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11 posts from January 17, 2013

January 17, 2013

Senate starts over in quest to build a transparency website

Determined to prove that legislators are committed to government transparency, a Senate committee convened Thursday to explore ways to give the public more details about the state’s $70 billion dollar budget.

The Senate Government Operations and Accountability Committee took up the issue after rejecting a $5 million budget transparency program — known as Transparency 2.0 — that was negotiated in secret.

The committee heard a staff report that nine state-run web sites portend to offer a level of transparency, but require the public to go to several of them to get a complete budget picture.

Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, an independent ethics watchdog group, told the committee that even with numerous web sites there are elements of the budget that remain off limits to the public. Among them: the Legislature’s contracts, budget planning documents of state agencies and legislative salary data.

The solution, Krassner said, is for the state to move to open data, allowing the public access to many of its information databases.

“Let’s free the data,’’ Krassner said. “That doesn’t involve significant cost. In fact, it probably involves cost savings…You have all these web sites powered by the same types of databases, but the databases are not public.” Story here.

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Gov. Rick Scott spoke to UF presidential candidate Woodson before asking Machen to stay

We knew that Gov. Rick Scott helped convince University of Florida President Bernie Machen to postpone retirement. Now, the Times/Heraldhas additional details about what preceded the Jan. 8 announcement that the UF Board of Trustees had cancelled a nationwide search to find Machen's replacement.

Scott took Board of Trustees Chairman David Brown up on an offer to talk to North Carolina State University Chancellor Randy Woodson, the rumored front-runner in the nationwide presidential search although he never formally applied. They met in Naples, where Scott owns a home, some time between Christmas and New Years Day, the governor's office said.

”They discussed Woodson's principles for higher education and the University of Florida,” Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said via email. The Governor was impressed by his experience and skill.”

The Board of Trustees had planned to review applications on Jan. 10, interview finalists on Jan. 11 and name a new president on Jan. 12.

Instead, Scott and Brown made the joint announcement on the 8th that Machen was staying and that the governor had a hand in changing his mindby pledging to help make UF a top 10 public university. That surprised UF supporters who believed Machen was looking forward to retirement and that the search to replace him was going well.

Scott’s office said he met with Machen the day before that announcement, on Jan. 7 in Ft. Lauderdale. That was the same day the governor attended the BCS National Championship football game in Miami.

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Ethics gets another dose of reform, this time from Fasano

Hoping the third time is the charm, Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has filed an ethics bill similar to ones he filed as a state senator in 2011 and last year.

Although Fasano’s two previous attempts failed – rather quickly -- the appetite for ethics reform is seemingly insatiable this year among Republicans. Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have branded ethics reform as the cause celebre of this year’s session that start in March.

“I’m very optimistic, the leadership, the tone from both leaders gives us hope that if not our legislation, something similar to our legislation will deal with these issues,” Fasano said Thursday.

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Bill Nelson doesn't get his python. But he sure bagged the news media

IMG_0605Bill Nelson didn’t kill any pythons in the Everglades.

But Florida’s senior senator bagged something bigger Thursday: the rapt attention of the news media.

With a Florida Wildlife commissioner who goes by "Alligator Ron" Bergeron and snake hunters — including one wrangler called "Python Dave" — Nelson and a team of biologists and naturalists roamed the River of Grass to raise awareness about the invasive snakes that are gobbling up the creatures of the Everglades.

The wildlife commission has launched a “Python Challenge” cash-prize contest, which began last Saturday, to get more people to kill more of the snakes.

"These pythons eat everything in the Everglades: bobcats, deer, even alligator and maybe endangered Florida panther," Nelson said.

"These snakes are dangerous. There was a child killed in Central Florida by one of these kept as pets," he said. "The pythons don’t belong here."

But Nelson does.

The Everglades is a piece of Florida history and a place for threatened and endangered species. And Nelson, the only statewide elected Florida Democrat, has been a threatened political species since he first won his Senate seat in 2000.

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Game on, again: Court to hear challenge to Senate redistricting map

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis denied a motion by the Florida Legislature today to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the lawsuit challenging the state Senate redistricting plan.

Legislators argued that the trial court should not hear the case because it should be handled exclusively by the Florida Supreme Court. Lewis disagreed and concluded that argument "flies in the face of case law."  Download 2013 01 17 Order Denying Motion to Dismiss

The lawyer for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Adam Schachter, released the following statement:

“Judge Lewis’s order means that Floridians will have their day in court. This ruling gives our citizens the right to scrutinize the conduct and motives of those who drew the map.” 


Legal dispute over 'Taj Mahal' artwork is finally over

A two-year legal dispute ended Thursday when the Legislative Budget Commission approved $514,884 in payment for framed artwork for the “Taj Mahal” courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeals.

The original tab was $357,000, but it ballooned after two lawsuits and seven appeals when Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and his predecessor Alex Sink balked at the cost for the nearly 400 framed photos by Signature Art Gallery.

Atwater and Gov. Rick Scott agreed to pay the gallery last month on the premise the artwork would go to the Department of State’s Division of Cultural Affairs. The commission, made up of seven state representatives and seven senators approved the settlement with no discussion. The gallery will be paid next week.

-- Michael Van Sickler, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Gov. Rick Scott calls for up to 14 early-voting days, more sites

Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday formally endorsed the three major changes to election procedures recommended by state election supervisors, days after a team of supervisors testified before legislative committees.

In a statement issued after a meeting with Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Scott specifically endorsed these changes:

* Increasing the number of early voting days from eight to a maximum of 14, from six to 12 hours each day, and including the Sunday before Election Day at the election supervisor's option.

* Expanding the locations for early voting beyond the existing law, which is limited to elections offices, city halls and libraries.

* Reducing the length of the ballot, including descriptions of constitutional amendments.

All three proposals require legislative approval. Scott did not specifically call for a change in state law to prevent the Legislature from requiring that the full text of ballot questions be presented to voters.

Scott issued this statement: "Our ultimate goal must be to restore Floridians' confidence in our election system ... We need more early voting days, which should include an option of the Sunday before Election Day, and we need more early voting locations."

Scott's statement comes in the wake of a chaotic Florida election when voters waited up to seven hours to cast ballots, and national news organizations declared President Barack Obama the winner before the state's final results were posted.  


Miami-Dade mayor on Dolphins' partly tax-funded stadium redo: 'The devil is always in the details'

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has not endorsed or opposed the proposal by the Miami Dolphins to renovate the team's privately owned stadium partly with tax dollars. And he said Thursday he doesn't plan to take a position one way or the other until he knows more about the plan, which would require legislative and county action to fund about half of the $400 million renovation.

"The devil is always in the details," he said. 

For the first time, the mayor said the Dolphins' plan should "probably" have gone to county voters. The team has said there is no time for a referendum before Miami presents its bid to host Super Bowl L.

"I think they probably should go to referendum, but do we have the time? I don't know," Gimenez said. 

He added that the proposal shouldn't focus on hosting a singe event but on a series of them, from Super Bowls to college football bowls to soccer games, that could benefit the county from national or international exposure.

"Those sporting events really put the spotlight" on Miami-Dade, the mayor said. "There is value to that."

As county commissioner, Gimenez vociferously opposed the financing deal for the publicly owned Miami Marlins' ballpark in Little Havana. He was elected mayor after Carlos Alvarez was recalled, in part because of voter frustration over the stadium agreement.

"I wasn't against the Marlins stadium -- I was against the deal," Gimenez said. "There has to be a public benefit."

Gimenez said he wants to examine the Dolphins' proposal if and when the team provides more details. That likely won't happen unless the team's efforts to obtain $3 million more in state tax money a year go anywhere in Tallahassee -- a big if in the tax-averse Legislature.

"I don't speculate about things that don't happen," the mayor quipped.

Florida Supreme Court pension decision's winners and losers

Minutes after the Florida Supreme Court turned in its 4-3 ruling to uphold a Florida law on pensions, those with most to gain and lose responded in tweets and emails.

Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford appeared to be the biggest winners from the decision, which allowed the state to retain the 3 percent levy on worker salaries to offset the state's investment into the Florida Retirement System. State workers? Not so much.

For Scott, the decision helps avoid a $2 billion budget hole for next year -- just in time for his budget rollout in a few weeks.

"This is a great day for FL families. The court’s ruling today supports our efforts to lower the cost of living for FL families," Scott tweeted.

For Weatherford, it adds momentum to one of his top priorties: eliminating pensions for new employees.

"On the surface, this appears to be a decisive victory for taxpayers," Weatherford said in a news release. "We are pleased the Court has upheld our actions on pension reform."

The tone was less celebratory in tweets by Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, who tweeted: "It is with great sadness that I report that we lost the 3 percent suit." Minutes later, perhaps in an effort to boost the spirtis of state employees, he tweeted: "Don’t mourn, organize!"

Update: Court rules 4-3 in favor of state, tells workers they lose 3 percent in retirement battle

In a major victory for the state, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 4-3 against state workers and allowed the state to retain the 3 percent levy on worker salaries to offset the state's investment into the Florida Retirement SystemDownload Retirement ruling

The ruling allows lawmakers to avoid another $2 billion budget hole in the 2013-14 fiscal year while all state workers will see their salary cuts retained indefinitely and will continue to see no cost of living increases adjustments made to their retirement accounts. 

The lawsuit, Scott v. Williams, was filed by the Florida Education Association after lawmakers passed, and Gov. Rick Scott signed, a law in 2011 to tap salaries of 623,000 teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, nurse and other public employees and put the money into the retirement system.

In the decision written by Justice Jorge Labarga, the court cited a 1981 ruling in Florida Sheriff’s and said the unions and trial court were incorrect in concluding that the decision was not intended to allow changes in retirement contribution plans for both current and future employees.

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