June 05, 2013

Jones defends firing of trooper who tried to give legislators a break

Florida highway safety chief Julie Jones says state troopers are encouraged to use "discretion" when they make traffic stops, but they are not allowed to issue tickets for non-existent violations.

Jones, who reports to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, spoke for the first time Tuesday in the case of Charles Swindle, a six-year Florida Highway Patrol veteran who was fired after he stopped two state legislators for speeding on I-10 in Madison last fall. In both cases, FHP superiors said Swindle violated agency rules by issuing citations to the lawmakers for violations that didn't exist: Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, was cited for having no proof of insurance, and Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, was cited for no proof of insurance and not having his registration.

Swindle said he was "cutting a break" to both politicians. McBurney complained to FHP Col. David Brierton, who ordered an investigation and fired Swindle, who appealed the dismissal to the Public Employees Relations Commission. Swindle's lawyer, Sidney Matthew, claims there is a "long-standing unwritten policy" at the FHP for troopers to go easy on speeding politicians.

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June 04, 2013

‘Cluster, but somehow we declare victory.’ Top gov’t officials were not sure about Scott’s tax cut after questionable vote

After a constitutionally questionable vote on Gov. Rick Scott’s top legislative priority, a tax break for manufacturers, House Speaker Will Weatherford quickly declared the bill passed, despite its failing to reach an 80-vote supermajority previously considered necessary. 

“We think it is extremely constitutional,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said after the contentious May 1 vote, stating that he had discussed the issue with legislative legal staff. He followed up with a statement asking “Who would sue to stop a tax cut?” 

But behind the scenes, top government staffers over in the executive branch were not so sure, with one calling the whole scene a “cluster” and another saying that there “some uncertainty as to whether HB 7007 passed” that night. (Definition of slang term "cluster" here, for the over-50 crowd.)

Emails obtained by the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau show top officials from Gov. Rick Scott’s office and the Department of Revenue were not sure whether the House had run afoul of the Constitution or not. 

“I guess it passed in 7005. Did it get 2/3 to bypass the mandate issue?”  Holger Ciupalo, a chief analyst for Scott, wrote to Christian Weiss, chief economist with the Department of Revenue,  hours after the 68-48 House vote on the manufacturing tax cut. 

Weiss replied: “(HB) 7007: yes. 2/3 no. Go to sayfie to read all the discussions. Cluster, but somehow we declare victory…” 

Weiss and Scott’s legislative liaison Renee Fargason also had an email exchange after the vote: 

Fargason: “The following 43 bills passed the Legislature today, May 1… ***At this time there is some uncertainty as to whether HB 7007 passed.” 

Weiss replied: “7007 passed but may later be challenged on constitutional ground lacking a mandates (sic) 2/3rd majority.” 

Fargason replied: "Ok thanks! Wasn't sure if they could change the verdict since they didn't have 2/3."

Weiss then followed up with: "They can still recall it but doubt they will given the toxic atmosphere in the H(ouse)."

In other emails obtained by the Herald/Times, government officials pass along copies of the Florida Constitution, highlighting sections of the that deal with the 2/3rds mandate. 

Scott signed HB 7007 into law last month. So far, there does not appear to be a lawsuit against the tax cut, which goes into effect next year. The tax break could cost local governments millions of dollars during its three year run.  Democrats, who all voted against HB 7007 and had been protesting against House leadership on the day of the vote, immediately threatened lawsuits.

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Rouson faces tax troubles on Tallahassee condo

From TBT's Susan Taylor Martin:

In 2010, state Rep. Darryl Rouson bought a townhouse in Tallahassee.

Since then, he has missed three years of property tax payments, falling so far behind that the unit soon could be put up for auction.

That's not all. Last fall, Rouson borrowed $20,000 from a relative using his already heavily mortgaged St. Petersburg home as security.

And this spring, Rouson parted ways with the Tampa law firm of Morgan & Morgan, which had been paying him as much as $565,000 annually.

Is Rouson, the future House Democratic leader, in financial straits again?

"No, other than someone who just loses their main source of income in the last couple of weeks,'' Rouson, 58, said Tuesday.

A hard-charging lawyer who said he was once addicted to crack cocaine, Rouson declared bankruptcy in 2002 while owing $360,000 to the IRS. He was still in bankruptcy proceedings when he and his wife Angela borrowed money to build a two-story, 4,400-square-foot home that they later refinanced for more than $550,000. More here. 

May 29, 2013

Scott signs Citizens Insurance reform bill, blasts company in sharp-tongued letter

Gov. Rick Scott wasted no time signing a bill to reform Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which has seen a whirlwind of criticism since it approved a special $52 million deal for an upstart company with ties to top politicians last week. 

Scott signed SB 1770 on Wednesday, one day after the reform proposal reached his desk. The bill creates a “clearinghouse” to direct policies out of Citizens and into the private market, and includes several reforms that address controversies and scandals that have taken place at Citizens. 

In a sharply worded missive, Scott focused mainly on those scandals, using words like “outrageous,” “egregious,” and “fraud, waste and abuse.” 

The bill creates an Inspector General at Citizens, something Scott has called for ever since media reports documented the company’s missteps, which include: lavish travel expenses for executives, huge salary hikes, large severance packages for disgraced employees, overpriced contracts, mishandled investigations and the abrupt dismissal  of corporate investigators who uncovered some of the misconduct. 

“This new Inspector General will be accountable to the Cabinet and will not be an entity Citizens can fire, as they did with their old compliance officers,” Scott said in a statement. “A strong Inspector General is needed to provide independent oversight at Citizens and to end the fraud, waste, and abuse which has plagued Citizens for too long.” 

Scott also called on Citizens to change its policies after a controversial deal worth up to $52 million deal for Heritage Property and Casualty Company, which is looking to take over 60,000 policies from the state-run insurer. Critics have blasted the quickly-approved deal for the nine-month-old St. Petersburg company, which contributed $110,000 to Scott’s reelection campaign in March. Scott said the board should require at least seven days notice before any future board meetings, in accordance with state agency guidelines. The Heritage deal was unveiled on a Friday, and voted out on the following Wednesday in a 3-2 vote. Several board members complained that there was not enough time to vet the proposal, a concern echoed by House Speaker Will Weatherford and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater

Citizens has stood by the Heritage deal, saying that it was thoroughly vetted for several weeks and would significantly reduce the company’s liability, which is backed by the state’s consumers. 

"The financials associated with this deal are significantly in our favor," Citizens President Barry Gilway said Wednesday.

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May 16, 2013

After Scott priority fails to get 80 votes, legislative staff flip-flop on supermajority clause

After Gov. Rick Scott’s highly prioritized manufacturing tax cut passed the Florida Legislature without receiving a two-thirds vote majority, legislative staff analysts have had a change of heart and now believe such a supermajority was not necessary. 

Last month, staff analysts in the Florida Senate said emphatically that a two-thirds vote was required, because the proposed sales tax exemption for manufacturing equipment would put a significant dent into local government revenue. 

“Therefore, this bill requires passage by 2/3 of the membership of each chamber,” the  legislative analysis dated April 2, 2013 states. The House analysts also raised the two-thirds vote as a possibility, and a top official in Scott's office told the Herald/Times in February he believed a supermajority vote was required.

On May 2, an amended version of the bill cleared the House in a hurriedly cast 68-48 vote, with all Democrats and a few Republicans voting against it. Despite falling short of the 80-vote supermajority previously cited, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, quickly declared the bill passed, and brushed aside concerns about its constitutionality. Democrats immediately promised to sue.

“We think it is extremely constitutional,” Weatherford said after the contentious vote, stating that he had discussed the issue with legislative legal staff. He followed up with a statement asking “Who would sue to stop a tax cut”?

Now, the non-partisan legislative analysts in the Florida House have backtracked from their initial claim that the bill might need a two-thirds majority and have fallen in line with the House Speaker’s position on its constitutionality.

An updated staff analysis from the Florida House, dated May 15, strips all references to Article VII, section 18 of the Florida Constitution (the portion protecting local governments from unfunded mandates). All previous staff reports had at least cited the constitutional clause, highlighting the requirement for a two-thirds majority vote when local government revenue is at stake. The Senate had been more definitive about the 2/3 vote requirement than the House, and a new analysis was not done by the Senate.

A spokesperson for Weatherford said final bill analyses traditionally do not include information about constitutionality.

Whereas initial staff analyses mentioned Department of Economic Opportunity estimates of up to $115 million in lost revenue for the state, the updated review does not cite any cost figure. DEO has estimated that the tax cut could cost cities and counties up to $26 million per year.

The final bill analyses does not cite those numbers, or any others, only stating that “it is not anticipated the provisions would significantly affect the authority of the counties and municipalities to raise revenue in the aggregate.”

The words “significantly” and “aggregate” are key, because the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote for any bill that has a significant impact on local governments revenue-collecting abilities. A sales tax cut for manufacturers will likely reduce the amount of revenue coming in to local government coffers.

Under the bill, the revenue loss for local governments—estimated at $13 to $26 million per year—far exceeds the $1.9 million threshold needed to qualify as a “significant” impact. But the Legislature's legal team has seized on the term “in the aggregate” to justify the bill’s constitutionality.

"Based on our staff's estimate, it does not have a significant impact," said Ryan Duffy, a spokesperson for Weatherford.

Case law on the issue is not definitive, so a lawsuit could set a legal precedent for the future.

Of note, the bill has changed since the first staff analyses, but the final version would still have a annual impact on local government revenue. Under the original bill, the sales tax cut would have kicked in this year and lasted forever. The updated bill creates a three-year tax cut period starting in 2014. It could save manufacturers more than $140 million per year, when state and local tax savings are combined.

The proposal was one of Scott’s top priorities for the 2013 session, as the governor said eliminating taxes on machinery will help “build up” manufacturing jobs in Florida.

Scott, who is expected to sign the bill soon, recently wrapped up a “victory tour” across the state to celebrate the bill’s passage.

“Manufacturers in Florida have been disadvantaged for too long because we were one of few states that taxed the purchase of manufacturing equipment,” Scott said in a statement. “With this legislation, Florida is now on a level playing field.”

He added “I look forward to signing this bill into law.”

@ToluseO

May 15, 2013

Will Weatherford on failed Dolphins stadium vote: Told ya so

@MarcACaputo

Last night's crushing defeat of the Miami Dolphins stadium effort was a matter of some vindication for House Speaker Will Weatherford, who has taken a measure of heat from the club and a few fans for refusing to resurrect a bill that would have fully authorized a referendum.

As a result, we only have partial results. But it's a big part: nearly 61,000 counted ballots and a 43-57 percent rejection.

So the Dolphins looked headed for defeat had the Legislature voted on the bill that stalled in the House.

"As I said all along, public financing of the SunLife Stadium had significant challenges. The referendum result was just one more example," Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican said. "The Dolphins are a great Florida team, and I hope the leadership will focus their energy on constructive and collaborative solutions."

Keep hoping, Mr. Speaker.

Dolphins owner and billionaire Steve Ross threw a tantrum when he didn't get his way, hurled a veiled threat at Weatherford and others and paid no attention to his own complicity in his own failures.

Indeed, this deal had problems from the start. An early poll showed how troubled the initial stadium deal was with Miami-Dade voters. The Dolphins ignored the results and attacked the pollster. Ross said he didn't want a public vote. There's a reason for that.

Since the May 3 session ended, the Dolphins have shown anything but a desire to be constructive, at least regarding public dialogue about what happened to its bill in the Florida House. And the portion of its fans or the general public who are utterly clueless about how the Legislature works are all stirred up by the Dolphins-spread myth that Weatherford killed the bill.

That's an exaggeration. The Dolphins bill stalled in the House.

First: it never was put on the agenda in the House budget committee by Chairman Seth McKeel. The budget committee was its last committee stop. Technically, under legislative process, that's a major killer.

Second: a similar measure that passed the Senate cleared that chamber too late in the session to make it easy to take up in the last week in the House without a two-thirds vote. I said as much in this column and repeatedly indicated in blog posts and on Twitter that the Dolphins' had problems. I was ignored. Had the bill arrived in time (on Monday before about 5 p.m. in this case) the House Rules Committee could have put it on the agenda to be voted on. It didn't. The rules committee, chaired by Rep. Rob Schenck could have made a special effort to agenda the bill "if received" by the Senate. But it didn't. So blame Schenck, too, as well as Dolphins-opposing members of his committee like future speakers Richard Corcoran and Jose Oliva.

Third: Oliva is a good example of the real nexus of opposition: Miami-Dade's Republican delegation in the House. A majority opposed the Dolphins bill. Why? Perhaps because, under the structure of representative government, they held the office most-close to constituents in the Legislature and realized that the people of Miami-Dade didn't want this (cf. the results last night). And they were stirring up opposition among other Republicans of the Florida House, where the GOP has a majority. The ring leaders: Carlos Trujillo, Michael Bileca and Jose Javier Rodriguez (who's a Democrat).

Now there's a good chance that, had the bill hit the House floor, it would have passed by a simple majority vote of the 120 members if nearly all the Democrats stuck together and about 20 Republicans had gone their way.

But to get the bill there, Weatherford would have had to go out of his way to resurrect the bill. That's not so much as killing as refusing to render aid. And it happens with hundreds of bills every lawmaking session. It's the process. It's can be ugly sausage-making. It sucks for advocates. But it is what it is. What made the Dolphins so special is that a rich guy lost and then attacked a fellow Republican.

So let's review: McKeel, Schenck, Corcoran, Oliva, Bileca and Rodriguez all played a role. They have a four major things in common:

1) They're members of the House.

2) They opposed the Dolphins deal and worked to kill it

3) None is named Will Weatherford.

4) All can say: I told ya so

As I said all along, public financing of the SunLife Stadium had significant challenges. The referendum result was just one more example. The Dolphins are a great Florida team, and I hope the leadership will focus their energy on constructive and collaborative solutions.

May 07, 2013

Democrat leader Darryl Rouson leaves Morgan & Morgan, rumors fly

@MarcACaputo

So much for getting cushy high-paying jobs once you get in the state Legislature.

St. Petersburg Democrat Rep. Darryl Rouson is out of work at the heavy-hitting trial lawyer firm Morgan & Morgan because he needs to focus on politics right now, said John Morgan, the firm’s founder.

“It’s hard to be a trial lawyer if you’re not in trial. It’s hard to be in a Tampa court room if you’re always in Tallahassee,” Morgan said.

“I think the world of Darryl and I’d welcome him back with open arms after this,” Morgan said. “He’s a great lawyer. But right now, this isn’t the right fit.”

A major Democratic donor and President Obama fundraiser, Morgan acknowledged he broached the topic with Rouson, but he said the separation is amicable and that rumors to the contrary are just that: “false” rumors. Morgan, for instance, supports a medical-marijuana initiative. Rouson opposes it and passed a bill this session that tries to crack down on the sale of pot pipes.

Rouson couldn’t be reached.

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April 30, 2013

Horse trades begin -- pension vote for medmal shaping up

It's that time in the Florida Legislature when surprises emerge from every corner as votes become commodities and policy debates take a back seat to raw gamesmanship as the clock tick toward's Friday's end of session.

So it is that we saw action this morning on House Speaker Will Weatherford's priority -- his bill to end the state's defined benefit system for new employees so that the state can shift the risk from taxpayers to workers. Senate leaders agreed to allow a version of his plan come up for a vote in the Senate, with no guarantee of passage. The board vote is being sought by the Florida Chamber and other proponents of the plan,which could potentially use it against Republicans in a primary. 

In return for the favor, the House is expected to take up a bill to limit medical malpractice for doctors that is the priority of Senate President Don Gaetz's. Reps. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, James Grant, R-Tampa, told the Herald/Times they have agreed to withdraw their amendments. The amendments were opposed by the bill's sponsors, including Gaetz' son Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar.

Among them was an amendment by Grant who believes that the medmal bill could be used by insurance companies who represent the doctors to create a private registry of gun owners. 

Grant said he wasn't aware of a trade but wouldn't be surprised. He expects the House to take up the Senate bill.

"I have no idea what’s been negotiated,'' he said. "If you are asking me whether or not I’m surprised trades are happening back and forth, that happens it’s the end of session. Nobody has asked me to withdraw because of a vote on pensions or any other bills." Stay tuned. 

 

Democrats meet with governor, tell him they're prepared to stall session

At an early morning meeting at the governor's mansion, the top Democratic leaders of the Florida House urged the governor to consider vetoing the entire budget as a statement of his opposition to the legislature's expected failure to pass plan to expand health insurance for the poor. They also urged him to call a special session to enact the law. 

Reps. Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale, and Mia Jones of Jacksonville told the governor at their 6:30 a.m. meeting that with four days left in the session, they are prepared to used procedural moves to demonstrate their protest as well, said Mark Hollis, the Democrat's spokesman. "They feel an absence of an adequate plan to expand health care coverage is unacceptable,'' he said. 

The House is awaiting action by the Senate today as it takes up its plan to accept federal funds under the so-called Negron plan. "We want passage of the Senate bill,'' Hollis said.

If the House fails to adopt that bill, House Democrats are prepared to use their parlimentary tools to call attention to the issue. Among the options they have used in the past is a requirement to read bills in full. 

Democrats also know that the governor's priority, the expansion of the tax break for manufacturers, has not passed the House or Senate and it requires a two-thirds vote to happen. In the House, that means that Republicans need five of the 44 Democrats for the bill to pass. 

April 25, 2013

House could spike Dolphins bill: ‘We’ve waited three weeks,’ Speaker says

The clock is ticking and the plot is thickening in the Miami Dolphins’ quest for stadium-renovation-tax-dollars, as the Florida Legislature is struggling to come together on a deal in the waning days of Session. 

The Florida Senate postponed debate on the tax-break package Thursday, and House Speaker Weatherford voiced concern over the delays in the other chamber. 

“We’ve been waiting for three weeks,” said Weatherford, who holds the fate of the Dolphins in his hands. “We’ve been hearing that it’s going to come over (from the Senate) for several weeks and we haven’t seen anything yet.”

Senate President Don Gaetz said bill sponsor Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens) was not ready to bring the bill up for debate on Thursday as scheduled.

For the Dolphins’ bill to pass, the Senate would have to approve it and send it to the House. The House would have to approve it, possibly by sending it to a committee first. All of this would have to occur within the next few days, as the legislative session ends next Friday.

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