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6 posts from January 15, 2013

January 15, 2013

Ethics reform starts strong in Senate

TALLAHASSEE — The prospects for the first serious ethics reform in 36 years brightened Tuesday when lawmakers embraced an array of changes that would make it harder for them to exploit their positions for financial gain.

The changes, unveiled during a Senate ethics committee by its chair, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, include closing a "revolving door" that allows lawmakers to lobby state agencies after they are out of office; restricting lawmakers from using political committees for personal expenses; and prohibiting lawmakers from finding work at state colleges and universities after they are elected.

The committee of eight Republicans and five Democrats also sounded supportive of a slate of recommendations from the Florida Commission on Ethics, including docking pay for state workers who don't pay fines levied by the commission; putting liens on property of those who don't pay fines; posting financial disclosure information of public officials online; and giving law enforcement the ability to refer cases to the commission for investigation.

"These are historic times for Florida for ethics reform," said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida. "This proposal is comprehensive and most impressive."

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Florida superintendents ask for money, flexibility to improve school safety

In the month since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, officials nationwide have reviewed safety and security plans with fresh, newly sobered eyes. Florida school districts performed lockdown drills, identified campus vulnerabilities and asked law enforcement agencies to increase officer visibility.

And on Tuesday, district superintendents told Florida lawmakers they would welcome more state money to help boost school security, they just don't want too many restrictions on how the additional funding should be spent.

Florida's 67 counties are too diverse for a one-size-fits-all approach to improving school safety, a trio of superintendents told the Senate's Education Committee.

"Some schools may need a fence," St. Johns County Superintendent Joseph Joyner said. "Some may need radios. Some may need to change their single-access entry. Some may need personnel."

Read more here.

African-American lawmakers criticize Scott's policies

Gov. Rick Scott heard a litany of complaints Tuesday from the Legislative Black Caucus on matters ranging from judicial appointments to civil rights for ex-felons. Throughout an hour-long discussion, the Republican governor held his ground in the face of grievances from Democratic lawmakers.

Criticized for making only a handful of black appointments to the judiciary, Scott said he's limited to the choices given him by nominating panels, and won't appoint judges who believe in "judicial activism." He said 6.5 percent of his judges are African-American (Florida's black population is more than twice that). But Scott broke the tension by pointing out that he has appointed the wives of Reps. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, to state boards.

Faulted for signing a flawed election law that cut back the days of early voting, Scott said: "We've got to make changes, I agree. I didn't have anything to do with passing it." Scott's administration spent more than $500,000 in legal fees last year successfully defending the law against numerous legal challenges.

Black lawmakers make up about one-fifth of the Legislature's membership. They remain angry at Scott for one of his first decisions as governor: He and the three Republican Cabinet members imposed a five-year waiting period after ex-felons leave prison before they can apply for restoration of their civil rights.

"Once you're out as a felon, you should spend time making sure you're doing the right thing before you get your rights back," Scott told the group, seated around a large square table.

The meeting ended with a plea that Scott appoint a task force to look at disparities in sentencing that affect young black men. Scott did not directly respond to the request.

"It's deja vu all over again from last year," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, as the session ended. "He's still stuck on judicial activism. He wants everyone to think like him. He wants to run the state like a corporation, like it's Florida Inc. He's not flexible on a lot of things."

-- Steve Bousquet

Citizens Insurance rate cap could go up to 13 percent

The chair of the Florida House’s Insurance and Banking Subcommittee floated the option of raising the cap on rate hikes on Citizens Property Insurance customers to 13 percent Tuesday.

Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, said homeowners would be willing to pay an additional 3-percentage points if it would reduce the possibility of potential “hurricane taxes” after a catastrophe.

The cap, currently at 10 percent, has been in place since 2009, and followed a freeze on all rate increases under then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

Citizens President, Barry Gilway, speaking before the Insurance and Banking Committee on Tuesday said getting higher insurance rates is the most direct way to shore up Florida’s private market.

“We talk about the need to get outside competitors coming in, back in, to Florida,” he said. “And we’re going to be talking about many different approaches to depopulating Citizens. But creating a competitive marketplace in Florida, basically comesdown to creating competition.”

Gilway said Citizens has been undercutting the private market with below-market rates, but that the 10-percent “glidepath” on rate hikes should not be completely stripped because that would devastate parts of the state.

He said it is up to the Legislature to decide how large of an increase in rates should be appropriate. Gov. Rick Scott has agreed that Citizens is undercutting the market with too-low rates but has not weighed in with any specific proposals for how much rates should increase.

Nelson said he would be looking at raising the cap from 10-percent to 13-percent.

“I think (an additional) three percent makes a lot of sense,” he said, pointing to a statewide study showing support for the proposal.

For a homeowner with a $2,000 annual premium, it could mean an additional $60 or so in new annual costs. The proposal could face backlash from lawmakers in parts of South Florida and Tampa Bay, where insurance rates are highest.

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House panel gets an earful on how to fix 2012 voting problems

Ten Florida election supervisors testified before a House subcommittee Tuesday and largely repeated themes they emphasized to a Senate panel Monday. They want shorter ballots, a return to a maximum of 14 days of early voting and more flexibility in picking early voting sites.

The supervisors testified before the House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton. They also said they want a return to early voting on the Sunday right before an election (which was eliminated when the Legislature rewrote the election code in 2011).

But a recurring theme was the unprecedented length of the 2012 ballot, with 11 proposed constitutional amendments, several of them published in full on orders of lawmakers. "They (voters) just said, 'This ballot is too long,'" said Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford. "It's written in language that a lawyer can't understand."

Lee County's Sharon Harrington said the Legislature has imposed too many restrictions on early voting sites. Miami-Dade's Penelope Townsley stressed the need for more early voting sites, a return to up to 14 days of early voting and limiting all ballot questions to a 75-word summary, the same as citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives.

Seminole County's Mike Ertel struck an upbeat tone, noting that some states don't allow early voting: "Don't let your friends in other states try to shame you into thinking that you haven't done enough for the voters."

One member of the House committee is Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, sponsor of the 2011 law that lawmakers are now trying to fix. "You don't have to restore my confidence. It's already there," Baxley said during the five-hour hearing.

-- Steve Bousquet

FAMU unable to finalize contract with new band director, cancels press conference

Florida A&M University abruptly cancelled a press conference to announce its new band director this morning, leaving an auditorium full of curious students, faculty and media wondering why the school couldn't agree on a contract with the sole remaining finalist.

"Somehow they did not meet the negotiation process and they will not be able to name a candidate," university spokeswoman Sharon Saunders said shortly after announcing to the crowd that the press conference was cancelled.

The university has refused to say which one of four finalists was offered the job, though Saunders said he is in Tallahassee meeting with school officials to seal the deal. The announcement is guaranteed to draw nationwide scrutiny as the Marching 100 band attempts to rebuilt after the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion.

Saunders said she didn't know what specifically hampered contract negotiations other than it had to do with concerns about the role of the band director in light of efforts to reorganize the band.

"There's some concern about the structure of the band," she said.

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