November 13, 2012

Weatherford seeks to change tone as House Speaker, but will push conservative agenda

 TALLAHASSEE --  Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford said Tuesday he wants to be known as an “inclusive reformer” for the next two years, one who works more with Democrats than his predecessor, Dean Cannon, but also continue to push a conservative agenda.

Top on his list is eliminating the state’s defined benefit plan for new employees. He said he wants to keep defined plans for existing employees, but that he would push to remove it as a choice for all new hires.

“The idea of a defined benefit plan is old and archaic,” Weatherford said. “We have to recognize it’s time for states to be fiscally responsible.”

Currently, employees can choose between a defined benefit plan, which pays out a guaranteed payment based on years of service times a percentage of average peak earnings; and a defined contribution plan, which is based on contributions the employee makes into investment accounts, which are considered riskier.

Weatherford said he didn’t know how much the change could save, but said states and cities facing mounting deficits have been pushed to the brink by the defined benefit plans. They are a “ticking time bomb” in state finances, he said.

Ethics and elections reform, such as eliminating powerful fundraising committees used by lawmakers, will be one of his top priorities, as well. Dubbed “Committees of Continuous Existence”, Weatherford said they have been misused by lawmakers and need to be eliminated to bring transparency to campaign finance. He said Florida’s law limiting campaign contributions to $500 per candidate were outdated and needed to be revised to reflect other states, some of which didn’t have any limits, such as Alabama, Indiana and Iowa.

November 12, 2012

Minutes after Dorworth loses in recount, GOP names replacement Speaker

Minutes after it became official that Rep. Chris Dorworth, a projected future House Speaker, had been ousted from office, the Republican leadership of the Florida House announced plans for his replacement.

Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, will take Dorworth’s place as House Speaker in 2014, after his Republican colleagues voted for him unanimously.

“I am deeply grateful to my colleagues for trusting me with the important role as their future leader in the Florida House,” said Crisafulli, in a statement. “I understand the weight of the responsibility that has been placed on my shoulders, and I know with the support of the House, we will set forth a bold agenda that honors Floridians over the next four years.” 

Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, lost to political newcomer Mike Clelland, despite outspending his opponent heavily. It was one of the largest upsets in the recent history of the Florida House.

Though the results in Dorworth’s razor-thin race had not been finalized last week, Republican lawmakers began jockeying for power once it appeared that Dorworth might lose.

Other names that emerged for future Speaker included Reps. Charles McBurney and Erik Fresen.

In the end, Crisafulli prevailed. The upcoming Speakerships through 2020 have now been set.

Continue reading "Minutes after Dorworth loses in recount, GOP names replacement Speaker" »

November 09, 2012

Dorworth loss sets off new race for 2014 speakership

Republican representatives elected in 2007 are jostling to replace, Rep. Chris Dorworth, who appears to have lost his seat in a shocking upset.  

Dorworth, a Lake Mary Republican who was in line to become Speaker of the House in 2014, lost narrowly to Mike Clelland, an underfunded Democrat and newcomer.

The apparent Dorworth loss, which came on a night of several Democratic upsets, set off a race to fill in the leadership gap for the competitive role of the Speakership.

Members of Dorworth’s class—which includes Reps. Steve Crisafulli, Erik Fresen, Matt Hudson and Charles McBurney—have reportedly been making moves to replace him.

That class has been considerably thinned by various resignations and election defeats. Former Reps. Eric Eisnaugle, Brad Drake, Scott Plakon, Mike Weinstein and Mike Horner all left the Legislature this year either via resignation or electoral defeat.

We'll update as we learn more.


November 08, 2012

Gov. Scott to pursue more business tax cuts in 2013

Gov. Rick Scott is planning to cut business taxes further next year, announcing a new proposal Thursday to raise the exemption on corporate income taxes from $50,000 to $75,000.

 Scott spoke to the Florida Association of Realtors, and said his plan would help cut taxes on about 2,000 businesses. The total tax cut would amount to about $8 million, a fraction of the roughly $2 billion that the state collects in businesses taxes each year.

In his first year in office, Scott and the Legislature raised the exemption from $5,000 to $25,000, then followed up in 2012 by doubling the exemption to $50,000.

One of Scott’s campaign pledges was to eliminate the corporate income tax, which provides about 8 percent of the state’s annual general revenue.

“Today, I am proud to announce that in the upcoming legislative session, we will work to further eliminate the business tax for another 2,000 small businesses,” said Scott. “Everything we do must be tied to helping families get jobs, and eliminating this tax will ensure more small businesses can hire people.”

After Scott’s business tax cuts, more than half of Florida businesses pay no corporate income tax. His proposal this year is a minor step toward eliminating the entire $2 billion in corporate income taxes, a move that, if enacted too swiftly, could severely strain Florida’s budget as the state tries to emerge from the recession. 

The modest proposal for 2013 represents a stark contrast from Scott's first proposed budget in 2011, when he asked lawmakers to approve more than $400 million in business tax cuts. Lawmakers ultimately passed a drastically scaled back tax cut.

Democrats, coming off Election Day victories, immediately bashed Scott for the new proposal.

"On election night, the people of Florida sent a clear message that they have rejected Gov. Rick Scott's failed priorities and policies which have slashed funding for our public schools while giving hand outs to the corporate special interests who epitomize the broken politics of Tallahassee," said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.

See part of Scott’s lengthy press release below:

Continue reading "Gov. Scott to pursue more business tax cuts in 2013" »

November 07, 2012

Democrats chip away at GOP power in Tallahassee

Before Tuesday, Florida Republicans had the wind at their back — record amounts of special interest money, a veto-proof majority in the Legislature and unbridled power all over the state.

But the muscle flexing appeared to backfire and the special interest money, this time, did not translate into landslide victories. Voters delivered a series of election night losses for Florida’s power party. President Barack Obama holds a lead over Mitt Romney. Legislature-backed amendments were mostly defeated. The GOP drive to remake the Supreme Court failed and the Republicans lost their supermajority in the House and Senate.

Even the projected future speaker of the House — one of the most moneyed and powerful Republicans in the state — is in danger of losing his seat to an underfunded political neophyte.

“Florida sent a clear message to us as legislators that they are not pleased with the direction we’re taking them,” said former Senator and Representative-elect Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican. “I think a message was sent [Tuesday] night to the Legislature, and to Gov. [Rick] Scott.”

Led by Scott, the Legislature has tacked sharply to the right in the past two years, passing or pursuing measures backed by the tea party and the business lobby, while slashing funding for schools and social programs.

Read more here


Door closing on Dorworth's reelection?

Down goes Dorworth? It's still too early to call, but the the expected future Speaker of the Florida House could be on the wrong way of one of the biggest political upsets in the Florida Legislature's history

Last night, we reported that Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, was 37 votes behind his Democratic challenger with 100 percent of precincts reporting.

Now, we've learned from the Seminole County Supervisor of Elections that all absentee ballots have been counted and only an unknown number of provisional ballot remain. No military ballots will be counted in this race.

Are they enough to close the gap for Dorworth? There's no way to know, but the Supervisor's note shows that the door may be closing on Dorworth.

It would be a stunning political upset for a future speaker and incoming House Majority Leader to be ousted by a challenger who was outspent more than 5-to-1.

A veteran political reporter here tells us such a coup may have happened only once before in recent Florida politics.

In 1988, Sam Bell, D-Ormond Beach, lost a shocker to Dick Graham, a lawyer. Bell was in line to become Speaker in 1990. 

This morning's memo from Seminole elections supervisor, Mike Ertel, is below:

Continue reading "Door closing on Dorworth's reelection?" »

November 03, 2012

'Soft-money,' big checks fuel lawmakers' personal committees

Florida legislators have padded their personal political committees with more than $20 million in special interest donations this election cycle, using the funds to buy attack ads, help colleagues win races and, occasionally, pay for travel, meals and perks.

More and more, special interest groups are sending five- and six-figure campaign checks to lawmakers through committees as a way to avoid the usual $500 cap on individual donations, a Times/Herald analysis shows.

The Florida Medical Association, for example, contributed $100,000 this cycle to a political committee controlled by incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and others. Disney donated $190,000 to another GOP-controlled group, Protect our Liberty.

And then there's GOP super-donor and Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, who pumped $250,000 into House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford's Committee for a Conservative House.

Decried by critics as slush funds, these "committees of continuous existence," or CCEs, allow powerful lawmakers to amass huge campaign treasure chests and spend the money with broad latitude. Each day, thousands of dollars course through the political system, flowing between CCEs, interest groups, consultants and lawmakers. By the time the money reaches voters in the form of a campaign ad, it can be difficult to know the true source of the funding.

More here

November 02, 2012

Bondi, Legislature reach deal on $300 million in foreclosure money

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced Friday that her office has reached a deal with the Florida Legislature over how to use $300 million in foreclosure settlement money that has sat dormant since March amidst negotiations over spending authority.

One-fifth of the money, about $60 million, could be approved in the coming weeks for programs like down-payment assistance, legal counseling for foreclosures and initiatives to help deal with the backlog of foreclosures in state court.

The state Legislature will decide how to spend $200 million of the total during the next legislative session, meaning  it will be spent after May. According to the agreement, that money will go to “housing-related” initiatives, a broad term that could include "foreclosure prevention, neighborhood revitalization, affordable housing, homebuyer or renter assistance, legal assistance, counseling and other housing-related programs."

It also allows an additional $40 million to go to state coffers as a “civil penalty”, adding to the $33 million that has already been sent to the state treasury.

The deal was announced by Bondi, Speaker-designate Will Weatherford and incoming Senate President Don Gaetz. 

Bondi originally argued that she had the authority to spend the foreclosure-settlement cash, while legislative leaders pointed out that they are legally authorized to appropriate funds.

As the two groups negotiated, the money sat in an escrow account, while other states began putting their portion of the settlement to use. As of last month, Florida was the only state that had yet to announce how it would use the money.

Meanwhile, Florida recently became the state with the highest foreclosure rate in the country. The $300 million cash payment came in addition to more than $8 billion in mortgage assistance that Floridians were set to receive directly from banks as part of the national $25 billion settlement.

Other states have come under fire from consumer advocates for using money from the national mortgage settlement for issues not related to the housing crisis

Though Bondi has repeatedly stated that she wanted the money to go directly to housing-related issues, it was not clear if the Legislature would sign on to that.

"This plan gets much-needed assistance to the homeowners and communities suffering the effects of the foreclosure crisis, and ensures that the settlement funds are spent with the transparency, accountability and flexibility that comes from the legislative process,” Bondi said in a statement.  “I thank President-designate Gaetz and Speaker-designate Weatherford for working together with me to implement the mortgage settlement in a way that’s in the best interests of our state.”

 Added Gaetz: “I am grateful to Attorney General Bondi and Speaker-designate Weatherford for working with us on a proposal which ensures that these funds are appropriated by the legislature in a transparent and accountable manner,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “Together with the approximately $7.5 billion in relief that will go directly to homeowners, this funding will play an important role in the multitude of state and federal efforts to provide relief for homeowners facing foreclosure.”

 See the full press release below:

Continue reading "Bondi, Legislature reach deal on $300 million in foreclosure money" »

October 25, 2012

Julien ends challenge to House race, considers party switch

Rep. John Patrick Julien is ending his effort to prove that voter fraud, ballot-doctoring in nursing homes and a self-described “Queen of Absentee Ballots” caused him to lose an Aug. primary.

Julien, a North Miami Democrat who narrowly lost a race House District 107 to Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, has spent two months fighting the results in court.

Last week, a Leon County judge threw out the court challenge, and Julien indicated that he would sue the Florida Legislature to block Watson from being seated.

This week, Julien decided to drop his challenge, and said he was considering leaving the Democratic party.

“I have made a decision to drop my challenge before the full house,” Julien wrote to some supporters on Thursday. “First, I do not wish to put speaker designate [Will] Weatherford in a position to start his tenure with this issue. Additionally, even if I were successful in proving fraud took place it would only create a vacancy. I cannot ask the taxpayers to foot the bill for a special election.”

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October 22, 2012

Write-in candidates: Sham or sincere?

TALLAHASSEE — They are the candidates you don't see. They don't collect signatures or pay fees to run. They almost never raise or spend money. They don't attend campaign forums or knock on doors. Their names never appear on the ballot. And they always lose.

Yet, write-in candidates matter in Florida.

When they run, voters lose.

This year alone, more than 900,000 Floridians were stopped from casting a ballot in 15 competitive state House and Senate races because a write-in candidate signed up to run.

It's a loophole in Florida's quirky election system that can be exploited to prevent Democrats and independents from choosing a representative from among only Republicans, and vice versa.

"It's a sham," said Carl Domino, a Jupiter Republican.

Continue reading "Write-in candidates: Sham or sincere?" »