October 30, 2013

Gaetz, Weatherford challenging proposed medical marijuana amendment

The battle to get the medical marijuana issue to voters in 2014 has encountered one more challenge.

On Wednesday afternoon, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz submitted a notice of intent to file a brief to the Supreme Court as “interested persons” opposing the ballot initiative. 

The legislative leaders said they weren't addressing the issue of medical marijuana but the language in the ballot proposal, yet Weatherford said the amendment would put "marijuana shops on very street corner" if it passes.

The legislative leaders have joined Attorney General Pam Bondi, who on Oct. 24, sent the proposed medical marijuana constitutional amendment to the Florida Supreme Court and asked for an opinion on the petition’s validity. Bondi noted the conflict with federal law but said there are other reasons to throw it off the ballot.

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October 15, 2013

Report warns that prolonged federal shutdown has weakened state revenues

Florida TaxWatchYou won't hear this from Gov. Rick Scott, but the federal budget shutdown is having a negative effect on Florida's tax revenues and capital investment. 

That is the conclusion of the business-backed research group, Florida TaxWatch, in a report released on Tuesday. The report, titled What the Government Shutdown & Debt Ceiling Crisis Mean to Florida, offers a general overview of the impacts the extended shutdown is having on Florida's economy with one bottom line: state revenues will drop.

The increasing uncertainly in the financial markets has reduced consumer confidence levels, "resulting in less spending and decreased investment, which are vital for economic growth and sustainability,'' the report notes.

 "Tourism, retail and Florida industries that rely heavily on capital investment will be the first to feel the effects of a government shutdown," said Dominic M. Calabro, President and CEO of Florida TaxWatch. "Since Florida collects 70 percent of its revenue through sales and use taxes, decreased purchasing activity will negatively impact the state budget."

The estimated $845.7 million in new revenue projected by budget analysts could dry up -- leaving less for the governor and legislative leaders to use to increase education spending, provide $500 million in tax breaks and expand business investment -- all promises the governor has already made for the election-year budget cycle.

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April 18, 2013

Dolphins bill heads to Senate floor, but trouble could be brewing in House

The Miami Dolphins have given a full embrace of a Senate plan that would help the team renovate its stadium, even as a much different House plan has stalled in the committee process.

The bill, SB 306, cleared its final committee Thursday and heads to the floor next. It would require the Dolphins to compete with other sports teams for a state tax break of up to $3 million per year. Teams would compete for a pot of $13 million in tax breaks, and would be ranked based on potential economic impact.

The House version of the bill does not include those provisions, and has stalled for the last two weeks. The chair of the House Budget committee has no plans to hear it anytime soon. If the House decides to spike the bill, the Dolphins' efforts at a taxpayer-supported stadium upgrade could die in Tallahassee.

Though the Senate version has additional stipulations that are not in the House bill (which offers a carve out specifically for the Dolphins), the team has embraced the bill that’s currently moving.

“We’re appreciative of the efforts that continue to move this forward,” said Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, who has traveled to Tallahassee for each of the bill’s seven committee stops in the Legislature.

While requiring competition for state tax breaks, the Senate bill still offers a carve out for Miami-Dade to raise its mainland tourist tax, potentially bringing in tens of millions of dollars for the team to rebuild its stadium. The tourist tax dollars could help the team generate up to $289 million while the state tax break could bring in $3 million annually for several years, according to an agreement with the county. The team’s stadium renovation could cost more than $350 million, and the Dolphins have agreed to pay back some of the tax dollars used for the project. 

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April 03, 2013

Dolphins clear another committee stop in quest for taxpayer-supported stadium upgrade

The Miami Dolphins have completed another first down in their drive to get taxpayers to pitch in millions of dollars for the team’s stadium renovation. 

Though the clock is running down, the Dolphins’ chances of getting millions of dollars in tax breaks improved Wednesday, when lawmakers on the House Economic Affairs Committee approved the proposal in a 10-7 vote. The bill picked up an amendment reflecting the Dolphins’ pledge to pay back sales tax rebates awarded by the state, after 30 years. 

The team’s drive had stalled in the House, with no hearings since its first committee stop on March 8. Economic Affairs chair Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, made it clear last month that opponents of the tax breaks had been lobbying him to bury the bill. Americans for Prosperity, which gave Patronis an A+ rating in 2011, is circulating a petition telling lawmakers to “End Corporate Welfare for Pro-Sports Teams.”

Patronis eventually voted against the bill, though he said it deserved a hearing and decided not kill it by keeping it off the agenda. 

"It is not appropriate to stand in the way of legislation that another member has put before you," he said.

Patronis said he had not been lobbied by House Speaker Will Weatherford to hear the bill. 

The Dolphins are hoping Miami-Dade County voters will raise the mainland hotel tax from 6 percent to 7 percent to help provide funding for a stadium renovation that could cost about $390 million. The team is also requesting up to $90 million in sales tax rebates from the state of Florida.

 Supporters of the bill, including Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, came to Tallahassee to show their support for the bill and attend the annual “Miami-Dade Days” at the Capitol. Opponents, including Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, also showed up to slam the bill.

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March 29, 2013

Legislature urges state worker raises; first time in 6 years

The Florida Senate and House rolled out their respective budget proposals on Friday. Both budgets are slightly bigger than Gov. Rick Scott's spending plan, and both differ from Scott's in one respect: Lawmakers want to give across the board pay raises to all state workers, while Scott favors bonuses to workers.

The House offers every state worker a $1,400 pay raise, which amounts to about 3.3 percent. The Senate budget includes a 3 percent across the board pay boost for all state workers, who have gone for six straight years with no increase in salary.

On teacher salaries -- Scott's top priority -- the House released a $74.4 billion budget on Friday that includes $676 million for pay raises for teachers, with half of the increase amount tied to merit-based teacher performance. The Senate matched Scott's proposal for $480 million in teacher pay raises but also stipulated that it be tied to performance. Florida ranks 45th among the 50 states in teacher pay.

The House's $200 million plan for construction and renovation at Florida universities is much more robust that Scott's $70 million proposal. The House budget includes a 6 percent increase in college and university tuition, and Scott has repeatedly said he opposes any more tuition increases.

"If you look at our budget and say, who is the big winner? The big winner is education," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

The Senate wants to set aside $2.9 billion in reserves, while the House would set aside $1.2 billion. Both chambers' budgets include half a billion dollars to shore up the unfunded liability in the state pension fund. Both budgets fall far short of the $279 million Scott requested for economic development incentivies to attract new jobs to Florida.

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, criticized the House GOP leadership for not including an expansion of Medicaid in its budget. Said Thurston said it was "highly doubtful" that House Democrats would vote for a state budget "that fails to adequately address Florida's health care needs."

Despite the current differences in all three spending plans, leaders will work to make compromises as the nine-week session enters its second half next week. "It's a nine-inning session, and we're in the fourth inning," Weatherford said.

-- Steve Bousquet

March 27, 2013

Digital Domain CEO hits back at damning IG report, blames Scott-Crist politics

Digital Domain debacle, take two.

The former CEO of Digital Domain is hitting back with an alternative script after an Inspector General report slammed the process that helped the now-defunct Port St. Lucie film studio get $20 million in taxpayer grants. 

John Textor said the claim by Gov. Rick Scott and Enterprise Florida that the Digital Domain deal was some kind of widely discredited proposal that had been blacklisted by Enterprise Florida, only to be slipped into the budget later by aggressive lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist—is complete fiction.

In fact, Textor said, Enterprise Florida actually recommended that Florida taxpayers chip in about $11.4 million to help Digital Domain bring jobs to the state.

An email Textor provided to the Herald/Times shows that an Enterprise Florida representative wrote Textor on March 18, 2009, saying that the organization would “present to [the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development] relative to a one-time award of $6.1 million” and other awards for a “total potential FL economic incentive package” of $11.4 million. The email, not included in the IG report, said Digital Domain would be required to create 300 jobs. 

EFI never went through with a recommendation to OTTED (which is required for  economic incentives grants to be awarded), but Textor has a very different explanation for why that did not happen.

According to Enterprise Florida’s account, the organization refused to support funding because Digital Domain’s finances were “extremely weak” and its business model was suspect.  Textor has a different story, and questions Enterprise Florida’s credibility by pointing out that the organization believed Digital Domain’s business plan was strong enough to receive an $11.4 million incentives package. 

Textor believes that he and others are being thrown under the bus as a way for Gov. Rick Scott to attack the Crist administration, which was in charge when Digital Domain received funding by getting special language tacked onto the state's budget.

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February 12, 2013

'How do you justify your existence?' And other lawmaker questions for Enterprise Fla.

“Why do we need $3 million to create a state business brand?”

“Do we have a way to show how much cash has been given out and what we’ve got for it”?

“Have you given any raises over the last five years?”

“How do you assure us that those board members that are paying $50,000 to sit on tyour board  are not receiving  special treatment?”

“How do you justify your existence?”

It was a series of tough questions Tuesday morning for Enterprise Florida, the public-private organization that helps run Florida’s job creation efforts.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle peppered EFI executives with questions about how the company is managing the state’s economic incentives program.

The program uses taxpayer funds and tax credits to draw companies to Florida—or, more often, to get companies that are already here to stay or expand.

Gov. Rick Scott released his budget proposal last month, including a massive increase in spending for these types of incentives. Scott wants legislators to approve nearly $300 million in incentives, up from about $110 million approved last year.

That proposal—and the high profile bankruptcy of Digital Domain, which received $20 million from taxpayers—has led to much more scrutiny into the economic incentives program. 

That has landed Enterprise Florida in the hot seat, with officials being called to testify before the Legislature more than a dozen times in the last few weeks.

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January 30, 2013

Weatherford and Gaetz say legislature will take lead on Medicaid expansion decision

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford told a gathering of reporters and editors Wednesday that they aren’t waiting on Gov. Rick Scott to steer them on the controversial issue of whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

"We'll know early in the session,'' Weatherford told reporters after he and Gaetz spoke at the annual Associated Press planning session in Tallahassee, after noting that lawmakers are not expecting the governor to guide them when he announces his budget on Thursday.

But the presiding officers made it clear that they’re not too happy with the all-or-nothing approach to covering everyone in Florida who qualifies for Medicaid under the federal health care reform.

 “The federal government gave us an all or nothing proposal,’’ Weatherford said. “They said you have to expand for all populations or you can’t do any of this. That’s put all legislatures and all governments in a pretty good box.”

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January 23, 2013

Scott's teacher pay plan: $2,500 across-the-board raises

Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday proposed a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for all full-time Florida teachers next year, a proposal that he says would cost nearly half a billion dollars. That would consume at least part of a tentative projected budget surplus of $437 million.

"I can think of no better investment for our state," Scott said in prepared remarks released by his office. 

Scott said his plan, which includes "related benefits," would cost $480 million statewide. He outlined the details for the first time at Ocoee Middle School near Orlando and emphasized that he also will propose an overall increase in education funding when he releases his detailed budget recommendations next week.

"I've traveled the state and I've talked to teachers," Scott told reporters before he flew to Orlando. "They're working tirelessly to make sure our students have achievement. I'm very appreciative of what our teachers do."

Scott said he remains supportive of a merit pay plan tied to student progress on standardized test scores. Merit pay became law two years ago but the state has provided no money for it and teachers are challenging it in court.

The governor's call for an across-the-board pay increase for teachers will be a recommendation to the state Legislature, which writes the annual state budget.

-- Steve Bousquet


December 28, 2012

Taxpayers cough up another $190,000 in legal fees for Scott’s drug testing push

Gov. Rick Scott’s drug-testing push has racked up even more legal bills, with a federal judge ordering the state to pay $190,000 in attorney’s fees for a case involving state workers.

The ruling, posted Friday, orders Scott—and by extension, taxpayers—to cover the legal fees of the lawyers that took on the governor’s controversial plan to require random drug testing for state workers.

The $190,000 legal tab is in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and costs spent in attempts to defend controversial laws passed by Scott. They include drug testing for welfare recipients, a 3-percent employee contributions for state workers’ pensions, voting law changes and a 2011 law banning doctors from asking patients about guns. In most cases, judges have ruled the laws to be unconstitutional, sparking appeals from Scott and higher legal fees.

Scott ordered the state-worker drug testing plan shortly after taking office in 2011, potentially subjecting the state’s 85,000 employees to random drug tests. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sued and U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro ruled in April that the testing plan constituted an unconstitutional search and seizure. Scott immediately vowed to appeal.

"I respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling and will pursue the case on appeal,” Scott said in a statement that mirrors several others he has made this year.

But while the appeal plays out, taxpayers remain liable for paying the attorney’s fees of the plaintiffs. Those fees ran as high as $312,000—with lawyers billing up to $600 per hours—before a judge ruled that $190,000 was more appropriate.

If those fees are added to the $888,000 legal bills cited in this July article in the Orlando Sentinel, then controversial laws passed by the Legislature and Scott have easily cost taxpayers more than $1 million in the last two years.

Several cases are currently being litigated or appealed, so the legal meter continues to run each day.