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Graham leads new Conservation Coalition seeking to revive state programs

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham led a gathering of activists Wednesday calling for Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders to preserve the state’s water resources, while renewing its longstanding commitment to the environment.

“We need strong gubernatorial leadership to reverse the damage that’s been done,” Graham told a rally at the state Capitol.

Graham debuted Wednesday as leader of the Florida Conservation Coalition, which includes Audubon of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Trust for Public Land and League of Women Voters. The coalition plans to lobby Scott and the Republican-led Legislature to restore funding to water quality programs, the Florida Forever land-buying program, and Everglades restoration, which supporters say have been staggered by budget cuts since 2007.

Graham was joined by state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, Nathaniel Reed of 1000 Friends of Florida and representatives of environmental groups, which generally praised Scott’s environmental stance, but blasting legislative moves which reduced oversight and dollars for green programs.

Advocates derided the Legislature for approving a $210 million cut in water management district property taxes, which has led to wholescale staff layoffs and program reductions, the most profound occuring at the South Florida Water Management District. Graham said taxes were “reduced by the amount of two pizzas a year,” but that the cuts did wide-ranging harm to existing programs and services.

Environmentalists, though, withheld direct criticism of Scott, who campaigned for the reduction and embraced the  cuts. Instead, Graham, apparently buoyed by recent Scott comments which underscored the need for effective environmental policy and Everglades restoration, urged conservationists to “join Scott’s army.”

Graham also warned the coalition planned to hold lawmakers accountable for actions which hurt Florida’s environment.

“We want to alert the voters in 2012 who was responsible for what happened in 2011,” Graham said.

Scott turns into salesman-in-chief on jobs plan

Thursday, October 13th, 2011 by John Kennedy

A day after unveiling his latest seven-step themed plan – this one toward creating jobs and spurring economic development — Gov. Rick Scott turned into saleman-in-chief Thursday, pitching his plan at appearances in Jacksonville, Panama City and on talk radio.

Scott gained some additional talking points with Congress ending a deadlock that spanned two presidencies and approving a series of free trade agreements, including those with Panama and Colombia.

In his jobs’ plan, Scott highlighted the prospect of enhanced trade with Central and South America as a motive behind his push for more public works projects at Florida’s 14 deepwater sea ports.

“Free trade with Panama and Colombia will benefit Florida’s economy and businesses for years to come,” Scott said after the bipartisan vote in Congress.  “By eliminating the need to pay tariffs in order to export Florida goods and products to those expanding economies, Florida companies will now be able to invest their money in creating jobs.”

Scott on Thursday is scheduled to tour an aviation center at Jacksonville’s Cecil Field and an industrial and retail complex near the year-old Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport outside Panama City.

Scott rolls another ’7′, unveiling job creation and economic plan

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott laid out the “job creation and economic growth agenda” he’s been hinting at lately — a wide-ranging plan aimed at repealing more than 1,000 state rules and regulations, reducing the corporate income tax, and pouring money into port and road projects to spur more jobs.

The Republican governor — who has promised to create 700,000 jobs in seven years — has conveniently settled on seven steps toward jump-starting Florida’s sputtering economy.

Scott unveiled the plan Wednesday morning at a metals and plastics plant in Orlando. With an election year coming, Scott also used the event to draw contrasts between his plan and the jobs proposal pushed by President Obama, now languishing in Congress after a negative vote Tuesday in the Senate.

“Unlike our elected leaders in Washington, D.C., I realize that it is Florida’s families and businesses, taking risks with their ideas, capital and time, that create jobs and grow an economy,” Scott said. “We will continue to attract new jobs by consistently lettting businesses know through our actions that we want Florida to be their home.”

Scott’s latest proposal builds on many of the themes he endorsed in his first-year as governor.

 After scaling back benefits for Florida’s almost 1 million unemployed — to reduce costs for businesses — Scott now wants to require job training for those drawing assistance. He also wants to double the corporate income tax exemption approved last year by the Legislature, an increase that would eliminate the levy for about 25 percent of the companies still paying.

Scott also puts more pressure on state colleges and universities to produce more graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — which he said will help promote economic growth. He also wants the K-12 system to do its part in advancing STEM education.

“Florida will become the nation’s leader in job creation and economic growth by consistently doing the right things month after month to create the nation’s premier environment to start, relocated or expand a business,” Scott said.

Scott abides by court ruling; now only informally reviews rules, aide says

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Less than two months after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Rick Scott could not require agencies to get his formal approval for rules they wanted to enact, a spokesperson said Wednesday the office is still reviewing the proposals — informally.

But a few House Democrats said such action may violate at least the spirit of justices’ 5-2 decision.

“Isn’t this like an end run around the court decision, that you”re subverting the court ruling?” Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston, asked Patricia Nelson, deputy director of Scott’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform.

Nelson said the governor still insisted on a “very close oversight of agency rulemaking.” But she denied that agencies had to go through the governor to get a go-ahead.

Indeed, Nelson said that if an agency has a standard that it must set quickly, or if there’s a backlog slowing review of a proposed rule, officials are told to enact it.

“We tell them you can move forward, because you don’t have to wait for my approval, based on the Supreme Court ruling,” Nelson said.

In a letter to agency heads sent shortly after the court ruling, Scott chief-of-staff Steve MacNamara said the governor “believes the majority opinion is illogical and grossly misreads the Florida Constitution.” MacNamara said Nelson’s three-person office will continue to “advise” agencies on what kind of rules they should enact.

Scott has vowed to cut government regulations and red tape. But Democrats on the House Rulemaking and Regulation Subcommittee saidWednesday  they were concerned that Scott’s review still amounted to undue influence, while acknowledging the agencies affected are under his control.

“It raises some great concern to me,” said Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens.

FSU’s move into FAU turf sparks state universities’ civil war

Monday, August 22nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

When Florida State University agreed to bring its much-honored film school to West Palm Beach, it was a Hollywood-style story, glittering with images of students getting hands-on experience in big-budget movies.

But a year before classes even begin in temporary quarters at CityPlace, FSU and its partner, Port St. Lucie-based Digital Domain Media Group, already have produced their first blockbuster.

Call it “The Civil War.”

FSU’s arrival in the backyard of Boca Raton-based Florida Atlantic University has sparked a fierce turf battle among the state’s 11 public universities, stirring age-old rivalries among schools that compete not only on the football field, but also for lucrative business partnerships, well-heeled donors and faculty-friendly locations.

FAU has cried foul over FSU’s arrival.

Spurred by the bad feelings, a panel of the State University System’s Board of Governors is scheduled to consider a new regulation today that would assign schools to specific regions and require them to get approval from the schools in another region before offering programs in that region.

“It’s a tough issue,” said Ava Parker, a Jacksonville lawyer and Board of Governors chairwoman. “The world has become more mobile and global. But a lot of this is about bricks and mortar, and where they are placed.”

Scott signs 48 bills, covering water, Medicaid and growth management

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law 48 bills Thursday, including measures that would add new muscle to Palm Beach County’s obscure Lake Worth Drainage District, overhaul Florida’s $22 billion Medicaid program, and sharply reduce state growth management laws.

The Lake Worth law (HB 741) was sponsored by first-year Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, and gives the drainage district authority to issue taxpayer-backed bonds to pay for canal improvements and construction of a 25-billion-gallon reservoir in western Palm Beach County to hold stormwater.

The water would then be treated and moved through existing canals to South Florida’s thirsty shoreline communities from Wellington to Fort Lauderdale.

Supporters have touted the project as a common sense solution to the region’s environmental and growth management problems. But Scott’s office earlier raised questions about taxpayer liability stemming from the plan, called the C-51 Reservoir Project.

The Lake Worth Drainage District was created 96 years ago to provide water control and supply from Okeechobee Boulevard south to Broward. The district has historically been limited to weed control, maintaining canal banks, monitoring water levels and issuing permits.

But as owner and operator of a reservoir that helps quench South Florida cities and shapes development, while negotiating contracts with other utilities, the district would emerge as a major player in the region’s water management. (more…)

State budget awaiting Scott’s sig to cause pain before any gain, economists say

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

The $69.7 billion state budget now before Gov. Rick Scott will send tremors through Florida’s struggling economy, with school districts, hospitals and other big employers soon cutting jobs and programs because of a sharp drop in taxpayer dollars, economists say.

Scott has generally praised the spending plan for shrinking government, cutting regulations and reducing taxes. He says it will spur private business expansion and fulfill his campaign pledge to create 700,000 jobs over seven years.

Many analysts aren’t so sure.

More certain, they say, is that state government’s pullback will lead to at least a short-term reduction in dollars coursing through Florida. It could add to the state’s 10.8 percent unemployment rate, they warn.

“A reduction in state spending? Well, first, that’s just going to reduce jobs,” said David Denslow, head of the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Demographic Research.

“It’s going to be another headwind in the economic recovery,” said Denslow, an occasional adviser to the Republican-led legislature. “You’re cutting employment, reducing infrastructure spending and lowering the amount of money going to communities. That’s going to have a negative effect.”

House Republicans revive enviros’ dreaded “burden of proof” and send to Scott

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The House added a controversial environmental permit provision to an otherwise, routine rulemaking bill Thursday — reversing a stance adopted only days ago by ruling Republicans.

The House voted 76-39 to add a disputed “burden of proof” standard that critics say effectively will block many citizens and organizations from challenging licenses or permits issued to developers, mining firms or others looking to build in environmentally sensitive areas.

The rulemaking legislation (CS/HB 993) now containing the tougher challenge standard heads to Gov. Rick Scott, who is likely to sign it into law.

House Republicans said lifting the ability for far-flung opponents to weigh-in with lawsuits or other challenges to development permits was hurting the state’s economy.

“Advocates have brought a project to a grinding halt, only because they challenge the permit,” said Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City.

“Now,” Patronis urged House members, “take a chance to take your state back.”

Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, successfully got lawmakers last week to strip the “burden of proof” measure from a bill (CS/HB 991) that would prohibit local governments from requiring that state and federal permits be approved before granting local development projects.

Conservationists had derided the measure — approved in seven minutes late Friday night by the House — as among the worst environmental bills in years.

But critics also have said the local government legislation faced long odds in the Senate, where there’s been some resistence to a wide-ranging overhaul of environmental permitting. But with the Senate already embracing the tougher proof standard, the House joined in Thursday and included it in the rulemaking bill.

Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, predicted that tightening the legal grounds for challenging land-use permits would not withstand court challenges.

“This is the wrong thing for us to be doing,” Kriseman said.


Senate budget chief evokes ‘G’ word to make point: `Gators’

Saturday, April 30th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Football in Florida — especially University of Florida football — packs plenty of muscle in the state Legislature.

So when Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the Senate was having problems with the House’s push to deregulate more than a dozen profession, including athletic agents, he wasn’t averse to some influential name-dropping.

Alexander said Saturday morning that the day before he received a call from UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, reminding him of past tales of agent abuses, urging that the state maintain oversight of the profession.

“I’m very hesitant to deregulate that particular one,” Alexander said. “But we’re trying to find common ground.”

Alexander’s House counterpart, Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said during Saturday morning’s budget negotiations that her side would have to talk further about the Senate’s counter-proposal, which would maintain regulation of health clubs, dance studios and talent agents.

The House earlier this month approved legislation deregulating movers, auto repair shops, travel agents, auctioneers, telemarketers, architects and several other professions as part of a sweeping push to cut government red tape, a goal endorsed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Alexander, however, warned Saturday that many of the professions in line for being cut free have figured in past headline-grabbing scandals.

Talks between the budget chiefs are expected to continue at least through Saturday.

House overhauls environmental permitting in seven minutes

Friday, April 29th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The House spent seven minutes amending, debating and voting on legislation Friday night that conservationists have condemned as one of the worst bills in decades for Florida’s environment and waterways.

The House voted 95-16 to approve a measure (CS/HB 991) which would streamline or erase broad portions of environmental permitting, make it easier for rock mining projects to commence, and blunt the ability of local governments to enforce regulations.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, rushed the vote on the legislation. But several amendments included in the bill were aimed at softening some of its toughest edges.

Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, got lawmakers to approve an amendment eliminating a ‘burden of proof ‘ provision that would have effectively blocked citizens from challenging any license or permit issued to developers, mining firms or others looking to build in environmentally sensitive areas.

While home-rule — returning power to local governments — has been a popular theme this legislative session, some provisions of the bill do the opposite. The bill would prohibit local governments from requiring state and federal permits be approved before granting local development permits.

“This will have a chilling effect on local governments looking to protect wetlands,” said Janet Bowman of the state’s Nature Conservancy.

 Despite the House’s swift move on the legislation, critics say it faces long odds in the Senate, where there’s been little support for wide-ranging overhaul of environmental permitting.

There goes ‘Swifty’: House OK’s no dog racing at dog tracks

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Greyhound racetrack operators, including Palm Beach Kennel Club, could drop dog racing but still run more lucrative card rooms under a measure approved 86-31 Tuesday by the state House.

Fans of horse-racing, jai-alai and dog-racing have been dwindling for decades in Florida and across the nation. The legislation (CS/HB 1145) would lift the current state requirement that dog tracks must run greyhound racing if they’re also going to run card rooms.

Bill sponsor, Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said, “Nothing in this bill expands gambling.”

Critics, though, didn’t see it that way.

“Maybe this is a way to fix Florida,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “But this kind of expansion is doing nothing but feeding an addiction.”

Representatives of Palm Beach Kennel Club have said it would continue to run live races but they support lifting the racing requirement because they believe it would clean up the industry and boost track revenue drawn from simulcast racing.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill (CS/SB 1594), which is still awaiting full approval from that chamber.

Senate turns out the lights on electric rate hike

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Legislation that would have given Florida Power & Light and other investor-owned utilities authority to raise customer rates to finance alternate energy projects appears dead for this session.

The Senate Budget Committee, on its final day of hearings, rewrote portions of the measure (CS/SB 2078), before delaying a vote.  But when the committee adjourned without a final vote, budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said that was the last lawmakers should expect to see of the proposal.

“We are disappointed, but we remain committed to working with the governor and Legislature to address Florida’s future energy needs,” said FPL spokeswoman Jackie Anderson.

Florida utilities, heavy contributors to both political parties, would have been allowed to tack on an additional charge – without prior approval by state regulators – to cover their costs of building solar and biomass energy plants or buying renewable energy from producers.

For FPL’s 4 million customers, mostly in South Florida, the Juno Beach-based utility’s $206.1 million share could mean an extra $2.40-a-month on average, or $28.80 annually, to encourage the use of alternate sources to oil-, gas-, coal-, or nuclear power.

Supporters said the move, sponsored by first-year Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, chair of the Senate’s Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee,  would create jobs in the burgeoning renewable industry. Critics said the extra charge is a giveaway, especially to FPL which last year was denied most of a $1.25 billion rate hike by the Florida Public Service Commission.

While utilities are potent political forces, Benacquisto’s bill ran into tea party opposition. Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group founded by Palm Beach oil billionaire David Koch and a force in conservative politics, ran a full-page newspaper advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat critical of the legislation.

Gov. Rick Scott also said he was wary of giving utilities the go-ahead to raise rates without regulatory oversight.

Removing the possibility of the rate increase would shield consumers from one of several measures certain to take money out of Floridians’ pockets. Scott and legislative leaders insist they are crafting a no-new-taxes budget, although higher out-of-pocket costs look certain for many Floridians.

Potty parity heads to history books

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Potty parity in Florida would be wiped from the statute books, under legislation approved Wednesday by a House panel.

Citing a need to undo excess regulation, Rep. Ana Logan, R-Miami, proposed the measure that would repeal a 1992 law that created a ratio for men’s and women’s toilets in public buildings. A major advocate of the law had been then-Rep. Lois Frankel, the West Palm Beach Democrat and former mayor.

At the time the legislation was approved, analysts said the requirement would likely boost public construction costs by $2,500 per toilet.  The law requires that three women’s toilets be constructed for every two “male equivalents.”

But supporters of the repeal pointed out that current plumbing code standards can already lead builders to exceed the potty requirements of Florida law. Logan said she didn’t expect long lines to emerge at newly built or renovated theaters or sports arenas if Florida’s standard is lifted.

The findings should be enough to convince fellow lawmakers, Logan said. She opted not to offer a closing argument on the bill, adding, “I feel a little flushed today.”

Actors Guild fighting House de-reg effort

Monday, April 4th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The Screen Actors Guild weighed in Monday opposing House legislation that would lift state oversight of a wide range of professions, including talent agents.

Richard Masur, the chairman of the organization’s national legislative committee, sent a stinging letter to House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter, Park, budget chief Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Placid, and bill sponsor, Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, warning the measure could kick open the doors to exploitation of wanna-be actors — especially kids.

Masur wrote, “HB 5005 could have the unintended consequence of making Florida a haven for unethical talent agents and scam artists, who would take advantage of uninformed actors and models, demanding fees and advance payments with no oversight, and tainting the reputation of our entire industry.

“In addition, the deregulation of talent agents leaves vulnerable and open the most susceptible in our society: children and young adults,” he added.

The legislation is poised to win preliminary approval Wednesday in the House. Interior designers, hair-braiders and several other professionals whose state licenses are threatened by the measure already have blasted the measure, which supporters defend as red-tape cutting.

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