire more staff -- but only if the inmate population increases. There is no mention of dealing with existing staff shortages. 
 
Judging by the comments by Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Senate leaders, this is clearly an opening position in the month-long dance to complete the state's $80 billion budget.
 
Gardiner has repeatedly mentioned the need for more spending on prisons in his list of spending needs that must be balanced against Gov. Rick Scott's call for $1 billion in tax cuts.
 
So it appears legislative leaders may be attempting to send the governor a message. Scott has used television commercials and a statewide bus tour to pressure legislators to adopt his $1 billion tax cut package and his call for $250 million for economic development projects. But the Senate budget does not include an additional cut on corporate taxes for manufacturing, his top priority, and while the House tax package will provide make the existing manufacturing tax cut permanent, it does not set aside the money for economic development as the governor requested.  
 
The House and Senate budget plans use identical language to impose some new requirements on the governor's troubled prison agency. They require FDC to report to complete a report by next year, demonstrating that the agency has eliminated overlapping positions. The two chambers are also ordering up a $500,000 study it calls a "resource allocation analytics project for the purpose of analyzing and mitigating inmate deaths and reducing recidivism rate."
 
Photo: FDC Secretary Julie Jones

Dave Barry, like Donald Trump, skips GOP debate in Iowa

Clinton

From Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry:

NEWTON, Iowa -- I was in the mood for some excitement, so I drove out to Newton, the county seat of Jasper County, to hear Hillary Clinton. I got here early, so I ate lunch at the Midtown Café, in the heart of downtown, where the clientele was mainly older ladies (by which I mean ladies roughly my age) and large agricultural-looking men in bib overalls.

The menu had an item called the Pancake Challenge: “$14 if you fail, no leaving of table and no help.” I asked the waitress about it, and she said the pancakes are gigantic. “Only one person ever beat the Pancake Challenge,” she said.

So I went with the daily special, which was cream chipped beef on biscuits. It came in a portion the size of a four-person life raft. It was a meal suitable for working men, men in bib overalls who perform hard agricultural labor such as baling soybeans or neutering heifers. It was not suitable for a newspaper columnist whose most strenuous physical activity is typing in the Wi-Fi code. But it tasted good, and it will be lodged in my stomach for years to come.

After taking the Chipped Beef Challenge I staggered over to the Clinton event, which was held in the Berg Middle School gymnasium. There was a banner with the Hillary logo and the slogan “Fighting for us.”

Clinton was introduced by a slick video, which listed the many achievements she has accomplished in her lengthy career of holding positions while at the same time being a woman. Then Clinton came out and delivered her speech, which contained a LOT of specific policy information, and statements such as “I’m proposing something called the National Infrastructure Bank.” At one point, talking about wind power — Wind power is important! — she informed us how many parts are in a turbine. It was something like 900, which I think we can all agree is an impressive number of turbine parts, but it’s not the kind of thing that excites people. The crowd, which was very pro-Hillary, applauded at the right times and even emitted some “Whoo!”s, but they didn’t seem really fired up.

I am no political consultant, but I think Clinton’s main image problem is that, while she wants us to believe she’s Fighting For Us, the main vibe she gives off is that she’s Way Smarter Than Us. (To be fair: I think Ted Cruz has the same problem.)

More here.

Photo credit: Daniel Acker, Bloomberg

House lawyer: Yes, Uber-driving Rep. Ritch Workman can vote on ridesharing bills

@MichaelAuslen

Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, wants answers about whether his side job as an Uber driver could conflict with his work as a legislator.

On Tuesday, his answer came: It's okay for him to vote on legislation regulating ridesharing companies.

The next day, he did.

Workman was one of 108 House members who on Wednesday approved legislation (HB 509) to prevent local governments from banning ridesharing companies like Uber.

Before he cast that vote, he asked General Counsel Matthew Carson if it would be a conflict of interest. It's not, because the bill affects thousands of drivers for ridesharing companies across the state, not just Driver-for-Hire/Rules Chairman Workman.

"In an abundance of caution, I wanted to make sure I was following state law and House rules in participating in voting on a bill that would directly affect one of my employers," Workman said.

He started driving for the company last August when he has off time in Tallahassee. It's not his main source of income -- he works for Keiser University -- but it does raise one of the big questions that looms over Florida's part-time Legislature every year: How do you balance being citizen-lawmakers who have jobs outside the Capitol with preventing people from gaming the process for their own benefit?

"We have to be able to allow part-time legislators to participate in the process," Workman said. "Otherwise, we're just going to have a bunch of millionaires."

And while lots of lawmakers are millionaires, others are teachers, prosecutors, realtors and executives of non-profits.

They don't all ask for or even need declarations from House and Senate lawyers. Then again, they're not all dealing with legislation where special interests have debated with as much ferocity as the ridesharing bill.

Florida House plans to take up open-carry, campus-carry gun bills next week

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House is making quick work of a proposal to allow people with concealed weapons permits to openly carry handguns in Florida.

The legislation cleared its final committee in a contentious hearing on Thursday, and the full chamber plans to debate it during the House's next session scheduled for Tuesday.

HB 163 is on the daily calendar, as is a similarly controversial bill that would let concealed weapons permit-holders carry concealed on the state's 40 public college and university campuses. 

Any floor vote on the guns-on-campus bill -- HB 4001 -- is likely to be mostly political, though, because the proposal has stalled in the Senate, all-but-killing its chances at becoming law this year.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said last week he won't schedule a hearing on it. Proponents are hoping to use some legislative maneuvering to get around his decision, but Senate leadership said that wouldn't be well-received.

The open carry bill, meanwhile, is likely to pass the Republican-dominated House, but could face similar jeopardy in the Senate. Diaz de la Portilla said earlier this month he was willing to have a hearing on it because of an amendment proposed by the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Democrats in the House tried to push that amendment Thursday but were shot down by a Republican majority. The change would have gutted the bill, stripping away the ability to openly carry and instead only shoring up protections for gun owners who accidentally display concealed weapons -- which the National Rifle Association said was its primary desire for the bill.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville -- sponsor of the Senate open carry bill -- said Thursday he won't support that amendment.

And it seems that Diaz de la Portilla could be reconsidering his decision to hear the bill at all. The Naples Daily News reported that Diaz de la Portilla might block the bill if it doesn't include the sheriffs association's amendment. Efforts to reach Diaz de la Portilla on Friday were unsuccessful, so the Herald/Times cannot independently confirm that report.

Also on the House's debate calendar Tuesday: Legislation that would make it a misdemeanor crime to fire a gun outdoors recreationally, including for target shooting, in a primarily residential area. It's aimed at prohibiting backyard gun ranges in densely populated areas.

Raquel Regalado: Opposition to Liberty Square charter school not a flip-flop

@NewsbySmiley

This week, school board member and Miami-Dade mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado came out hard against Mami-Dade County's proposal to redevelop Liberty Square, Miami's oldest and largest housing project. Chief among her criticisms was that, in an area surrounded by neighborhood schools that are significantly under-enrolled and undergoing millions in renovations, the developers competing for the job have both proposed to build charter schools in excess of 70,000 square feet.

"Where did we get the idea that what we need there is another school?" she said.

But Regalado was on the receiving end of similar criticisms just a few years ago when she was one of the chief proponents of building a new downtown public school. The idea was pitched despite the fact that Booker T Washington Senior High, an Overtown institution serving downtown families, was only about half-full.

"Booker T is an icon, a beacon in Overtown," School Board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall told the Miami Times in November 2014. "Our job as a board is to spend our time focused on curriculum. If Booker T. is not good enough for the children in Brickell, why not? I will not have anyone denigrate any school in my district. We don’t need another school; we need to do something to increase enrollment.”

Is Regalado flip-flopping?

Continue reading "Raquel Regalado: Opposition to Liberty Square charter school not a flip-flop" »

Keystone XL grassroots opponent endorses Alan Grayson

@ByKristenMClark

U.S. Rep. and U.S. Senate candidate Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, announced today that he's picked up the endorsement of Jane Kleeb, a grassroots organizer who helped kill the Keystone XL Pipeline project.

Kleeb heralded Grayson for his strength in opposing the project despite facing political pressure.

"No other candidate in this race will protect our environment and fight for clean energy jobs with the same guts as Alan Grayson," Kleeb said in a statement provided by Grayson's campaign.

The endorsement is another example of divergent support for Grayson and his primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

Earlier today, Murphy announced he's gotten the backing of the Laborers' International Union of North America, adding to his cache of party establishment support in contrast to Grayson's progressive, more grassroots base.

LIUNA, like Murphy, supported the Keystone XL project.

Murphy and Grayson are competing in the Democratic party primary in August for the race to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate.

Budget plans reveal Florida House, Senate far apart in school construction dollars

Doralcharter02wmm (1)

@ByKristenMClark

The state House is proposing to give Florida's 650 charter schools almost twice as much of the state's sought-after school construction dollars than traditional public schools next year.

But over in the Senate, members wants to give them zilch, while traditional public schools would still get $50 million.

At least on paper.

The figures come from each chamber's proposed budget bills, released today. But House and Senate education budget committee chairmen caution not to read too much into the proposed line-items.

It's still relatively early in the legislative budget process, and both Senate Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said this week that they hadn't finalized figures for fixed capital outlay dollars yet nor determined how much exactly should go to either traditional public schools or charter schools.

Fresen said in a text message today that the specifics will be hashed out later when House and Senate leaders eventually meet in conference committee to settle on the final state budget.

"Those are block numbers," he said, referring to the fixed capital outlay line-items. "It doesn't really mean much right now."

But the proposed figures offer insight into each chamber's priorities and potential bargaining chips going forward.

Continue reading "Budget plans reveal Florida House, Senate far apart in school construction dollars" »

Alan Grayson announces $591,000 in fundraising - including new personal loan - to end 2015

Grayson

@ByKristenMClark

Despite "an army of small-dollar progressive donors," U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson continues to lag well behind fellow U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy in fundraising for the Democratic primary of Florida's high-profile U.S. Senate contest.

Grayson's campaign told the Herald/Times today the Orlando congressman took in $591,000 for the three-month filing period between October and December, with average donations around $28 from 9,300 individuals representing more than 240 Florida communities and all 50 states.

The total includes a new $100,000 loan Grayson gave his campaign, which is in addition to previous personal loans he's made, the campaign said.

Spokesman David Damron said the campaign is still calculating exactly how much Grayson had in cash on hand as of Dec. 31, but Damron said it's around the same amount "or slightly less" than what Grayson had heading into October.

Grayson reported $258,700 in the bank, as of Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, Murphy -- the party establishment's favored candidate -- announced his fourth-quarter fundraising totals last week.

The Jupiter congressman said he raised $1.46 million from October through December -- which, by comparison, is about 2.5 times as much as Grayson said he took in during the same time-frame. Murphy said he had nearly $4.3 million on hand in his U.S. Senate campaign, as of Dec. 31.

Fourth-quarter fundraising reports are due to the Federal Election Commission by Jan. 31. Senate campaigns typically file paper copies through the secretary of the Senate, so specific details on Grayson's and Murphy's most-recent fundraising aren't yet available.

Grayson's campaign expressed optimism for 2016, saying it "already set a new, one-month record for contributions in January" and has new, continuing pledges that total $60,000 a month going forward.

“This campaign is fueled by retirees and veterans, and people who work in classrooms or drive buses, not wealthy lobbyists and special interests," political director Mario Piscatella said in a campaign statement.

North Palm Beach attorney Pam Keith is also seeking the Democratic nomination. Her fundraising has been nominal.

The Murphy-Grayson contest is drawing a lot of national attention, as Murphy has built momentum off support from key Democrats and union groups, while Grayson has picked up endorsements from notable progressives and grassroots supporters, including both the state and national Progressive Democrats of America.

Florida's U.S. Senate race is seen as one of the pivotal seats for both Republicans and Democrats to win, because it could decide which party controls the upper chamber of Congress next year.

Four candidates are running in the Republican primary: U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, and Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox.

Photo credit: AP

Marco Rubio's debate claim about cap and trade

Sen. Marco Rubio defended past support of a cap-and-trade bill in the Florida House by saying it was an attempt to protect the state from future federal regulations.

Fox News moderator Bret Baier asked Rubio about the issue at a Republican presidential primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 28, 2016. Baier said Rubio had "wanted Florida to get ahead of other states and establish a cap-and-trade system" while he was House speaker in 2008, and asked why Rubio had changed his mind.

Rubio denied he backed a popular plan supported by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, claiming he was looking to insulate Florida from restrictions a future president might impose.

"I have never supported cap and trade, and I never thought it was a good idea, and I was clear about that at the time," Rubio said.

Rubio has been very outspoken during this campaign about his opposition to cap and trade, which lets businesses trade pollution credits if they don't meet emission caps. But is his retelling of what happened in 2008 accurate?

See what Joshua Gillin of PolitiFact found.

Florida House wants $601M increase to K-12 education funding

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House is also seeking a big boost in K-12 education funding next year, proposing an extra $601 million more for schools.

Both the House and Senate are seeking to increase K-12 education funding even more so than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott has proposed.

Scott called for $500 million in extra funding. The House would increase that by another $100 million, while the Senate has pitched an extra $650 million, or $150 million more than Scott's plan.

But the the point of contention continues to be how much of those new dollars will come from the state versus growing revenues from local property taxes.

Some Republicans in both chambers argue increasing the required local effort constitutes a "tax increase," and they're not on board with that -- especially in the Senate.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee for education, said his panel would consider several alternatives early next week, including replacing local property taxes with state tax revenue. More here.

Some lawmakers would prefer scaling back the local dollars and counting that toward the $1 billion in tax cuts that Scott wants, or even just simply acknowledging that the increase in education spending would cut into the overall tax cuts.

"If we cut taxes here a billion dollars and raise them $500 million at home, we need to call it a $500 million tax decrease, not $1 billion," said Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, a member of the House education budget committee.

That chamber's plan uses Scott's method of predominantly relying on local property tax revenue -- which House Education Budget Committee Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, describes as an "adjustment with no actual increase in the millage."

But even if the tax rate doesn't change, property owners' tax bills will likely still be higher because of improved property values statewide.

Fresen said the proportion of local taxes toward education declined from 2009 to 2013, "so during a time of declining tax rolls, it was essentially a tax cut," so he said this adjusts for that now that property values are rebounding.

Fresen rolled out the House proposal during a swift discussion on Thursday. The chamber unveiled its full budget plan this morning.

For K-12 education, the House recommends a total budget of $20.3 billion, with $7,232 in per-pupil funding. The current level is about $7,107 per student this year.

To fund the House's plan of an extra $601 million in K-12 education, about 78 percent of that -- or $505 million -- would come from required and discretionary local dollars. About $95 million would come from the state.

By comparison, Scott's budget proposal called for a $20.2 billion education budget with funding of $7,221 per student. He wants to increase K-12 dollars by $507.3 million in 2016-17. But only about $80 million of that would be extra state aide, while $427.3 million — 85 percent — would come from property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay

Meanwhile, the Senate's budget plan is about $50 million more than the House's and $150 million more than the governor's. It's roughly $20.3 billion, with $7,249 in per-pupil funding.

To fund its $650 million increase -- for now -- the Senate has penciled in similar proportions of local and state funding as the House and governor, but Gaetz expects that to change given his and his colleagues' discontent with that calculation.