November 20, 2015

GOP lawmakers on Scott and higher taxes: 'This has got to stop'

When Gov. Rick Scott rolls out his budget proposal in Jacksonville next Monday, he will likely highlight tax cuts and more money for public education. But a spike in school spending will likely have to come from higher property taxes on small businesses and homeowners, and that has some Republican legislators angry.

"This has got to stop," says Republican Rep. Fred Costello of Ormond Beach.

Costello has decided it's time to force Scott and lawmakers to tell people the truth, that higher property taxes pay for schools. Costello wants to require a public notice of whether a state-imposed tax increase pays for a school budget increase, and that it be spelled out with a "clear and concise explanation" in newspaper ads, just as cities and counties do every year when they publish the roll-back rate.

"It's going to force us to say we're raising taxes," Costello said. "Nobody in Tallahassee wants to do that."

Scott's office sees it very differently. "Rising property values are good for the economy and homeowners. This bill seems to ignore that reality," spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said Friday.

As Florida's economy improves, the taxable values of homes and businesses go up. But what politicians don't talk about is that higher property values results in higher property taxes -- even if the tax rate doesn't go up. Every year, the governor and legislators pass a budget that requires school boards to impose a local property tax, known as required local effort.

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Rick Scott, GOP govs ask for no more Syrian refugees in letter to Obama

The 27 Republican governors who earlier this week opposed Syrian refugees settling in their states -- including Florida's Rick Scott -- are taking up a united front.

On Friday, they sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to suspend resettlement of refugees from Syria nationwide in light of attacks in France last week.

Other southern governors signed on the list, including Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Greg Abbot of Texas and Nathan Deal of Georgia. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, the only Democrat to join the anti-refugee talk, did not join.

States have no power to refuse refugees, legal experts say. PolitiFact has answered five key questions about Syrian refugees, including about the screening process they undergo before entering the couuntry.

Below is the full text of the letter from the governors. The list of governors is included on the full document here.

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PolitiFact: 5 questions about Syrian refugees

Whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees has become an urgent debate in the days since the terror attacks in Paris. At least 30 governors have said they’re against letting refugees into their states because of fears that terrorists could hide among those seeking political asylum.

Civilians are fleeing Syria — where more than 200,000 people have been killed in the conflict — by the thousands. Some have called their migration the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

The unrest began in 2011 with protests against President Bashar al-Assad, in the wake of the pro-democracy Arab Spring. Assad’s regime responded with violence, and the country spiraled into a civil war. But it isn’t just pro-Assad vs. anti-Assad groups. There are several sects fighting one another, one of which is the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Some have questioned whether one of the ISIS terrorists who participated in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks was a Syrian refugee who resettled in Europe. That fact remains unconfirmed; authorities are still investigating. The six Paris attackers identified so far were French and Belgian nationals. Nonetheless, many American politicians are concerned that allowing Syrian refugees to settle in the United States would leave the country vulnerable.

There are a lot of questions about Syrian refugees coming to the United States. Here are some answers from PolitiFact's Lauren Carroll and Linda Qiu

November 18, 2015

Despite calls for his ouster, DEP chief retains senators' support

Gov. Rick Scott's chief environmental regulator, Jon Steverson, won a vote of confidence Wednesday from senators who rejected calls from the Sierra Club, League of Women Voters and others that he be ousted from his $150,000-a-year job.

Steverson, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, is one of several state agency heads who was not confirmed by the full Senate in 2015. If he's not confirmed in the 2016 session, he'll have to resign, but it appears that won't be a problem, despite an ongoing controversy over Steverson's plans to study expanding commercial activity in state parks, such as hunting and timber harvesting. Scott and the Cabinet confirmed Steverson's reappointment in August.

"I'm here to tell you unequivocally today that (state parks) are not for sale," Steverson told senators, testifying under oath. "I'm not looking to surplus parks. I'm not looking to commercialize parks. And I'm not looking to ruin the park visitor experience."

He said he wants to improve management practices in state parks and use the private sector to do that, and he noted that commercial timber practices have been going on in more than 34 state parks since 2005, "long before I got here."  He vowed that any change to existing park plans will be throughly vetted through a public planning process.

"I can assure you, no one will be firing high-powered rifles on Honeymoon Island," Steverson said. The popular state park in the North Pinellas County city of Dunedin is in the district of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who said recently that allowing hunting in state parks is a "disaster waiting to happen."

David Cullen of the Sierra Club of Florida urged the Senate to deny Steverson's confirmation, saying: "He would subvert the fundamental purpose of managing our state parks for the enjoyment of all citizens to one of economic development for the few. Floridians do not want hunting, cattle grazing or timber harvesting in their state parks."

Debra Harrison Rumberger of the League of Women Voters told senators that "our parks are not for profit. Not for plunder." She testified that "the morale of park volunteers is almost as low as that of DEP employees."

The Republican-controlled Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee confirmed Steverson on a 7 to 1 vote, with Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, voting no. Another Democrat, Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, voted to confirm Steverson.

Gov. Rick Scott proposes funding increase for state crime laboratory system


Florida Gov. Rick Scott said on Wednesday that he will propose a new state budget that will include more funding to the state’s crime lab to address a backlog that has doubled the time to process some types offorensic evidence.

Scott said his proposed budget for 2016-2017 will include an $8.5 million increase for the FloridaDepartment of Law Enforcement to fund a “variety of enhancements” for the state’s crime laboratory system. But how specifically that money would be applied in his plan will not be known until Scott releases his detailed proposed budget by the end of the year.

“The $8.5 million investment we are announcing today is critical to giving innocent victims the answers they rightfully deserve, including the thousands of women who have been victims to absolutely horrific, violent crimes,” Scott said in a statement to the media.

Scott’s statement didn’t include any indication about whether he will fund the agency’s top priority: pay raises for crime lab workers.

FDLE commissioner Richard Swearingen earlier this fall called for pay increases for crime lab workers to keep them from leaving for other jobs. Swearingen told Scott and the elected Florida Cabinet that the lab has been beset by turnover problems partly because of the low pay in comparison to other labs run by local governments and other states. In the last 5 years, the FDLE crime lab has lost 107 of its 297 crime lab analysts and supervisors.

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Gov. Rick Scott not persuaded to accept refugees after White House call


Gov. Rick Scott was among a group of 34 governors who were on a conference call with the White House on Tuesday to talk about accepting Syrian refugees, but it did little to persuade Scott to end his objection to more refugees coming to Florida.

“The conference call with the White House yesterday didn’t help me at all,” Scott told Brian Kilmeade, a host of Fox & Friends, this morning. “It made me even more concerned.”

Scott said the administration officials told them they were doing thorough background checks but were not willing to share those checks with Florida law enforcement.

“They couldn’t explain to me how the U.S. vetting process is any better than the French vetting process, even though we know one of the terrorists posed as a Syrian refugee,” Scott said.

His comments follow a letter he sent U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging them to stop the administration from settling more Syrian refugees in Florida. Florida is set to receive another 425 refugees, Scott said.

The Associated Press reported that 34-governors participated in the 90-minute call with the White House, which included President Barack Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough and representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, Health and Human Services, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center.

November 16, 2015

Florida politicians opine on U.S. policy after Paris attacks

via @learyreports

The Paris attacks swiftly became a political issue in the U.S., with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio positioning themselves as ready to confront the Islamic State and even Florida Senate candidates weighing in.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, on Monday shot off a letter to Obama that said Syrian refugees should  not be allowed in. "It is clear that radical Islam is waging war against America and Western civilization," Buchanan wrote. "We cannot allow terrorists to seep through a porous refugee screening process to kill Americans."

Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, sent his own letter to the president calling for a tougher approach to Isis. “Together with our allies and willing world partners, we must dramatically enhance our engagement with the enemy to accomplish one clear objective – to immediately destroy ISIS and its partners in terror,” the U.S. Senate candidate wrote.

Jolly’s rival Ron DeSantis on Monday issued a news release to ask if Democrats Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy will “reject Obama's risky refugee gambit?” (The administration has not backed off plans to allow some refugees in.)

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want the United States to take tens of thousands of Syrian refugees despite the terrorist attacks in Paris and the government's inability to screen them for terrorist sympathies. Do Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson agree with them?” DeSantis asked.

Gov. Rick Scott on Monday called on Congress to oppose the refugees.

On refugees, Bush and Rubio over the weekend showed a divide among presidential candidates.

Bush said the focus should be on accepting “Christians that are being slaughtered.”

Rubio said none should come in because “there’s no way to background check” them.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Gov. Rick Scott calls on Congress to oppose Syrian refugees



In the wake of attacks on Paris this weekend, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday demanded that Congress act to block Syrian refugees coming to the United States.

In a letter to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Scott wrote that the state would "not support the requests we have received" for Syrian refugees to resettle in Florida. However, Scott said, the state cannot prevent refugees from coming to Florida with federal support.

"More importantly, however, it is our understanding that the state does not have the authority to prevent the federal government from funding the relocation of these Syrian refugees to Florida even without state support," he wrote.

While the resettlement of refugees is governed by federal law, states administer many of the programs intended to help people land on their feet once they arrive in the U.S: employment assistance, health care, vocational training and English language courses, for example.

The Refugee Services program in the Florida Department of Children and Families is funded by the federal government. So Scott asked Ryan and McConnell to halt spending that could relocate up to 425 refugees currently awaiting support, at least until an "extensive examination" into the vetting process for refugees from Syria.

On Monday evening, before an event in Tallahassee, the governor said the state needs more information about how refugees are vetted.

"Why wouldn't you take your time doing this, especially when you know that one of them posed as as refugee?" Scott said. "And we're going to say, 'Oh, we're okay?' No. You slow down and make a good decision before you go forward."

Scott's letter came after several other Republican governors issued executive orders or made statements that they would oppose Syrian refugees relocating in their states on Monday in response to the attacks on the French capital last week that left 129 dead. Among them were Govs. Robert Bentley of Alabama, Greg Abbott of Texas, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

The attacks Friday have been linked to the Islamic State. France has already launched airstrikes against the group in Syria.

In September, the Obama administration announced that it would allow 10,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria to resettle in the United States.

Speaking Monday morning at the G-20 Summit in Turkey, President Barack Obama called on world leaders to continue accepting refugees from Syria but only after "rigorous screening and security checks."

"We also have to remember that many of these refugees are victims of terrorism themselves. That's what they're fleeing," he said. "Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values."

While Scott acknowledged that states cannot stop the federal government from settling refugees in their communities, some governors took a less-nuanced approach. Jindal, for example,issued an executive order invoking emergency powers granted to the Louisiana governor during "times of emergency or the threat of emergency."

But Shalini Ray, a University of Florida law professor who specializes in refugee and immigration law, says governors are generally powerless when it comes to accepting refugees.

"(Scott's) letter reflects the fact that states lack authority to bar refugees from resettling within a particular state," Ray said. "Moreover, states cannot constitutionally discriminate among refugees based on race or ethnicity, as many other governors are attempting to do today."

Late Monday afternoon, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida released a statement criticizing Scott's letter.

"By calling for the refugees fleeing Syria to be denied placements because of some perceived link between those fleeing violence and the perpetrators of that violence, Governor Scott is letting fear take control," ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon said in the statement. He continued, "By claiming in the wake of the tragedy in Paris that this vetting process is suddenly insufficient for Florida, Governor Scott is punishing refugees for the horrible attacks perpetrated by the kinds of terrorists they are trying to escape."

In the last year, the number of refugees from Syria rose, according to data from the Department of Children and Families, which manages services for refugees to the state.

From Oct. 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015, 2,709 refugees from around the world made Florida home. Among them were 104 Syrians, most of whom settled in Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties. Syrians are not listed as a top country of origin on reports for 2013-14, and just three Syrian refugees came to Florida in 2012-13.

Each one of those refugees goes through a rigorous screening process, Ray said, first by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and then by federal agencies. All told, the process for a Syrian refugee takes two years on average.

Photo credit: Walter Michot, Herald/Times

November 13, 2015

Steve Andrews tangles again with Rick Scott administration, this time over internet searches

Jeffery Beasley

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is tangled again in another public records issue with the Tallahassee attorney that won the $700,000 judgment against him for failing to turnover private emails.

Tallahassee lawyer Steven R. Andrews has asked the Department of Corrections to turn over seven months of search engine data of its chief inspector general as part of the legal fight several current and former employees have with the agency.

After waiting for more than three months, Andrews is now asking a court to intervene.

 “People search for a lot of things on the internet and we think there is going to be a lot of things that are highly relative and valuable to our clients,’’ said Ryan Andrews, Steven Andrews’ son and a lawyer in the firm.

The employees have alleged that the agency’s chief inspector general, Jeff Beasley, has routinely covered up suspicious inmate deaths, inappropriate use of force and other questionable activities within the state’s prison agency.

Photo: Jeff Beasley

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November 12, 2015

Gov. Rick Scott, Florida colleges team up to raise graduation rates - but no specifics attached


Rickscott111215Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued a challenge to the state's 28 colleges today: Graduate 100 percent of their full-time students to either attend a four-year university or land a job.

The colleges say they're unanimously on board -- but it'll be up to them to figure out how to more than double the current statewide average graduation rate of 43 percent.

The governor says they'll have his support, but he's offering no money or other specific resources behind his “Ready, Set, Work” College Challenge, which he announced Thursday.

Instead, Scott told reporters in Lynn Haven that he wants colleges to find an inexpensive solution, much like a business would be required to reach a goal without raising costs.

"We have record funding for our state college system, but I'm going to challenge all of them to do this less expensively," Scott said.

"My expectation in business was every customer had to succeed," he added. In this case, he said colleges need to look at students and the businesses wanting to hire them as their "customers."

He encouraged colleges to find out what businesses want from future employees and provide students with internships or other programs to fulfill those needs.

"Every child is important, so we need to have a program at every state college that they're focused on every, every, every student getting a degree or going on to university and finishing with a great job," Scott said.

He said he doesn't want colleges to increase their tuition or fees; "I want to make sure whatever capital dollars we put into the system get a return, and you know what the return should be? It should be good-paying jobs," he said.

Photo credit: The Florida Channel