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15 posts from March 20, 2013

March 20, 2013

Galvano not so sure on JD Alexander's Florida Polytechnic

A major turkey in this year’s $70 billion budget was the creation of Florida’s 12th university, with the Senate’s powerful budget chairman, JD Alexander pushing for it for reasons only he can explain.

But with Alexander no longer in the Legislature, is support for Florida Polytechnic University waning?

Perhaps, if you go by the $14.2 billion education budget for next year that was released Wednesday by Alexander’s old chamber, the Senate. The $22.4 million that lawmakers had set aside for the university wasn’t included in the Senate budget. (House leaders say they won’t release their education budget until next week).

The chairman of the Senate’s education committee said the reason for the omission is simple: when he asked the university how they were to spend the money, he never heard back.

“Before I included that in our budget, I wanted to see what the plan was,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. “Is this for capital or for operations? Given the amount of money, the way the law reads, the lack of an existing program, I just wanted to see where we are.”


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Gov. Scott shakes hands with ... Steve Schale? Really?

At a reception at the Governor's Mansion Wednesday for current members and alumni of Leadership Florida, Gov. Rick Scott shook well over 100 hands, but one definitely stood out -- to everyone else in attendance, if not to the governor.

Standing in line, waiting to pay his respects to Scott and First Lady Ann Scott, was Steve Schale, the Democratic strategist who coordinated Barack Obama's historic 2008 victory in Florida. Schale also is expected to be tapped to run another campaign -- against Scott --  if former Gov. Charlie Crist decides to challenge the governor for re-election next year. Between campaigns, Schale, 38, is a member of the current Leadership Florida class.

As he waited in line, Schale was teased by Leadership Florida classmate Brian Yablonski, a leading Republican and a former top adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush who was a mansion regular (until Crist got elected in 2006).

"I enjoyed that," Yablonski said. "I told him (Schale), it's been so long since you had somebody of your party in here, you were probably in grade school. I said I can show you around when we get in there." …

It will just have to go down as one of those Tallahassee coincidences that Schale's rare visit inside the Governor's Mansion came on a day when a new Quinnipiac poll showed Crist beating Scott by 16 points (50-34 percent) in a hypothetical matchup.

"As a Floridian, it's always an honor to come to the Governor's Mansion," Schale said. "I'd like to come back here one day with a governor of my own party. But it's nice to meet him."

-- Steve Bousquet

MDC President Padrón to Florida lawmakers: The needs are great

A bill that would let Miami-Dade residents decide whether to tax themselves to support Miami Dade College sailed through its first committee stop in the House Wednesday.

The half-penny sales tax would last five years and be used to fund construction and maintenance projects on Miami Dade's various campuses. Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who is sponsoring the bill in the House, estimated the measure would raise between $120 and $140 million annually.

"To serve the community the way we always have, we need additional help," Miami Dade President Eduardo Padrón said after Wednesday's vote. "The needs are great. There are opportunities to train people for new jobs, to create new programs, and to have the type of facilities that will make the community proud."

HB 1295 found little opposition in the House Finance and Tax Subcommittee.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, expressed concerns with what he said would be "an almost a $1 billion tax increase," and asked for tight controls over how the money would be spent. But he ultimately voted in support of the bill.

Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, also gave his blessing.

"There is really nobody in Miami-Dade County who has not been affected by the college in one way or another," Rodríguez said. "It really is that place where folks from all walks of life can go to get ahead... Something like this is necessary."

The bill passed by a unanimous vote.

For additional coverage, check out this story by Mike Vasquez.

A year after mortgage settlement, lawmakers unveil plan for $200 million in housing aid

Florida lawmakers announced plans Wednesday for more than $200 million in housing aid from a national mortgage settlement that has languished for nearly a year.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a tentative plan for the money, deciding to direct it toward housing aid for teachers, veterans, rural physicians, public defenders and others. The plan would also provide funding for legal services and additional court staff to help streamline Florida’s clogged up foreclosure system. People who have suffered from foreclosure or other housing troubles would benefit from additional funding for affordable housing.

Last year, Florida became the slowest state to make use of part of its funding in the settlement —which allowed lawmakers to decide how to direct $334 million in funds. The Legislature redirected $74 million for general purposes last year, while lawmakers and Attorney General Pam Bondi debated over who had the authority to spend the rest of the money. 

Bondi and the Legislature eventually agreed that lawmakers would appropriate the funds during the legislative session, meaning most of the funds would idle for several more months before being used. A separate part of the settlement, handled by banks, has already been processing homeowner aid. That program has helped thousands of struggling homeowners, though Florida's foreclosure rate remains the highest in the nation.

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Mental health team could help severely disturbed kids statewide, expert tells legislators

A team approach to helping severely emotionally disturbed children that has been serving families in Bradenton since 2005 could be considered for a statewide model.
Mary Ruiz, president and CEO of Manatee Glens, the largest provider of mental health and addiction services in the county, said she felt “encouraged” by the prospect of expanding Manatee Glens’ Community Action Team or CAT after making a presentation to the Florida House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee at the Capital on Wednesday.

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Open season in the Florida Legislature for stadium tax breaks

It was the equivalent of the tax break Olympics in the Florida Legislature on Wednesday as a range of different sports teams scored approval for new tax subsidies.

The House Finance & Tax committee approved more than $150 million in new subsidies for Major League Soccer, the Jacksonville Jaguars football team and the Daytona International Speedway.

The sports teams join the Miami Dolphins in seeking taxpayer help for building or renovating sports stadiums--and the success of other sports franchises across the state bolsters the Dolphins' chances of getting approval for a new tax subsidy.

The concept of giving taxpayer support to sports facilities has been controversial nationwide, but a stronger budget picture in Florida has given lawmakers more leeway to endorse new tax breaks.

Lawmakers emphasized that the stadium tax deals would help spur economic development in the state by increasing tourism and construction jobs.

"I think it's going to increase tourism throughout the state of Florida," said Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, who is supporting the Daytona Speedway bill.

But critics called the deals “corporate welfare” for wealthy sports team owners. Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said it amounted to “picking and choosing winners and losers” in the marketplace.

Continue reading "Open season in the Florida Legislature for stadium tax breaks" »

Part of PIP law temporarily blocked by state court

A Leon County judge has approved a temporary ban on part of the landmark auto insurance overhaul passed last year by the Florida Legislature.

The Personal Injury Protection reform bill targeted chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists, restricting their ability to provide covered treatment for people injured in auto accidents.

They sued and Leon County Judge Terry Lewis ruled this week hat they had a good chance at succeeding and deserved a temporary injunction on certain provisions of HB 119.

Lewis found that the bill violates the part of the Florida Constitution that provides for access to courts.

The judge ruled that that portion of HB 119 should be temporarily banned as the lawsuit runs its course.

The judge also ruled that a provision in PIP reform that limits covered medical care to $2,500 if the injured person does not have “an emergency medical condition.” The typical policy limits under Florida’s no-fault law are $10,000.

 HB 119 was a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott in 2012, and is another example of a law the governor pushed, only to see a judge rule it unconstitutional months later.

Scott weighed in with a statement, saying he would continue to fight in support of the law.

 "Our personal injury protection legislation was designed to stop the high costs passed on to Florida families by car insurance companies because of excessive lawsuits, waste and fraud," he said. "Since our legislation, more than 70 percent of the insurance rates approved by the Office of Insurance Regulation have either decreased or held steady, compared to a majority of rate increases before our reforms. Our reforms are working to lower insurance costs for Florida families and we will continue to fight special interest groups to keep them in place."

The chiropractors had a better outcome in state court than they did in federal court, where a judge denied the plea for an injunction in December.


Debbie Wasserman Schultz travels with President Obama to Israel

From a press release:

WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) traveled with President Obama to Israel Tuesday night.

“It is an honor to be in Israel with President Obama for the first foreign trip of his second term as he visits Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan,” said Rep. Wasserman Schultz. “This trip is an important opportunity for President Obama to meet with the new Israeli government on a broad range of issues on which the United States and Israel cooperate.

"As an American Jew and Member of Congress, I am proud that our President has prioritized the region and the U.S.-Israel relationship, continuing to strengthen our diplomatic and security ties. With so much going on in the region, this trip is significant for many reasons, as the President will spend time with the people of Israel, discuss our shared concerns, and reaffirm the deep bond that exists between our two countries."

President Obama is only the fifth President to visit Israel since the nation’s founding 65 years ago. This is Obama’s third trip to Israel, his first as President.

Developer in Cindi Hutchinson corruption case likely to get probation

The developer who did free work for former Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson could resolve his case next month in a plea deal that includes no jail time.

On Tuesday, Hutchinson pleaded guilty to unlawful compensation and official misconduct and was sentenced to four months in jail starting April 15. Hutchinson voted in favor of rezonings for residential development in 2003 and 2004. Starting the next year, she showed up at the construction site to talk about improvements she needed on her nearby home. Over the next several years, developer Steve Goldstrom arranged about $14,000 worth of improvements including installing pavers and a fence, installing a toilet and changing light bulbs.

Hutchinson, who was term limited out in 2009, was charged in early 2011. Goldstrom was charged with felony perjury.

One of Goldstrom's attorneys, Richard Merlino, said that he met with the prosecutor today and that a deal was offered involving no jail time and one year probation. The case is scheduled for a hearing April 3 and at that time Goldstrom could decide to plead guilty to a misdemeanor providing false information to a police officer. 

"It is in his best interest," Merlino said. 



MDX votes to raise tolls on Dolphin, Airport expressways in Miami-Dade

A late vote Tuesday approving toll increases on State Roads 836 and 112 may be tentative.

Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) chairman Maurice Ferre said he was so distressed by the 7-6 vote that it was possible the 13-member board will revisit the issue and perhaps reduce the toll rates at the next agency meeting.

“I don’t want to leave the impression of a divided board,” said Ferre as the 3 1/2-hour meeting came to an end at MDX headquarters near Miami International Airport.

Ferre’s comments came shortly after board members voted, and moments after board member Maritza Gutierrez tried unsuccessfully to amend the plan with a proposal that would have left existing toll rates essentially unchanged.

The vote was the culmination of a contentious meeting in which about two dozen speakers pleaded with MDX board members to delay or eliminate the toll increase.

“All I hear is more tolls, more concrete and more cars,” said Cutler Bay Mayor Edward MacDougall, one of the speakers who addressed the MDX board.

Carlos Garcia, co-founder of the anti-toll group RollBackTolls.com, voiced the general feeling of people who spoke, urging board members to delay the increase.

“Please hold off,” said Garcia, who like other group members wore a T-shirt with signs saying “Enough is Enough.”

Once the public hearing ended, it was clear that not all board members agreed with raising the tolls. At least one member mentioned the possibility of delaying the vote. But Gutierrez’s proposal to amend the plan was the only serious move to modify the increase.

More from Alfonso Chardy here.