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10 posts from June 4, 2013

June 04, 2013

Gov. Rick Scott vetoes immigrant driver license bill

Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have allowed children of immigrants who are not U.S. citizens to use a new federal form to get temporary Florida driver licenses. Scott said he vetoed HB 235 because it would have benefited people who are covered by a change in federal policy instituted by President Barack Obama last year that wasn't approved by Congress.

Under the policy known as "Deferred Action Process for Childhood Arrivals," young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children are not subject to removal if they meet certain criteria.

"Deferred action status is simply a policy of the Obama administration absent Congressional direction, designed to dictate removal action decisions using DHS (Department of Homeland Security) agency discretion," Scott wrote in a veto message. "It was never passed by Congress, nor is it a promulgated rule."

The five-page bill passed the Senate 36-0 and the House 115-2; the lone dissenters were Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach. Tobia voted against dozens of bills in the latter part of the decision as an act of protest.

Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, sponsor of the bill in the Senate, called Scott's action "unconscionable," and predicted that Scott's veto will seriously hurt his standing with Hispanic voters going into the 2014 election. "This was a chance for him to help out a lot of Hispanics in our state as well as people of Creole descent," Soto said. "It strikes me as very political."

The Florida Democratic Party excoriated the Republican governor's action. "Rick Scott continues to alienate and discriminate against thousands of undocumented immigrants. Instead of joining the legislature's near-unanmous consensus around HB 235, Governor Scott imposed his rigid ideology on Floridians — to the detriment of the young immigrants who are Florida's future," said party spokesman Joshua Karp. "This measure would have improved the everyday lives of thousands of undocumented immigrants. With a driver's license, undocumented young people can drive to school or their jobs without the threat of being thrown into jail or deported."

-- Steve Bousquet

Scott signs mortgage relief bill, but are banks cooperating?

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Tuesday that will distribute $200 million in mortgage relief and vowed the new law would hold banks accountable so homeowners are better shielded from foreclosure abuses.

“Banks will now be held accountable and Florida families will be protected with new protections for homeowners,’” Scott said while flanked by Attorney General Pam Bondi and state housing officials.

Yet as Scott signed SB 1852 into law, questions are emerging about whether the banks who signed the deal are complying with the agreement, the latest setback in a relief package already delayed by months of negotiations.

“I’ve had issues with the banks,” Bondi told reporters. “I was on the phone Friday or Saturday with (Shaun Donovan, the secretary of U.S. Department of Housing Development) telling him personal stories of people I’ve had contact with, who have had problems ... I’m telling him first-hand stories that I’m hearing with various banks.”

Attorneys general in North Carolina, Illinois and New York have said that the banks aren’t complying with the agreement. Bondi’s office said that it has received 293 complaints of possible violations of the agreement and is reviewing each one. But unlike attorneys general in other states, particularly New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Bondi stopped short of threatening more legal action.

Schneiderman has threatened to sue Wells Fargo and Bank of America because he’s concerned they are purposely delaying processing homeowner requests for lower mortgage payments.

“Eric Schneiderman can say he’ll sue all day long, but there’s a process that you go through first,” Bondi said. “There are stringent provisions under this settlement process, and we’re doing everything to hold the banks accountable.”

Continue reading "Scott signs mortgage relief bill, but are banks cooperating?" »

‘Cluster, but somehow we declare victory.’ Top gov’t officials were not sure about Scott’s tax cut after questionable vote

After a constitutionally questionable vote on Gov. Rick Scott’s top legislative priority, a tax break for manufacturers, House Speaker Will Weatherford quickly declared the bill passed, despite its failing to reach an 80-vote supermajority previously considered necessary. 

“We think it is extremely constitutional,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said after the contentious May 1 vote, stating that he had discussed the issue with legislative legal staff. He followed up with a statement asking “Who would sue to stop a tax cut?” 

But behind the scenes, top government staffers over in the executive branch were not so sure, with one calling the whole scene a “cluster” and another saying that there “some uncertainty as to whether HB 7007 passed” that night. (Definition of slang term "cluster" here, for the over-50 crowd.)

Emails obtained by the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau show top officials from Gov. Rick Scott’s office and the Department of Revenue were not sure whether the House had run afoul of the Constitution or not. 

“I guess it passed in 7005. Did it get 2/3 to bypass the mandate issue?”  Holger Ciupalo, a chief analyst for Scott, wrote to Christian Weiss, chief economist with the Department of Revenue,  hours after the 68-48 House vote on the manufacturing tax cut. 

Weiss replied: “(HB) 7007: yes. 2/3 no. Go to sayfie to read all the discussions. Cluster, but somehow we declare victory…” 

Weiss and Scott’s legislative liaison Renee Fargason also had an email exchange after the vote: 

Fargason: “The following 43 bills passed the Legislature today, May 1… ***At this time there is some uncertainty as to whether HB 7007 passed.” 

Weiss replied: “7007 passed but may later be challenged on constitutional ground lacking a mandates (sic) 2/3rd majority.” 

Fargason replied: "Ok thanks! Wasn't sure if they could change the verdict since they didn't have 2/3."

Weiss then followed up with: "They can still recall it but doubt they will given the toxic atmosphere in the H(ouse)."

In other emails obtained by the Herald/Times, government officials pass along copies of the Florida Constitution, highlighting sections of the that deal with the 2/3rds mandate. 

Scott signed HB 7007 into law last month. So far, there does not appear to be a lawsuit against the tax cut, which goes into effect next year. The tax break could cost local governments millions of dollars during its three year run.  Democrats, who all voted against HB 7007 and had been protesting against House leadership on the day of the vote, immediately threatened lawsuits.

Continue reading "‘Cluster, but somehow we declare victory.’ Top gov’t officials were not sure about Scott’s tax cut after questionable vote" »

Two Miami-Dade commissioners met with Genting executives in Asia


Miami-Dade Commission Vice-Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioner Audrey Edmonson were conspicuously absent from a high-profile April meeting setting a referendum for the Miami Dolphins.

They were traveling in Asia.

Edmonson and Bell were part of a 14-member delegation from PortMiami and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce that visited Singapore and Hong Kong as part of a nine-day trip -- planned weeks before the Dolphins meeting was scheduled -- to drum up business for the county.

Included in their Singapore itinerary was a briefing with Resorts World Sentosa and a dinner with Resorts World Miami. Both companies are linked to Genting, the Malaysian casino giant who has purchased the former Miami Herald building and other downtown Miami properties.

Other stops: a tour of the Port of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, meetings with economic development boards and chambers of commerce and sit-downs with cargo companies.

The estimated cost to taxpayers: nearly $13,000, according to travel request forms both commissioners submitted to the county before departing. In addition to Edmonson and Bell, Bell's chief of staff, Eddie Borrego, also made the trip.

Bell, as chairwoman of the commission's economic development and PortMiami committee, was particularly interested in meeting with cargo companies that generate significant port revenue and that Miami is wooing to try to keep here and to grow their presence, her office said. Negotiations with Genting are ongoing for potential ferry services from the port.

The final total won't be finalized until the county reimburses the commissioners for all of their expenses.

35 attorneys general back immigration reform, but not Pam Bondi

A coalition of attorneys general from 35 U.S. states and territories have banded together to support comprehensive immigration reform. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is not among them, saying she has not decided whether she supports an overhaul of federal immigration policy such as the one backed by  U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

"I haven't even weighed in on it yet. We've been so busy working on these (other) issues," Bondi said today after appearing with Gov. Rick Scott, who signed a bill allocating mortgage settlement dollars.

The chief legal officers from thirty-one states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories penned a letter in  April to congressional leaders supporting immigration reform. They called on legislation that secures U.S. borders while protecting businesses, workers and consumers by improving the visa system to identify legal workers.

Rubio's immigration plan aims to strengthen the borders while modernizing the immigration system to rewarding people who bring skills needed in the workforce. He has proposed identifying and registering people in the country illegally and requiring them to pay fines and meet standards in order to remain.

Bondi said today that she has not studied Rubio's proposal and is therefore not ready to chose a side. "I'd be glad to get back with you at a later date," she said.

Bondi, a hard-line conservative, has backed Arizona's controversial immigration law that critics say is heavy-handed and could lead to racial profiling. It required law enforcement to determine the immigration status of people detained or arrested and created new penalties for violating existing laws, such as illegal immigrants seeking work.

Continue reading "35 attorneys general back immigration reform, but not Pam Bondi" »

Judge rejects request to block Internet cafe ban

From Glenn Garvin:

A federal judge refused Tuesday to block enforcement of Florida’s new video gambling law, rejecting arguments by the owners of two Broward senior arcades that the measure is unconstitutionally vague and violates the First Amendment rights of their elderly customers.

U.S. District Judge James I. Cohn refused to issue a preliminary injunction sought by the arcade owners, whose arcades — like hundreds of others across the state — shut down last month following the Legislature’s enactment of the broad new law banning “casino-style games” outside of legally approved casinos.

“The phrase ‘casino-style games’ has a common or ordinary meaning that is known to the general population,” Cohn wrote in his decision, noting that the arcades themselves use the phrase ’’casino-style gaming” in some of their advertising.

Continue reading "Judge rejects request to block Internet cafe ban" »

Does Gov. Scott support special $52 million deal for his donor? He won't say.

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott went line-by-line through the state’s $74.5 billion budget, striking down more than $350 million in spending items—everything from $10,000 for a water project in Miami Gardens to $50 million for a state bike trail. 

Scott said he spent a long time reviewing every item in the 400-plus-page budget to protect taxpayer money by making sure that all line items in the budget were a smart use of state funds. 

But when it comes to a unique $52 million transfer of cash from the state-run insurance company to a nine-month-old startup private insurer, Scott is not willing to say whether he supports the unprecedented deal or not. The recipient of the special deal, Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance, gave Scott's reelection campaign $110,000 in March as it was negotiating the deal. Scott’s office said the governor did not influence state-run Citizens Property Insurance to act on behalf of his political contributor, but his spokespeople have also avoided saying whether Scott supports the deal itself. 

Here’s an excerpt from a press conference today, in which Scott avoids answering a reporter’s question about whether he supports the deal. 

Reporter: A couple weeks ago, Citizens did a $52 million deal with a nine-month-old insurance company. We know how you feel about Citizens but you haven’t really said specifically how you feel about this unique and new type of deal. Do you support that type of economic activity at Citizens, are you against that specific deal?

Scott: First off, I want to try to do anything I can to try to reduce taxes in our state. As you know, my first year in office we reduced property taxes by over $200 million, so I think that’s a real positive. What Citizens is doing is, Citizens needs to make sure they downsize. They should be the insurance company of last resort. I’ll do anything I can to make sure they keep doing that. As you know I (appoint) two of eight board members and I don’t appoint the chairman. I want them to make sure they constantly look at how do we get them out of the business of being the insurance company of first resort. I want them to be the insurance company of last resort. That’s what  they’re set up to do and that’s what they need to do. 

Reporter: But, specifically. A couple weeks ago you went line-by-line and looked at budget issues and vetoed things were $100,000. This is a $52 million deal, and you’re the CEO of the state. Should you not look at this deal, specifically, and say, ‘I’m for this deal,’ or ‘I’m against this deal,’ or ‘I have issues with this deal,’ as others have?

Scott: Citizens has a board. I appoint two board members. I don’t appoint the chairman. My expectation is that they go through, and any program like that, they review it. And do the right thing.

There is a difference between the state budget and the state-run insurer:  Scott has unique line-item authority over the budget, while his control of the state-run property insurer is a bit more indirect. He appoints two members to the eight member board and can give Citizens directives as the head of the Florida Cabinet. He’s done so in the past. He also sits on the the Financial Services Commission, which oversees the Office of Insurance Regulation. OIR approved the special deal with Heritage, despite a long list of insurance violations at companies run by Heritage's president.

One of Scott’s appointees to the board made the motion to support the Heritage deal, and voted for it in a narrow 3-2 vote. Scott’s other appointee was not present. If Scott opposed the deal, he could have asked his appointee not to carry it and it would have failed.

Scott’s office has not addressed this issue, only saying, in a statement from the governor’s chief of staff: “Any assertion that our office influenced the Heritage risk transfer decision by the Citizens Board today is outrageous.”

Scott's chief of staff also called the board “tone-deaf in earning public confidence” after it approved the deal.

Prior to the $52 million deal being approved, Scott’s office tried to downplay it, calling it “not special.”

Also, the day before the “tone-deaf” charge, the governor’s office was much less aggressive, stating: “We expect [the board] to approve or disapprove of this risk transfer based solely on its merits.”

Scott has since said that he believes the board should give at least seven days notice before meetings (the Heritage deal was approved in a hastily scheduled vote, shortly after it was unveiled.). His office also said Scott will not return the $110,000 in donations from Heritage. 

Scott’s non-answer on whether he supports the deal itself is not out of character for the first-term governor.

Scott often does not answer questions directly, regularly pivoting to well-rehearsed talking points that are often repeated in several interviews with different news outlets. In many cases, the CEO-turned-governor opts to defer to less powerful officials on major issues. Here’s a blogpost we did last year documenting Scott’s deferential stance on several issues. 

On property insurance, Scott is in a difficult place, politically. The business community and insurance companies—many of whom are major political contributors and Scott’s most steadfast supporters—want higher rates to help boost profits and sustainability.

Meanwhile, homeowners—many of whom vote based on pocketbook issues—have seen hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance premium increases since Scott took office. Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, called a special session and worked to freeze property insurance rates. He earned the ire of the business community and major insurers said Crist forced them to flee the state. But homeowners saved millions of dollars and, since there have been no hurricanes in seven years, the financial calamity of an undercapitalized insurance market has not materialized. 

Given the political realities (and the fact that Crist could challenge Scott in 2014),  Scott has steered clear of taking a strong a position on property insurance. He worked to kill insurance rate hikes in a  Citizens bill moving through the Legislature this year, but also has tasked Citizens with shrinking rapidly. At Citizens, the "depopulation" mandate means raising rates and using cash from the company's $6.4 billion surplus to incentivize private insurers.

Board members at Citizens have said that the message they’re getting from state lawmakers is “schizophrenic.”


In Joe Garcia election scandal, lawyer of convicted rival wants FBI investigation of mystery candidate

 @MarcACaputo @PatriciaMazzei

Hidden money. A shadowy candidate. Missing campaign-finance reports.

That’s not just a description of Justin Lamar Sternad’s crime-filled congressional campaign against U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia in 2012.

It also describes yet another Garcia rival from two years before: Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo.

But unlike Sternad, Arrojo has ties to Garcia’s former top advisor who resigned Friday amid an unrelated criminal investigation into fraudulent absentee ballot requests in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.

Continue reading "In Joe Garcia election scandal, lawyer of convicted rival wants FBI investigation of mystery candidate" »

Rouson faces tax troubles on Tallahassee condo

From TBT's Susan Taylor Martin:

In 2010, state Rep. Darryl Rouson bought a townhouse in Tallahassee.

Since then, he has missed three years of property tax payments, falling so far behind that the unit soon could be put up for auction.

That's not all. Last fall, Rouson borrowed $20,000 from a relative using his already heavily mortgaged St. Petersburg home as security.

And this spring, Rouson parted ways with the Tampa law firm of Morgan & Morgan, which had been paying him as much as $565,000 annually.

Is Rouson, the future House Democratic leader, in financial straits again?

"No, other than someone who just loses their main source of income in the last couple of weeks,'' Rouson, 58, said Tuesday.

A hard-charging lawyer who said he was once addicted to crack cocaine, Rouson declared bankruptcy in 2002 while owing $360,000 to the IRS. He was still in bankruptcy proceedings when he and his wife Angela borrowed money to build a two-story, 4,400-square-foot home that they later refinanced for more than $550,000. More here. 

Movers & Shakers

Israel named to council on violent crime and drug control

New Broward County Sheriff Scott J. Israel has been appointed to the 14-member Florida Violent Crime and Drug Control Council. Israel defeated incumbent Al Lamberti in November.

Volusia County Sheriff Ben F. Johnson, 62, of Deland, has been reappointed to the council.

The council provides advice and makes recommendations on issues including gang criminal investigations, money laundering and drug control.

Teachers recognized at Cabinet meeting

Five of the 2013-2014 District Teachers of the Year were recognized at Tuesday's Cabinet meeting:

Carrie Cooper, Columbia County, Columbia High School

Deborah Hodge, Dixie County, Dixie County High School

Kathy Griffin, Hamilton County, Central Hamilton Elementary School

Nicole Roddenberry, Jefferson County, Jefferson County Elementary School

Kelli Williams, Suwannee County, Suwannee Primary School

Scott, Brogan at TaxWatch awards for cost-cutting employees

Scott will be speaking at the Florida TaxWatch's awards ceremony for state employees who have contributed innovative and cost-saving ideas. The 25th Annual Prudential - Davis Productivity Awards gala will take place from 5 to 8:30 p.m. June 5 at the Florida State University, University Center Club. 

The ceremony will grant 191 awards to state employees from the Tallahassee/Northwest Florida area. Frank Brogan, chancellor of the state university system, will serve as master of ceremonies. 

FMA tweaks government affairs team

The Florida Medical Association is making some changes in its government affairs team, with some staffers getting new titles and more responsibility.

Katie Ballard, director of legislative affairs, will play a key part on the FMA's lobbying team along with fundraising efforts.

Eric Carr, legislative and political grassroots coordinator, will be responsible for rebuilding the FMA legislative key contact program.   

Michelle Jacquis, director of policy management and legislative operations, will track bills introduced in the legislature and coordinate public policy positions.

Holly Miller, governmental affairs counsel, will assume a more active role on the FMA lobbying team.

Monte Stevens, director of governmental affairs and public policy, will manage the FMA’s in-house lobbying team.

FMA General Counsel Jeff Scott providea legal and policy guidance and will draft bills and amendments.

Executive Vice President Timothy J. Stapleton will be responsible for developing and implementing the FMA's overall legislative and political strategy.

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