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307 posts from March 2014

March 28, 2014

A year later, Weatherford and Latvala best of buds on pension overhaul

LatvalaweatherfordLast year, Sen. Jack Latvala led the Senate insurrection that upended a massive overhaul of Florida’s pension system, which had been one of the top priorities of Florida Speaker Will Weatherford.

"I've been telling Will for two or three months that he didn't have the votes over here. Now he sees it, black and white,” Latvala said minutes after Weatherford’s bill died in the Senate, 22-18.

But this year, the two have been fast friends. Not only did they pose in a March 18 selfie -- with the chummy Twitter caption of “a winning combination” -- but Latvala is sponsoring SB 1400, which would allow undocumented immigrant students to pay cheaper tuition rates, a top priority of Weatherford’s.

That experience of working on the immigrant tuition bill brought the two closer together, Latvala said, subsequently providing an opening on the pension issue.

“The speaker is a reasonable man,” Latvala said. “I have been encouraging him to look in some other direction than what he’s been trying (on pension).”

How will the two come together on the pension issue? Well, it’s not exactly clear yet, but there were some big developments this week that will play into it.

On Thursday, House Republican leadership delayed the long-awaited committee debut of this year’s House bill on pensions, which would prohibit all new employees, except for those in public safety, from enrolling in the state pension system and require them instead to enroll in private investment plans that don’t provide a guaranteed benefit.

Meanwhile, SB 1114 on pensions, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, was scrapped. A study that was to provide an analysis of how the changes would affect the pension system wouldn’t be ready until April 21, Simpson said in Thursday letter to Senate President Don Gaetz. (It’s already been widely speculated Gov. Rick Scott didn’t want the study to be done in time for this year’s session.)

Instead, Simpson said, he wants to resurrect the legislation he was pushing last year -- SB 1392. While Weatherford’s bill was automatic -- new employees had no choice -- Simpson’s bill last year would have given most new employees nine months to decide between the state’s pension system and private investment plans. If they don’t pick, they default into the private investment plan.

While a study would be required to make sure that this plan is feasible, Simpson said he hopes to use the one that was conducted last year.

“I believe that the special study conducted last year may still be valid,” Simpson wrote Gaetz. “Or that updating the study from last year could be done relatively quickly allowing us to consider passage of this legislation this year.”

Latvala helped Simpson craft that bill, and he said he supports it 100 percent this year.

“It would not surprise me if I become a co-sponsor,” Latvala said.

He said he doesn’t worry about losing union support. He said most don’t object to the bill. The only quibble they have is the default provision, where employees who don’t choose a plan are steered into the 401(k)-style investment plan. But he said unions have nine months to educate their members and if employees don’t choose in that time, it’s their own fault.

“It’s up to them,” Latvala said.

But Robert Ascencio, president of the non-profit Florida Public Employees, which advocates for state workers, said he still opposes the measure.

“It’s a bad bill,” Ascensio said. “What about the employees without bargaining units? Who’s going to educate them? This is intended to erode or phase out the Florida Retirement System.”

When asked if he was working with Latvala to pass Simpson’s bill instead, Weatherford was non-committal.

"Senators Simpson and Latvala have worked very hard, and I appreciate their efforts to reform the Florida Pension System,” Weatherford said in a statement. “We look forward to bringing a pension bill forward again this year. I am optimistic that we will reach an agreement to help strengthen the fiscal future of our state."

Vote on voucher bill puts pressure on Senate

A bill combining the proposed expansion of the school voucher program and the creation of education savings accounts for special-needs students moved forward on Friday, winning the support of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, called the vote "an important step toward providing more Florida students with more opportunities to receive a quality education."

"This scholarship program has allowed tens thousands of students to rise to their full potential, and more opportunities will mean a brighter future for more students," Fresen said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the Senate as we continue to make the expansion of school choice for Florida's families a priority."

Fresen said the bill could be heard on the floor as early as next week.

Friday's party-lines vote did two things. First, it set the stage for a bitter partisan battle in House.

"There is no secret that our minority caucus did take a position to oppose this bill," said ranking Democratic member Rep. Dwayne Taylor, of Daytona Beach. "They only take those types of positions when they see troubling bills that they have some major concerns. This was one of them."

Taylor acknowledged that some Democrats had supported the program in the past. But he said the proposed expansion was too much, especially without a provision requiring students in the program to take the state exams. 

The vote also turned up the pressure on the Senate to take another look at the voucher language. Recall that Sen. Bill Galvano withdrew a similar proposal last week, saying there was not enough time to develop solid accountability language.

Friday's hearing brought out strong opinions from members of the committee.

Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, raised questions about accountability in the private schools participating in the voucher program. "We still don't know what is going on in private schools that accept public dollars," she said. 

She also took issue with the House strategy to combine the voucher bill with the education savings account bill. 

"I think putting these two voucher programs together is simply a Hail Mary," she said.

But Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said lawmakers should focus on the children.

"I know there are many moms and dads in Florida who feel like their needs for their children are not being met, and they become frustrated with the bureaucracy that they meet in these public school institutions," she said. "Our goal today is not to save the public school institutions. Our goal today is not to protect the school enrollment. Our job today, members, is to ensure that Florida students get the very best education opportunities that they can. Period."

Will other states delay use of SAVE for voter checks?

Florida is one of a handful of states that signed agreements with the Department of Homeland Security to use SAVE to search for non-citizens on voter rolls.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced Thursday that he was delaying his plan to start a new round of looking for non-citizen voters due to DHS revamping the SAVE website. DHS started changes to the website in February but may not finish the project until after the 2014 election however SAVE remains operational by agencies nationwide.

So we wondered if any other agencies that use SAVE for voter registration purposes have also halted efforts as a result of the website changes.

This week, the Virginia Secretary of the State Board of Elections signed an agreement to access SAVE but won’t start using it until staff receive training and the state sets rules for using the system.

“We have reached out to DHS to get a full understanding of the changes they are making to the system to determine how those changes may impact Virginia’s use of SAVE...” Edgardo Cortés, Deputy Secretary Virginia State Board of Elections told Naked Politics in an email. “No timeline has been set yet for starting to use the SAVE system.  No decisions regarding when we start utilizing the system will be made until we get the information from DHS about the planned changes to the website.

In 2005, Maricopa County, Ariz., was the first agency to enter into an agreement with the SAVE Program for voter registration, and a few other counties in Arizona were added later. By 2013, Florida, Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina had reached similar agreements -- and now Virginia has been added to the list in 2014. States with pending applications to use SAVE for voter lists include Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Oregon and Tennessee, DHS told PolitiFact in November.

As PolitiFact found, voter registration is not one of the main purposes of SAVE -- most of the uses of SAVE pertain to benefits or licenses. In fiscal year 2013 in Florida, there were about one million SAVE queries by Florida agencies, and the majority were for driver’s licenses and health and social services.


Rick Scott's 79-second press gaggle

A large media crowd descended on Gov. Rick Scott in Davie today after he celebrated the opening of the express lanes on Interstate 595.

But reporters didn’t have questions about the interstate project (the lanes opened a few days ago) -- they were there to grill him about the hot campaign stories of the week: the resignation of campaign finance chairman Mike Fernandez and Gonzalo Sanabria, a long-time Miami-Dade Expressway Authority Board member.

Scott took about three questions before he dashed off to his vehicle and left. From the start of his first answer to his departing “have a great day” lasted about 79 seconds.

Scott shed no new light on the controversies. Here is a partial transcript:

Q: Mike Fernandez resigned from your campaign, now Gonzalo Sanabria has resigned, he says you have disrespected and disparaged the Hispanic community in South Florida. What’s your answer?

A: “Mr Sanabria resigned after he was told he was not going to be reappointed. He voted for increases on the tolls. As you know I’m for keeping the costs low for Floridians. He was not going to be reappointed, he was told that, and that’s when he resigned....”

(Read the Miami Herald's full account of the Sanabria controversy.)

Q: “So this was sour grapes on his part? What about Mike Fernandez? He is very very upset with the direction of your campaign.”

A: “We are doing well. We are going to have record fundraising this quarter. We are headed in right direction. Look at what is happening in our state. Jobs have come back, our education system is getting better, we are almost in a 43 year low in our crime rate...”

Q: “How badly have you been damaged by what happened this week?”

A: “Oh gosh 6.2% percent unemployment. 33,000 private sector jobs in the month of February. 540,000 jobs since December 2010. Look at our education system, our 4th graders, No. 2 in the world in reading......”



March 27, 2014

S. Fla. lawmakers, including Rep. Frederica Wilson, head to Haiti talk reconstruction with President Michel Martelly

From Rep. Frederica Wilson's press office ...


MIAMI - Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson (FL-24) will travel to Haiti on Friday, March 28, 2014, at the invitation of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman-emeritus Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27).  The purpose of the trip is to examine the findings of a Governmental Accountability Office report, commissioned through the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which reviews the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) assistance efforts in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake.  The delegation, which also includes Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), will also assess the security situation in Haiti and receive an update on the status of local elections.

“It has been four years since the worst natural disaster in recent memory occurred in Haiti—the Haiti Earthquake of 2010. Despite heavy investment in Haiti, many projected goals have not been met.


Continue reading "S. Fla. lawmakers, including Rep. Frederica Wilson, head to Haiti talk reconstruction with President Michel Martelly" »

Vote on university 'sunshine' exemption exposes cracks in House Democratic caucus

@tbtia & @kmcgrory

At a meeting of House Democrats before the afternoon session, Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, of Tallahassee, called a proposal to shield universities' discussions about prospective donors "dangerous."

"It is an attempt to privatize our universities," she said.

She noted that there were enough Democrats to defeat HB 115 because public records exemptions require a two-thirds vote. Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, made a suggestion.

"Let's kill the bill to kill the bill," she said.

Reed's idea prompted cheers and applause from the caucus. Some members chanted her name.

Minority Leader Perry Thurston hesitated to take a formal position, joking that some members of the caucus would alert House Speaker Will Weatherford before the vote. But he urged his fellow House Democrats to stand together on the floor.

That didn't happen.

Nine Democrats voted in favor of HB 115, making the finally tally 83-33. At least four of those Democrats needed to vote "no" in order to defeat the proposal. There are 45 members in the House Democratic caucus, though two were absent today.

Continue reading "Vote on university 'sunshine' exemption exposes cracks in House Democratic caucus" »

Slash and learn: a fact-check on Scott's proposed $3.3B ed cut

Both Charlie Crist and Rick Scott will have gubernatorial records to fuel the campaign fire this year. The attacks have already started, with Crist firing a shot about Scott’s budget actions over the years.

On a page titled "Top 5 reasons to make Florida Scott-free," Crist brings up education spending as No. 1. "Rick Scott tried to slash school funding by $3.3 billion," the site says. "To put that into perspective, $3.3 billion could pay the yearly salaries of more than 70,000 teachers in Florida."

Considering Scott came into office during the Great Recession, his budget cutting is well known. We thought we’d dive into the numbers to see whether he proposed that the state’s schools take a $3.3 billion hit. Read PolitiFact for the full story. 

State college 'mission creep' becomes focus of Senate tuition proposal


Sen. Joe Negron has decided that Florida's community colleges are offering too many bachelor's degrees that duplicate programs at the 11, soon to be 12, state universities. As the Senate's budget chief, he is in a position to do something about it.

Negron is championing Senate Bill 1148, which today passed the Appropriations Committee that he chairs with one dissenting vote. The bill requires the Legislature to approve any new bachelor's degree programs at community colleges. That takes power away from the state Board of Education, which approves new bachelor's programs at state colleges except St. Petersburg College. By law, it doesn't have to get outside approval.

Separately, the Appropriations panel approved a budget amendment filed by Negron that reduced community college funding for bachelor degrees by 10 percent. That money, was then redistributed to the state's two "pre-eminent" universities. Florida State University and University of Florida received an extra $1.7 million each from the 24 state colleges that have baccalaureate programs. (Four community colleges choose not to offer bachelor degrees.)

Negron, R-Stuart, said he not only thinks state colleges should have a tougher time adding new bachelor degrees, they also should reduce some of the ones they currently. The 175 programs currently offered at community colleges cover subjects that don't fit the initial goal of creating bachelor's degrees that address specific, regional workforce needs, he said.

"We can't build an elite university system if we have a state college system that is trying to do the same thing as the university system," Negron said. "So this is something that I personally care about, so I'm working through the appropriations process to really develop and implement a point of view that I have."

Sen. Jack Latvala, a St. Petersburg Republican, cast the sole "no" vote to SB 1148 and had heated debate with Negron over the budget reductions. Latvala said the Legislature decided several years ago to allow community colleges to offer bachelors degrees as a way to provide students more access at affordable prices.

Continue reading "State college 'mission creep' becomes focus of Senate tuition proposal" »

Longtime MDX board member resigns over treatment of Mike Fernandez by Gov. Rick Scott's campaign team

Gonzalo Sanabria, a longtime Miami-Dade Expressway Authority board member, resigned Thursday from his post to protest the “disparaging and disrespectful” treatment of Mike Fernandez, the former co-finance chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign.

“Since he has been treated in such a disparaging and disrespectful manner by your [campaign] staff and ignored in his advice, it is obvious that there is a great deal of dysfunction and disconnection of which I want to have no part nor can I render my support any longer as you are governing from a weak and flawed platform,” Sanabria wrote in an email he sent to Scott’s staff and shared with the Miami Herald.

Sanabria, who also quit his leadership post with the Republican Party of Miami-Dade, said his resignation was “mostly due to your perceived insensitivity to loyal supporters and our Hispanic community in Florida.”

Fernandez quit his position as top fundraiser for Scott’s campaign last week. Three of his emails, obtained by the Herald/Times and Politico, showed Fernandez repeatedly questioned the judgment of Scott’s advisers and the quality of his campaign ads and his Hispanic outreach.

He also complained about a lack of access to Scott and accused unidentified campaign aides of mimicking a Mexican accent in front of his business partner, a charge the campaign denies but will not discuss in detail.

Fernandez, who lives in Coral Gables, is a highly successful health care billionaire entrepreneur who came to the United States as a poor young boy from Cuba — an ideal symbol of a successful pro-businessman who could help Scott court Hispanic votes.

The political tit-for-tat with Sanabria began Thursday morning when Sanabria, 65, a real estate broker and investor who lives in Coral Gables, announced his resignation in an email that he sent to the Herald.

Scott’s office, without mentioning Sanabria’s resignation, then issued a short press release announcing that Javier Vasquez, a 50-year-old attorney from Miami Lakes, would be appointed to the MDX board.

Later, Scott spokesman Frank Collins issued a terse and blunt statement saying that Sanabria was upset at the governor’s decision earlier that morning to not reappoint him.

“We called Mr. Sanabria just after 11 a.m. today to let him know that he would not be reappointed to the MDX Board due to his votes to raise toll fees on the people of Miami-Dade,” said Collins. “Mr. Sanabria, an appointee of the previous administration, later sent an email upset about not being reappointed.”

Read entire story here


- Sergio R. Bustos, State/Politics Editor, Miami Herald

Miami-Dade SOE endorsed delay of search for noncitizen voters

Miami-Dade Supervisor Penelope Townsley agrees with the decision by Secretary of State Ken Detzner to delay the next round of searching for noncitizens on the voter rolls, said her spokeswoman Christina White today.

Detzner announced his decision to delay today as a result of the Department of Homeland Security revamping the database that he planned to use to verify if voters on the list are ineligible. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security started to revamp SAVE in February and won't be done until 2015. 

“From the very beginning we always felt and understood our statutory obligation is to remove ineligible voters from the rolls and will continue  to do so,” White said. However, “we always wanted it to be a more credible and reliable list -- that’s what we have been waiting for. Now that they said they will delay it we will pick it up when they decide to finish the list.”

Several groups that support voting rights -- including the League of Women Voters and the Advancement Project -- had been critical of the "purge." They have said the state-led purge disproportionately hit minorities, snagged those who could legally vote -- including a Brooklyn-born World War II vet in Broward -- was ineffective and a waste of money.

“What we have seen from past efforts it has not been successful in identifying ineligible voters,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Voters. “Of course the League believes and always believes only eligible voters should vote but the process we already have in place -- supervisors work every day, all day to clean our lists and keep them up to date -- shows the current process is working very effectively. .... Micromanaging by the political appointee Secretary of State position was shown to be ineffective in fact in uncovering ineligible voters.”

Here is our earlier post about Detzner. He has sinced issued a press release verifying that he has decided to delay "Project Integrity."