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13 posts from April 3, 2014

April 03, 2014

Overhaul of Florida charities law seems headed for passage


A sweeping charities reform package is breezing through the Legislature despite earlier concerns that legitimate philanthropies might be harmed by new rules.

The House bill received unanimous support in three committees and is now ready for a vote on the floor. The Senate bill has one more committee, and members who had been worried about reputable charities now say their issues have been addressed.

"I believe that those concerns have been worked out with the bill sponsor and I've been assured that those concerns are no longer valid," said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who was one of two senators to vote against the proposal during its first committee hearing.

State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam started working on what has been called the most extensive rewrite of state charities laws after reading an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting called "America's Worst Charities.'' His office's responsibilities include charity oversight, and his staff has been tweaking the bill to deal with concerns as they arise.

Read more here.

State officials announce more arrests in continuing crackdown on Internet cafés

From an FDLE press release:

The Illegal Gaming Task Force served search warrants today in five Florida counties targeting internet cafés owned by Ivan Vega, 1873 Pine Bay Drive, Lake Mary, Fla., and Peter Miller, 120 Sand Castle Way, Neptune Beach, Fla.

These warrants represent a continuing crackdown on the operators of illegal gambling centers around Florida known as internet cafés.  Along with today's operation, Ivan Vega was also arrested on a warrant from an earlier investigation conducted by State Attorney Willie Meggs of the 2nd Judicial Circuit. Vega was charged with keeping a gambling house, manufacture, sale, possession of coin operated devices, lottery, and plays at games of chance.

“These warrants are a key step in investigating organizations claiming to be ‘internet cafés’ but actually conducting illegal gaming. My Office of Statewide Prosecution will continue to collaborate with law enforcement on these cases,” stated Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Search warrants were executed in Duval, Columbia, Marion, Brevard, Lake and counties. During the execution of warrants, Gaming Task Force investigators seized computers, cash related to the illegal activity, banking records and employee rosters. 

Continue reading "State officials announce more arrests in continuing crackdown on Internet cafés" »

Negron dials back plan to limit community college bachelor degrees


Sen. Joe Negron has agreed to a compromise with the state's community colleges that will create a one-year moratorium on new bachelor's degrees instead of a new law that would have led to permanent restrictions.

Negron, the Senate's budget chief, had initially proposed a requirement that the Legislature approve new four-year degrees at state colleges instead of the Board of Education. He also removed $3.4 million in funding from the 24 colleges that currently offer bachelor's degrees and redistributed the money to the two pre-eminent universities, Florida State University and University of Florida.

That plan, which was never in the House version of the budget, is now off the table after Negron heard from college system leaders. The funding has been restored in the Senate's budget and Negron said the moratorium will give educators and lawmakers time to address so-called "mission creep" and duplication of programs at state colleges and universities.

"Right now, I think that the way the bacclaureate programs have exploded at our state colleges is not what the Legislature had intended," Negron, R-Stuart said.

Negron said he initial proposed the limits and reduced funding to reduce duplication between two- and four-year colleges. But he is also behind a separate budget proposal to split the joint FSU-FAMU College of Engineering and create two duplicate programs in the same city.

Senate approves funding to split FAMU-FSU engineering school


Amid conflicting reports about where Florida A&M University stands on the issue, the Senate agreed to fund a proposal to create a new, separate engineering school at Florida State University.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a FAMU alumna who spoke passionately against the measure, later said she would support the larger budget that contains the FSU funding because of promises made by Sen. John Thrasher during debate.

He reported that FAMU's brand new president -- Elmira Mangum has been on the job two days -- met with FSU interim president Garnett Stokes this morning and agreed to iron out a "memorandum of understanding" determining how the break would occur. The Legislature would abide by whatever that memo contains, Thrasher said.

Earlier, Joyner had opposed Thrasher's amendment to increase FSU's funding for a new engineering school from $10 million to $13 million. That amendment passed on a voice vote. Even with that money included in the budget, Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, voted "yes."

"I'm going to support this budget today, but I'll be here until the end, God willing," Joyner said. "If things work differently, then action in the future will be different. But today I'm going with it based on the word of two gentlemen whom I respect."

Continue reading "Senate approves funding to split FAMU-FSU engineering school" »

Immigrant tuition bill won't get held up in committee, senators say

A controversial bill that would allow some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities will be heard in the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee next week, Subcommittee Chairman Bill Galvano said Thursday.

The news came as a relief to Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican sponsoring the proposal.

"I have been certain all along that I had enough votes on the floor of the Senate to pass the bill, but I haven't been real sure whether I was going to get each of the committee chairman that I needed to hear the bill to do that," Latvala said.

Galvano, R-Bradenton, voted against the bill at its first committee stop. He initially hesitated to hear the proposal in his committee, but ultimately decided to let the Education Appropriations Subcommittee weigh in.

Latvala said Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron would not hold up the bill, either.

Latvala plans to spend the next few days working on amendments that would bring the Senate version of the bill closer to the version that passed out of the House. (The Senate and the House have different language about the tuition differential, the amount universities can hike tuition over the rate set by the Florida Legislature.)

Latvala, who prides himself on his ability to count votes, also made a prediction Thursday: "26 votes for this bill out of 40 in the Senate."

Senate to revive bill to end greyhound racing and report injuries

In a rare concession, the Florida Senate Gaming chairman on Thursday acknowledged that it is unlikely lawmakers can reach agreement on a sweeping gaming bill this legislative session but they will pursue a bill to begin the end of greyhound racing in Florida.

The Senate will abandon its gambling rewrite -- unless the governor negotiates a compact with the Seminole Tribe, said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, in an announcement Thursday to the full Senate.

But he said the Senate will convene its gaming committee next week to take up bills by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, that end the requirement that greyhound tracks race dogs and to require injury reporting at greyhound tracks.

“Even if comprehensive reform is not in the cards for this session, we need to keep trying to find a graceful transition away from greyhound racing,'' Richter said. "Industry representatives concede today that it’s a dying sport" and a gaming report commissioned by the House and Senate called the sport "loss leaders." 

As for the compact, House Speaker Will Weatherford said Wednesday "it's getting late,'' to complete an agreement. 

Continue reading "Senate to revive bill to end greyhound racing and report injuries" »

Senate panel approves MDX shakeup

A local agency that defied opponents by setting new tolls for Miami-Dade County’s busy Dolphin Expressway is caught in the crosshairs of the Florida Legislature.

Two South Florida lawmakers want to reshape the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, better known as MDX, and require the county commission to sign off on toll hikes.

The Senate version (SB 772) won the approval of the Senate Transportation Committee in a tense 6-4 vote Thursday.

“We’re trying to bring some control to these toll increases,” said Sen. René García, the Hialeah Republican sponsoring the bill along with Republican Rep. Jeanette Nuñez of Miami.

But in seeking more expressway control, the bills filed by García and Nuñez have caused the agency to delay road projects, said MDX’s executive director, Javier Rodriguez. MDX has held off on bidding a Dolphin Expressway road-widening project, and it’s waiting to see the fate of the bill before seeking $560 million in bonds for new projects throughout the county.

On Monday, Rodriguez also informed the state that the agency might not be able to make an annual $25 million payment to Florida for construction on the interchange between the Dolphin and Palmetto if the agency’s bonding was disrupted.

Read more here.

Rick Scott's Mostly True claim about (private sector) job growth

Ask Gov. Rick Scott about practically any topic and he is bound to steer the conversation back to jobs.

The former CEO of a health care company loves to cite statistics that relate to job growth, such as this one in a March 31online ad:

"Florida’s economy is on a better path. Since December 2010 Florida has created 540,000 new jobs. Let’s keep working."

Scott, who has governed during the national recovery, is expected to face former Gov. Charlie Crist, who governed during the recession, in November. The jobs picture under both governors is a key topic of debate in the race.

Did Scott correctly cite the number of new jobs in Florida? Turn to PolitiFact for the answer.

Broward debates bed tax dollars for Panthers vs. beaches

Panthers CEO Rory Babich wouldn’t play ball when we asked him today what his Plan B is -- and if it includes relocating the team --- if the Broward County Commission rejects his request for a hike in bed tax dollars.

“In my view that is a hypothetical ....,” Babich said in an interview after a Tower Forum event in Fort Lauderdale Thursday. “It’s my belief we will reach an appropriation resolution.”

The Panthers, which lose about $30 million a year, are seeking an increase in bed tax dollars paid by tourists to help pay off the debt on the county-owned arena. On the other side of the debate was Kevin Speidel, area management director for Hilton Worldwide and Broward’s president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. The county’s hotel and tourism industry wants money devoted to the county’s main tourism draw: the beaches.

The Panthers -- and the arena which hosts other events -- is not one of the main tourism attractions in Broward.

The county’s tourism czar Nicki Grossman  said in an email: “We estimate that about 30,000 room nights are related to all events at the arena (concerts) annually. We have over 8 million room nights per year sold.”

The Panthers get $8 million a year from a 2 percent bed tax. Preliminary estimates indicate that the Panthers’ request would cost the county about $5.6 million “however, the proposal lacks any meaningful consideration to the county in return,” county auditor Evan Lukic wrote in February.

Currently the Panthers get 16 percent of the bed tax -- their request would raise that to one-third, Speidel said. The team’s lease is through 2028 -- the remaining debt is more than $200 million.

Babich argued that the bed tax has generated more than the county originally predicted and therefore the Panthers should get a “portion of that excess.”

Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry said in an interview that the County Commission may not vote on the Panthers’ request before the commission starts it’s summer break in late June. Commissioners are divided on the bailout request and it’s unclear at this point if it will pass, the Sun-Sentinel shows.


Lopez-Cantera and House killed tag fee cut in 2010

As they rewrite history, Tallahassee politicians can have short memories when it suits their political objectives.

Take the current debate over reducing car registration fees and the bill Gov. Rick Scott signed Wednesday rolling back some fees to pre-2009 levels.

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who voted to raise the fees as a member of the House in 2009, told reporters that he only had "one option" when Charlie Crist was governor, to increase registration fees by about 35 percent. 

The following year, Lopez-Cantera had a chance to reduce tag fees by a smaller amount. But the record is clear that along with the rest of the House, he voted no.

That year, the Senate voted 37-0 for a bill that would have lowered the fees. The bill was SB 1436, sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and co-sponsored by Democrat Dave Aronberg and Republicans Charlie Dean and Don Gaetz. 

After that unanimous Senate vote, the bill went to the House, where an amendment by Republican Rep. Rich Glorioso of Plant City stripped off all of the fee-reduction language and sent the bill to a conference committee, which turned out to be a death sentence.

The House vote of 116-0 included a yes vote by Lopez-Cantera, House majority leader under Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala (view the roll call vote here).

Rep. Brad Drake of DeFuniak Springs filed the House version of the tag fee reduction in 2010 (HB 71), but it went nowhere.