« March 2009 | Main | May 2009 »

413 posts from April 2009

April 30, 2009

Provision in transportation bill would require review of Alligator Alley privatization

A provision that Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, and Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, helped attach to a larger transportation bill would require that all plans to privatize state roadways first be reviewed by the state's Council on Efficient Government -- a deal that could affect proposal to privatize Alligator Alley.

The main bill, by Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, would set up a commission to study future transportation funding needs. And originally, Aronberg added a provision to that bill requiring that all state road privatization plans receive legislative approval. But that was stripped out by opponents when the House debated the proposal, bringing about the compromise provision, which now awaits a Senate vote with the rest of the bill.

Right now, the project simply would need the approval of the 14-member Legislative Budget Commission.

The seven-member Council on Efficient Government, which would review the privatization deals under the plan, was created by the Legislature in 2006 to review potential outsourcing plans, but Department of Transportation projects are currently exempt. Members of the council include Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, Secretary of State Kurt Browning and Linda South, who heads the Department of Management Services.

The review provision is part of a larger effort to block the sale of Alligator Alley to a private company.

Aronberg filed a bill this session that would prohibit state leases with foreign-financed companies. It also would create a two-year moratorium on any deal that would relinquish control of a state roadway to a private company.

Opponents of the plan to privatize the 78-mile toll road that runs between Broward and Collier counties have questioned what the deal would mean for tolls, road maintenance and national security and they have said it might not be the best financial deal for the state.

"This will slow down the rush to privatization," Aronberg said  "And for the first time will have an outside pair of eyes examine whether this deal and future deals are good for taxpayers or just a giveaway to foreign corporations."

Sunrail 'on life support' after pivotal vote

Backers of the $1.2-billion purchase of CSX rail track in Central Florida for a commuter rail project suffered a major defeat Thursday in the Senate. By a 23-17 vote, senators refused to allow a late-filed amendment to be taken up that was crafted to win over crucial votes of South Florida Democrats -- by providing a new rental car tax for Tri-Rail in that region. Twelve of those no votes were Republicans, an ominous sign indeed for a project being pushed by Gov. Charlie Crist and much of the Central Florida business community.

"It doesn't look good," said former House Speaker John Thrasher, a member of the army of lobbyists pushing the project known as Sunrail. "I'd say it's on life support at best."

It was the last bill the Senate took up Thursday. A final vote was not taken, but it looks as though Sunrail's leading opponent, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, is in a commanding position.

During discussion of the project itself, one Republican after another asked tough questions of the project's champion, Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs. Leading the charge in opposition were Sens. Mike Bennett, Charlie Dean, Jim King< Evelyn Lynn and Ronda Storms -- all Republicans. They questioned the cost, levels of expected ridership, and the state's legal liability if a CSX train struck a busload of school children in the rail corridor.

"I like the idea of light rail," Bennett said. "I just don't like bad business deals for the state of Florida. I think we should renegotiate something we are overpaying for."

Constantine eventually withdrew his own amendment that would have called for a 2010 referendum on the rental car surcharge, but allow a county commission to re-impose the rental car tax even if the voters had rejected it. "Do I have a chance? You always have a chance. Is it good? No," Constantine said. 

-- Steve Bousquet 

Third time charm for ESOL teacher training plan?

Teachers of students learning English have seen the Senate's last-minute proposal to lower the number of hours required for teacher training before. Twice.

The Florida Department of Education asks for 300 hours of training for teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL. In 2007, state Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican, tried to drop that to 60 hours, saying the requirement was driving teachers out of Florida. Teachers have to complete the extra training, often at their own expense, in addition to the 15 college credits -- about 300 hours -- required to become a reading teacher.

Miami-Dade, with its more than 57,000 ESOL students, was the only county to oppose the measure, with ESOL activists arguing that the extra lessons were necessary. Gov. Charlie Crist eventually vetoed the bill -- which Wise pushed again last year. A version made it through the House, lowering the 300-hour requirement to 180 hours, but an unhappy Wise let the bill die without a Senate vote.

The bill did not make it out of a committee and onto the floor this year. So Wise, the Senate chair of a compromise committee on the education budget, tried a different tack and snuck it onto the Senate's budget proposal Thursday as a pilot program to start in three school districts this fall.

"We're trying to get a happy medium for all parties," Wise said.

Critics say the plan is too hasty and would require money the state and school districts don't have. Will the House take the bait? Stay tuned.

State Department: Cuba still a state sponsor of terrorism

Critics of US-Cuba policy would like to see the island nation removed from the State Department's list of state sponors of terrorism, but no such luck.

Cuba, along with Iran, Sudan and Syria, was included in the department's report for 2008 -- released today. But with the Obama administration showing signs of wanting to improve relations with Havana, the language on Cuba appears a little less bellicose than in the past.

Full language from this year's report and last follows the jump.

Continue reading "State Department: Cuba still a state sponsor of terrorism" »

After spat, Rep. Baxter Troutman barred from Senate floor

Rep. Baxter Troutman and Sen. Mike Haridopolos had some sort of dispute on or near the Senate **House floor, prompting the Senate Sergeant's Office to temporarily ban the Winter Haven Republican from the Senate floor. Details are sketchy.

"If I've banned from the Senate floor, it's news to me," Troutman said. "Haridopolos and I had an issue, we still do over an issue."

Over what?

"Over just last minute emotions, man. Stuff just starts to build up. I'm not even sure of the bill number," Troutman said. "That's all that I'm aware of."

Haridopolos acknowledged the two had a dispute over an arboriculture bill. The specifics are tough to figure right now. But the spat made it to the Senate sergeant's ear and he took action, said Senate spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof in a statement:

"The Sergeant temporarily removed Rep. Troutman's Senate Floor privileges. He heard about the altercation earlier, does not tolerate such behavior on the Senate floor. So to ensure that does not occur in the Senate, he has temporarily removed Rep. Troutman's Senate floor privileges."

Haridopolos isn't the only senator Troutman has tussled with. His cousin, Sen. J.D. Alexander, and he are frequently at loggerheads.

**Earlier, we said this happened on or near the Senate floor. But during a break in the House, Troutman just called up to the press gallery to say "it happened here" on the House floor. Asked if he were told about the Senate floor ban, Troutman didn't respond.

Senate strips House growth bill and sends it back

After stripping out elements of a House bill that the state's growth management chief said would have undermined the state's growth management laws, the Sentae voted 28-12 for the measure and sent it back to the House.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, sponsored the bill and said that the compromise has the support of Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham. "Right now (Pelham) is supporting it,'' Bennett said. "That's what he told us earlier, but we're had some changes of his heart before. We just got assurances of the governor's office that if this growth managment bill goes down it will receive their approval.''

Sex w/animals still legal? Thank the House.

The Florida House looks like it's going to let bestiality remain a proud tradition in Florida. The Senate unanimously passed the measure. Of course everyone in the House says they're against bestiality. But because the measure didn't clear all of its committees, it probably won't come up in the House, said Rule Chairman Bill Galvano.

"I try to be supportive of the rules," Galvano said, noting that numerous worthwhile bills might not make it through the process.

That said, Galvano said he opposes bestiality.

So does Rep. Baxter Troutman. He never put the measure on his council agenda. "It wasn't something on my list," said Troutman.

Other House members have privately said they don't have time to take the issue up. Indeed. The House right now is on break. Plotting another celebration of boot day, are we? Or how 'bout another Cinco de Mayo celebration before May 5?

A bargaining chip in workers' compensation?

The Senate is sending its version of the workers' compensation bill to the House, with Senate President Atwater saying, "We like ours better."

The bill (SB 2072, HB903) is a fight among trial lawyers, big business, and workers. The Senate version is the one trial lawyers want. The House version retains the ban on hourly attorney fees for workers comp cases and maintains the current caps, established in 2003 but called into question by a Florida Supreme Court ruling in October.

Word is, the two chambers are using this bill, plus three bills dealing with surplus lines insurance, Citizens' insurance rates, and a proposed "free market" plan for big private insurers, as end-of-session bargaining chips.

Rachel's Law passes

The Senate just passed HB 271, the law protecting confidential informants, by unanimous vote.

The bill, sponsored by Tampa Bay Sen. Mike Fasano in the Senate, was proposed in the wake of the death of FSU graduate Rachel Hoffman of Pinellas County, a confidential informant for Tallahassee law enforcement authorities who died last May.

The House passed the measure, so now it goes to the Governor.

Fasano lone 'no' for '20 by 2020' energy bill

The Senate just voted 37-1, with Tampa Bay Republican Mike Fasano voting no, for Sen. Jim King's bill requiring that 20 percent of Florida's energy come from clean (i.e. nuclear) and renewable sources by 2020.

Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he is concerned the clean and renewable energy requirements will raise consumer rates. He said in his area, Progress Energy has already hiked rates to pay for two new nuclear power plants and recently asked for an additional increase for next year.

There is some concern about the inclusion of nuclear energy in the mix, but King said that was the only way to get it passed, given the varied interests and big corporations involved. He urged his fellow senators to support the measure and send a message to the "doubting Thomases" in the House, where it's unclear if representatives will even bother to take up the measure (a priority this session of Gov. Charlie Crist).

Tick tock, we'll see soon enough...