March 02, 2015

House to open door to destination resorts, gaming in Palm Beach and dog racing reforms

South Florida could become an even bigger gambling haven with two new destination resort casinos and four dog tracks operating slot machines -- instead of racing dogs -- under a sweeping gaming rewrite filed Monday by House Republican Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa.

The measure, filed in the traditionally gaming-averse House, takes a novel approach to gaming by requiring destination resort operators to buy out active gaming permits in order to operate the swanky casinos.

The bill also helps the powerful South Florida pari-mutuels, who have contributed heavily to GOP election coffers for the last several years, by reducing the tax rate for existing racinos, allowing dog tracks in Palm Beach and Naples to run slot machines, and ending the requirement that dog tracks race dogs in order to offer gaming.

Gaming options would also expand in other parts of the state, such as Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, where wagering on videos of "historical races" would be allowed as a new form of gambling. The seven casinos operated by the Seminole Tribe would also see expanded games as they could offer the full array of black jack, roulette, and craps that are available to the resort casinos.

Continue reading "House to open door to destination resorts, gaming in Palm Beach and dog racing reforms " »

House Speaker Crisafulli: 'Picked after I was proven'

Photo(7)House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, covered a wide range of topics in a pre-session Times/Herald interview in his Capitol office. Some highlights:

* Being speaker: As the replacement for the defeated Rep. Chris Dorworth, Crisafulli became speaker

by accident, but he says it was the right way. "My path to this position was exactly what most of y'all in the press say is what's wrong with the process, that you're picked before you're proven. I got picked after I was proven. So it should be, in y'all's minds, the conventional way of coming to this position."

* Gov. Rick Scott remains "laser-focused on getting things done" despite distractions involving a secret shakeup at FDLE, criticism from Cabinet members and a suit alleging Sunshine Law violations, and will have a good session. Crisafulli said he wants Scott to be more vocal on the need for pension fund changes to the Florida Retirement System. "I would like to hear more talk from his office on how important this issue is," Crisafulli said. 

* Claims bills: Unlike several recent predecessors, Crisafulli supports the claims bill process, in which the state and local governments must compensate victims for acts of negligence that result in serious injury or death. Crisafulli's first big splash as a freshman lawmaker was his sponsorship of a 2012 bill that compensated a Brevard County resident, William Dillon, who served 28 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

* Gaming: Crisafulli supports free market competition but as a lawmaker who lives in the shadow of Disney, opposes an expansion of casino gambling. "Do I want ... casinos on every corner? No."

* Rep. Richard Corcoran: The lawmaker seen by many as the power behind the throne in the House has Crisafulli's trust. "I put a lot of faith and trust in him to run the budget process. There's no learning curve for him," Crisafulli said. But with a laugh, he added that the speaker-in-waiting is often as powerful than the speaker himself. "I know that my power descends on a daily basis," he said. 

In South Florida, the business of government looks more and more like the business of politics

@PatriciaMazzei

The new operatives roaming the halls of local South Florida governments come from political campaigns and public-relations firms, not from high-powered law firms that usually supply big-name lobbyists. In some cases, the consultants aren't lobbyists at all. They don't write legislation. They care less about how elected officials will vote and more about what the public will think.

The shift might appear subtle. But appealing to public opinion –- more like an advertising firm launching a product or a political campaign promoting a candidate –- has become big business in the competitive world of Miami public relations.

Consider the most significant proposals that have come recently before local governments: David Beckham's Major League Soccer stadium. The Miami Dolphins' renovations to Sun Life Stadium. The Miami Beach Convention Center. Miami-Dade County's new sewer pipes. Uber's and Lyft's push to legalize rides-for-hire.

All have involved deep-pocketed companies hiring firms such as Schwartz Media Strategies, Balsera Communications and Kreps DeMaria not to speak to politicians but to shape public opinion to reporters and on social media.

There's still a role for attorneys and more traditional lobbyists, of course, and some have long mounted mini-campaigns of their own, appearing on television and radio shows to plug their clients. Elected officials still like to be catered to directly.

But with the rise of the Internet, public-affairscampaigns give politicians cover to have their constituents persuaded directly, too. And government appears to be in a perennial campaigning state.

Continue reading "In South Florida, the business of government looks more and more like the business of politics" »

Miami-Dade lawmakers seek to protect Jackson, public schools

Flores2Miami-Dade’s team of state lawmakers will return to Tallahassee next week with something they’ve been lacking in recent years: clout.

That could help the state’s largest legislative delegation accomplish its goals in 2015.

The delegation’s top priorities include shielding Jackson Health System from crippling budget cuts, helping the Miami-Dade school district avoid a $40 million tax collection shortfall, and securing funding for Florida International University and Miami Dade College.

Democrats and Republicans will also team up to increase funding for child welfare providers, and to eliminate a five-year waiting period that applies to lawfully residing immigrant children seeking subsidized health insurance (HB 829/SB 294).

"We’re focusing on issues like funding our institutions and ensuring our residents have affordable property insurance," said Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who serves as delegation chair. "Those are not partisan issues. Those are South Florida issues."

The 60-day legislative session starts Tuesday.

Read more here.

Monday: Top five things to watch in Tallahassee

Monday is the calm before the storm: the day before the start of the 2015 legislative session. Here are five things to watch in Florida’s Capitol:

The date of Florida’s 2016 presidential primary will be debated in the House Rules Committee as the panel considers a bill to set the date for March 15 to comply with national political party rules. The nation’s biggest swing state could play a bigger role in 2016 with the expected candidacies of former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Stores in poor areas with few grocery stores could reap a “food desert” tax credit under a bill before the Senate Agriculture Committee. That’s desert, not dessert. The bill (SB 610), by Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, could benefit chains such as CVS and Walgreen’s if they collect at least 20 percent of their gross receipts from sales of fresh fruits, vegetables and low-fat products.

The Department of Health will try again to set up a regulatory framework for nurseries to enter Florida’s pot-for-profit industry under a 2014 law that allows limited medical marijuana use for patients with severe spasms or cancer. The first proposed rule was tossed out by a hearing officer and an attorney for the Legislature says the new rule is too vague.

The day before the start of the session is the last day lawmakers can solicit and collect campaign contributions from lobbyists and their clients until the session ends. Dozens of them will have receptions, the Republican Party of Florida holds a fund-raiser, and Senate Democrats host a “drink, drop and dash” reception at the Governor’s Club. The “drop” refers to checks of up to $1,000 each.

Associated Industries of Florida, a lobby group for business, holds its traditional pre-session reception for lawmakers from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at its headquarters north of the Capitol. Platinum-level sponsors include Duke Energy, Florida Blue, Florida Power & Light and U.S. Sugar, and invitations carry a note that because of Florida’s gift ban, legislators have to pay their own way at $25 a ticket.

- STEVE BOUSQUET, HERALD/TIMES TALLAHASSEE BUREAU REPORTER

Information from The News Service of Florida was used in this report.

March 01, 2015

Ken Plante, former state senator and lobbyist, dies at age 75

Former state Sen. Ken Plante died Sunday night after a three-year battle with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

 Plante, 75, was hospitalized last week as his condition worsened.

A Republican born in Orlando, Plante was elected to the Senate from Winter Park in 1967. He left the Legislature in 1978, but remained in Tallahassee as a lobbyist for a number of commercial clients and Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush, now exploring a run for president,  visited Plante at his home last month during a fundraising trip to Tallahassee. Plante left his private lobbying clients to become director of legislative affairs for Bush after he became governor in 1999.

Bush said Sunday night that Plante met “the terrible diagnosis in the way he seemed to face all challenges – with great courage, incredible resolve, and unwavering faith.”  Bush noted that “Ken was a steady hand, and provided our team with the much needed reassurance that ‘everything would be okay in the end’ during our first legislative session. We were chaotic, but Ken was always calm, and his experience helped us navigate the process.”

Plante was an uncommon lobbyist, esteemed by legislators, governors and his fellow lobbyists. 

Plante often talked about his growing dislike of the influence of money in the political process where he worked for more than 30 years.  In the final years of his life, Plante worked with former Gov. Reubin Askew and others to try and draft a constitutional amendment to limit the money political candidates can raise and spend. They wanted to find a way to impose limits despite various U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have overturned many attempts to limit contributions.

With the death of Askew a year ago and Plante’s illness, the effort foundered and died.

“The money has become obscene,’’ Plante told the Times in 2012. “Somehow we have got to turn this thing around.’’

More here.

-- LUCY MORGAN, Tampa Bay Times

15 years of prison deaths in Florida: Here's map of where they happened and what we know

Prison deathsFlorida prisons are becoming deadlier. More than 3,900 inmates in 68 prisons have died, some by unusual circumstances, since 2000. For the last year, the Miami Herald has investigated suspicious deaths reported to the Florida Department of Corrections, including a Dade Correctional Institution inmate who was found dead in a small, enclosed shower at the prison in June 2012. State data released last fall showed inmate deaths have increased by 40 percent in the last 15 years. And that number continues to rise.

Here's our story on the cannibalization of Florida's prison system. Here is the interactive graphic. 

Here they come: Florida's latest round of standardized tests

via @cveiga

More students are expected to flunk. School districts warn they might not be ready. And parents are threatening to boycott.

Ready or not — and many school boards, parents and teachers have been screaming to lawmakers that they’re not — Florida will roll out its new, much debated standardized tests on Monday.

The Florida Department of Education is forging ahead, even with a host of unknowns hanging in the air. Students, for instance, don’t even know what score they’ll have to make to pass.

“We need to question if we have gone too far, too fast,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently told a Florida Senate education committee.

More here.

Diaz and Garcia bill would strip fees from rock miners

via @jenstaletovich

South Florida rock miners would be spared millions of dollars they now pay to protect wetlands and the state’s largest drinking water supply on the fringes of Miami-Dade County under a bill making its way through the Legislature.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Sen. Rene Garcia, both Hialeah Republicans, would cut fees by 83 percent, ending what was supposed to be an insurance policy for the county against the risk of contamination posed by rock mining. But now, after nearly a decade with no contamination detected in the water, the bill’s sponsors and rock miners, who contributed tens of thousands of dollars to politicians in the last two years, say it’s time to reduce the fee and simply monitor water quality.

The issue began when a chain of lakes was created along the county’s suburban flank in the 1950s as miners dug up rock for construction. South Florida’s water table is so close to the surface that the pits quickly filled with water. The state, trying to mitigate the damage to wetlands, began collecting fees in 1999 that have steadily increased over the years as concerns spread to water quality.

Under the legislation, fees now set at 60 cents for every ton of rock mined would drop to 10 cents. Story here. 

Jeb Bush, the non-candidate, rewrites campaign finance playbook

via @learyreports @adamsmithtimes

As Jeb Bush continues a torrid fundraising schedule across the country, he is pushing new boundaries of campaign finance law, exploiting his status as a noncandidate to avoid contribution limits and amass a cash pile already in the tens of millions.

The effort, which supporters call “shock and awe,” is designed to assert Bush’s dominance in the 2016 Republican presidential field, but it also represents a new chapter in the era of unlimited money in politics and raises numerous questions, beginning with the most basic:

How can Bush, who acts and sounds every inch the candidate for president, not be a candidate?

The former Florida governor says he is merely exploring the idea of possibly running for president. He drops disclaimer after disclaimer — If I decide . . .

That may seem laughable given Bush’s actions — including campaign-style speeches and visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, courting the wealthiest donors and best political talent in the country, and resigning from corporate boards that pose potential conflicts of interest — but it is part of a carefully planned strategy.

It also underscores campaign finance regulations awash in loopholes and lax enforcement in the fast-evolving world of Super PACs unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

More here.