January 12, 2012

State plans to close seven prisons by July 1

Directed by Gov. Rick Scott to save $64 million in operating costs, the state Department of Corrections on Thursday will announce plans to close down seven prisons, including all-women prisons in Hillsborough and Broward counties.

Closing prisons is highly controversial because it disrupts state workers and the families of inmates and can wreak havoc on the economy of a small town dependent on prison employment. But with the inmate population declining and a large capacity of excess beds, prisons chief Kenneth Tucker says the closings are unavoidable. 

"This is one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do," Tucker said Thursday in an exclusive interview at his office. "But the reality of it is, there was no way to avoid this."

The prisons targeted for closure by July 1 are Hillsborough Correctional in Riverview, Florida's only faith-based prison for women; Broward Correctional in Pembroke Pines; Indian River, a youthful offender lockup; New River; Gainesville; DeMilly in Polk County; and Jefferson C.I., located in Monticello. Tucker told the Times/Herald that closings will begin next month, and that the list of prison closings does not require legislative approval.

Florida's crime rate has been steadily declining in recent years. The inmate population is hovering around 100,000 and there are 112,000 prison beds, with about 4,000 more under construction that were approved years ago before the inmate population began shrinking. The state has built a brand new 1,500-bed prison in Lowell, near Ocala, that sits empty and unopened.  

The state developed a detailed criteria for evaluating every prison in the system, including per-inmate costs, operating and maintenance costs, the age of the buildings and proximity to other prisons. But the decision to shut Hillsborough is sure to be controversial with some legislators. The prison made last year's "hit list" but residents of nearby Sun City Center, a retirement center, successfully lobbied to keep the prison open.

-- Steve Bousquet

January 10, 2012

Q poll: Majority say casinos are good for state, Scotts numbers still in tank

A day after a Senate committee grudgingly passed a bill to bring destination resort casinos to Florida, the first independent statewide poll on the issue shows that Florida voters narrowly support the idea but an overwhelming majoritymbelieves that casinos would be "good for Florida's economy."

The poll of 1,412 registered voters by Quinnipiac University was conducted Jan. 4-8 and has a margin of error of 2.6 percentage points. The casinos numbers: voters support the creation of "non-Indian casinos similar to those in Atlantic City and Las Vegas" by a slim 48-43 margin. A larger 61 – 33 percent margin believe casinos would improve state’s economy and voters do not think that gambling is morally wrong by a 73-22 percent margin.

The poll also asked voters how they felt about the job being done by Gov. Rick Scott and the state legislature. Scott, who is scheduled to give his second state-of-the-state speech today, remains overwhelmingly unpopular a year after his inauguration with only 38 percent of voters approving of the way he is doing his job and 50 percent disapproving, up 5 percentage points since December. A similar majority disagree with his policies and are unhappy with the way he is handling the state budget.

The governor "has a long way to go to get into the voters' good graces and the high 40s percent range in job approval which is the minimum generally needed for re-election -- and less than three years to get there,'' said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Scott needs to bring home more of his own party members and improve his standing among independents."

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January 08, 2012

Florida's next epic battle: Restructure gambling or reject casinos

Despite the promise of thousands of jobs and the millions of dollars spent on lobbying and land buying, the proposal to bring destination resort casinos to Florida faces steep odds when lawmakers take up the landmark proposal during the 60-day legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Senate sponsor Ellyn Bogdanoff last week released a 170-page rewrite of the bill to help take pressure off reluctant lawmakers by including a requirement that any county — including Miami-Dade or Broward — that wants to attract one of three mega resorts must first get voter approval.

To win over supporters of the existing pari-mutuels, the revised bill allows them to operate Las Vegas-style games and receive a lowered tax rate if they compete directly with the new casinos. And across the state, any struggling horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons would be allowed to ask voters to let them install slot machines.

The bill also attempts to win over gaming opponents. Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, and the House sponsor, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, would ban new pari-mutuel permits, regulate or close down “maquinita” establishments that cater to small-bore gamblers and set up a strict new regulatory structure. The state would create a new “Department of Gaming Control” to administer and license the casino resorts and regulate the pari-mutuels and card rooms. Story here.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/01/07/2578585/resort-casino-debate-could-become.html#storylink=cpy

December 07, 2011

Scott budget plan helps schools, hits hospitals

Gov. Rick Scott proposed a $66.4 billion state budget Tuesday that would restore $1 billion in previous cuts to public schools, and at a Capitol press conference he issued a veto threat to the Legislature: "I will not sign a budget that does not significantly increase state funding for education."

The Republican governor who talked about jobs during his first year in office now talks about "education and jobs," and said his travels around the state have reinforced how important education is to everyday Floridians. "They want education to be a priority," Scott said. "I'm committed to act on what I've heard."

To find that schools money, Scott, who once ran Columbia/HCA, the nation's largest for-profit hospital network, proposes massive change to the way hospitals are reimbursed for care under the Medicaid program. By imposing a "flat rate" reimbursement system and limiting hospital and emergency room stays, the state would save $1.8 billion. Pointing to a chart showing skyrocketing Medicaid costs, Scott said: "If we do nothing, this line will bankrupt our state."

The new Medicaid reimbursement system would have a major impact at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, the state's largest not-for-profit hospital. Scott aides met with Jackson officials Wednesday to open a dialogue over the proposed changes, which require legislative approval. 

The governor also pitched a package of modest tax relief proposals. They include doubling the business tax exemption from $25,000 to $50,000, broadening the manufacturing sales tax exemption for companies and creating a $50,000 tangible personal property tax exemption for businesses (subject to voter approval). 

-- Steve Bousquet

Gov. Scott will propose closing more prisons

Gov. Rick Scott's push for increasing education spending by $1 billion next year will force serious cuts in other programs, because the state is facing a nearly $2 billion shortfall. The governor's budget recommendations will include closing five or six more prisons next year, carrying out the privatization of all inmate health care and privatizing up to five inmate work release centers.

As the inmate population continues its slight downward trend, fewer prisons are needed. The Legislature last spring voted to close prisons in Brevard, Glades and Hendry counties. 

Other Scott criminal justice proposals include reducing probation officer positions (for a savings of $7.6 million); put correctional officers statewide assigned to inmate dorms on 12-hour work shifts ($9 million); and close 167 non-secure residential beds in the Department of Juvenile Justice ($6.8 million).

-- Steve Bousquet

November 23, 2011

October 11, 2011

Economists: Florida revenues $1.5 billion below forecast

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature face a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall, state economists said Tuesday, complicating a budget picture in which health care and education costs are expected to rise as much as $1 billion.

The new revenue forecast is $600 million lower than state economists projected in March for the 2011-12 budget and $968.3 million lower than predicted for 2012-13.

The culprit, said Amy Baker, director of the Legislature’s Economic and Demographic Research, is a state economy that is “more anemic than originally anticipated.”

The projections are not what lawmakers had in mind last session when they cut regulations, slashed spending and eliminated more than 4,000 state jobs to balance the $69 billion budget. Legislators slashed $4 billion from schools, employee benefits, environmental programs and health care on the promise that less state spending would do more to stabilize a faltering economy.

Lawmakers also turned away billions in federal transportation and health care money, and tried to boost the economy by including $70 million in tax incentives for the new Department of Economic Opportunity and $25 million for a three-day sales-tax holiday for back-to-school supplies in August.

But the tax breaks and attempts at austerity couldn’t stop the decline in revenues in every area of state government as the pace of the housing and employment recovery “has significantly slowed,” Baker said. The state will collect $643.9 million in additional revenues this year over 2010-11, she said. That’s a 2.9 percent increase. Story here.

Another year means another budget shortfall

State economists on Tuesday pegged the next revenue shortfall at between $1.3-billion and $1.7-billion over a two-year period, as tax collections continue to lag behind projections, The Associated Press reported.

That projection is likely going to force Gov. Rick Scott and state legislators to cut programs and services when they go back into session in January.

"We're going to have a budget deficit," Scott said during a midday speech to business owners in Tallahassee. "We're going to have to go through the same thing of how you prioritize those dollars." 

-- Steve Bousquet

September 15, 2011

State economist: Revenue projections will drop -- again

Amy Baker, director of the Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research, said Wednesday that earlier projections of general-revenue growth this year and during the 2012-13 fiscal year will drop "fairly significantly.’’

That means more difficult budget choices for lawmakers when they start the 2012 legislative session in January --- though Baker said things won’t be as bad as during this spring’s session, when lawmakers faced a $3.6 billion shortfall.

"I believe that you will be looking at another tight session,’’ she said during a presentation to the state’s Low Income Pool Council, a group that works on Medicaid-related funding issues.

Analysts, including Baker and representatives of the governor’s office, House and Senate, are scheduled to meet Oct. 11 to revise general-revenue estimates. Those estimates play a crucial role because lawmakers use them as a basis for knowing how much money will be available to spend. More from Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida here.

August 26, 2011

Dockery comes to the defense of Buss, raises questions about privatization

Paula dockery Sen. Paula Dockery, a three-time chairwoman of the Senate committee that handles prison issues, came to the defense of departing Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss on Friday, saying that he made the mistake of speaking his mind on the controversial prison privatization effort. Buss resigned abruptly Wednesday after six months on the job. 

“The governor hired Ed Buss from Indiana because of his record as a reformer,’’ said Dockery, R-Lakeland. “I think Secretary Buss arrived with the expectation that he would have to autonomy to make changes but I think the governor – and/or his inner circle – was uncomfortable with that autonomy.

 “My gut would tell me that of all the issues that have come up, privatizing prisons was the deciding factor.”

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