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14 posts from March 21, 2013

March 21, 2013

Former aide, printing house become witnesses in David Rivera investigation


A former aide of U.S. Rep. David Rivera and a printing company have both become witnesses in the federal investigation of the Republican politician’s ties to an illegally funded congressional campaign, The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald have learned.

The cooperation of former Rivera aide Ivette Pinto and Expert Printing & Graphics in Doral mark another major milestone in a criminal case that has already resulted in the guilty plea of Democratic congressional candidate Justin Lamar Sternad.

Fueled with at least $81,486 in secret money, Sternad’s campaign was used as a proxy to undermine a political rival of Rivera, who denies wrongdoing.

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Democrats lose enthusiasm for Weatherford's campaign finance overhaul

A day before they vote on overhauling the Florida’s campaign finance laws, deep divisions emerged between Republicans and Democrats on the House Floor.

Along mostly party lines, the House on Thursday rejected efforts by Democrats to limit campaign contributions to $500, prohibit the governor from raising campaign cash during the legislative session, and prevent candidates from hoarding up to $50,000 in campaign cash to use in their next political races.

“I was disappointed we didn’t get support,” said Rep. Allan Williams, D-Tallahassee. “They weren’t partisan amendments. They were good government amendments.”

On Friday, representatives will vote on HB 569, which, while touted by Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford as a bipartisan approach to campaign finance reform, has attracted growing opposition among Democrats.

It increases the current $500 campaign contribution limit. For statewide offices, such as governor or Commissioner of Agriculture, candidates would be allowed to collect up to $5,000 per individual or company. For legislative offices or multi-county offices like circuit judge, contributions could be increased to $3,000.

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Weatherford says Florida Polytechnic's future far from certain

So perhaps JD Alexander should be worried that his dream of a 12th university in Polk County will get dashed.

A day after the Florida Senate excised the $22 million for the yet-to-be-built Florida Polytechnic from its education budget, House Speaker Will Weatherford said he’s open to reevaluating whether it belongs in the state university system.

“We do  have the responsibility to make the best lemonade that we possibly can out of the situation and  hopefully turn that into a world-class institution,” Weatherford told reporters Thursday. “The Board of Governors (which oversees the university system) and the Board of Trustees should get creative about what that institution could be.”

Asked if that meant not turning it into the state’s 12th university, Weatherford replied: “Yes.”

He suggested it could team up with another existing state university, such as the University of Florida, or MIT or polytechnics out of state, in effect turning the school into a satellite campus for another university.

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Miami Dolphins: We'll use county money for stadium renovations only if we get 50th or 51st Super Bowl


The Miami Dolphins on Thursday committed to making a proposed special election to finance $400 million stadium renovations conditional on being awarded the 50th or 51st Super Bowl.

Dolphins CEO Mike Dee announced the team's position after returning from NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, an indication that a majority of owners support awarding the 2016 or 2017 Super Bowl to South Florida when they meet again on May 22.

"We have great confidence that South Florida will be awarded a Super Bowl on May 22," Dee told reporters at a Sun Life Stadium news conference.

When the team agreed to the referendum last month, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he might require the NFL to award South Florida a Super Bowl as a condition for spending mainland county hotel taxes on part of the stadium renovation.

"I don't want to be eligible for anything," Gimenez said at the time. "I'd like to see the results and actually land something."

Dee characterized adding the Super Bowl condition to a referendum as a "risk" the team is prepared to take. He rejected suggestions that agreement is a sign that the time-pressed Dolphins are trying to move along ongoing negotiations with Gimenez over a potential funding deal and efforts in the Florida Legislature to approve a hotel-tax hike and an additional state subsidy.

"I don't think it's a Hail Mary," Dee said.

Dee made the announcement along with Rodney Barreto, chair of South Florida Super Bowl Committee and one of the Dolphins' most vocal backers, who said "core" Super Bowl activities will take place in downtown Miami. The last time Sun Life Stadium hosted a Super Bowl, in 2010, most official NFL activities took place in Broward.

Last week, the committee rejected an NFL request to exempt league employees from local hotel taxes in exchange for landing a Super Bowl -- unlike South Florida's rival for the 50th game, Santa Clara, Calif., where a new $1.2 billion stadium is under construction for the San Francisco 49ers.

Miami-Dade mayor asks Florida whether Dolphins can pay for special election on stadium renovations


Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez formally asked the Florida Division of Elections on Thursday to opine on whether a private entity -- the Miami Dolphins -- could cover the costs of a county election.

The Dolphins have agreed to a special election to ask Miami-Dade voters to raise mainland hotel taxes to partly fund a proposed $400 million renovation to Sun Life Stadium. The county elections department estimates the referendum would cost $3 million to $5 million.

When the team accepted his referendum condition, Gimenez said the county would have to bear the election expense because an existing state opinion from the 1980s prohibiting private companies from funding an election.

But in his request to Maria Mathews, head of the elections division, Gimenez also noted that state law was amended in 1992 to require parimutuels to indirectly pay for elections by depositing a sum with the county to cover the costs.

"I do not believe...that the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County should be forced to shoulder the costs (estimated between $3-5 million) of this election brought about by a request from a private party," Gimenez wrote. "I therefore intend to require the Miami Dolphins organization to pay for the costs of such an election."

Racetracks indirectly reimbursed Miami-Dade and Broward for nearly $7 million spent on a special gambling election in 2005.

Several county commissioners have said the Dolphins should pay for the election.

Federal appeals judges in Miami question Florida's controversial law on Cuba, Syria


A panel of skeptical federal appeals judges meeting in Miami Thursday sharply questioned a Florida law prohibiting the state and local governments from hiring companies with business ties to Cuba.

Several questions from the three-judge panel centered on whether the law would conflict with the federal government’s power to set foreign policy. Last year, U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore blocked the law from taking effect, ruling in favor of Odebrecht USA, the Coral Gables-based subsidiary of the Brazilian engineering and construction conglomerate. The state appealed.

On Thursday, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stanley Marcus asked Gregory Costas, an attorney for the Florida Department of Transportation, if the law would ban companies permitted under federal law to do some business with Cuba — such as providing agricultural equipment or medical supplies — from obtaining government contracts in Florida.

“That would be doing business with Cuba,” Costas responded.

“Isn’t that a square collision with the federal regime?” Marcus said.

Odebrecht sued FDOT over the law, approved by a near-unanimous majority of state legislators and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott. It would prohibit state and local government agencies from awarding contracts worth at least $1 million to U.S. firms whose foreign-owned parent companies or subsidiaries work in Cuba or Syria. An affiliate of Odebrecht USA’s parent company is heading a major expansion of the Cuban Port of Mariel.

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Fla. Senate floats lower vehicle registration fees

The Florida Senate is considering lowering fees that car owners pay when they register their vehicles, a reversal from 2009, when lawmakers increased fees to raise revenue.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, introduced the idea at a Senate Appropriations committee meeting Thursday, saying the state could pay for it by eliminating a multimillion-dollar tax break that insurance companies receive.

The insurance company tax break is one of several being highly scrutinized by lawmakers, who have been skeptical about the economic incentives programs used to lure businesses to Florida.

“When originally put in place in 1987, this benefit for insurance companies was well intentioned," said Negron, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee. "But times have changed and we need to reprioritize. We can take the revenue we save from eliminating a tax credit which benefits insurance companies and use it to reduce fees for every Floridian who drives a car.”

Vehicle registration fees jumped in 2009, and the amount of money collected for motor licenses doubled from $620 million to $1.2 billion. It currently stands at about $1.4 billion, according to state figures.

The insurance industry currently collects about $220 million a year in tax breaks through an economic incentive that rewards them for hiring and retaining employees. Negron proposes eliminating that tax break and using the money to reduce the fees Florida drivers pay on 18 million cars.

See the release from the Senate below:

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Attempt to lower red light camera fines shot down in Senate

Red light runners would have paid less for getting violations and had more time to pay them under SB 1342 by Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, but the lobbying muscle of the agencies and governments that produce revenue from the fines overturned it.

If approved, the bill would have reduced fines from $158 to $100 and given violators 90 days to respond rather than the current 30 days.

The Florida Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday, however, instead approved an amendment by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. It restored the fines at $158 and the 30 day response time.

Afterward, Abruzzo said he will give up on reducing the fines, but said he will work to ensure that the revenue from fines go increasingly to cities, counties and medical facilities. Abruzzo said he’s uncomfortable with how much money from the fines goes to private vendors.

“I want to make sure the money truly goes where it should,” Abruzzo said.

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Scott remains noncommittal on Internet cafe ban

As the Florida House prepares to vote on its bill to ban Internet cafes in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott told the Miami Herald editorial board Thursday that he had not made up his mind on whether to support it or not.

"Everything is on the table,'' Scott said, refusing to indicate whether he supports the ban that has emerged as the Legislature's swift response to the criminal investigation into the Allied Veterans of the World, a chain of Internet cafes.

Police have arrested 57 individuals affiliated with Allied Veterans and have charged them with illegal gambling, money laundering and racketeering. The $300 million for-profit operation allegedly donated only 2 percent of its proceeds to charity.  

Legislators have quickly attempted to distance themselves from the fake charity, announcing they would donate thousands of dollars in contributions to legitimate veterans groups and other charities. According to a Herald/Times analysis, Allied Veterans and its operators and affiliates spent more than $1.4 million on candidates and committees in the last election cycle, most of it intended to influence the Florida Legislature. 

The Florida House raced to agenda a bill last week by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, that would clarify the state law to ensure that anyone operating electronic sweepstakes machines, adult arcades and maquinitas are illegal in Florida. 

The bill clarifies that web-based gambling devices are illegal because they are deemed games of chance and not games of skill. Trujillo said he will ask lawmakers to adopt an amendment today that clarifies that promotional giveaways, like those offered by fast food restaurants or car dealers, and children's arcades will continue to be allowed in Florida.

The ban is expected to shut down an estimated 1,000 gaming centers that have operated electronic casino-like games disguised as a sweepstakes or arcade games.

The bill clarifies existing law by prohibiting electronic gambling devices for charitable promotions, updates the definition of slot machines to include network-based machines like those used in Internet cafes and bans machines intended to simulate casino games and slot machines.


Gov. Scott lays down the law on Everglades: 'I want a clean bill'

Gov. Rick Scott has put the kibosh on a fast-paced push by Florida sugar growers and the Everglades agriculture community to pass a bill that would cap their liability for clean-up costs over the next 30 years.

Speaking to the Miami Herald editorial board on Thursday morning, Scott insisted that he wants to "memorialize" the landmark settlement he negotiated in 2012 with the federal government to establish clean-up standards, water flow patterns and a payment plan for restoring the Everglades. But he said repeatedly, "I want a clean bill."

The bill, (HB 7065) by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-LeHigh Acres, had gone beyond the settlement by shifting some of the cost of cleaning up the Everglades from sugar and agricultural interests to Florida taxpayers and South Florida property owners.

But a compromise worked out on Wednesday between sugar growers and environmentalists appears to head in the direction the governor wants. 

Continue reading "Gov. Scott lays down the law on Everglades: 'I want a clean bill'" »