January 31, 2017

Gov. Scott proposes $58M to recruit, retain top teachers

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To better recruit and retain quality teachers for Florida's K-12 public schools, Gov. Rick Scott wants the state to spend $58 million in the next budget year on a handful of initiatives -- and those don't include a controversial teacher bonus plan that lawmakers, with Scott's support, have advanced in recent years.

"Teachers are key to preparing our future generations for great careers," Scott said Tuesday when rolling out priorities of his 2017-18 budget proposal during a news conference in Tallahassee. "We have to make investments to recruit and retain the best educators in our classrooms."

Specifically, Scott proposes:

-- $15 million to eliminate initial and renewal certification fees for teachers;

-- $10 million for "a one-time hiring bonus for teachers testing in the top 10 percent of the Subject Area Examination in the subject they are teaching in the 2017-2018 school year";

-- $5 million to "increase the diversity of teachers in critical shortage and high-need areas";

-- $5.9 million to "recruit Bright Futures scholars that major in education and commit to 4 years of teaching following graduation in the rural districts from which they graduate high school";

-- $16 million for school districts to "implement targeted recruitment and retention initiatives that meet the district’s need";

-- And, $6 million to "reward great teachers in low-performing schools."

Lawmakers will need to decide whether to include Scott's recommendations when they formally craft and vote on next year's budget in the upcoming legislative session, which begins in March.

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January 30, 2017

For the first time, Gov. Rick Scott proposes pay raise for corrections officers; will he get it?

After six years of refusing to recommend Florida corrections officers get a pay raise, Gov. Rick Scott is including $38 million in his proposed budget to boost pay for officers in Florida’s prison system — one of the nation’s most violent and troubled.

The proposal, to be unveiled when Scott releases his budget on Tuesday, would provide raises to officers up to and including the rank of captain, said Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis on Friday.

The governor will also propose including $5 million to provide $1,000 signing bonuses for officers at prisons understaffed by at least 10 percent, and $2.5 million to increase pay for officers assigned to prisons with mental health units, Lewis said. 

The proposal comes after years of news reports in the Miami Herald about corruption and brutality in the prison system, including the case of Darren Rainey, an inmate in Dade Correctional Institution’s mental health unit who was locked in a searing shower by corrections officers until he collapsed and died after nearly two hours.

It must next receive the approval of state legislators, who in the past 10 years have increased corrections agency salaries only once, with a one-time bonus for the lowest paid officers.

“The governor believes in investments that allow the Florida Department of Corrections to better retain officers and have an experienced workforce,” Lewis said.

Although Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has repeatedly said that low salaries and poor working conditions have led to enormous turnover at the troubled agency, the governor last year refused to include a pay raise in his recommendation to lawmakers as he sought $1 billion in tax cuts. This year Scott is seeking $618 million in tax cutsRead more here.

January 26, 2017

Corcoran appoints two legislators to investigate 'water wars' legal bills

House Speaker Richard Corcoran said Thursday he has asked two legislators with finance backgrounds to investigate the $100 million in legal bills the state has received in the protracted lawsuit against Georgia over access to water in the Flint-Chathoochee-Apalachicola River basin.

Corcoran, R-Lake O'Lakes, said he has asked Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, an attorney expert witness in insurance matters and Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, a forensic auditor, to look at the bills. He said he supported the litigation but "the question is: what is the fair market cost."

"I think you're going to find really fast that defending the rights of Floridians, yes, it's an absolutely worthy expense,''Corcoran told reporters. "Spending $100 million in legal fees, we are getting gouged and that needs to be fixed."

Last week, the House budget staff determined that since 2001, the state has been billed $97.8 million on the water wars and has spent $71.9 million to date. Nearly $54.4 million of it was spent in the last two years after Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and the court appointed a special master to resolve the dispute.

After legislators started asking questions, Gov. Rick Scott withdrew a request asking the House and Senate Joint Legislative Budget Commission to approve another $13 million, bringing the the total cost for the year would be about $41 million.

According to a spreadsheet obtained by the Herald/Times, the numbers showed that the lead lawyers, Washington-based Latham Watkins, would be paid $35.9 million between 2015 and 2017.

Foley Lardner, the Florida firm where Steverson’s predecessor, Hershel Vinyard, works and where Steverson is now headed, would be paid $2.6 million over the same time. Two other firms also were paid lesser amounts: $1 million to Blankenau and $966,000 to Carlton.

The records also show that Latham Watkins charged the state for 32 to 35 full-time legal staff for 40 hours a week over four months. The firm also charged significantly more than the other firms for lawyers of comparable experience.

Two days after the inquiry, Department of Environmental Secretary Jon Steverson announced that he was resigning his post effective Feb. 3 and would be going to work for Foley Lardner. The Florida firm not only has represented DEP in the water wars litigation but also represents the department in litigation over the Everglades. 

Key Florida Senate budget writer not ready to back Rick Scott's tax cut plan



Add the chairman of the Florida Senate's budget writing committee to the list of those not quite ready to jump on board Gov. Rick Scott's plan to hand out $618 million in tax cuts primarily to businesses next year.

Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, didn't give a flat no to the Republican governor's tax plan. But when asked about it on Thursday, Latvala took a wait-and see approach and listed out other important areas of state government that need to be addressed.

"We're 50th in mental health funding," Latvala said. "We're 49th in infrastructure. We have a lot of challenges with our prisons. And our state employees haven't had a raise in 9 years."

Latvala said the specifics of Scott's plan will take a review by the Legislature. But lawmakers are already facing a tighter budget situation this year than last year when they cut taxes by $129 million.

"We’re just going to wait and see," Latvala said. "I support the governor's efforts to lower taxes. I think he's done a wonderful job on that. I've been here and voted for everyone of them."

Latvala's voice is important because Scott can propose a budget and ask the Legislature for funding, but it is up to the House and Senate to craft a state budget. Latvala's committee is the primary budget writing committee in the Senate.

Scott on Thursday continued to fly around the state to promote his tax cut plan. The centerpiece of Scott's plan is a $454 million cut in the state's sales taxes charged to businesses that lease commercial space. Florida is the only state in the country with the 6 percent tax. Scott wants to roll that back to 4.5 percent. Doing so, he said, will put more hands in the pocket of private businesses, which will then hire more people.

Scott also wants to exempt more businesses from having to pay corporate income taxes. Combined with the commercial lease tax, three quarters of Scott's plan would directly benefit businesses.

His plan also includes:

- A 10-day back-to-school shopping period with no sales taxes.

- A nine-day disaster preparedness sales tax shopping period.

- A three-day sales tax-free shopping period for military veterans.

- A one-year tax break on book sales at school book fairs.

 - Eliminating sales taxes on college textbooks for one year.

The tax cut that history shows Rick Scott is most likely to get from the Legislature



As Gov. Rick Scott spends his second day on the road touting his proposed $618 million tax cut plan, one of his less controversial ideas is already getting support in the Legislature.

State Sen. Keith Perry, R-Alachua, has already filed a bill to exempt school supplies and clothing from sales taxes in early August, a key back-to-school shopping period. In Senate Bill 490, Perry calls for a 10-day sales tax break period, just as Scott did on Wednesday during stops in Jacksonville, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. Last year, a similar tax break was only 3-days.

Scott was scheduled to be in Riviera Beach and Orlando Thursday to continue to highlight his tax cut plan that already is getting a chilly reception from the Legislature.

The bulk of Scott's tax cut plan is aimed at business. Scott's plan would cut a 6 percent sales tax that businesses pay on leasing property to 4.5 percent in 2018. That would cut taxes by $454 million for businesses, but lawmakers say economic forecast show that would lead to budget deficits without big cuts or more revenue elsewhere.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who chaired the Senate budget committee for the past two years, said Scott's level of tax cuts is not likely without a major change in the state revenue picture or substantial cuts in programs.

"Without some good (revenue) news or substantial cuts elsewhere in the budget, that's going to be difficult," Lee told the Times/Herald Wednesday. "The Legislature's going to basically have to change its historic spending patterns if it's going to come up with that kind of money."

The Legislature has refused to cut the tax on commercial leases twice in the last three years when Scott has made similar requests to cut the tax.

Meanwhile, the back-to-school shopping tax has traditionally more acceptable to state lawmakers, though in various forms. Since 1998, the state has had a sales tax free shopping week in all but 4 years. It's been as long as 10-days and as short as three.

Port Everglades calls off Cuba agreement after governor threatens funding cut

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After Gov. Rick Scott threatened to financially cut off Florida ports that do business with Cuba, a Broward County commissioner said Thursday that Port Everglades has canceled plans to sign an agreement with Cuba.

Commissioner Chip LaMarca told the Miami Herald on Thursday morning, minutes after speaking with Port director Steve Cernak, that Cernak told him the memorandum of understanding with Cuba won’t be signed. However, LaMarca said that port officials will still hold their scheduled meeting with the Cuba delegation at the port in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.

“The port director was a little upset way things transpired, nevertheless he understood the governor’s position,” LaMarca said. “With respect to the MOU it was canceled yesteray afternoon once the governor’s position was made. They are going to still have meeting.”

Port Everglades sent a brief email to the media Thursday morning:

“The National Port Administration of Cuba has indicated to Port Everglades administration that there is no need for a memorandum of understanding at this time. However, today’s business meeting and related activities will continue as planned.”

More here.

Photo credit: Associated Press

January 25, 2017

Florida ports are getting legal Cuban cargo for the first time, and Gov. Rick Scott is unhappy about it


Florida Gov. Rick Scott threatened Wednesday to strip state funds from two South Florida seaports ready to sign business deals with the Cuban government.

Over three posts on Twitter, the governor said he would ask state lawmakers to restrict dollars for ports that “enter into any agreement with Cuban dictatorship” — as Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach plan to do Thursday and Friday, respectively.

“We cannot condone Raul Castro’s oppressive behavior,” Scott tweeted in English and Spanish, using the preferred social-media platform of his friend, President Donald Trump. “Serious security/human rights concerns.”

Scott’s position came a day after the first legal cargo from Cuba — artisanal charcoal — in more than half a century arrived Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades. The Port of Palm Beach is located in Riviera Beach. 

More here.

This post has been updated.

January 24, 2017

Rick Scott PAC using poll to drum up support for job incentives


Having failed to get the Florida Legislature to budge on giving him more money for job incentive programs for corporations, Gov. Rick Scott is hitting lawmakers with a little Donald Trump pressure via a poll to convince them to change their minds.

A political action committee tied to Scott, called Let’s Get to Work, partially released a poll that purports to shows 59 percent of Floridians support Scott’s plan to ask for $85 million in incentives to “encourage businesses to relocate to Florida and expand in Florida.” The poll of 1,000 people says just 34 percent oppose the idea.

Another question references Trump by name and tries to present House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, as oppositional to Trump. It asks about Trump’s decision to give special tax breaks to Carrier to keep the company from moving manufacturing jobs to Mexico.

“Some, like Governor Scott, say this is exactly the kind of thing we need our government to be doing, making it easier for businesses to grow jobs and stay in America. Others, like Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, say that it is wrong for government to provide this kind of assistance to businesses, and they call it corporate welfare.”

The results showed 55 percent of voters sided with Scott versus 37 percent with Corcoran’s view of the incentives as “corporate welfare.”

Let’s Get to Work goes further, saying 80 percent of Republicans in their poll sample supported Scott’s views over Corcoran’s. Just 15 percent of Republicans considered it corporate welfare, the polls showed.

"Floridians strongly support the mission of Enterprise Florida to work to bring more jobs to the people of Florida," the polling memo released by Let's Get to Work to "Rick Scott Supporters" says.

If the poll was an effort to move Corcoran, it appears to have missed the mark. Corcoran took to social media to respond to the “Survey Release on Corporate Welfare.”

“I have great respect for Governor Scott and all he’s done to cut taxes and regulations to improve the business climate in Florida. But our policies in the House will be driven by principle not polling. And one of our fundamental principles as conservatives is that government should not pick winners and losers in the market,” Corcoran said in his statement.

January 20, 2017

Who wants to serve on the Constitution Revision Commission? Here's who has applied so far

Florida Constitution Florida MemoryToday is the deadline to apply to House Speaker Richard Corcoran to be a part of Florida's unique opportunity for a citizens panel to propose changes to the Florida Constitution, the 37-member Constitution Revision Commission.

The Senate set a deadline of Dec. 9 but today Senate spokesperson Katie Betta said the Senate has decided to continue accepting applications.   Download Senate MEMO re 2017 CRC Applications 2016 09 23 (1)The Supreme Court Dec. 31.

Gov. Rick Scott, who appoints 15 members and the chairman, also has decided to continue taking applications here. Applications for the Florida Supreme Court closed Dec. 31.

For the list of applications we have collected so far, scroll to the end of our story here.


January 19, 2017

Report: Rick Scott is helping Trump craft Obamacare replacement



Gov. Rick Scott, a former hospital executive, is lending his friend President-elect Donald Trump a hand in dismantling the Affordable Care Act.

On Wednesday, he said he's working closely with Congressman Tom Price, Trump's pick to run the Department of Health and Human Services, to write legislation that would replace President Barack Obama's signature health care law, McClatchy D.C. reported.

“I’ve spent quite a bit of time already with Congressman Price, who I’ve known for a long time, to try to come up with a plan to repeal what doesn’t work and to replace it with something that’s going to drive down costs and improve access,” Scott told reporters, according to the report.

He did not provide specifics.

Scott --who ran the hospital company Columbia/HCA before becoming governor -- has been a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Scott was at Columbia/HCA during what was then the largest Medicare fraud case in U.S. history. The case was settled after he left the company, though Scott wanted to fight the accusations.

In 2015, he sued the federal government, saying the Obama administration was wrongly trying to coerce the state into expanding Medicaid. Scott fought hard against legislation expanding health care coverage to low-income Floridians that year.

He also launched a health care commission that dug into hospitals' billing practices and targeted what Scott termed "price gauging" practices.

This post has been updated to clarify details about the Columbia/HCA Medicare fraud case.

Photo: Gov. Rick Scott. (Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times)