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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August 25, 2011

JD Alexander says Buss' forced resignation was a good move

Jd alexander Sen. JD Alexander said Thursday that the forced resignation of Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss on Wednesday was warranted. He told reporters after meeting with Gov. Rick Scott that he doubted the department's claim that the privitization effort could "cripple the agency" because of a potential $25 million owed to staff for comp time, vacation pay and sick leave if they lose their jobs.

"Whether or not that number ever comes to pass is questionable,'' said Alexander, the Senate budget chief who allowed the private prison plan to be quietly inserted into the budget without debate in the final days of the session. "I support the governor's change in the secretary.''

Legislators tucked into the budget the requirement that all 12 major prisons in the Department of Corrections Region IV be run by private companies. The region encompasses an 18-county area from Ocala southward, and includes about 3800 employees.

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August 19, 2011

Florida's unemployment rate -- a by-the-numbers breakdown

Here are some ominous and encouraging details from the unemployment briefing today by the Agency for Workforce Innovation's Chief Economist, Rebecca Rust: Download July 2011 unemployment

* Florida's unemployment rate in July remained unchanged at 10.7 percent -- the same rate as the revised June rate. It was the 7th highest in the nation.

* The jobless rate equates to the number of people -- 987,000 -- actively seeking work out of a labor force of 9.2 million. However, the total percentage of people who remain jobless is 18.5 percent because 7.8 percent of the unemployed did not actively attempt to seek work in July.

* Unemployment claims dropped in July 17.3 percent.

* Tax revenues rose over last year by 4.3 percent. Florida's visitor count was up 6.9 percent and the number of overseas visitors climbed 17.3 percent.

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