March 10, 2012

Legislature closes session with final burst of chaos -- and $70 billion budget

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature approved a budget late Friday in a final burst of chaos as the Supreme Court rejected a map of Senate districts and maverick senators killed a controversial education bill.

In a 15-hour day, lawmakers sent Gov. Rick Scott a $70 billion budget that creates a 12th state university in Lakeland, closes six prisons and eliminates another 4,400 jobs, nearly 4 percent of the state's work force.

The Republican-controlled Legislature also reduced Medicaid payments to hospitals, repealed an unpopular septic tank inspection program, approved random drug testing of state workers and measures aimed at reducing the rampant fraud in the state's personal injury protection (PIP) car insurance program.

The House passed the budget 80-37; the Senate voted 32-8.

"Auto insurance fraud reform, my job creation agenda and $1 billion for K-12 education — this session has been a victory for all Floridians," Scott said.

Counties will be forced to repay about $300 million in disputed Medicaid bills or risk losing revenue sharing money over a five-year period. The provision was in a bill (HB 5301) that was a priority to Democrats to allow state workers to enroll their children in the KidCare health insurance program.

More here

February 27, 2012

Budget talks underway, informally and privately

Senate and House budget-writers began informal and private talks over the weekend with a mutual goal of resolving all differences in time to end the regular session on time March 9. The clock is starting to be a factor, as it is every session.

"We're working back and forth with the House. We're having a good discussion, making good progress on lots of issues," Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander told senators. Without being specific, he cited a couple of major areas of disagreement "that we haven't quite resolved, but I think they're resolvable."

"Our conversations have been very fluid and ongoing," House Appropriations Chairman Denise Grimsley told reporters. "There has not been any particular hangup ... We're very close on most things."

Two areas of disagreement involve road-building and higher education. The Senate wants to shift $417 million in car and truck tag fees to the transportation trust fund to expand the road building program. That's not in the House budget. Neither is the Senate's one-time use of $400 million from universities' cash reserves for a variety of programs. Nor has the House signed off on the creation of Florida Polytechnic as an independent 12th state university.

Neither side has yet appointed conferees yet -- a necessary step before public negotiations can be held -- and lawmakers have about a week to agree on everything. The state Constitution requires a three-day "cooling-off" period between the time the final budget is agreed upon and the time lawmakers take a final vote, so the budget would have to be done no later than next Tuesday, March 6, for the session to end on time.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said the weekend talks were general and informal and emphasized he has not held private meetings on the budget with House Speaker Dean Cannon. "The speaker and I are not meeting. We're going to respect the Constitution," Haridopolos said. -- Steve Bousquet

February 23, 2012

Bipartisan Senate okays budget, adds 'turkeys'

The Florida Senate passed a $71 billion Thursday with bipartisan support after Republicans agreed to Democratic moves to save a rural prison from closure and to spend $1 million more to keep elderly people out of nursing homes.

The vote was 33-6. Two Republicans, Paula Dockery and Steve Oelrich, and four Democrats voted no; one Democrat, Bill Montford, didn't vote. The Senate budget cuts state aid to adult mental health and substance abuse, increases tuition at colleges by 3 percent and allows state universities to raise tuition by 15 percent. Gov. Rick Scott opposes tuition increases.

The vote sets up negotiations with the House over the next 10 days to seek a budget compromise to bring the 2012 session to a timely end by March 9.

Senators stuffed the budget with a last-minute batch of local projects or "turkeys," several in Miami-Dade. They include $500,000 for the Bay of Pigs Museum, $150,000 for a historical log cabin in Biscayne Park and $100,000 for Family Empowerment and Intervention Family Meeting Nights in North Miami. Also added was $1 million for a World Class International Regatta Sports Center in Sarasota, which Scott vetoed last year.

"I'm just bothered by some of these ... We're broke," said Oelrich who likened the projects to the notorious Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere" in Congress. He said the projects should be funded locally. Dockery also voted no, saying it was irresponsible for senators to spend millions on projects while cutting state aid to universities by nearly 6 percent. --------Steve Bousquet

January 18, 2012

Return of prison privatization sets off a furor

Rebuffed by a court, the Legislature is again pushing to privatize more than two dozen South Florida prisons, and the plan appears more controversial than ever because of a new layer of secrecy.

Before a standing-room-only crowd, the Senate Rules Committee voted Wednesday to introduce bills (now numbered SB 2036 and SB 2038) directing the prison system to hire a for-profit vendor to run prisons in 18 counties by July 1. A second bill (2036) would eliminate a requirement that the prison system do a cost benefit analysis and develop a "business case" to justify privatization. The new bill does not require those steps until after a contractor is hired. But the choice is subject to approval by a panel of legislators.

As Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker listened intently from one side of the room, current and former correctional officers testified in opposition to no avail. Reshae Cherry, 27, an officer at Charlotte Correctional on Florida's southwest coast, pleaded for senators not to jeopardize her future. "I want to keep food on my table. I want a good doctor for my children," she testified.

Prison privatization is once again being championed by Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the powerful budget chairman who said the Legislature has no choice but to find ways to save money. Privatizing South Florida prisons will save from $22 to $45 million a year, he said. "These are real dollars. These are difficult decisions," Alexander told reporters.

Two Democratic senators voted against introducing the two bills: Sens. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale and Gwen Margolis of Aventura, who said the secrecy language was "very disturbing." A third Democrat, Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando, voted to introduce the bills.

--Steve Bousquet

January 13, 2012

Senate leaders urging delayed end to session to allow for fewer budget cuts

With updated revenue numbers that offered no relief from deep budget cuts, a bi-partisan majority of the Florida Senate wants to cut short the regular session in February and come back later in the spring when lawmakers hope to have a rosier revenue forecast that will avoid some of the $2 billion in projected cuts.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and incoming Democratic Leader Chris Smith have circulated a petition to present to the Senate president, and have gathered a majority of Senate signatures for the effort in the face of strong resistance from the House, Gaetz told the Herald/Times.

Gaetz wants to avoid a special session so is calling for a legislative "hiatus" in February that would allow lawmakers to pause their work and come back to finish within the 60-day time limit.

The delay also serves a second purpose: it allows lawmakers to buy time if the Florida Supreme Court rejects all or part of their redistricting maps. Gaetz said legislators could come back within the delayed session, make the fixes quickly and then send any "repairs" back to the court.

"My view and the view of the majority of the Senate is that we ought to measure twice and cut once,'' Gaetz said. The Niceville Republican said that the forecast from state economists on Thursday, which showed a slower than expected increase in revenues that could result in a $2 billion budget gap, don't take into account sales tax revenues from late December and January which are "typically a very strong period." Story here.

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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.

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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