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April 14, 2017

Miami-Dade-backed 'witness protection' bill now goes to governor's desk

Parents of murdered kids


With overwhelming support from the Florida Senate on Thursday, a proposal — heavily inspired by ongoing gun violence in Miami-Dade County — that affords new protections for murder witnesses will go to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk and possibly become law.

HB 111 passed the Senate by a 34-3 vote, similar to the near-unanimous show of support the bill received in the House late last month.

Senators from Miami-Dade County called the bill “long overdue.”

“I talk a lot about senseless violence and things that happen in my community. This is one of those bills that will help the law enforcement officers find the perpetrators of these senseless acts,” said Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens.

Hialeah Republican Sen. René García agreed: “Back in our community, the biggest problem that we have is people don’t want to speak up when they see a crime. This bill is going to go a long way to ensure that people’s voices are heard, their identities are kept private.”

More here.

Photo credit: Members of the Miami-based Parents of Murdered Kids were recognized in the Senate gallery on Thursday, April 13, 2017, prior to a floor vote on a bill that shields murder witnesses’ identities from being disclosed in public records. HB 111 now goes to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk to be signed into law. Florida Channel.

House Republicans, Democrats divided over $200M 'schools of hope' proposal



How best to help 77,000 children at perpetually failing K-12 public schools sharply divided the Florida House on Thursday, as the chamber’s Republican majority pushed through a controversial $200 million spending plan to attract specialized, high-performing charter schools to Florida that would offer an alternative to — and potentially supplant the role of — struggling neighborhood schools.

The “schools of hope” proposal (HB 5105) sparked more than three hours of floor debate, mostly by Democrats — the longest of the 2017 session so far. The final vote was 77-40, with Democrats unanimously opposed over concerns the bill would set up a “segregated,” unfair system that would further disadvantage failing schools.

MORE: “Are ‘schools of hope’ the solution to perpetually failing public schools?”

“Are we returning to the days of separate but not equal in 2017? Over-funding charter schools and underfunding public schools is the same thing,” said Rep. Patrick Henry, a black Democrat from Daytona Beach. He called the bill “another nail in the coffin of public education.”

Republican supporters of the measure, meanwhile, touted “schools of hope” as a way to help break the cycle of generational poverty in communities that are frequently home to black and Hispanic populations, because they said these specialized charter operators would use innovative techniques that have been proven to work in other states, like New York or Washington, D.C.

Republicans also repeatedly dismissed their Democratic critics as pawns of teachers unions and cast them as implicit supporters of allowing failing schools to remain that way.

Full story here.


Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

April 13, 2017

Nine prison contracts had 'numbers fudged,' Richardson reveals. Will legislators do anything?

David Richardson House floor"All 9 contracts that I had audited had the numbers fudged,'' declared Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, on Wednesday as he wrapped up a 10-minute speech moments before the House voted 89-26 for its draft of the budget.

The retired forensic auditor urged his House colleagues to require more accountability over the private prison contracts as he detailed the abuses he found, offering a level of scrutiny not often seen on the floor of a legislative chamber.

For the last two years, Richardson has been on a one-man crusade to inspect the state's trouble prison system. He described how the state's seven private prison contracts get an audit when they come to an end but "they never have an end" because they have been routinely renewed without going out for bid. He spoke about how he has audited several contracts, made 90 prison visits, met 300 inmates and devoted 700 hours to his probe.

"My audits have shown that the money is not being spent the way we we think we're spending it,'' he said. 

His review of the massive prison agency comes in the same year House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and his deputies have made a point of calling out "corporate welfare" and questionable contracts at two much smaller state agencies, Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.

But on Wednesday Richardson was greeted by polite stares from Republican leaders -- and no reaction. 

"What I would like to see is some provisional language in this budget that would allow more safeguards and more oversight because what I have found is that we have a lot of spending going on but we have very little oversight,'' the Democrat said. "Many of you may not know this, but in the entirety of the life of private prisons there has never been one financial audit of a private prison operator. Not one."

He said he just completed an audit of six contracts with two private non-profit vendors hired to provide prison work release programming. He said that in 2012, Gov. Rick Scott recommended privatizing the facilities and suggested that it would save the state $460,000 over nine months. 

By 2014, the Florida Department of Corrections did privatize the contracts and, documents show, they promised $550,000 a year in savings. But a review of all contracts led Richardson to a different conclusion:

"We are not saving a dime,'' he said. Instead, the agency engaged in a "shell game that perpetrated this little trick."

When an inmate goes out to work in a job outside of prison, the work release facility keeps 55 percent of the net earnings to recover the cost of room and board, and the inmate keeps the rest, Richardson explained. But, during the recession, the Florida Legislature swept the revenue from the Department of Corrections' work release programs and used it to fund other agencies and projects in general revenue.

Florida's general revenue grew, but the state's deficit-ridden Department of Corrections fell further into the red. Then the equation changed when the governor and Legislature decided to privatize the six work release facilities.

"They gave away the general revenue,'' Richardson said. "The six facilities were bringing in $2.1 million into the state coffers every year -- our share of the 55 percent of net income,'' he explained, but the contracts the vendors signed with the state allowed them to keep the money. 

"How could so many people knowledgeable about these contracts not see that?" he asked. "So rather than saving $550,000...we are losing over $1 million to the State of Florida. And it's a nice little shell game that got played because people didn't talk about that little bucket of money."

"Friends,'' Richardson pleaded. "We have got to take a serious look into these contracts. I have now audited 9 contracts...and all 9 contracts that I had audited had the numbers fudged to justify privatization. And it's time for this body and this Legislature to take a serious look at how we are spending the taxpayers' money."

In a oblique reference to the powerful special interests that hire lobbyists, he added: "The taxpayers back home don't have a lobbyist here.

"But wait! They do,'' he said facetiously. "It's you and it's me. You see we got sent here to be the lobbyist for the taxpayer, to make sure that their dollars were spent wisely and so we need to do our job as legislators and hold everybody accountable so that every dollar is accounted for."

He concluded by asking for more language in the budget that "will hold these facilities more accountable and for us to be responsible for our taxpayers back home."

Photo: Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, speaks on the House floor. Courtesy of Rep. David Richardson. 



Adam Putnam hosts BBQ for supporters in May



Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican most expected to run for governor in 2018, is inviting his supporters to a BBQ in his hometown, just five days after the Legislature is expected to wrap up its annual spring session.

"We are having our Florida Grown Hometown BBQ on Wednesday, May 10th, and I wanted to make sure you got an invitation," Putnam said in a email blast sent to supporters.

Florida Grown is the name of a political committee Putnam opened in 2015 that has raised more than $10 million as of March 31, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

The event is in Bartow in Polk County at Old Polk County Courthouse.

Take note, Mr. President: Health inspectors ding Mar-a-Lago kitchen

From Miami Herald gossip columnist Jose Lambiet:

Just days before the state visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach private club, Florida restaurant inspectors found potentially dangerous raw fish and cited the club for storing food in two broken down coolers.

Inspectors found 13 violations at the fancy club’s kitchen, according to recently published reports — a record for an institution that charges $200,000 in initiation fees.

Three of the violations were deemed “high priority,” meaning that they could allow the presence of illness-causing bacteria on plates served in the dining room.

According to their latest visit to the club Jan. 26, state inspectors decided Mar-a-Lago’s kitchen did meet the minimum standards.

But they had a field day with elements that could give members of the high-class club and foreign dignitaries some pause:

More here.

Photo credit: Charles Trainor Jr., Miami Herald staff

Florida lawmakers ask feds to keep listing manatee as endangered

via @learyreports

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota is leading a push to reverse a federal decision to downgrade protections for manatees.

“This decision was disappointing and potentially very harmful to the survival of the iconic Florida animal,” reads a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “Based on widespread opposition from the public and scientists, we urge you to overturn this decision and restore manatees to endangered status.”

The letter said, “during the public comment period for the downlisting rule, nearly 87,000 comments opposed the rule with only 72 comments in support. We would also note that the scientists invited by the Fish and Wildlife Service to formally review the downlisting plan opposed weakening manatee protections.”

Letter signers included Reps. Kathy Castor, Daniel Webster, Alcee Hastings, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch, Frederica Wilson, Val Demings, Darren Soto, Stephanie Murphy and Charlie Crist.

Read the letter below.

Dear Secretary Zinke,

We urge you to reconsider and reverse the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision last week to downgrade protections for the Florida manatee.

This decision was disappointing and potentially very harmful to the survival of the iconic Florida animal.

Despite the agency’s assertion that a downlisting from endangered to threatened would not affect federal protections for the manatee, the move could cause a broader reassessment of critical state and local protections for the animals.

In fact, just days after this rule proposal was announced, the Brevard County commissioners approved a resolution requesting that the Florida Legislature review slow-speed zones currently in place for boats and called for a reconsideration of the state’s Manatee Sanctuary Act, which established protections for manatees and their habitats in several counties, including Sarasota and Manatee.

As you may know, the manatee at one time was on the brink of extinction. We cannot support any action that could lead to such conditions again.

Manatees face a variety of threats to their existence, including watercraft collisions, habitat loss and red tide. Additionally, the warm water springs manatees depend on during the winter months are disappearing. We also would note that manatee deaths are on the rise, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

During the public comment period for the downlisting rule, nearly 87,000 comments opposed the rule with only 72 comments in support. We would also note that the scientists invited by the Fish and Wildlife Service to formally review the downlisting plan opposed weakening manatee protections.

Based on widespread opposition from the public and scientists, we urge you to overturn this decision and restore manatees to endangered status.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Photo credit: Associated Press

'Trump U.' ethics complaints against Pam Bondi set for hearing

Four separate and similar ethics allegations against Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi over her handling of consumer complaints against Trump University will be decided next week by the Commission on Ethics, in what could be the final act in a drama that she said "devastated" her last year.

The ethics complaints surfaced nearly a year ago during the media furor over Bondi's decision in 2013 to solicit a $25,000 campaign donation from Donald J. Trump while she sought re-election and as her staff weighed grievances from one or more consumers alleging fraud by Trump's school for aspiring real estate moguls. Bondi's staff referred disgruntled consumers to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who had already filed a lawsuit on behalf of consumers nationwide. Other lawsuits followed. A California judge approved a settlement two weeks ago under which Trump will pay $25 million while admitting no wrongdoing, and a number of Florida residents will receive cash payouts.

PamsnipAs Bondi's support for Trump attracted attention during last year's presidential campaign, it prompted news outlets to resurrect the donation and partisan critics pounced. One complaint was filed by J. Whitfield Larrabee, a lawyer from Brookline, Mass., who got a letter (left) from the ethics commission confirming the closed-door probable cause hearing on April 21 at the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

Bondi told reporters in September there was nothing improper about her acceptance of Trump's money, and said: "I will never let money from anyone affect what I do." A state prosecutor last week dismissed a bribery allegation against Bondi, citing a lack of evidence.

MORE: A defiant Pam Bondi breaks her silence, defends handling of Trump University issue

Bondi's office declined to comment on the hearing and would not say who will represent the state's chief legal officer. "The commission's proceedings and information associated with them are confidential," spokesman Whitney Ray said.

Auto insurance reforms pass Senate committee, but don't count on rate savings



Major reforms to Florida’s auto insurance industry would likely not produce much savings for drivers under a plan that cleared its first Senate committee on Thursday.

State Sen. Tom Lee, a Hillsborough County Republican, acknowledged his effort isn’t as much about cutting auto insurance rates as it is making sure more people have adequate coverage should they get in an accident.

“My goal is to not lower rates. My goal is to provide adequacy of coverage,” Lee said moments after the Senate Banking and Insurance committee 8-1 to advance his plan.

Under Lee’s proposal, Florida would no longer have No-Fault Insurance, where drivers are required to carry $10,000 of personal injury protection. When there is an accident, no matter who is at fault, both drivers can get up to $10,000 of medical injuries and expenses covered. Instead, Lee wants all drivers to carry enough bodily injury protection to pay $25,000 of injuries to another person, and $50,000 of injuries to two or more people. Those at fault in accidents would have to pay up and there would be more coverage to assure more injuries are taken care of.

Lee said most people already have that coverage so that change would not result in a big change. But those who currently drive with the bare minimum of coverage could be forced to $200 to $300 more a year, depending on which counties they live in.

“Rates have to go up on some populations,” Lee said.

The House has similar legislation moving, but with one huge difference. Lee is recommending a $5,000 medical payment system to make sure emergency rooms and doctors get paid for the first $5,000 of treatment costs. That is a provision the House has opposed. If a Medpay system is part of the bill, a report prepared for the state Office of Insurance Regulation showed the savings to drivers would be less than 1 percent.

Lee said if there is a bill to end personal injury protection without a medical payment program, “that would be hard for me.”

Lee’s bill has a long way to go still. It still must clear two other committees and the Senate floor. There are just three weeks remaining in the Legislature’s annual session.

PHOTO: State Sen. Tom Lee (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times)

Consider it 'education day' in the Florida House



The Florida House will pass out its budget proposal today for 2017-18, but it might as well be "education day" in the chamber, too.

Today is also when the chamber's Republican majority will -- barring any earth-shattering surprise -- pass out its most-desired and drastic reforms for education policy this year. And unlike last year, they're all tied to the budget.

Those include:

-- the $200 million "schools of hope" plan to attract specialized, high-performing charter schools to Florida to serve students who currently attend failing traditional schools;

-- the $214 million expansion of the "Best & Brightest" teachers bonuses, which changes the criteria to qualify and extends the bonuses to principals, too;

-- and changing the formula for how local and state capital dollars for school construction and maintenance will be disbursed among traditional and charter schools, giving charter schools a cut of the local dollars they don't currently get.

Democrats took a caucus position to oppose the "schools of hope" bill, and you can expect many will also vote against the "Best & Brightest" expansion and the capital outlay funding changes, too. Republicans hold a 79-41 majority, so they don't need Democratic support to push through their priorities.

The Senate has its own ideas on each of these measures, of course, so the final two weeks of session will be ripe with behind-closed-doors negotiating and backroom dealing.

The Senate is conceptually on board with the "Best & Brightest" expansion and the premise behind "schools of hope," but leaders in that chamber have their own ideas on how those policies could be accomplished.

As well, senators on Wednesday passed their own proposal for changing capital outlay funding -- removing a main component of their bill (SB 376) so that sharing local tax dollars with charters wouldn't actually be required. (It currently is optional anyway.) The bill also includes reforms to restrict charter schools from using capital funding for "personal financial enrichment," something the Senate first sought last year.

Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, has previously said a mandate on school districts to share their local dollars couldn't be imposed without also affording districts the ability to collect more tax revenue locally, because districts carry a lot of debt service that has to be paid regardless. But raising the millage cap for districts makes some lawmakers wary, because it could be seen as a tax increase even though the decision to actually raise the tax would be approved locally.

Simmons told the Herald/Times Wednesday that taking out the mandate from the Senate bill resolves that conflict and positions the Senate to negotiate with the House in conference committee. The House proposal (HB 5103), meanwhile, calls for a more complicated formula that requires state and local money to be divided among charter and traditional schools, while accounting off the top for the districts' debt service.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

New Americans For Prosperity video backs Florida House on incentives funding


Americans for Prosperity’s Florida chapter is out with a new video on the web lending support to Republicans in the Florida House who want to end two of Gov. Rick Scott’s most cherished job incentive programs.

In the 1 minute and 4 second video, a narrator slams government incentive programs.

“It’s called corporate welfare and it hasn’t paid out,” the video proclaims.

The video campaign comes at a time Gov. Rick Scott has been running his own ad campaign in support of fully funding Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, two agencies that Florida House has threatened with dramatic budget cuts.

“The politicians in Tallahassee don’t get it,” Scott says in the ads running on television statewide. 

Scott’s also now made 20 campaign-like stops around the state, often calling legislators out by name, for voting to kill the program.

AFP Florida officials have lauded House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, for trying to kill job incentive programs like Enterprise Florida.

“It is not the role of government to hand our tax dollars to private companies – that’s not fair, that’s corporate welfare,” said Chris Hudson, AFP Florida’s state director.