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373 posts from March 2009

March 31, 2009

The $840 million House 'tax' hike

Florida House leaders sure are against raising taxes. So they're calling them "fees" instead.

Consider the $837.9m "fee" increases unveiled Thursday by the House Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Committee. The increases hit drivers everywhere, from boosting driver licenses to tacking on a "rental car surcharge." Even the "reflectorization fee" for license plates is going up by $1.50.

So are these fees or taxes?

"You can look at it anyway you want," said Plant City Republican Rep. Rich Glorioso, who chairs the TED committee. "We don't have a lot of choices. When you realize that, when you raise tag fees... that money is going to education and medical. It's going to take care of somebody who needs those types of services. Will I like it? Absolutely not. But I know I have to do it. It's the right thing to do."

Glorioso also points out that many of the fees haven't been raised in more than a decade. Of the $840m, $726m is heading to the general-revenue budget. That's about double what the Senate (which is less concerned about the tax debate than the House) proposed.

Some TED members were a little nervous about the increases. Jacksonville Republican Rep. Jennifer Carroll said renting a car in Jacksonville is expensive enough without a surcharge. Spring Hill Republican Rep. Rob Schenck suggested that lawmakers find $100 million in additional cuts to block the need for a surcharge increase.

Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, said the tax-fee distinction is pretty simple: Fees pay for a specific service (so driver license fees keep DL offices open, etc.). But taxes pay for generally everything. What happens when a government fee on a service pays for a variety of other services?

"Then it's a tax," Norquist said. (Note: this was during a February interview re: calling a cigarette tax a "user fee for smokers.")

Case of missing Floridian prompts "unusual communication" with Iran

The U.S. used an international meeting on Afghanistan to make what the Associated Press calls an "unusual direct diplomatic overture" to Iran.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Americans delivered a letter to the Iranians at a  meeting in The Hague, asking Iran to help resolve the cases of three detained or missing Americans.

Clinton said she sent Iran a direct letter concerning three U.S. citizens unable to return from Iran including Floridian Robert Levinson. Their return would be a humanitarian gesture, the letter said.

Levinson, a retired FBI agent from Coral Springs, Fla., was last seen on Iran's Kish Island on March 8, 2007. He disappeared in Iran while investigating cigarette smuggling for a client of his private security firm.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has pushed Clinton to raise Levinson's case with Iran.

Ros-Lehtinen faults Obama for seeking UN post

The Obama administration's plan to seek election to the U.N. Human Rights Council -- a reversal of former president George W. Bush's foreign policy -- is not sitting well with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

In a press release, she urged the administration to reconsider, maintaining that just last week the council had adopted anti-Israel resolutions in "yet another appalling display of anti-freedom, antidemocratic, anti-Israel bias."

Read more here.

Smokers beware: Senate committee passes cigarette tax

The Senate Finance and Tax Committee unanimously voted Tuesday to raise the cigarette tax $1 per pack and increase the tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco $1 per ounce.

Supporters called it an historic opportunity to raise nearly $1 billion in new revenue and use the money to discourage smoking and offset the state’s Medicaid program that pays to treat sick smokers. Opponents warned it would devastate Florida’s hometown cigar business and kill jobs. They called it a shell game based on bogus numbers that won’t realize the savings lawmakers expect.

“You can’t get there from here,’’ warned John French, lobbyist for cigarette maker Altria, formerly Philip Morris. He tried to dismantle the revenue projections lawmakers assumed when passing the bill. “You’re basically victimized by frankly sloppy work by the people who make these numbers.”

Senators defended the proposal, pushed by Democratic Sen. Ted Deutch and Republican Thad Altman. It is expected to win widespread approval in the Republican-led Senate, as lawmakers warm to raising the vice tax.

Mel Martinez offers Obama some praise

A bi-partisan group of senators said today they believe they've got their best shot ever at rolling back travel restrictions to Cuba -- noting they've got a friend in President Barack Obama.

But Mel Martinez, who opposes the bill, suggests the senators are getting ahead of Obama, who said during the presidential campaign he'd roll back family travel restrictions imposed in 2004. 

Vice President Joe Biden said Saturday the U.S. isn't prepared to scrap the embargo and Obama is widely expected to spell out his Cuba policy before next month's Summit of the Americas.

"I think it's appropriate that a president look at a longstanding historical foreign policy commitment of the United States...and not just simply dismantle everything that's being done," Martinez said. "I commend him for the slow and cautious approach they're taking."

Martinez has the support of his fellow Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, who opposes allowing unlimited travel to Cuba.

Hastings says Obama's bloom is fading

Bloomberg reports that some Democrats in Congress are warning that if the economy doesn't pick up, there could be a backlash at the polls in 2010. The article quotes U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar: "The bloom is off the rose as far as Obama-mania is concerned. People are beginning to ask the hard question, and that is, ‘when is there going to be some improvement that is going to affect me?’”

As a Hillary Clinton supporter during the Democratic primary, Hastings didn't personally suffer from Obama-mania.

For Florida Lottery chief, a rough outing

A House committee spent 90 minutes skewering Lottery Secretary Leo DiBenigno on Tuesday, and demanded explanations for why he didn't follow specific budget language known as proviso that was approved last session.

The language, found on page 335 of the current budget, ordered DiBenigno to "competitively solicit for advertising contracts," and told the Lottery it "may not extent or renew the current contracts." Instead, the Lottery entered into a month-to-month basis with the same agency, Cooper DDB of Miami, whose lobbyist is former Lottery Secretary David Griffin.

By the time DiBenigno got around to seeking new advertising proposals, it was Feb. 6, eight months into the fiscal year, and the letter of solicitation referred to "an informal competitive process." That choice of words, which DiBenigno himself acknowledged was "very poor," further antagonized the Legislature.

Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, chairman of the House Governmental Operations Appropriations Committee, led the grilling of DiBenigno, and urged the Lottery chief to start from scratch and seek proposals from advertising agencies through a formal process known as an ITN (invitation to negotiate).

"This time, we did not get the results we wanted," Hays told DiBenigno. "We look forward to a much better performance next time."

-- Steve Bousquet

House preK-12 budget proposal holds steady

The House PreK-12 Appropriations Committee released details of its proposed budget this afternoon with an increase in per-student funding of $30.10, from $6,860.36 in 2008-09 to $6,890.46 proposed for 2009-10.

Chairman Anitere Flores, R-Miami, explained that the goal going in was to "protect per-student funding as much as possible," and they fully expected a reduction in the 3 to 5 percent range. Instead, Flores said they worked hard to present the "minor increase to per-student funding." (See also her talking points. And the Democrats' response.)

More than $800 million in stimulus funds was added to the K-12 budget allocation. And, the plan is to shift 0.25 from the capital millage to the discretionary operating millage, although districts would be able to opt out of the move. Flores said that shift will generate $380 million for student funding.

Committee members had lots of questions, including Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, who asked whether they had "just shifted stuff around" to make it look like per-student funding wasn't being reduced.

Aside from per-student funding categories, some $22 million in cuts are proposed to such programs as voluntary pre-K (2 percent), mentoring (30 percent) and teacher development (20 percent). A 30 percent reduction was called for based on the allocation ($177.3 million), but stimulus funds cut the gap.

A number of issues are addressed in a conforming bill, which was to be released soon. A lot of the proposals mirror some from the Senate, like lowering school board member salaries to match legislators' pay, changing the 180-day school year to an hourly equivalent to make room for four-day weeks and giving districts more flexibility for spending money.

TABOR dying in the Senate

For the third time, a Senate panel has TPd a bill establishing TABOR-style caps on local and state government.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Haridopolos of Melbourne, was supposed to come up in the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee but it was tabled without discussion. (On March 18, several Republicans told Haridopolos it was not prudent to pursue in this economic climate.)

Today's announcement led to an exodus of city and county lobbyists and officials from the room. Outside, they expressed something just short of victory. "We're cautiously optimistic," said Craign Mosteller of the Florida Association of Counties.

Haridopolos said afterward that he is focused on the budget. He did not concede defeat but noted that the goal is to get the measure on the 2010 ballot, meaning next session is in play too.

House passes workers' comp bill; fate uncertain in Senate

The Florida House passed, as expected and along mostly party lines, a bill to restore limits on attorney fees for injured workers who are wrongly denied claims.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce and other businesses' lobbies pressed for the bill after the Florida Supreme Court reversed the 2003 state law limiting fees. The vote was 84-35, with Tampa Republican Ed Homan joining Democrats in opposition. Homan, a physician, said rates have come down and to act now "is irresponsible."

But House insiders said there was more in play, that Homan is still upset that bill sponsor, Rep. Anitere Flores of Miami, helped squash a 2007 move to include a cervical cancer vaccine in required school immunizations. Previous coverage here.

The bill's fate is less certain in the Senate, which is generally more receptive to trial lawyers.