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18 posts from March 8, 2013

March 08, 2013

Miami-Dade mayor says Dolphins make more 'palatable' proposal


Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said late Friday that the Miami Dolphins have made a "considerably different" proposal seeking some public financing for stadium renovations.

Gimenez, who met for an hour and a half Friday evening with Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, wouldn't go into details on the football team's latest offer, but the mayor called it "progress." (UPDATE: Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was also at the meeting.)

"There was a much different proposal that I think was much more palatable," Gimenez told The Miami Herald, adding that it's "nowhere close to the original deal."

Through a spokesman, Dee declined to comment. Both sides have said they are loath to "negotiate in public."

County commissioners tasked Gimenez to try to come up with a deal with the Dolphins, who initially proposed funding a little more than half of a proposed $400 million renovation to Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens. The rest would come from a state sales-tax subsidy and a hike in mainland Miami hotel taxes.

Gimenez has repeatedly called that proposal a starting point, indicating that he would prefer that a larger portion of the renovations be covered by private funds. The mayor was elected in part because of his stubborn opposition to the largely publicly financed ballpark for the Miami Marlins.

State lawmakers must sign off on any subsidy and on allowing the hotel-tax increase, which would then require county commission approval. The Dolphins have cleared two Florida Senate committees and a House subcommittee Friday morning, which Dee characterized earlier Friday as a sign of the team's "momentum and traction" in Tallahassee.

The bill now includes a local referendum requirement -- the first agreement reached between Gimenez and the Dolphins, who are aiming for a special election to take place around May 14. NFL owners are scheduled to award the 2016 and 2017 Super Bowls on May 22; the Dolphins say the proposed renovations, including a partial canopy, are necessary to bid for those games.

Gimenez said Friday that he will meet with the Dolphins again next week. In the meantime, he said, the county will examine the team's latest offer.

Miami Dolphins: We've got momentum


Miami Dolphins CEO Mike Dee returned from Tallahassee on Friday afternoon touting the approval by a Florida House subcommittee of a bill that would allow for a partly tax-funded redo of the team's Miami Gardens stadium

Dee said Friday morning's hearing by the finance and tax subcommittee "definitely shows we have real momentum and traction."

"We're playing this one game at a time," Dee said at a hastily called news conference at Sun Life Stadium.

Dee said he did not speak to critic Norman Braman in Tallahassee -- "Is that who that was?" Dee joked -- and would not say how much or if the NFL would contribute to the $400 million renvation.

Dee, who has been the team's public face during its renovation campaign, also disputed opposing comments made in Tallahassee by Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, who said more than a dozen other Miami-Dade mayors also opposed the bill. MacDougall's comments were not "representative" of what Dee has heard from the mayors, Dee said. (MacDougall said Thursday he and Braman have joined together to oppose the bill.)

Dee acknowledged the divisions among Miami-Dade lawmakers, several of whom opposed the bill in committee. "This is a split delegation on this point," Dee said, adding: "I'll stay out of those intramural politics."

Dee appeared to arrive to the stadium via helicopter -- at least, the sound of a helicopter preceded Dee's arrival by about 10 minutes. When asked, Dee didn't clarify his mode of transportation to the stadium.

"No, I flew back from Tallahassee," he said. After being pressed, he added: "Let's talk about where we're going, not where we've been."

Florida Chamber endorses Medicaid expansion, kinda

Calling the Affordable Care Act a flawed law but ultimately one that is here to stay, the Florida Chamber of Commerce says the state should accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid as long as certain conditions are met.

The Chamber's board decided today to come up with prerequisites by which it would endorse Medicaid expansion after a series of meetings, including a Thursday panel on the topic. President and chief executive Mark Wilson outlined the group's endorsement, including a list of conditions it feels must be part of any agreement, in a memo sent to Chamber leaders, local Chambers of Commerce and other supporters.

"To lower healthcare costs, provide more Floridians access to quality healthcare, and make Florida more competitive, this morning the Florida Chamber’s Board of Directors voted to support 11 prerequisites as conditions for accepting federal dollars via the new Medicaid option," Wilson wrote. "These prerequisites will help control costs, slow the cost shift, and improve healthcare outcomes."

But Wilson made it clear that his memo isn't an outright endorsement. The Chamber wants all 11 conditions fulfilled in order to support Medicaid expansion, and the group would not without those things.

Earlier this week, the state's other high-profile business group, Associated Industries of Florida, also indicated support for expansion. Without using the word "Medicaid" or mentioning the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, lobbyist Slater Bayliss said Florida should leverage available federal funds in order to reduce the number of uninsured and the amount of uncompensated care administered at hospitals.

This means both of the state's major business groups are in agreement with Gov. Rick Scott that Florida should expand Medicaid. On Monday, a Florida House committee recommended against expansion, citing concerns about cost and grown and already problematic program.

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White House official from South Florida steps down from job dealing with Hispanic media

An Obama administration official credited with improving White House access for the burgeoning Hispanic news media is leaving his post, writes Lesley Clark from our McClatchy Washington Bureau.

Luis Miranda, 36, who grew up in South Florida and staffed then-presidential candidate Al Gore’s Miami-Dade campaign office, is stepping down to return to the private sector as a communications consultant. The White House’s director of Hispanic media, Miranda is credited – within the White House and the Hispanic media – with helping to provide access not seen in previous administrations. The outreach came as the White House was courting the growing Hispanic vote, which helped President Barack Obama win re-election last fall.

NY TIMES: Futuro Fund raises cash from wealthy Hispanic donors, including Cuban-American trial lawyer from Miami

Cuban-American trial lawyer, Ralph G. Patino, of Miami, is mentioned in a NY Times article as a big donor to the Futuro Fund, a group that seeks to raise the profile of Hispanics nationwide by giving big bucks to politicians. The group is led by a trio of prominent Hispanics: Henry R. Muñoz III, of San Antonio, Andrés W. López, a Puerto Rican lawyer with two Harvard degrees and "Desperate Houswives" actress Eva Longorio, reports the Times.

Gaetz: Sequester creating budget uncertainty in Florida

Senate President Don Gaetz said the federal sequester is causing problems for Florida lawmakers as they try to build a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. People may argue the financial impact of sequestration and what should be done to avoid it, but it is already having real consequences, he said.

"What's not debatable is that sequestration has created a sense of uncertaintly and instability in sectors of the Florida economy," Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, said during a speech at the Capitol Tiger Bay Club meeting today.

Gaetz noted there are five military bases in the Panhandle region he represents. Directly and indirectly, the defense and aerospace industries employs thousands of people who are already being furloughed and could face layoffs, he said.

Calling the sequester "the cloud that hangs over both the governor and the Legislature and all the budget assumptions," Geatz said he hopes Congress and President Barack Obama can find a way to agree on a long-term solution.

"My greatest fear is that they will kick the can down the road another three or six months," he said.

Gaetz's comments about the political gridlock in Washington led one Tiger Bay member to ask the Senate president if he was eyeing higher office. Gaetz said he's focused solely on his current role. "I have no aspirations to run for governor or any other office."

Ethics Commission dismisses Diaz de la Portilla complaint

MdlpThe state ethics commission on Friday dismissed a complaint against Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, saying it was no longer in the public interest to proceed with the case.

The 2011 complaint accused Diaz de la Portilla of failing to report his checking account on his 2009 and 2010 financial disclosure forms. Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican, admitted to the omission, but said he didn't think it was a problem.

“The checking account may not have been disclosed, but the income -- what is relevant in any type of conflict of interest analysis -- was fully disclosed in 2009 and 2010,” he said, noting that he had conferred with Senate counsel before filing the reports.

Diaz de la Portilla later amended the forms to include the checking account, and tacked on two retirement accounts and three car leases.

“It’s an honest mistake that other folks have made,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “It happens, but it won’t happen again.”

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Weatherford says House will restore university cuts

Last year, Florida's universities were told the $300 million cut from their operating budgets would be restored for 2013-2014. Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget gives state universities just $118 million in new operating dollars and another $167 million in performance funding.

House Speaker Will Weatherford told the Times/Herald today that he plans to fully restore the $300 million to the state universities with no strings attached. He said he told his budget committee chairman to return the money without strings attached.

"I have directed our Aprops chair to restore the $300 million as it was taken," Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, said. "So if you were (University of South Florida) and you lost $47 million in the sweep, you should be getting that $47 million back."

The state university system, which consists of 12 schools, has said it would not raise tuition this year if the Legislature restores the $300 million cut and adds another $118 million in performance funding. It's too soon to say if the House's budget will go that far, Weatherford said.

Scott's budget proposal also set aside $15 million is to help the University of Florida improve its national rankings. Weatherford said the House is open to special funding for UF, but he's a proponent of the latest pre-eminence legislation -- a committee bill currently known as HEWS 13-01 --  that requires schools to meet certain benchmarks to receive special treatment. As it's written, University of Florida would likely be named the state's preeminent research institution.

"They qualified for the pre-eminence, so we think that's a better way for them to earn the $15 million as opposed to just giving it to them," Weatherford said, before adding he'd leave that decision to the chairmen of the House's education policy and funding committees.

Weatherford's pension bill passes committee, but questions remain

For the past 43 years, it’s been the primary retirement plan in Florida for employees of the state and county government agencies, school boards, community colleges and universities.

And it could be closed to new employees by next year.

A bill that would prevent new employees from enrolling in the plan passed the House Appropriations Committee on Friday, providing a boost to one of the top priorities for Speaker Will Weatherford but defying the warnings of union groups and and the former director of the Florida Division of Retirement, Sarabeth Snuggs.

HB 7011 requires employees hired after Jan. 1, 2014 to enroll in 401(k)-style plans that don’t provide a guaranteed benefit. The 623,011 current workers enrolled in the program, and the 332,682 retired members who receive benefits from it now, would be allowed to remain in the pension,.

Weatherford says the bill is necessary to salvage state finances, which he says are subject to the risk of a future bailout that other states like Illinois are facing.

It passed along strict party lines, Republicans for and Democrats against.

“If we address our pension structure now, and make minimal changes, we can avoid having to deal with potential massive shortfalls in the later,” said the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford.

But Democrats said there was no reason for an overhaul. The fourth largest pension plan in the nation, it’s funded at about 86.9 percent, which is above the national average of 75 percent.

“Clearly this is a situation where we have a solution looking for a problem,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale. “When you have a system that’s top 10 in the nation, top five in being funded, we’re tinkering with a problem that does not exist.”

Aside from ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans, part of the disagreement about a need for an overhaul of the pension centers around the confusion swirling about a study that was supposed to provide objective numbers.

The Florida Division of Management Services hired Milliman, a Vienna, VA. actuarial firm to estimate the projected costs of the changes. Upon its initial release last month, the study didn’t include important assumptions, like the fact that employees contribute 3 percent of their salaries into the pension. It also didn’t compare the proposed plan to keeping the pension plan as is.

So Milliman had to redo the study and the second version came out last week. It was supposed to be an “apples-and-apples” study that compared the costs of the pension plan with those of a 401(k)-system.

The actuary who did the studies, Robert Dezube, told the committee on Friday he was sorry for the confusion.

“I apologize for that (first) study,” Dezube said. “It was not up to our standards. When I found the mistake it was one of the hardest phone calls I ever had to make.

“If you play football and you’re a running back, you are occasionally going to fumble the ball,” he said. “What’s important is what you do after the fumble. Fumble it too many times and you’re not going to be in the game.”

Weatherford’s office touted the revised Milliman study, saying it showed that the state could enjoy significant savings -- climbing as high nearly $10 billion by 2043.

Dezube, however, said he wouldn’t depict the study as being positive or negative. He said the projections were far from precise and were based more on trends. If they were accurate projections, he’d be doing something else, he joked.

But Snuggs, who served as director of the state’s division of retirement from 2003 to 2012, said she found problems with the existing Milliman study.

“This was not an apples-to-apples comparison,” Snuggs said. “The investment plan has no disability benefits. It has no death-in-the-line of duty benefits. The benefits the proposed investment plan provides are not comparable for a career employee...The investment plan does not provide an equal benefit for a career employee in the pension plan.”

Snuggs said there was no fiscal reason for Weatherford’s proposed overhaul.

“It’s strictly a political decision,” Snuggs said.

Democrats pounced on Milliman’s acknowledged mistakes to raise questions about the latest study.

“I’m not willing to make a decision based on a report that has been admittedly filled with errors, and that had to be done two to three times over,” Thurston said. “There’s a lot bigger consequences to fumbling. The sad part is we’re not talking about a game. We’re talking about
our residents who will be at their most critical stage of their lives when they feel the impact of the decision that we’re making here today. With the information we have, I cannot in good conscience vote for this bill.”

Questions about the study left the bill’s supporters back at square one. Rather than point to concrete savings, they relied on pointing to other states that have had issues with pensions.

“It’s a good thing that our pension plan is considered technically healthy now, but in my mind, that’s only technically, we’re still underfunded,” said Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando. “Those other states who are now struggling to keep their pension in place, they thought they were healthy at one point, too. They thought, just like we did, ok, we’re close enough, let’s trust it and have a little faith, but something happened in those states. Now they’re making painful cuts, they’re raising taxes, they’re throwing good money after bad.”

Stadium bill survives hostile amendments, wins approval of House panel


The Miami Dolphins’ push for a taxpayer-supported stadium renovations gained steam in the Florida Legislature on Friday, sidestepping a number of toxic amendments aimed at killing the bill.

The Dolphins, who are asking for as much as $200 million in taxpayer support for the stadium overhaul, shepherded their proposal through its first committee stop in the Florida House, where it passed by a 12-4 vote.

The battery of rogue amendments include
d a proposal from Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican, to have Broward County to help foot the bill for proposed improvements to SunLife Stadium. The bill as originally drafted would require only Miami-Dade County to raise its mainland hotel tax.

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