June 02, 2017

Budget deal includes $200M more for schools, $165M for economic development


@stevebousquet @maryellenklas @michaelauslen @ByKristenMClark

Gov. Rick Scott has agreed to sign the budget and a controversial House public education plan and come back in special session next week to inject more than $165 million into the governor’s top economic development priorities, as well as put about $200 million in additional funding for public schools.

The agreement, which will be announced at a 10 a.m. news conference at Miami International Airport, was finalized late Thursday night after several days of backstage negotiations mostly involving House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Scott and their top staff members.

Lawmakers have agreed to boost public school spending by $210 million, bringing the total increase in this year’s state budget to $100 per student, Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, told the Herald/Times. That’s still less than half as much as Scott and the Senate originally sought earlier this year to boost school funding but it’s a significant increase from the extra $24.49 per student that the Legislature had in its approved budget — which critics had described as “starvation-level.”

They also will fund Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing program that was gutted in the Legislature’s original budget, at its current level of $76 million. And they will put $85 million into a new job-creation fund at the Department of Economic Opportunity, which would be used for infrastructure and other economic development costs, rather than to pay companies for bringing workers to Florida, which Corcoran has decried as “corporate welfare.”

All of that would be funded by more than $300 million in vetoes of member projects tucked into the state budget passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate in early May.

Full details here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

June 01, 2017

How many counties in Florida have more jobs now than before the recession? The answer stumps EFI

Mark Wilson EFI 6117The question from Florida Chamber of Commerce chief economist Jerry Parrish seemed innocent enough for the quarterly board meeting of Enterprise Florida, the state’s business and government partnership: How many counties have more jobs now than before the recession?

The audience of executives was stumped on Thursday. Parrish had to ask it twice and then someone volunteered an answer: 50.

“Wrong,” responded Parrish.

The real number of counties that have more jobs today than they had before the Great Recession “is stunning,” he admitted to the group that has pegged its future and fate on job creation in Florida. 

The number is 31.

That leaves 36 counties that still have not returned to pre-recession employment levels, a sign of an uneven and incomplete recovery in an era when Gov. Rick Scott has made job creation his singular focus.

“Florida’s recession started a lot earlier, ended a lot later,” Parrish told the crowd in the ballroom of the Doubletree Hotel in Tallahassee. “It was double the depth” of the national average.

What’s more troubling, he warned, is that his projections are that Florida will produce 54,000 fewer jobs in 2017 than it did in 2016. An interactive map on the Florida Chamber website shows that the 215,400 jobs created to date is lower than last year’s level of 244,000 as every county but nine has seen job losses. The metro areas of South Florida, Orlando and Tampa Bay have been the only bright spots in terms of job growth.

“It’s a concerning trend,” Parrish admitted. “We may have peaked.”

This is the hard data Enterprise Florida faces as it fights for its survival. The budget handed to Scott on Wednesday includes $16 million in funding for Enterprise Florida in the 2017-18 fiscal year, down from $23.5 million for the current year. The biggest reduction would be in the agency’s marketing programs which attempt to make companies aware of Florida’s business climate.

For the second year in a row, legislators rejected the governor’s request for $200 million for the Quick Action Closing Fund to award up-front incentives for major corporate relocations and expansions. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has called the incentives “corporate welfare.”

Parrish acknowledged that part of Florida’s problem is its lack of industry diversification, ranking 24th nationwide. The benefits of diversification are that while some sectors suffer, others remain strong, he said.

Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber said this data doesn’t go over well when they take their slide show on the road to community groups around the state.

“When they see the numbers that their community has fewer jobs today than they had 10 years ago, you have people almost getting in fistfights,” he said. “They didn’t know this number ... People are realizing that this data is real.”

He noted that the chamber keeps track of data on a scorecard on its web site. “Only 54 percent of our third graders are reading at grade level,” he added.

There is nothing new about this data, however. An economic analysis compiled for the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau by Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center and published in October showed that in 40 of the state’s 67 counties there were fewer people working in 2015 than were working in 2007. Only South and Central Florida’s metropolitan areas have seen employment levels return to — or exceed — pre-recession levels.

The analysis also found that although many jobs have returned since the Great Recession, the new jobs are paying workers significantly less than the jobs they replaced, and the rebound has been dramatically uneven across the state. From 2007 to 2015, only 7 of the 39 Florida counties with reliable data experienced an increase in household income.

Stan Connally, president and CEO of Gulf Power and vice president of Enterprise Florida, noted that many at the board meeting had their “fingerprints” on the economic recovery that has taken place to restore many of the jobs.

But, he asked: “Can we do more under our watch? There are macro economic things that are not under our control, but I think a lot goes back to leadership.” He urged them all to stay engaged.

Read more from our analysis here: Recession still has Floridians reeling and anxious about election

Photo: Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce via The Florida Channel


May 30, 2017

First Amendment Foundation seeks veto of education bill 'decided in secret'


Not only is the First Amendment Foundation asking Gov. Rick Scott to veto next year's $82.4 billion budget -- the group is also now requesting a veto specifically for House Bill 7069, the controversial $419 million education bill that's tied to overall spending approved for 2017-18.

As with the main budget act, the foundation says its concern with HB 7069 lies with how the legislation was crafted, not with the policies or appropriations within it.

"According to all reports, major education policy decisions included in HB 7069 were largely decided in secret by a small number of legislators," wrote Barbara Petersen, president of the foundation -- which counts the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times among its members.

RELATED: "Potential new laws further curb Floridians’ right to government in the Sunshine"

"The secretive process precluded any opportunity for public oversight or input on major changes to Florida’s education policy," Petersen wrote. "Alarmingly, local school officials were also shut out of the process, as were many legislators who were ultimately asked to approve this voluminous and complicated legislation decided in a manner closed even to them."

Read the foundation's full letter here. (And in case you missed it, here's the foundation's veto request for the main budget act, SB 2500.)

Numerous advocates of traditional public education are calling for Scott to veto HB 7069, both because of its contents and because of lawmakers' secrecy in crafting it during the final days of session. Those critics include school superintendents statewide, almost all elected school boards, and parent groups and teachers unions.

Those supporting the bill are predominantly interest groups that would stand to personally benefit from it becoming law, such as charter school operators and school choice organizations.

Both sides are inundating Scott's office with feedback on whether he should sign HB 7069 into law.

Photo credit: Barbara Petersen is president of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for open government and access to public records. Miami Herald file photo

May 26, 2017

New DEP secretary’s cell phone is primary contact for business he says he doesn’t run

Noah ValensteinFlorida’s new Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Noah Valenstein, flatly denied this week he had any role in the political consulting and polling businesses he turned over to his wife when he came to work for the governor in 2012.

But the company web site on Thursday still listed his personal phone number as the contact. It was the same phone number Valenstein used on his application for the DEP job.

“Thank you for raising this issue to my attention,” Valenstein said in an email to the Herald/Times. “I have asked my wife to immediately remove my cell phone number from her company’s website. Upon entering public service in 2012, I removed myself from the business and my wife has owned and operated it since.I was not aware my cellphone number remained on her website and neither was she.”

The companies, Voter Opinions, LLC, and Campaign Facts, LLC, (with website Facts2Win.com) are income-producing businesses for Jennifer Valenstein. Started by Noah Valenstein in 2010 out of their Tallahassee home, the companies have been paid nearly $1 million by candidates and political committees.

When Noah Valenstein was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to serve as his policy coordinator for energy, agriculture and the environment in December 2012, Valenstein revised the paperwork to make Jennifer the registered agent. Both are lawyers.

Since then, the company has continued to operate, serving legislative campaigns and the political committees of groups that do business with the governor, his agencies or want to advance his fortunes.

Committees that have hired Valenstein’s companies include those run by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate President Joe Negron, the business lobbyist groups Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the House Republican Campaign Committee, Sens. Wilton Simpson and Kathleen Passidomo, former Sens. John Thrasher and Frank Artiles, former House Speakers Steve Crisafulli and Will Weatherford, the Florida Medical Association, several current House members, and former state Rep. Matt Gaetz, now a congressman. Story here. 

May 25, 2017

What is Gov. Scott hearing now on #HB7069? It's a toss-up.

Florida Budget (3)@ByKristenMClark

Floridians continue to inundate Republican Gov. Rick Scott with input on whether he should sign or veto a controversial K-12 schools bill known as House Bill 7069.

And the overall message is no longer decisive as it was less than a week ago — now that school choice groups have stepped up to more aggressively defend and lobby for the legislation, which heavily benefits charter schools through additional funding and less regulation.

As of Wednesday evening, the amount of emails, letters, phone calls and petition signatures Scott’s office had received were roughly even, currently skewing slightly in favor of him signing the bill into law.

Altogether, Scott has gotten 11,800 messages in support, compared to 10,900 messages against — barely a 1.1-to-1 margin at this point, according to the information requested by the Herald/Times from the governor’s office.

Full details here on those numbers and how — and why — they've changed significantly since last week.

Photo credit: AP

May 24, 2017

Union-backed coalition launches ad urging veto of HB 7069, taking Republicans out of context

 Anti7069 ad


The fight over whether Republican Gov. Rick Scott should sign or veto a controversial $419 million K-12 public schools bill is escalating to new levels: Ad wars.

A labor union-backed political advocacy group debuted an online video ad Tuesday (below), asking Scott to veto HB 7069 because it heavily favors privately managed charter schools over traditional public education.

But the liberal-leaning Fight for Florida Inc. takes quotes from Scott and a Republican senator out of context in trying to make its case that the legislation is bad policy.

Full details here.

Image credit: Fight for Florida, Florida Education Association / YouTube

May 23, 2017

New DEP secretary, Noah Valenstein, says there's no conflict in political side businesses

Noah Valenstein@MaryEllenKlas

When Noah Valenstein, the newly appointed head of the Department of Environmental Protection, was applying in April to be the state's top environmental regulator, he left one thing off the application: Companies he started and his wife runs have been paid nearly $1 million by politicians and lobbying groups, many of whom sought to influence the administration’s policy or advance the governor’s political fortunes.

Valenstein, the current executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, was appointed DEP secretary Tuesday by the governor and Cabinet. He was hired by Scott in December 2012 as the governor’s policy coordinator for energy, agriculture and the environment and worked in that position until he left for the water management district — its board is appointed by Scott — in October 2015. He took a three-month leave of absence in 2014 to advise Scott’s re-election campaign.

Before he joined the governor’s office, Valenstein was director of legislative affairs for the non-profit Everglades Foundation from August 2011 until December 2012.

But while Valenstein was holding each of these policy jobs, his wife was also operating two political consulting and polling companies that Valenstein started: Campaign Facts, LLC, and Voter Opinions, LLC. Each catered exclusively to Republican candidates, advocacy groups and political committees.

In a statement to the Herald/Times, Valenstein said he has removed himself from the businesses, but he would not explain how he distances himself from the special interests that contribute heavily to the party, candidates and political committees that hire the companies.

“When I began my job as Policy Coordinator at the Governor’s Office in 2012, I immediately removed myself from all aspects of these businesses,” Valenstein’s statement said. “As Secretary of DEP, I will continue to remain independent of these matters, and I will take every precaution to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.” Read more here. 

May 19, 2017

Most of public wants veto of HB 7069, Gov. Scott's office indicates



By a margin of at least 3-to-1 so far, Floridians are telling Gov. Rick Scott they want him to veto a controversial $419 million K-12 public schools bill House Republicans pushed through at the end of session, according to information requested from Scott’s office Thursday evening.

In the 10 days since lawmakers approved HB 7069, the state’s Republican governor has been inundated with roughly 10,000 emails, phone calls, letters and petition signatures urging him to either sign or reject the bill.

Both sides have been vocal, but the cries from the opposition — advocates of traditional public school — have been greater in number so far, based on tallies provided by Scott’s office.

But is that the full picture? Maybe not.

Full story here.

Photo credit: C.M. Guerrero / EL Nuevo Herald

May 17, 2017

Gov. Scott on Fox: 'There's always going to be chaos' in Washington

via @learyreports

Gov. Rick Scott said on Fox News Wednesday that Congress needs to focus on repealing and replacing Obamacare and the economy, not the issues coming from the White House

"There’s always going to be chaos and things in Washington like this," Scott said.

Scott agreed with Trump's decision to get rid of FBI Director James Comey. "We need an FBI that is nonpartisan."

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times


Gov. Scott picks his former aide, Noah Valenstein, to be next DEP secretary

Klas climate change meeting@MaryEllenKlas

Gov. Rick Scott's pick for his next secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection will be Noah Valenstein, the executive director of the Suwannee Water Management District and a former environmental policy aide in the governor's office, staff announced at a meeting of the Cabinet aides on Wednesday.

Valenstein will be the only candidate interviewed by the governor and Cabinet at the May 23 meeting and, if approved, he will replace interim secretary Ryan Matthews, who was given the temporary promotion upon the resignation of Jon Steverson in January. Steverson left to join the law firm of Foley & Lardner. 

Valenstein served as Scott's executive office environmental policy coordinator from 2012 to 2015 and in October 2015 was appointed to head the Suwannee WMD. He worked for the Everglades Foundation as director of legislative affairs from November 2010 to December 2012. He has a law degree from Florida State University law school and a graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in environmental policy. 

Eric Draper, director of Audubon of Florida, commended the appointment and believes that Valentine will help shift the direction of the agency to restore the focus on water planning and land acquisition. 

"I think he'll help move it back to the direction to make sure we have a good plan for water and more oversight of the water management districts so they are making good decisions,'' Draper said.

Photo: Eckerd College marine science professor David Hastings, left, speaks to Gov. Scott, right, and his aide, Noah Valenstein, during an Aug. 20, 2014, meeting about why Florida should act to offset the impact of climate change. Credit: Mary Ellen Klas, Miami Herald.