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6 posts from February 1, 2013

February 01, 2013

After Herald/Times reports, House and Senate quietly post links to contracts and salaries

Update: Florida Legislators write the laws but they also write the exemptions. Until now, those exemptions have included providing the public the list of legislative salaries and their contracts. 

The Herald/Times has been reporting about this distinction since we first began writing about the controversy following the botched $5 million Transparency 2.0 web site, in which the Senate spent taxpayers money on a web site to increase access to Senate budget documents but then let the web site sit idle until the contract ran out.

This fall, the Herald/Times requested the salaries of all legislative staffers of the House and Senate through a public records request because, unlike the governor's FloridaHasARighttoKnow.com, the legislative salaries were not available for the public to see. We wrote a story.

We also had to submit a public records request for all contracts, because they also are not included on any of the state's transparency web sites. We included those details in our stories.

Now, quietly, and without fanfare, the House and Senate have posted the salaries and contracts for all to see on Jan. 30, less than two weeks after the IT staff was assigned the duty, said Ryan Duffy, House spokesman. It was also after we noted yet again that while lawmakers write the rules, they also write the exceptions.

We commend them both for this development. Here is the link to the Senate salaries, the Senate contracts. The House's tool is not nearly as easy to use as the Senate's. To get the list of salaries, leave the fields blank and click search and then download the file to excel. We've done if for you here:  Download House contracts 2413  Download House salaries 20413

Working group: Raise sales tax to 6.34%, scrap communications tax

A work group has officially recommended that Florida do away with its “Communication Services Tax” and replace the $1.5 billion in revenue by raising the state’s sales tax from 6-percent to 6.34 percent.

The communication services tax, which is levied on things like home phone service and cable television, comes in at an average of about 14.21 percent, according to the Department of Revenue, which led the working group.

In a Jan. 31 letter to Gov. Rick Scott and Legislative leaders, members of the work group recommended increasing the state’s sales tax and repealing the CST in order to level the playing field in the marketplace.

According to estimates from the working group—which consisted of four members from the communications industry and four representatives of local government—the proposal could save money for some consumers.

Those estimates, however, come from a government affairs firm that represents several major telecommunications companies. Telecoms have long pushed for changes to state taxes on their products and services, and could stand to save millions of dollars under the change.

According to the numbers presented to the work group, a “typical” household might save $190 per year by eliminating the CST and paying higher sales taxes. Small businesses could also save money. The Department of Revenue said that it did not have appropriate data to conduct an independent study and that further research needed to be done to figure out the full pocketbook-impact of the recommendation.

Continue reading "Working group: Raise sales tax to 6.34%, scrap communications tax" »

Latvala: House plan can't be called serious reform

Sen. Jack Latvala, the head of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, told the Herald/Times that he can’t support a House plan to eliminate one class of political committees and raise campaign contribution limits to $10,000 per election because it will exacerbate the arms race of money in politics without sufficient reforms.

"If you say you're going to reform the process, then reform the process,'' said Latvala, R-St. Petersburg,  the head of the Senate committee handling ethics and campaign finance reform. “Based on my first blush, it looks like all we’re doing is changing the names of CCEs to political committees.''

Latvala was responding to a bill filed late Wednesday by House leaders that would raise campaign finance limits and eliminate the Committees of Continuing Existence, the political entities that cannot campaign directly for campaigns but can accept unlimited checks and transfer that money to the party and other committees.

"I raised $600,000 this year without breaking a sweat and I gave $150,000 to charity,'' Latvala said. "What would I do with four times that much."

Continue reading "Latvala: House plan can't be called serious reform" »

Weatherford: Latvala 'posturing' over CCEs

House Speaker Will Weatherford on Friday slapped back the suggestion that his proposal to radically change campaign finance laws -- including the elimination of lawmaker political committees -- is a surreptitious move to keep power in the hands of Tallahassee's politically annointed.

Weatherford and House leaders filed a proposal Wednesday that would, among other things, lift the current cap on campaign contributions from $500 to $10,000 per election, and from $1,000 to $20,000 per election cycle, and eliminate lawmaker Committees of Continuous Existence or CCEs. CCEs allow lawmakers to collect unlimited amounts of contributions, and then funnel that money back into individual campaigns or third-party Electioneering Communications Organizations.

The lawmaker committees have come under fire in recent years over accusations that they are being used for lavish travel, meals and other quasi-personal expenses.

But the committees can also be used for lawmakers to help get like-minded colleagues elected -- particularly lawmakers who may not always see eye-to-eye with top state party leaders.

Enter maverick Tampa Bay Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who raised and spent about $1.8 million from his CCE during the last election cycle. Latvala, who chairs the committee dealing with campaign finance reform, has been cool to the idea of eliminating CCEs completely and has suggested lawmakers take a more modest step instead -- preventing using the funds for personal purposes.

Why is Latvala dragging his feet on the complete elimination of CCEs? 

"I call it political posturing," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told the Tampa Bay Times Friday.

Weatherford said state law allows lawmakers or their advocates to accept unlimited contributions either through a CCE or an Electioneering Communications Organizations or ECO. The difference is ECOs can directly advocate for candidates and CCEs cannot (they must filter their money either to a candidate or ECO).

"What's Jack's logic for needing a CCE? We need the middle man?" Weatherford asked.

Weatherford made his comments about campaign finance reform while addressing the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. In other areas, Weatherford said he could support a proposal to tax Internet sales if it was revenue neutral and that many details of a proposal to emphasize online university education still need to be worked out -- including what current university would act as the hub for the effort. He voiced support for Florida's Future Corridors program, which would place new toll roads in rural communities to potentially increase development, and he agreed with Senate President Don Gaetz that Florida's K-12 merit pay system needs to tweaked.

Fla. House Republicans release football-themed "Jobs Playbook"

Florida House Republicans are taking some inspiration from the Super Bowl to produce their plan for creating jobs in the state. The plan, called the “Jobs Playbook,” features many of the trademark GOP proposals—lower taxes, less debt and some old-fashioned bashing of the federal government to boot.

A football-themed infographic pits House Republicans’ strategy for winning up against the policies of the federal government—“higher debt, more deficits, economic uncertainty.” The release states, “Republicans have the playbook for economic success.”

This year, jobs and economic development have not played a starting role in legislative rhetoric, as in years past. Instead, legislative leaders are huddling up for some internal soul searching, hoping to clean up many of the problems created by the Legislature and the political class—ethics loopholes, campaign finance issues, elections problems, etc. Education and federal health reform are also top issues the Legislature must tackle.

Looking to show that job-creation has not been sidelined, lawmakers are pitching a playbook for economic development.

“Republicans have the playbook for economic success and we are dedicated to getting Florida over the goal line,” said House Majority Leader Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, in a statement.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, a former college football player, is quarterbacking the Florida House’s Republican majority as it prepares to take on a growing and more confident Democratic caucus with a very different playbook.

Despite boasts of an improving economy, the jury is still out on whether policies listed in the report and pushed by Florida lawmakers are the best way to boost the state’s economy.

Continue reading "Fla. House Republicans release football-themed "Jobs Playbook" " »

Hospitals a bit relieved by Scott's budget

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott delivered quite a shock to the state's medical establishment by proposing a cut of about $2 billion in public funding to hospitals.

So when his $74 billion budget was released Thursday, one of the more interested observers was the Florida Hospital Association. But compared to the previous year, Scott's proposed cut of $82 million, or 2 percent, wasn't so bad, said its president, Bruce Rueben.

"If you’re comparing it to last year, it’s clearly a better start," Rueben said Friday. "It indicates that he's taking a more thoughtful approach. We're still going to have a lot of discussion about the cuts in the coming months. It is time we stop making cuts to the elderly, poor and disabled. Hospitals have been cut by over $1 billion since 2005."

Rueben said Scott's overall message that he would take a hard look at how to implement the expansion of Medicaid through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was encouraging. After all, he could have followed the lead of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has said his state won't implement it.

"(Scott) did not say, 'It’s not going to take place in Florida,'" Rueben said. "He should be commended for taking this seriously."