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No surprises on Florida Chamber report card: R’s get A’s, Dems mostly fail

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013 by Dara Kam

Three Palm Beach County lawmakers earned perfect scores from the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Not surprisingly, their Democratic counterparts received mostly failing grades from the powerful business lobby.

GOP Reps. Pat Rooney, R-West Palm Beach; MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta; and Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, all received marks of “100″ from the Chamber. Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, received an “87.”

The Chamber’s grades are based on 8,000 votes cast during the 2013 session that ended early this month. Fifty-nine percent of the 160 House and Senate members earned “A” grades with scores of 90-100 for “voting to make Florida more competitive and in support of the priority jobs issues” included in the Chamber’s legislative agenda, according to a press release.

Rep. Kevin Rader, a Delray Beach insurance agent, fared the best of his fellow Palm Beach County Democrats with a “72,” the only PBC Dem that earned a passing Chamber mark. Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, was at the bottom of the delegation with a “36,” just two points more than the Chamber’s lowest scorer, Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood.

Here’s how the rest of the delegation fared:
Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington: 59;
Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana: 57;
Rep. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach: 55;
Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach: 55;
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth: 53;
Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth: 49;
Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton: 48.

Bondi, other AGs ask Urban Outfitters to quit selling druggy accessories

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013 by Dara Kam

Pam Bondi and 22 other attorneys general are demanding that Urban Outfitters quit selling accessories they say is glorifying drug use and “undermining” efforts to combat prescription drug abuse.

The trendy company is targeting the hipster crowd with a line of products that riff on prescription drugs, including a set of syringe-shaped shot glasses along with shot glasses, beer “koozies” and coasters that look like prescription pads.

The Rx-line appears to be as focused on booze as drugs. The prescription-pad coasters bear the label “Al Koholic, M.D.” whose address is on “Brewskis Lane” in “Sloshville, NY.” The beer koozie, also “prescribed” by “Dr. Koholic, Al,” appears to be a prescription bottle for “BOOZEMIN.” And the “prescription shot” glasses are printed with the “Rx #: VRY-NBR8TD” with a quantity “As many as you can stomach” and refills: “Sure!”

But for Bondi, whose made fighting prescription drug abuse her top issue since taking office in 2011, and the other top lawyers, the kitschy barware isn’t a joke.

“Profiting from a ‘prescription line’ that is contrary to Florida’s efforts to combat prescription drug overdoses and drinking is unacceptable. We are calling on Urban Outfitters to forgo a few sales and help us save a lot of lives,” Bondi said in a statement.

The products “demean the thousands of deaths that occur each month in the United States from accidental overdoses,” Bondi and the AGs from 22 states and Guam wrote to Urban Outfitters CEO and Chairman Richard A. Hayne in a letter dated today. “These products are not in any way fun or humorous but make light of this rampant problem. We invite you to pull these products from your shelves and join with us to fight prescription drug abuse.”

Read the attorneys general message here or after the jump.

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Gov. Scott signs manufacturing tax break into law

Friday, May 17th, 2013 by Dara Kam

A manufacturing tax break, one of Gov. Rick Scott’s two priorities this legislative session, is now law.

Scott signed the measure (HB 7007) on Friday and touted it during a stop at a Tampa manufacturing firm.

Under the new law, manufacturers won’t have to pay sales tax on equipment purchases for three years, beginning in April 2014. Scott had wanted to make the tax break permanent, but lawmakers gave him a three-year window instead.

The new law also creates a new nonprofit corporation to oversee money awarded to the state from lawsuits connected to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The manufacturing tax break was caught up in some late-night maneuvers during the final week of session. Two days before the session ended, Scott had to act on a campaign finance bill and an ethics measure that were priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Scott announced he signed the bills about half an hour after the House gave final passage to his manufacturing tax break.

But House Democrats believe the tax break, tucked into a 96-page economic incentive package, is not official because the bill did not receive a two-third majority vote.

The state constitution requires a two-thirds approval for tax-related items that cause counties or cities to lose revenue or reduce a tax in which the local governments share.

Weatherford insists that the tax break did not require the supermajority vote.

_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ouch! Senate Prez Gaetz TaxWatch smackdown

Thursday, May 16th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The ever-acerbic Senate President Don Gaetz spared no venom for Florida TaxWatch in a response to the business-backed group’s budget “turkey” list released earlier today.

The self-proclaimed government watchdog’s method of targeting the turkeys – which include $14 million for a Gulf Coast State College Panama City campus – that haven’t been approved by state agencies “is built on the unconstitutional perversion” that Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a statement.

“This is an arrogance of the elite who spend too much time in Tallahassee and Washington listening to the echoes of their own invented wisdom and thinking they’re hearing the voice of God,” Gaetz went on.

Read Gaetz’s rant after the jump.
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Business-backed Florida TaxWatch spots $107 million in budget turkeys

Thursday, May 16th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida TaxWatch, the business-backed non-profit that calls itself a “government watchdog,” has targeted $107 million “turkeys” they’re suggesting Gov. Rick Scott red-line as he ponders the state’s $74.5 billion spending plan.

The 107 projects add up to just one-half of one percent of the total budget, and about $60 million less than the group identified last year.

TaxWatch’s pinpointed $9,330,422 in Palm Beach County projects, including:
_ $450,000 of the $1 million lawmakers steered to Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s violence intervention program;
_ $6.5 million for Palm Beach State College’s proposed Loxahatchee Groves campus;
_ $1,280,422 for Place of Hope at the Haven campus;
_ $100,000 for a nicotine addiction drug treatment program at Scripps Research Institute;
_ $1 million for Glades Area Street resurfacing in Belle Glade.

Two Treasure Coast projects also made TaxWatch’s hit list: $2 million for renovations at Indian River State College at the St. Lucie west campus and $200,000 for interior renovations of the Golden Gate building in Martin County.

The group also tagged a $14 million Gulf Coast State College project for a Panama City campus, something Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, wants built.

And Senate budget chief Joe Negron’s

TaxWatch identifies “turkeys” as items that were put into the budget at the last minute or without public vetting, which “circumvent lawfully established procedures,” or which steer money to special interests or local areas without going through the bidding process.

Scott has until May 24 to act on the budget. The Republican, who is running for reelection, slashed a whopping $181 million from the spending plan his first year on the job, and cut $63 million last year.

Port St. Lucie senior arcade owner to challenge Sen. Joe Negron

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013 by Dara Kam

From The News Service of Florida:

Brandon Cannon, who closed his senior arcade in Port St. Lucie last month after the state outlawed select electronic games, has opened a campaign account to challenge a potential future Senate president. Cannon, 26, said Tuesday he is undeterred that Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, could be in line to become Senate president for the 2017 and 2018 sessions or that Negron has already amassed more than $104,000 for the 2014 election.

“We cried out to our local legislators in St. Lucie County, Okeechobee County, and further south, and we had a little support but nothing from our local representatives and Sen. Negron,” said Cannon, a Greenville, S.C., native who has lived in Port St. Lucie for most of the past decade. Cannon, a Republican who said he voted in 2012 for Negron’s re-election, was part of a group from Port St. Lucie that traveled to Tallahassee to make pleas before the Senate Rules Committee against the proposed gaming crackdown (HB 155). He said the seniors who accompanied him on the trip to Tallahassee were unable to hold one-on-one meetings with Negron.

The new law requires machines to be coin-operated and prohibits gift cards to be handed out as prizes. The law was shepherded quickly through the Legislature after a multi-state and federal investigation led to raids in March at Internet cafes across Florida and the arrests of 57 people. The investigation resulted in an abrupt resignation on March 12 of former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who in the past did consulting work for Allied Veterans of the World, a charity at the center of the investigation. Two Broward County arcades — Boardwalk Brothers Inc. and Play It Again Florida — have filed a lawsuit challenging the law, calling the gaming ban discriminatory. Cannon said he is not involved in the lawsuit.

Rick Scott adds Maryland to his hit list

Monday, May 13th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott’s extended his “one-way ticket” invitation to business owners in Maryland, the fourth state the governor’s targeted in an effort to get companies to relocate in the Sunshine State.

Scott, a Republican, issued similar appeals to businesses in California, Illinois and Connecticut, all states like Maryland headed by a Democratic governor.

The Scott, who’s running for reelection to a second term, invitation reads a lot like a campaign flier, boasting of how dismal Florida’s economy was when he took office in 2011 and taking credit for a 3 percent drop in unemployment and, according to his calculus, 300,000 new private sector jobs.

Most notably, though, is Scott’s characterization of how bleak things are in the states he’s targeted, using his press office’s frequent hashtag “ISN’T WORKING” to point out Maryland tax increases and lost jobs.

“We hope you’ll book a trip to Florida, and we hope you’ll make it a ‘one-way’ trip because we have the perfect climate for your business,” Scott’s letter reads.

After stumping around the state last week touting pay raises for teachers, Scott’s touring Florida to advertise his success getting lawmakers to sign off on a manufacturing equipment tax break. He’ll be in Jacksonville, Oldsmar and his hometown of Naples.

Scott’s still struggling to top his competitor-in-chief, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for the No. 1 spot as the best place to do business in the country, something he acknowledges in his letter.

Scott urged to veto $1 million for PBC Sheriff Bradshaw violence prevention unit

Thursday, May 9th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw’s proposed “violence prevention” unit, to prevent events like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, got a thumbs-up from lawmakers but it’s giving others the creeps.

More than 200 people have e-mailed Gov. Rick Scott asking him to use his line-item veto on $1 million in start-up money for Bradshaw that the Legislature included in the state’s $74 billion budget.

“The Nazis would be proud of this program and it really scares me. There are to many problems that could arise. Bigger government and more programs is not going to result in less crime,” Delray Beach resident Jim Tingler wrote to Scott on May 3. “I, for one, am not willing to sacrifice my liberty for the promise of security.”

Read the full story here.

Administrative judge nixes barrel racing licenses

Monday, May 6th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The state of Florida erred when it licensed barrel racing at two North Florida racetracks, an administrative law judge ruled today.

Judge John G. Van Landingham’s 85-page ruling is the latest twist in a drawn-out legal battle over whether barrel racing, until two years ago typically a rodeo event, is a legitimate gambling activity in Florida.

Van Landingham’s final order is a victory for the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association and the Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association, which challenged the Department of Business and Professional Regulation that oversees gambling in the state over issuing the license for barrel racing under a quarter horse permit to Gretna Racing in 2011.

Barrel racing was never contemplated by the Legislature or by voters when they approved other horse racing in a constitutional amendment in 1968, Van Landingham ruled. Instead, DBPR issued the license without adopting a rule authorizing barrel racing, he found.

“Florida administrative law does not allow an agency to establish such a policy stealthily by the issuance of expedient licenses; this is equally true whether the policy is highly controversial or widely praised,” Van Landingham wrote.

DBPR spokeswoman Sandi Poreda said the agency is reviewing the ruling.

Florida is the only place in the country where gamblers can legally bet on barrel racing, where horses race against the clock instead of each other at the same time. DBPR also issued a barrel racing license to Hamilton Downs Horsetrack near Jacksonville.

“A race ‘between’ horses, therefore, is a contest pitting horse against horse that takes place during the same span of time, beginning for all with a single starting signal and ending when the last horse crosses the finish line. The horses must perform simultaneously, not sequentially, which means that they are connected, not only by the fact of being opponents, and not only by the fact of competing on the same race course, but also temporally,” Van Landingham wrote.

The ruling raises questions about not only the barrel races at the Gretna track, about 25 miles from Tallahassee, but about the more lucrative cardroom at the track. And it also casts doubt on whether the facility will be able to offer slot machine gambling despite voters’ approval of a local referendum allowing the slots.

Senate confirms utility regulator after drawn-out debate

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

After more than 30 minutes of at times brutal debate, the Florida Senate reconfirmed Public Service Commissioner Lisa Edgar despite concerns that the regulator sides with utilities more often than consumers.

The Senate voted 26-13 to give Edgar, the longest-serving commissioner on the panel another four years on the panel that oversees utilities and approves utility rates.

Edgar was first appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005 and reappointed by Govs. Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

But Edgar’s votes in favor of utility rate hikes, a personal bankruptcy and her involvement in a PSC dust-up involving Blackberry messages prompted a drawn-out debate on the final day of the legislative session about whether she should be replaced.

“My personal belief on this nominee is that she does not do an adequate job of representing the ratepayers and the consumers of the state of Florida,” said Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg. “My personal belief, based on my observations…is that she is fairly consistently on the side of the regulated entities as opposed to the consumers, especially with regard to electric rates.”

Latvala said he had planned not to submit her name for a vote and instead force Scott to either reappoint her or select someone new.

“I’m grateful to Governor Scott and the Legislature and am excited about working with them for the next four years!” Edgar said in a statement shortly after the vote.

Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, questioned Edgar’s rate-making decisions and their impact on “working class people” and the state’s economy.

“Give her a gold watch and say thank you for your eight years of service…Hit the reset button,” Legg said.

But incoming Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, defended Edgar, pointing out that she had been vetted and appointed by three governors and passed the scrutiny of Latvala’s committee.

“She’s human and fallible and unfortunately she and her husband had to undergo a bankruptcy,” Joyner said. “Nobody’s perfect. Her record is exemplary.”

Edgar weathered a PSC scandal involving BlackBerry messages exposed during a proposed Florida Power & Light rate hike in 2009. Edgar was cleared of wrongdoing by the Florida Commission on Ethics after an investigation into whether she broke state law by communicating through her aide with a Florida Power & Light Co. executive during a hearing. The ethics panel found no probable cause that Edgar violated state ethics laws.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said that the eight-year term limit for lawmakers should apply to Edgar.

“It’s about your constituents who have to pay these rates. I would love to see us put someone a little more consumer friendly on this commission,” he said.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner quietly selected to take over Democratic caucus

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

Senate Democrats quietly elected Arthenia Joyner to take over as chairwoman of the caucus next year in a behind-closed-doors meeting on the last day of the legislative session.

Joyner, a Tampa lawyer, will become the first black woman to chair the caucus, now chaired by Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer.

Joyner was selected without fanfare and during an unannounced meeting, a departure from how House Democrats handled a contested election won by Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg lawyer, in February. The House caucus election, broadcast on The Florida Channel, resulted in a tie vote. Rouson won by a single vote in a second round of balloting.

Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant called Joyner “a tireless advocate for Democratic values and ally to Florida’s middle class families” in a press release announcing her election.

Florida House approves election package – again – sends back to Senate

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

The secretary of state won’t be able to punish elections supervisors under a modified elections package approved by the Florida House and sent to the Senate for final passage.

The Senate is expected to finalize the measure, which requires supervisors instead to post online a report of their preparations three months prior to the election, in one of the last actions before the 2013 session ends later this afternoon.

The Senate had wanted to give the secretary of state, appointed by the governor, the authority to put the locally elected officials on probation and force them to pass a test before being able to be removed from “noncompliant status.”

But House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, sided with the supervisors, who objected that Detzner already has the authority to review the local officials’ preparedness, give them written directions and take them to court if he believes they aren’t complying with the law.

Before the session began, Gov. Rick Scott, Weatherford, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, pledged to do something to fix the long lines and up to eight-hour waits encountered by many voters last fall.

Under the plan expected to go to Scott for signature, supervisors can choose from between eight and 14 days of early voting and stay open from eight to 12 hours per day. The 2011 law, HB 1355, shrank early voting from 14 to 8 days. GOP insiders said the 2011 law was designed to cut back on Democratic turnout in the 2012 election, a reaction to Florida Democrats’ support for President Obama in 2008 that helped him into the White House.

This year’s proposal also gives supervisors more options for early voting sites, and would allow add civic centers, fairgrounds, courthouses and government-run senior centers to the city halls, public libraries and elections offices they can now use.

“Reform is never final…We should be ready always to come here and make adjustments if we can make things better,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the sponsor of HB 1355.

Democrats applauded the effort but said it didn’t go far enough to reverse a 2011 elections package they blame for many of the problems.

Rep. Janet Cruz, who was the lead Democrat on the elections bill, called the effort “a very, very good big, big first step in solving the difficulties that our voters have faced.”

But, she added, “I want our citizens to know that we are not finished.”

Democrats contend that voters should still be allowed to change their addresses at the polls on election day. Current law, changed in 2011, requires voters who move outside of the county to cast provisional ballots – which have a greater likelihood of being tossed – if they don’t update their address before Election Day. Democrats contend that kept many college students from casting regular ballots in the fall.

The bill takes “solid steps” to “reform the deform that had happened” with HB 1355, incoming House Democratic Leader Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said. The bill isn’t “where we want to be but it’s better than where we are,” he said.

“Some of us feel like the bill hasn’t gone far enough. We want to go back to pre-1355,” Rouson said.

Senate honors Tuskegee airman on final day of session

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington; Tuskegee Airman Cornelius Davis; Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach

Tuskegee Airman Cornelius Davis, a 92-year-old Blountstown resident, posed for photos with Florida senators who honored him with a resolution on the final day of the 2013 legislative session.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, praised Davis, part of the group of the U.S. War Department’s experiment to prove blacks were able to serve as military pilots, for his heroism.

“You know the story. Mr. Davis and those with whom he fought broke the color barrier. They broke the records for skill and kills. And then they broke the teeth of the Nazi air fleet of the skies of Europe.
If you want to say that you’ve been in the presence of a hero, you were this morning,” Gaetz said before the chamber gave Davis a standing ovation.

Watered-down ban on texting and driving on its way to Gov. Scott

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013 by Dara Kam

It could soon be against the law to text and drive under a diluted ban on its way to Gov. Rick Scott.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, asked her colleagues to support the House version of the bill (SB 52) despite a provision that prohibits a motorist’s cell phone records being used by prosecutors except in cases involving a crash resulting in death or personal injury. The Senate passed the measure with a 39-1 vote, with Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, casting the only “no” vote.

For three years, the Florida House has refused to sign off on the texting and driving ban.
“For the first time ever they have a speaker over there that allowed them to speak on this bill. That was the good news. The bad news was I didn’t like what they said,” Detert said this afternoon.

Critics of the modified bill say it will make it harder for law enforcement to prove drivers were texting. The measure makes texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning drivers would have to be pulled over for something else in order to get a ticket for texting.

Drivers who do get ticketed for texting can voluntarily bring their own records to court to prove they weren’t breaking the law, Detert said.

“And frankly they probably won’t do that over a $30 ticket,” she said.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, asked if the amendment regarding the phone records “doesn’t take all the meat and potatoes” out of the bill, approved unanimously in its original version by the Senate earlier in the session.

But Detert said it was better to pass the ban instead of changing it and sending it back to the House where it could risk languishing before the session ends tomorrow.

“Basically this bill is still a good bill. It still will allow parents today to say to their kids don’t text while driving it’s against the law,” Detert said. “It really will save lives and it boils down to it’s either against the law or not.”

Senate signs off on Scott manufacturing tax break

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013 by Dara Kam

With less than 72 hours left in the session and two priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz hanging in the balance, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a manufacturing equipment tax break, one of just two items on Gov. Rick Scott’s wishlist.

The modified tax break approved by a 37-3 vote late Wednesday would exempt manufacturers from paying sales tax on manufacturing equipment for three years. Scott’s original proposal would have cost the state about $100 million per year, but the plan approved by the Senate would shrink that to about $18 million, according to the amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange. Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale and Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Arthenia Joyner of Tampa voted against it.

“(Scott’s) had modest requests this session. I think we need to get behind him,” Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said before the vote.

Lawmakers moved closer to Scott’s other priority – a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for teachers – yesterday.

Meanwhile, Scott has until midnight tonight to act on two of the GOP leaders top priorities: ethics and campaign finance measures.

Scott has repeatedly voiced concerns about the campaign finance changes, pushed by Weatherford, which would increase current $500 campaign contribution limits for statewide candidates like Scott, who is running for reelection, to $3,000 and to $1,000 for legislative and local candidates.

Son of man injured by Palm Beach County school bus calls on lawmakers to approve settlement

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013 by Dara Kam

David Abbott is making a last-ditch effort to get lawmakers to save his father’s life.

Abbott set up easels with photographs of his father, Carl Abbott, on the fourth floor of the Capitol rotunda Wednesday afternoon as the clock winds down until the legislative session ends on Friday.

Abbott says the clock is ticking on his father as well.

Carl Abbott desperately needs the $1.9 million the Palm Beach County School Board agreed to pay him when he was run over by a school bus in 2008, Abbott’s doctor said in a letter to House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz. The money, that the Legislature has withheld for three years, would enable Abbott to get rigorous medical treatment to regain some semblance of a normal life. Without it, “his life expectancy will in all likelihood be reduced,” Dr. Pierre Deltor wrote.

The Senate is refusing to act on any claims until the system is reformed and an attempt by a House committee to revamp the system went nowhere this year.

“Reform is not my issue. Getting my dad the help he needs is the issue. It’s my only concern. Reform is going to take years. My dad doesn’t have the time to wait,” Abbott said Wednesday.

When asked about Abbott’s bill last week, Gaetz said he was unaware of the specifics of his case and called the 72-year-old North Palm Beach man’s condition a perfect example of why reforms are needed.

“That’s tragic. That makes it all the more important that we have a claims bill process that does not rely upon who the lobbyist is or what the emotion is and doesn’t make the Senate into a finder of fact,” Gaetz said.

Under the principle of “sovereign immunity” the state limits the amount people can collect from the government for wrongdoing. The only way around what is now a $200,000 cap is persuading the Legislature to lift it. Critics of the system, including Gaetz, say the system is flawed in part because powerful lobbyists have too much influence – and make too much money – in the process.

David Abbott said he was aware of Gaetz’s opposition to the claims bills process but traveled from Palm Beach County to Tallahassee anyway to make Gaetz and Weatherford aware of his father’s situation.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said. “My dad’s a victim here. He was a victim when he was hit by the school bus. And now he’s a victim because he can’t get the help he needs.”

DNC Chair Wasserman Schultz: Scott, Weatherford legacy will be ‘sickness, illness and death’

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013 by Dara Kam

Sen. Maria Sachs, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Florida Senate Democratic Leader Chris SmithDemocratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz blasted Gov. Rick Scott for failing to use his clout to push the House to approve a Medicaid expansion that could cover 1 million uninsured Floridians.

The U.S. congresswoman from Weston also accused House Speaker Will Weatherford and the GOP-dominated House of “slavishness ideological dogma” behind their rejection of the Senate plan crafted by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

“Sickness, illness and death…will be their legacy,” Wasserman Schultz told the Senate Democratic Caucus this morning.

Wasserman Schultz, a one-time Florida legislator who served in both the state House and Senate, also blamed Scott for “having a deathbed conversion” about the Medicaid expansion and failing to use his bully pulpit to push the House to pass it.

With three work days left until the legislative ends on Friday, Scott has focused primarily on his two priorities – $2,500 across-the-board pay raises for teachers and a manufacturing equipment tax break – and is scheduled to work from 8 a.m until 2:30 p.m. today, including photo opportunity for the last half hour of the day.

The final week is “the most frenzied, intense time of the entire legislative session,” Wasserman Schultz said.

“The governor and his staff should be in the trenches working the phones, working the halls, doing everything they can to pass their priorities,” she said. “It’s just demonstrative repeatedly of his utter lack of leadership.”

Scott, who is running for reelection, is “trying to have his cake and eat it, too” by publicly supporting the proposal to provide health insurance for the poor, which has broad support from voters, but doing nothing to force the House to act, Wasserman Schultz said.

“Leaders take the initiative. They don’t wait to be asked. We’ll need to elect somebody else.”

She sidestepped a question about whether former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, would be a better replacement.

“I have no idea and I’m not here to talk about that,” she said.

Wasserman Schultz also praised Florida House Democrats for “rightfully” slowing down the session with a procedural maneuver forcing all legislation to be read in full in retaliation for the GOP’s refusal to support the Senate Medicaid plan.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who also served as governor, also appeared at the Senate Dems meeting this morning.

He congratulated them for joining with several GOP lawmakers to defeat a controversial “parent trigger” bill and a pension overhaul for state workers.

Teachers may not have to wait until 2014 for raises

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Teachers may not have to wait to get performance-based raises included in the state budget, according to Senate President Don Gaetz.

Gov. Rick Scott had wanted $2,500 across-the-board pay raises for teachers. House and Senate budget leaders this weekend agreed to $480 million for raises but with some limitations. Teachers graded “effective” will be eligible for a $2,500 pay raise, beginning in June 2014. Those rated “highly effective” would be eligible for $3,500.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Senate budget conforming bills due out later this week will make it clear that pay raises can be based on a “formative” teacher assessment instead of one based on student performance that won’t go into effect until 2014 and that would have held up the raises.

“In my experience as a school superintendent, we were able to evaluate students and evaluate effective teaching based not just on summative assessments at the end of a school year but based on formative assessments as we go along,” Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County superintendent, told reporters late Tuesday afternoon.

“As far as I’m concerned, teachers who earn their increases in pay ought to be able to get them as soon as school districts develop a plan to do so, collectively bargain that plan with their unions, submit the plan to the commissioner of education and have it confirmed,” he said.

Gaetz blamed Scott for the delay.

“We simply followed the governor’s proposal as to the timing of the pay increase…But I’m sure that the governor didn’t mean to unnecessarily delay the pay increase,” he said. “My hope is we ought to go forward and give Florida teachers the pay increase that they deserve especially because we have a pay increase…which is based on performance.”

Senate tie vote kills parent trigger for the second year

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 by Dara Kam

For the second year in a row, the Florida Senate killed a controversial “parent trigger” measure that would have given parents of students at failing schools a greater say in turning the schools around.

Six Republicans joined with the 14 Senate Democrats in the 20-20 tie vote after more than an hour of heated debate on the measure (HB 867).

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and former school superintendent, said parents already have the ability to make their voices heard.

“The issue is how do we get parents interested in the options already available to them. This bill will not help that,” Montford said. “I hope a year form now…we’ll spend this much time and energy trying to find a way to get our parents meaningfully involved.”

The bill voted down on Tuesday was a watered-down version of a similar measure that died on a tie vote in the Senate last year.

The proposal would have allowed parents to sign a petition supporting specific turnaround options for schools that received an “F” grade two years in a row. But the Senate amended the bill yesterday afternoon, giving the school board the final say the turnaround options. A companion bill approved by the House, similar to last year’s plan, would have given the state Bpard of Education to choose the options, which include turning the school over to a private management company or for-profit charter school.

The state’s teachers unions and PTA groups opposed the bill.

“The second time around is just as sweet as the first,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said his city turned an “F” school into a “B” school while was Lake Worth mayor.

“Never once…did we think we should…hand it over to a corporation to run,” he said. The school’s grade improved not by “turning it over to some corporation,” Clemens said. “It was by getting involved.”

But Sen. David Simmons, who sponsored the amendment giving the school board the ultimate decision in what happens to the failing school, said Democrats were arguing against a bill that didn’t exist.

The bill was changed to “eviscerate the argument” that the measure “was a Trojan horse where the corporate organizations are going to take over.,” Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said. “That’s just simply not true.”

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, argued that the bill is about “one word – trust,” saying “we ought to trust the parents, the parents who are directly involved in these schools.”

But Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican, objected that Florida already has more choices to turn around the failing schools and the bill does not create any new ones.

“Not one parent ever called me to support this bill. And if it’s the “Parent Empowerment Act” then why is the PTA lobbying so heavily against this bill? I don’t know who these parents are…Why are we doing this?
I don’t know. Who benefits? I don’t know.”

GOP Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami; Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah; Charlie Dean, R-Inverness; Greg Evers, R-Baker; and Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, joined Detert in voting against the measure.

Visitors in the public gallery erupted in cheers after the tie vote, eliciting a stern rebuke from Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

“If there are any more outbursts for or against any bill I will clear those galleries. You understand? Thank you,” Gaetz said.

Why the Senate president voted against the stadium deal

Monday, April 29th, 2013 by Dara Kam

As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross peered down into the chamber from the public gallery late this afternoon, Senate President Don Gaetz pushed the red button rejecting a deal that could steer taxpayer money to refurbish the stadium.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, said he voted against the bill (SB 306) “because I have to go home to Northwest Florida.”

The deal signed off on by the Senate on Monday did not include a provision in an earlier version of the bill that would have eliminated a tax break for foreign banks in exchange for the professional sports franchises tax incentive.

That was “one of the better things about the arrangement,” Gaetz said.

Even that would not likely have coaxed a favorable vote, however, Gaetz told reporters.

While the bill is “a whole lot better” in other ways, Gaetz still doesn’t like the idea that there’s nothing in it that offsets the cost to the state for what could be millions of dollars – up to $13 million a year – in tax breaks.

The Department of Economic Opportunity would have to rank the teams and give the recommendations to the Legislature, who would have the ultimate say, meaning “they’re not being handed out on the basis of who had the best lobbyist,” Gaetz said.

But he said that without swapping the tax break on foreign banks there isn’t “a way to actually pay for the tax incentives. And I wish there would have been.”

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