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25 posts from March 13, 2014

March 13, 2014

Education comes up big in Weatherford's proposed allocations

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford released proposed allocations for spending next year, and the plan is clearly boosted by revised forecasts giving lawmakers $150 million more general revenue to spend next year.

The biggest headline is that Weatherford’s proposed $10.8 billion in pre-K-12 education is $165 million more than what Gov. Rick Scott’s proposing in his proposed budget and $335 million more than this year. In higher education, Weatherford is hoping to spend $3.6 billion, or about $500 million more than Scott.

The Senate still has to release its allocations, which are expected soon. The two chambers must then settle on spending in a budget to be voted on in May.

Here’s Weatherford’s letter to House members:

Due to improved economic conditions and the continued fiscal constraint of the Legislature, our state is well on the road to financial recovery.  It remains vitally important to maintain the disciplined fiscal principles that led us to where we are today but also recognize that the state can now afford to return revenues to the taxpayer in addition to funding state priorities. The allocations are the result of careful deliberations and are designed to ensure the following funding goals:

·      Provide historic General Revenue tax relief

·      Maintain in excess of $1.2 billion in General Revenue reserves

·      Provide the largest FEFP in Florida history and in excess of a 3 percent increase in per student funding in our public schools

·      Increase funding in our institutions of higher learning as well create performance incentive funding for our universities.

·      Eliminate the critical waiting list for persons with disabilities

·      Provide strategic funding to ensure Florida’s children are protected and have enhanced assistance in our judicial system.

·      Ensure public safety through appropriately funding our correctional and judicial system.

·      Protect and enhance Florida’s environment by a comprehensive and balanced approach to water supply and quality, as well as to purchase lands to preserve Florida’s unique natural resources and provide recreational opportunities.

·      Provide significant long term investment in infrastructure in our roads and public education facilities. Boost one-time funding for infrastructure of state buildings, parks, as well as public libraries, cultural and historic facilities.

Groups pressure Scott to suspend education standards

With their bill to suspend Florida’s new education benchmarks stalled in the Legislature, opponents of the Common Core State Standards are pursuing a new strategy.

They are turning the heat up on Gov. Rick Scott.

Last Sunday, about 80 members of the group Florida Parents Against Common Core protested outside a private fundraiser for Scott on Jupiter Island. Members of another group, Stop Common Core Florida, traveled to Tallahassee on Thursday to meet with Scott’s top education adviser, they said.

What’s more, the Republican Party of Florida’s Legislative Affairs Committee issued a formal resolution last month, urging Scott to take executive action against the standards.

“It’s time for Rick Scott to listen to the people,” said Chris Quackenbush, a grandmother and businesswoman who drove from Fort Myers to Tallahassee on Thursday to make her point. “How does he expect to win reelection without his base?”

Indeed, the continuing controversy over the standards puts Scott in a political pickle.

Read more here.

Ethics commission finds North Miami councilwoman may have exploited her position


North Miami councilwoman Marie Steril’s mother received fancy upgrades to her home purchased through a city program.

Marie Charles-Brutus received high-end counter tops and appliances because her daughter insisted city staff make the home more luxe.

Thursday, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust found probable cause Steril exploited her official position when she asked for the nearly $8,000 in upgrades.

Steril did not immediately respond to a message left on her cellphone.

This is not the first time Steril’s familial connection has raised concerns over this property.

More here.

Cuts in auto registration fees a hit with lawmakers, Scott

State lawmakers passed bills on Thursday that increased proposed reductions in auto registration fees to better match the size of the cuts proposed by Gov. Rick Scott.

The Florida House Finance & Tax appropriations committee voted 18-0 on a bill that would reduce taxes and fees on motor vehicle licenses by $25.05 for heavy weight vehicles, $21.55 for middle weight vehicles, and $18.55 for light weight vehicle.

The cuts would cost the budget about $309 million in general revenue between July 1 and June 30, 2015 and an estimated $395 million in subsequent years. The Senate’s Appropriations Committee voted 18-0 on a bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, that was amended to match the House bill. Initially, Negron had suggested cuts that would have reduced fees by an average of $12 a vehicle and cost the budget only about $185 million next year. But state economists revised the revenue forecast Wednesday, giving lawmakers another $150 million to spend.

Also, Scott recommended reducing the fees by $401 million. That bigger number had a better chance of drawing attention to the fees, which were raised in 2009 when Charlie Crist, his 2014 opponent, was governor. They were made then to plug massive holes in the budget left by the recession, and Crist has said he wonders why Scott and lawmakers didn't reduce them sooner.

Negron said he intially propsed a smaller cut in the fee because it was only a starting point.

“As we talked with our friends in the House, the governor has been very persuasive on his plan,” Negron told reporters. “”This is the best way to get direct relief that people will feel at home. And so, that was our decision to get close to the $400 million mark.”

Scott immediately showed his gratitude.

“I want to thank members of the Senate Appropriations Committee as well as the House Finance and Tax Subcommittee for their support in undoing the 2009 tax increases by reducing motor vehicle fees,” Scott said in a statement. “This tax cut will give families back $400 million of their own money.”

Though the savings are modest on a per-vehicle basis and companies with large fleets are the big winners, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are touting the cuts as a consumer-friendly move.

“Reducing the fees associated with registering a car will help make owning a car more affordable for everyone,” said the committee chair, Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, in a statement.

“The citizens of (my district) really appreciate this,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, R-Tampa. “It truly does help the consumer.”

Evers on Weatherford's pension reform: It will pass -- when it snows in Miami

EversHe’s a crucial swing vote that could tip the Florida Senate in favor of House Speaker Will Weatherford’s long-sought pension reform, but Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, said such an overhaul is even less likely than last year.

“If it passes, it’ll be snowing in Miami,” Evers said during a Thursday news conference with the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 20,000 sworn officers who are currently enrolled in the state’s $135 billion pension system that pays for the retirement of 1 million current employees, including teachers, and county and state agency workers.

Weatherford tried and failed to last year to prohibit new employees from enrolling in the state pension plan, which provides a guaranteed return, and steer them into private 401(k)-style plans, that are subject to the swings of the market.

Although Weatherford and free-market groups like the James Madison Institute and Americans for Prosperity say the overhaul is necessary to avoid an inevitable future bankruptcy of the plan, most experts generally consider the state pension plan one of the safest and best managed public pensions. Public employee union groups support the system because of the guaranteed return provide security in retirement.

To gain support from at least three of the eight Senate Republican senators who voted against it last year, Weatherford is proposing some changes, including allowing law enforcement and firefighters to continue to enroll in the state pension plan.

But James Preston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said Thursday that this won’t work either.


Continue reading "Evers on Weatherford's pension reform: It will pass -- when it snows in Miami" »

Center for Responsive Politics: Dark Money and the Mid-term congressional elecions


The Center for Responsive Politics published this ominous story about the many millions of dollars sloshing around in this year's midterm congressional elections.

The takeaway: The new report pegs spending by outside groups at $120 million, the majority of which, $97 million, has been pouring into the most contentious Senate races.


Immigrant tuition bill ready for House floor

The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a proposal that would allow some undocumented immigrants (as well as the children of military personnel stationed on Florida bases) to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities.

The 19-7 vote was closer than some observers expected.

Voting in favor of the measure: Republican Reps. Dennis Baxley; Marti Coley; Steve CrisafulliErik Fresen; Eddy Gonzalez; Ed Hooper; Seth McKeelMarlene O'Toole; Jimmy Patronis; and Dana Young; and Democratic Reps. Joe Gibbons; Janet Cruz; Reggie Fullwood; Mia Jones; Mark Pafford; Hazel Rogers; Darryl Rouson; Cynthia Stafford; and Alan Williams.

Voting against: Republican Reps. Ben Albritton; Richard Corcoran; Jamie Grant; Matt Hudson; Clay Ingram; Charles McBurney and Greg Steube.

The bill had changed considerably from its last committee stop.

On Thursday, Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, added language that would prevent colleges and universities from raising their tuition rates more than six percent above the rate set by the Florida Legislature. It would also eliminate the automatic tuition increase meant to account for inflation. 

Nuñez said she added the provision to make the House proposal more like the one in the Senate. That bill prohibits colleges and universities from raising tuition above the rate set by lawmakers, and already has the support of Gov. Rick Scott.

Expect the Senate version to begin moving soon.

On Thursday, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said he and Latvala were working on revisions to the proposal. For example, instead of allowing undocumented students to be considered "residents for tuition purposes," the bill would grant partial tuition waivers to undocumented students.

Explained Legg: "Giving 'resident' status could open undocumented students up to benefits like need-based financial aid, and benefits even outside the realm of education." (Legg added that there was a "finite pot" of need-based financial aid for Florida students that would otherwise be diluted.)

Legg and Latvala were also working on language that would make sure no Florida residents were displaced by undocumented students.

Still, the bill may be a hard sell to some Republican lawmakers.

Some Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee said Thursday's vote was challenging.

"I struggled voting for this," said Baxley, who represents a conservative district in Central Florida. "But if you live in Florida, you should pay in-state tuition."

Baxley said he was also convinced by Nuñez's reading of Ezekiel 18:20: "The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child."

Grant, of Tampa, said he voted against the proposal over concerns it might preclude some Florida residents from being able to pay in-state tuition rates.

"I think there is a fix," Grant said. "We are all trying to get there."


The Art of War and other Miami-Dade commissioners' book picks



You can’t judge a book by its cover, but titles sure can be interesting.

In a long-running  series of promotional ads hung in  Miami-Dade libraries, county commissioners each pose with book in hand to encourage constituents to read. While most of the photos show the elected officials holding scenic Miami coffee-table books, some of the selections leap out.

Jose “Pepe” Diaz, a former U.S. Marine Corps member and ex-Sweetwater mayor, picked the ancient guide to cut-throat maneuvering, “Sun Tzu: The Art of War.”

"I learn something new every time I read that book,'' Diaz said Thursday. 

Bruno Barreiro chose “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s a biography of Robert Moses, a legendary New York power broker who was described in a Vintage Books review as “one that could bring to their knees Governors and Mayors…”

Two commissioners chose children books.  Jean Monestime posed  with a story of Touissant L’Ouverture, a freed slave who became a Haitian general and liberator, and Juan C. Zapata chose Dr. Suess’ "Oh the Places You’ll Go!," a graduation-present favorite.

“The older you get,’’ Zapata said, “the more you appreciate it.”

Lynda Bell, a former head of Florida’s Right to Life group, used the all-time favorite book pick by the conservative movement, Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”



New Senate lobbying restriction aimed at Pruitt

The Senate Thursday fine-tuned a high-priority ethics bill with a new lobbying restriction that observers say is aimed directly at former Senate President Ken Pruitt, who works as a Tallahassee lobbyist while also serving as St. Lucie County's elected property appraiser.

Pruitt was a well-liked Republican Senate president from 2006-08, but his high-profile lobbying practice in Tallahassee (15 clients, including Florida Crystals Corp. and the Palm Beach County sheriff's office) doesn't sit well with senators.

The amendment, by another former Senate president, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, won a unanimous vote in the 19-member, Republican-dominated Senate Appropriations Committee. Lee's amendment would prohibit constitutional officers such as sheriffs, state attorneys and property appraisers from lobbying for compensation. The restriction would take effect after the next election.

"If I had my druthers, you'd have to pick which side of this equation you want to be on," Lee said. "You either want to be an elected official and represent the people or you want to be a lobbyist and represent special interests."

Lee said his amendment would not prohibit local elected officials from lobbying on behalf of their boards or statewide associations, such as a public defender testifying on behalf of a statewide group.

Lobbyists tracking the ethics bill (SB 846) openly refer to Lee's amendment as "the Ken Pruitt amendment." Pruitt's hometown newspapers on the Treasure Coast have spotlighted his lucrative sideline as a lobbyist. The Florida Commission on Ethics has ruled that nothing in Florida law prohibits a constitutional officer from also working as a lobbyist.


Springs cleanup proposal faces another delay

From the News Service of Florida:

The behind-the-scenes filtering continues on a $378.8 million measure aimed at restoring and protecting Florida's natural springs.

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, temporarily postponed the proposal (SB 1576) from making its first appearance of the legislative session Thursday in the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee. Influential business groups have opposed the measure.

"We had hoped today we would have our bill coming out in a more finalized version," said Dean, chairman of the committee. "But as of the last week or 10 days of working in this area, we still feel that there are improvements that need to be made, and we have not tied the last of the issues together."

The wide-ranging proposal, which Dean and a group of senators have been working on for months, was introduced Feb. 28. Gov. Rick Scott has requested $55 million in the 2014-15 state budget for springs protection, up from $10 million in the current year.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has said water-policy issues may have to wait until the 2015 session, when Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, take over the leadership of their respective chambers. Crisafulli and Gardiner have said they want to make water a priority.

The springs proposal would require local governments within the state's most-prominent springs zones to enact ordinances on fertilizer use. Also, it would require wastewater treatment plants to reduce the amount of nitrogen released in treated water and agricultural operations to follow "best-management practices." The proposal also would require state and local governments to cover the costs of connecting residential properties to sewer systems where older septic systems are determined to be impacting area waters.