September 23, 2013

Latvala says state law needs to tighten definition of residency

The 2014 Legislature will take up needed changes in state law to tighten the legal definition of residency, a key senator said Monday. That will possibly include a new provision to bar legislators from claiming the homestead exemption on homes outside their districts.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, said the law is needed in the wake of media reports that "from 12 to 14" lawmakers may have been living outside their districts, in apparent violation of state law. 

Latvala's committee had a brief and muted discussion of the issue Monday. "We've got a long way to  go on this, but I believe they are taking it seriously," he said in reference to Senate leaders. "I will tell you I believe there is going to be a bill on residency."

Latvala said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, wants to file a bill dealing with the homestead-exemption issue, and Latvala said he has agreed to sponsor the Senate version.

Much of the media coverage involving lawmakers' residencies has focused on Democratic House members in South Florida.

Latvala, speaking generally, told reporters: "If you're abiding by the Constitution and taking a homestead exemption somewhere else, or if you're supposed to represent a district and get the homestead exemption somewhere else, that ought to be illegal."

He said the issue would be handled largely by Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who also faced residency questions in 2011 when he won a special election. But none of that was discussed
publicly Monday. Democratic senators were silent after a staffer outlined at least 10 different ways to define legal residency, from a driver's license address to a voting address to where someone gets mail.

-- Steve Bousquet

September 18, 2013

Ethics commission dismisses charges against four local legislators

The Florida Ethics Commission has dismissed a series of ethics complaints against two local senators and two state representatives for failing to include financial information on their annual financial disclosure forms.

Meeting in a closed-door meeting last week, the commission dismissed a complaint against Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, for failing to include a $278,000 home she owns in The Villages on financial disclosure forms she filed between 2006 and 2011. The commission had dismissed a previous complaint that she failed to properly report her ownership of a Tallahassee condo as well.

The commission also dropped claims that Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, filed an incomplete financial disclosure form in 2011, concluding that “the public interest would not be served by further proceedings because the addresses of properties were readily discoverable through public sources.”

The commission found probable cause that while Rep. Jose Raul Oliva, R-Miami, failed to properly identify an asset on his 2011 disclosure form, it will take no action.

And the commission voted to close its file and dismiss a complaint filed against Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, because the complainant “denied filing the complaint, and was unresponsive to a written request for clarification.” The commission said the allegations contained in the complaint are the same as matters already pending final action by the board.

In December, the Ethics Commission found probable cause that Fresen failed to properly disclose his annual net worth, assets, and liabilities from 2008 to 2011 after a lender filed a foreclosure suit against him. Fresen is fighting the ethics charges, calling the allegation a “baseless” political attack by a political opponent.

Here's the link to the commission's release. 

September 16, 2013

Clemens asks Senate to review the 'serious conflict of interest' with staff outside employment

In a letter to the chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, is calling for legislative hearings on the revolving door that allows employees to take leaves of absence from the legislature to work for political campaigns.

In the letter to Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, Clemens called it a "serious conflict of interest when legislative employees are allowed to leave work and earn money from campaigns and/or the companies that have business before the Legislature."

"The public deserves to feel confident that special interests are not buying influence with the Legislature by contributing to the bottom line wealth of employees who supposedly earn that money after-hours,'' he wrote. "It also places the employee in an awkward position, knowing he or she may have to make a decision that adversely impacts a special interest that has contributed to the well being of their family, either directly or through a campaign account."

The letter was sent on Sept. 5, after the Herald/Times reported on a three-year arrangement Senate chief of staff Chris Clark had with Senate President Don Gaetz. Clark was given permission to work part-time for the state during the legislative session and then take a leave of absence to work on the side for campaigns. According to public records, he earned more than $400,000 in consulting fees and payroll in the same years he drew a state salary.

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September 06, 2013

In extraordinary move, state decides to draw new rules regulating gaming

After years of holding together a patchwork of gambling industry regulations, the Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering announced on Friday that it is prepared to rewrite the rules regulating Florida's multi-billion dollar parimutuel industry.

"In their current form, the laws regulating the industry are unclear and do not define many standards necessary to ensure the continued integrity of pari-mutuel wagering,'' the division said in a press release announcing the first in a series of hearings for the rule-making process. "The draft rules are designed to clarify terms and maintain traditional pari-mutuel standards."

 The initiative is a rare acknowledgement by a state agency that the laws governing horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons are out of date and unclear. In the last decade, the state has spent thousands of dollars defending the statutes despite changes in gaming technology, and only occassionally publicly asked the Legislature for more authority to update the regulations.

 However, the agency’s effort faces uncertain legal precedence and, ultimately, may serve to force the Legislature’s hand. Because of the bitter feuds within the state’s parimutuel industry, nearly every signficant rule change approved by state regulators has been met with a legal challenge. In many cases, the court has overturned attempts by the division to clarify the law or offer new interpretation to existing law. Despite the setbacks, the Legislature has refrained from updating the law.

 As the Herald/Times first reported, a series of rulings from the Division of Parimutuel Wagering in the last year have spawned dozens of lawsuits. Regulators have allowed "flag-drop" and barrel races to be considered a parimutuel sport, permitted slot operators to run electronic roulette and craps games in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, allowed a dormant jai alai permit to be used to expand the number of slot machines at Magic City Casino, and allowed Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream racetrack in Hallandale Beach to run a one-time race in June so they could offer thoroughbred races via simulcast year-round.

 Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association which won a lawsuit against the agency when it designated barrel racing as a parimutuel sport, said Friday he was surprised at the division’s acknowledgement that the laws governing the industry are unclear “but it’s also very accurate,’’ he said.

If the agency fails in its efforts to clarify what it considers unclear law, it could tee up the task for legislators, who have also signaled they are poised to review the state’s gaming laws.

The Senate Gaming Committee announced plans on Friday to conduct a series of four town-hall style hearings around the state to discuss the future of gambling in Florida and find ways to clarify the law and eliminate loopholes. The first hearing is scheduled for Oct. 23 in Coconut Creek.

The first rule workshop will be held Oct. 16 in Fort Lauderdale. A draft of the rule indicates that the division is prepared to outlaw "flag drops" but allow for an alternative to the traditional quarter horse racing and impose new rules on jockeys. It indicates it will prohibit jai alai games played with only two players and will impose rules for standards of play.

The Legislature is also expected in October to receive a $400,000 report it commissioned from the Spectrum Gaming Group on the economic role of the gaming industry in Florida. Here's the release:

Continue reading "In extraordinary move, state decides to draw new rules regulating gaming" »

State Senate committee to head to Broward for gaming workshop

The Florida Senate Gaming Committee will meet in Coconut Creek on Oct. 23 as part of its four-town traveling road show to seek input on the future of gambling in Florida. Other hearings will be held in Lakeland, Jacksonville and Pensacola. 

The committee will attempt to find ways to improve the state's tattered regulatory structure that has been riddled with holes over the past decade in the wake of court rulings, legal settlements and regulatory decisions, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, told the Herald/Times last month. It is expected to receive the results of a $400,000 review of the state's gaming industry by Spectrum Gaming Group before the meetings begin on Oct. 1. 

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a statement released Friday that the gaming committee is charged with "conducting a thorough review and recommending a comprehensive policy on how gaming fits into the broader Florida economy.”

“While the Florida Lottery, Seminole casinos, and gaming activities at licensed pari-mutuel facilities generate substantial economic activity, gaming regulations have been amended piecemeal over decades,” he said. 

Here's the schedule: 

Continue reading "State Senate committee to head to Broward for gaming workshop" »

September 02, 2013

Gaetz's top aide puts new twist on the revolving door with $400k consulting job

Senate President Don Gaetz’s right-hand man has been running his own political consulting firm, allowing him indirectly to rake in more than $400,000 from the some of the same special interests that have a stake in influencing legislation. Full story here.

For three years ending in 2012, Chris Clark, 41, took a leave of absence from his state job after the legislative session ended in May and went to work as Gaetz’s campaign manager. Clark formed the company in 2009.

The lucrative arrangement Clark has carved out for himself underscores the web of financial ties special interests have with the Florida Legislature as staff often cycle in and out of government and the private sector, developing relationships with the very lobbyists who have a financial stake in influencing them.

“It’s a practice that Democrats and Republicans have used without any serious problem that I’m aware of,’’ said Gaetz, R-Niceville, in defending Clark, who saw no conflict with the arrangement.

Clark’s dual role as campaign consultant and legislative staff member is allowed by law as long as he doesn’t work on the campaign while on the state job.

Still, Clark’s consulting deals stand out for two reasons: the sheer size of the raw dollar amounts and the fact that Gaetz made a show of standing against special interest money by leading a charge to abolish some of the very political committees that helped fund his chief of staff.

Continue reading "Gaetz's top aide puts new twist on the revolving door with $400k consulting job" »

August 22, 2013

Battle over release of partisan redistricting docs goes back to court today

The bitterly fought redistricting battle will take another turn today in a Tallahassee courtroom as Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis is asked to reject allegations that the political consultants who helped Republican Party leaders determine the political performance of their maps be ordered to produce their internal emails and documents in the long-simmering dispute. 

The consultants, Pat Bainter, Matt Mitchell, Michael Sheehan of the Gainesville-based Data Targeting, and GOP consultant Frank Terraferma, have asked the court for a protective order after Lewis in May held them in contempt. They had been ordered to turn over the documents in October 2012 but have resisted allowing the plaintiffs in the case, the League of Women Voters and the Fair Districts coalition, to review them claiming the data sets and political analysis are trade secrets.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are asking Lewis to put an end to the year-long standoff. 

“This cat-and-mouse game has gone on long enough,'' wrote plaintiffs attorney Adam Schachter in his response brief.  Download 2013.08.20 Coalition Plaintiffs' Response to Non-Parties' Motions for Protective Order with Exs. A-F

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August 20, 2013

Senate plans four public hearings this fall on gaming's future in Florida

Garrett RichterThe Florida Senate will host a series of four public hearings this fall to seek public input on the future of gaming in the state, pivoting off the completion of a new report on the economic impact of the industry in Florida, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, told the Herald/Times on Tuesday.

The hearings are tentatively scheduled to be held in Fort Lauderdale and Lakeland in late October and in Jacksonville and Pensacola in mid-November. The Spectrum Gaming Group is expected to complete a report on the statistical relationships between gaming and the economic impact on communities in October. The Senate and House paid the company $388,000 to conduct an economic analysis of the industry. Part One of the report was released last month. 

The goal of the public hearings will be to gather community feedback on gambling in Florida, Richter said, noting that he was not prepared to suggest the Legislature will be discussiong expanding gambling.

Florida legislators last year passed a fast-tracked bill to outlaw gaming at Internet Cafes, but then punted any discussion of Florida's gambling laws by hiring Spectrum to complete its study.

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have said they are prepared to take up legislation relating to the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe, because a portion of the 20-year agreement expires in 2015. But there is no guarantee that the push by companies such as Las Vegas Sands and Genting to bring destination resort casinos to Florida will get a hearing.

"The Spectrum report should provide for a lot of discussion,'' Richter said. He does expect legislation to clarify and tighten existing gambling laws.

A series of rulings from the Division of Parimutuel Wagering have spawned dozens of lawsuits as regulators have allowed "flag-drop" races to be considered a parimutuel sport, permitted slot operators to run electronic roulette and craps games in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, allowed a dormant jai alai permit to be used to expand the number of slot machines at Magic City Casino, and allowed Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream racetrack in Hallandale Beach to run a one-time race in June so they could offer thoroughbred races via simulcast year-round.

"Staff is going through the existing statutes line-by-line to determine whether we want to eliminate the ambiguities,'' Richter said. 


August 13, 2013

Take Andy and Don out to the ball game tonight

Yankees logoWhat can $25,000 and a ticket to NYC get you? A ticket to the ball game with Senate President Don Gaetz and incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, and maybe a box of Cracker Jacks.

The annual fundraiser is intended to raise funds for the Senate re-election campaign in 2014, which is not exactly shaping up to be a heavy lift. (No senator is being forced to retire because of term limits and so no Republicans, who hold the majority, are expected to face much of a challenge.)

The first pitch against the Los Angeles Angels starts at 7:05.

Here's the invite:  Download YANKEES 2013 INVITE (3)

August 09, 2013

UPDATE: Is Senate presidency race down to 13-13 tie with Fasano no longer a Negron threat?

Ex-Rep. Mike Fasano's appointment as Pasco County tax collector didn't just end his legislative career. It also put an end to an intriguing scenario that he might have sought a return to the Senate by taking on fellow Republican Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, next year -- which would have improved Sen. Jack Latvala's chances of becoming Pinellas County's first Senate president.

Fasano shares Latvala's moderate philosophy and he's very popular in Pasco, so Simpson would have been in big trouble. But Fasano says Simpson is "doing a wonderful job" and never seriously considered a Senate run, though he said there was "a big push by some people."

Simpson has heard the story that a privately commissioned poll showed Fasano with a huge lead over Simpson. Simpson calls that "a myth," but he'd like to know why anyone would have wanted Fasano to take him on. "I would love an answer to that question," Simpson said.

Simpson and the other 25 GOP senators must choose between Latvala and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, for the presidency in 2016, following Sen. Andy Gardiner of Orlando. The Latvala-Negron race is described as close. "It's basically tied," Latvala said. (Negron could not be reached; 16 of the 20 senators facing re-election in 2014 are Republicans).

UPDATE: Negron supporters however, disagree. They claim the numbers are closer to 13-10 with three holdouts: Sens. Tom Lee of Brandon, Rene Garcia of Hialeah and Gardiner.

They are also confident that three of the open seats in 2016 -- Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville, Garrett Richter of Naples and Charlie Dean of Inverness will go to Negron supporters. Who? Matt Gaetz has already announced he's going to replace his dad. Former state Rep. Tom Grady is said to be considering a run to replace Richter and state Rep. Dennis Baxley is considering seeking Dean's seat. 

Continue reading "UPDATE: Is Senate presidency race down to 13-13 tie with Fasano no longer a Negron threat?" »