« March 31, 2014 | Main | April 2, 2014 »

12 posts from April 1, 2014

April 01, 2014

Popular tax break for solar is being blocked in the House

A Florida Senate committee on Tuesday approved a constitutional amendment for the November ballot that would give tax breaks to businesses that install solar panels, but it is unlikely to come before voters: The chairman of a powerful House committee believes the solar industry isn’t ready for it.

“I just don’t see the need to continue to expand the incentives and underwriting of solar,’’ said Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, chairman of the House Finance and Tax Committee. “Solar is coming a long way and eventually it’s going to be able to stand on its own two feet. But right now it doesn’t.”

Proponents of the bill, however, say that Workman’s attitude is more proof of the clout of Florida’s electric utilities, which view rooftop solar as the beginning of the end of their monopoly control over Florida’s energy market.

John Porter, the former mayor of Cape Canaveral and the managing partner of the solar energy company CleanFootprint, said Workman and others in the Legislature oppose the amendment because voters would likely approve it.

“Nothing polls over 90 percent [among voters], but solar does,’’ he said. “If the people of Florida are given a choice in this issue they are going to vote yes. . . . They understand how valuable it is to their air, their water and to the future of Florida.

“Instead, everybody here is really interested in keeping the status quo in place, which is the stranglehold of these large utilities,” he said. “It’s really almost criminal and we need to make a change.”

Two bills in play, SB 917 and HB 825, would place an amendment on the 2014 ballot that would rewrite the state constitution to allow for an ad valorem tax exemption when businesses install renewable energy devices, such as solar panels, as long as the company consumes the electricity itself. Story here.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/04/01/4033626/popular-tax-break-for-solar-power.html#storylink=cpy

Fresen seeks to soften nursing education bill

A proposal winding its way through the Florida Legislature seeks to raise the bar for nursing education programs.

But on Tuesday, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, added a provision that would give struggling programs more leniency by allowing longer probationary periods before closure.

Among the potential beneficiaries: politically connected Dade Medical College.

Three of Dade Medical College’s nursing programs are on probation for low passing rates on the national licensing exam, according to the college’s website.

Fresen said his amendment was not intended to benefit Dade Medical College, or any of the other 21 nursing programs on probation. “It allows the [state] nursing board to extend probation at their discretion,” Fresen said.

But Linda Quick, the president of the South Florida Hospital & Healthcare Association, raised concerns about the provision — and said she suspected it was likely influenced by Fresen’s ties to college executives.

“Anything that prolongs the period of time that institutions have to meet basic standards is not a good idea,” Quick said. “They should be able to do it sooner rather than later.”

Read more here.

Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott honor FSU football, Jameis Winston


TMFSUjimboFlorida State University Day at the Capitol happens every spring. But this year's celebration had some special touches: a Waterford Crystal trophy, a famous bronze statue of a football player side-stepping a defender and members of a national championship football team.

A presentation at the morning House session included a highlight reel of the Seminoles' historic run that resulted in the BCS championship in January. Star quarterback Jameis Winston and Coach Jimbo Fisher (left) brought greetings on behalf of the team; most of the elected officials stood in awe the entire time with cell phones in hand. The team presented Speaker Will Weatherford with a custom-made football jersey.

The recognition ceremony repeated later in the Senate. Senate President Don Gaetz allowed prominent FSU alum and rumored FSU presidential candidate Sen. John Thrasher to preside.

About a dozen members of the team, by that time looking slightly uncomfortable in dress shoes and slacks, posed for countless photos and remained gracious. 

Later tonight, Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera are scheduled to host Fisher and other FSU dignitaries at a reception at the Governor's Mansion. They will sip on Toomer's Lemonade sent by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley after losing his friendly wager with Scott over the outcome of the national championship game. 

Continue reading "Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott honor FSU football, Jameis Winston" »

Public Service Commission ousts another veteran staffer for 'personnel' reasons

UPDATE with Baez comment: Months after Commissioner Art Graham was named chairman of the Public Service Commission for the second time, the director of the Public Service Commission has asked for and received the resignation of one of the agency's highest ranking and longest-serving staff members, Marshall Willis.

"As you requested during our meeting this afternoon, I am hereby submitting my resignation effective April 30, 2014,'' Willis wrote in a letter last Friday to the PSC executive director, Braulio Baez, who reports to Graham and the five-member board.

"I do not fully understand the why's but I do understand that I serve at your pleasure and you have the right to do what you are doing. I have really enjoyed working at the psc, it has been like a family to me. lt is disheartening, to say the least to be asked to do this, by the very organization that I have given my all to over all these years."

Willis was director of the Division of Accounting and Finance, was known as among the hardest working on the staff, and served the commission for more than 25 years. He was reportedly two years way from his retirement under the accelerated retirement program known as DROP. 

Continue reading "Public Service Commission ousts another veteran staffer for 'personnel' reasons" »

American Bridge's Bright Futures attack faces Truth-O-Meter

Republican Gov. Rick Scott paid for college by working at a doughnut shop and getting help from the GI bill. Now he says he wants low-income students to have that same shot at the American dream that he did.

Scott has called for lowering the cost of college, including challenging colleges to offer $10,000 degrees. On March 17, 2014, he repeated that message at a college affordability roundtable at Barbara Goleman High School in Miami Lakes.

Democrats were watching. American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC, used a video clip of a reporter interviewing Scott at the event to produce an online attack video.

While a smiling Scott appears to be standing in a library, a reporter asks: "In your first year in office you proposed millions of dollars in cuts to public education. Then in 2011-12 over those two years (you) signed off on tuition increases of 13 percent. You presided over cuts to the Bright Futures college scholarship program. To what extent is your recent efforts to boost education and hold the line on costs of education re-election politics?"

"All of that is incorrect," Scott responded, and then the video cuts him off. Text on the screen says, "Scott approved cuts to Bright Future scholarships," followed by, "Rick Scott is bad for Florida."

We heard the rest of Scott’s defense thanks to a recording by Miami Herald education reporter David Smiley. Scott talked up funding increases for K-12 education, "record funding for universities" and his fight to cut higher education tuition -- but he didn’t mention Bright Futures.

Education funding has been a hot topic in the race between Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Democratic frontrunner. Here PolitiFact will examine American Bridge’s charge that Scott presided over cuts to Bright Futures.

Gov. Scott signs tougher sexual predator laws

Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday signed into law four bills targeting violent sexual predators, following the murders of two young girls in the Jacksonville area and news coverage that exposed problems with the sexual predator law known as the Jimmy Ryce Act.

"As the father of two girls and the grandfather of three little boys, I think about how the legislation I'm signing today will affect Florida's families. It will make Florida's children safer," Scott said.

The bills, which passed by unanimous votes on the first day of the 2014 session, impose minimum mandatory 50-year prison sentences in certain cases, prohibit gain time for offenders convicted of certain sex offenses, and require offenders to give specific information to police, such as address and vehicle changes.

"Florida will not be a catch-and-release state as it relates to violent sexual predators," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. He said that in the 15 years since the Jimmy Ryce law was implemented, 596 violent sexual predators have been released from state prisons, many of whom committed new crimes.

At an emotional bill signing ceremony in the Capitol, Scott was joined by legislative leaders, law enforcement officers and victims of sexual abuse and family members. Present was a Jacksonville-area mother, Deina Thompson, whose eight-year-old daughter Somer was abducted and killed, and a tearful Ron Book, a prominent South Florida lobbyist, whose daughter Lauren, an abuse victim, has spearheaded a national effort to call attention to the widespread problem of sexual abuse.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, credited a series of articles in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel with forcing legislators to confront the issue quickly. "Sometimes, good things happen when the media digs deep," Gaetz said.

Who is behind the attacks from the left on Charlie Crist?

UPDATE 4:10 p.m.: We have heard from Fontaine via email. Her comments are included in this blog post.

A shadowy group calling itself Progressive Choice is attacking Charlie Crist as "a conservative Republican" who is "no friend of progressive Democrats."

Mailers started showing up in Tampa Bay area homes (and in Tallahassee, we're told) over the weekend, claiming Crist is pro-life, A+ rated by the NRA and that he signed a petition banning gay marriage.

The attacks aren't surprising, and most of the specific claims are rooted in truth (though they ignore Crist's changes of positions/flip flops). The more intriguing question is: Who's behind and paying for the mailers?

Progressive Choice has a bare bones website that describes the group as "a diverse coalition of fair-minded, forward-thinking individuals and organizations advocating for leadership that stands firm on progressive principles and genuinely reflects the interests of all progressives across the nation."

The group is not yet listed with the Federal Election Commission or the Florida Division of Elections, so we don't know where its money is coming from. The mailer lists a Washington D.C. P.O. box and says the mailers were sent from Orlando.

On a Facebook page, the group said its leader is Jamie Fontaine, who runs a Baltimore political advocacy firm and who "has been pushing women's and LGBT issues for 20 years."

In an email, Fontaine would not say who is funding the mailers, robocalls and Web adverstising being paid for by Progressive Choice.

"I will not at this time provide the names these supporters because their only motivation is to engage and have a meaningful impact," Fontaine said. "They did not ask to be placed in the spotlight or bullied by operatives with clear (or not so clear) corporate and political agendas — all while important issues like access to health care, more investment in public education and workforce advancement are buried by shadowy horse race coverage."

The minutiae of where the group's money is coming from is noteworthy because Republicans backing Gov. Rick Scott said in September that they might spend money helping little-known Democrat Nan Rich in a primary versus Crist. The idea being to attack Crist from both sides to weaken him in November.

Progressive Choice would seem to fit that bill.

On its Facebook page, Progressive Choice seems to be supportive of Rich, asking that Crist debate Rich and posting a headline titled "Nan Rich Blasts Rick Scott and Charlie Crist on School Choice." Progressive Choice Web ads also have appeared on the South Florida Sun-Sentinel website and on the Buzz, attacking Crist and calling Rich his "progressive Democratic opponent." (The ads are paid and placed through third-party vendors -- i.e., we don't know where they came from.)

Progressive Choice also showed up in a robocall featuring former National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland, who is supporting and fundraising for Rich.

According to BrowardBeat.com, Ireland said in the call that she was "gravely concerned" about Crist's candidacy.

"For too long, Charlie Crist led the pack of Republicans waging war on women," Ireland said. "...He blocked reproductive choice for too long."

Ireland urged people in the call to join her on Progressive Choice Florida, which BrowardBeat described as an anti-Crist Facebook page. (We've reached out to Ireland.)

Or this could have nothing to do with Republicans pounding Crist from the left, and that a group of concerned Democrats supporting Rich could be doing the work. We'll know more if Progressive Choice disclosed its donors, as required under Florida law.

Brandes seeks investigation of PSTA's Greenlight Pinellas

 Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is asking the Florida Department of Transportation's inspector general to investigate how Pinellas County's mass transit agency is spending money on its Greenlight Pinellas program.

In a letter he sent Tuesday to DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad, Brandes is asking the agency to review how the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is spending about $800,000 on an information campaign on a Nov. 4 referendum asking voters to support a sales tax increase of 7 percent to 8 percent to pay for new routes and a 24-mile light rail line between St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

The campaign uses taxpayer money for propaganda purposes, a violation of state law that should require the money to be returned, Brandes said.

Download Brandes DOT Letter

"It’s extremely concerning that taxpayer dollars could be spent for what I believe is to advocate for a tax increase," said Brandes, who chairs the senate's transportation committee. "I think PSTA may have crossed over a line. I want an investigation to see if that is the case or not."

Continue reading "Brandes seeks investigation of PSTA's Greenlight Pinellas" »

Latvala plans to take the House position on immigrant tuition

A bill that would extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented students won the support of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

But could it be in trouble with Gov. Rick Scott?

The sponsor, Sen. Jack Latvala, said Tuesday that he plans to "pass the House [version of the] bill."

So far, Scott has expressed his support only for the Senate version.

The big difference between the two is the tuition differential. The Senate version forbids universities from raising tuition above the rate set by the Florida Legislature. The House bill allows for a differential of up to 6 percent.

Scott has said he considers "holding the line" on tuition one of his top priorities for the session. The governor likes the Senate version of the tuition bill (SB 1400) because it "keeps college affordable for Florida's students," he wrote in a statement Tuesday.

Scott has been mum on the House version (HB 851, by Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami). 

But if it were to pass both chambers and the governor were to veto it, the tuition differential would remain at 15 percent.

We're waiting to hear back from Scott's press office.


Governor's new ad features former South Bay city manager convicted of grand theft

Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign released a new web ad on Tuesday, featuring footage of the governor talking to the now-convicted former South Bay City manager Corey Alston, and Alston's brother Tory in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

"That's definitely Corey and his brother,'' said Sen. Chris Smith, the Democratic leader in the Florida Senate from Fort Lauderdale, who knows both Alston brothers. (Corey is on the left.) 

Corey Alson, 35 of Lauderhill, pleaded not guilty in March to charges of grand theft, corrupt misuse of a official position and misuse of public office or employment. Prosecutors accused him of coordinating a deal to be compensated $25,139 for 498 hours in unused sick time and he resigned in February. He  was later indicted on four additional counts of grand theft, one count of grand theft over $20,000 and one count of aggravated white-collar crime. 

After the incident, the governor suspended the three city officials who approved the payout to Alston.

Campaign spokesman Greg Blair released the following statement after being contacted by the Herald/Times: “The ad uses old footage from 2010 and is not running as part of any paid digital effort. The footage will not be used again going forward."

The white man with Scott in the video is Spencer Geissinger, former external affairs director for Scott, who worked as an advance man on the governor's first campaign. The ad features the governor walking along a street with Guissinger and a white woman, talking to the Alston brothers and a black woman and talking to Hispanics in uniform. The ad titled "540,000" touts what Scott says is the creation of 540,000 jobs in Florida since December 2010.