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Petersen named to web task force

Monday, August 26th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Barbara Petersen, longtime president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, the news organization-backed open government advocacy group, was named Monday to a legislative panel examining public access to state  records and contracts.

Petersen was Senate President Don Gaetz’s pick for the four-person User Experience Task Force, which is expected to make recommendations for next spring’s Legislature. The task force is working on methods to consolidate existing state-managed websites into a single portal that will give the public access to state financial documents.

“Barbara Peterson is Florida’s respected guardian of open records, open meetings and open government,” Gaetz said. “Her leadership of the First Amendment Foundation gives credibility and reliability to this important work.”

The task force has grown out of questions stemming from the Florida Senate’s $5 million contract with Spider Data Services, which developed a site dubbed Transparency 2.0 to give legislators and staff a window into the budget, state contracts and personnel services. The system was ready to launch in November 2011 but was never unveiled.

The Senate has been in a legal battle with Spider Data over payment on the contract.

The Senate has said there are problems with the service and has concerns about how the contract was reached under the previous administration of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne. But some open government advocates say Spider Data’s site may have proved a too open window into how items get inserted into the state budget by lawmakers.

 

MacNamara out as Scott chief-of-staff, Hollingsworth in

Saturday, May 12th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Rick Scott’s chief-of-staff, Steve MacNamara, resigned Saturday after a brief meeting with the governor, concluding that ”media attention” focused on him had begun to “interfere with the day-t0-day operations of this office.”

MacNamara will leave July 1. Scott announced the veteran capital insider will be replaced by Adam Hollingsworth, who leads the right-of-way division for Flagler Development Group.

Hollingsworth is a former chief-of-staff to ex-Mayor John Peyton of Jacksonville. He left the mayor’s office to work for the Florida Republican Party in advance of Scott’s election, and also served on the incoming governor’s transition team.

“I’m grateful for Steve’s invaluable assistance in helping advance my agenda to strengthen education, create jobs and lower the cost of living for Floridians,” Scott said in a statement Saturday, while praising MacNamara for guiding a generally successful agenda for the governor through the Legislature this spring.

Scott added, “I believe Steve has had a tremendous impact on me and Ann as well as my administration and our state. I respect his efforts and ideas.”

MacNamara’s departure comes at least a few months ahead of his planned exit, but was hastened by media reports questioning his awarding no-bid contracts — one worth $5.5 million — to close associates while he worked for Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. Former associates also accused him of being an overly controlling presence in the governor’s office.

Last week, a complaint against MacNamara also was filed with the state’s Commission on Ethics, accusing him of using governor’s office staff to assist him in inquiring about a college presidency opening in Montana. MacNamara and his wife own property in Montana, and influenced Scott and his wife, Ann, to buy near them. 

MacNamara left the Senate presidency job last June to join Scott, taking over as the new administration’s approval ratings tanked with Floridians, angered by deep budget cuts worsened by the governor’s difficulties connecting with the public.

MacNamara immediately attempted to soften the governor’s image — with Scott most days going without a necktie, suddenly visiting editorial boards he had shunned, and adopting a more cooperative approach with the Legislature.

Scott’s approval ratings remain lousy among Floridians, according to polls. But in his resignation letter, MacNamara pointed with pride toward his work helping Scott repair his first-year image.

“It is my belief that I have helped Floridians begin to know the real Rick Scott,” MacNamara wrote Saturday. “A man who listens to them, who tries to understand their issues and concerns, and works diligently to solve their problems.”

Before joining the governor’s office last June,  MacNamara directed wholesale housecleaning in the Senate administration, forcing out a number of longtime staff directors.  Some of the contracts MacNamara steered to associates and friends were part of his effort to improve the efficiency and transparency of Haridopolos’ office, qualities he also said he brought to Scott’s administration.

But MacNamara also drew controversy. Several Scott agency heads left over the past year, later citing MacNamara’s hands-on approach as interfering with their ability to lead, sometimes over seemingly petty matters.

 Doug Darling, chief of the Department of Economic Opportunity, a key agency for the job-promoting Scott, abruptly quit in January after MacNamara countermanded his order denying the state’s film commissioner a trip to the Sundance Film Festival.

MacNamara earned $189,000 as chief-of-staff.

He previously was chief-of-staff to former House Speaker John Thrasher, and served as an agency head under former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. MacNamara is a tenured professor in communications at Florida State University, but helped shape Scott’s views of higher education as being rife with waste and overpaid administrators.

Although he didn’t comment directly on the accusations that have lately hounded him, MacNamara closed his two-page resignation letter by hinting that he was the target of those losing out on government contracts under the belt-tightening Scott. He also suggested that Scott would continue to defy these critics.

“As you continue to cut government waste,” MacNamara wrote, “those vendors of goods and services will work diligently to twist the story and bring about public pressure to stop these cost savings. Good luck with that!”

TaxWatch bags almost $150 million in legislative ‘turkeys’

Friday, April 13th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott was urged Friday to veto $149.6 million in hometown projects and other suspect spending in the state’s proposed $70 billion budget, including millions tucked in by legislative leaders.

Florida TaxWatch released its annual “turkey watch” as a prelude to Scott’s planned budget signing next week. Last year, Scott vetoed a record $615 million in spending but recently told the Post he didn’t expect to get anywhere near that level in the latest round.

Still, TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro said Scott should rely on a simple guide when reviewing legislative spending proposals.

“When in doubt, take it out,” Calabro said.

In addition to the amount TaxWatch targeted for veto, the business-backed research organization recommended Scott take a closer look at $21.3 million in economic development projects. TaxWatch said it’s likely some can spur the economy, but added that the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity should give this 16-project list more scrutiny.

A handful of Palm Beach County budget items were marked as turkeys Friday. Among them, $1 million for water treatment work in the Glades area, $250,000 for security at this fall’s presidential debate at Boca Raton’s Lynn University, $50,000 to help prepare a master plan for Torry Island development, and $500,000 for widening Riviera Beach’s 13th Street.

Tony Brown, executive director of the Riviera Beach Community Redevelopment Authority, earlier told the Post the 13th Street money would help the city complete a project it sees as vital to connecting a nearby industrial park to the Port of Palm Beach. He called the state’s expected contribution a “good public partnership” for a city strapped by several years of budget deficits.

Legislative leaders saw several of their hometown projects questioned.  Two of the biggest spending items TaxWatch opposed were in the backyard of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, with $14 million for a Brevard College public safety institute and $10 million for economic development condemned as turkeys.

House budget chair Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, also would lose $520,203 for an international baccalaureate program at Sebring High School and incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, would have $389,825 axed from a science and technology program at a local middle school, if Scott follows TaxWatch’s recommendation.

But one of the most controversial spending provisions of the spring session was given the go-ahead Friday. TaxWatch said Sen. J.D. Alexander’s push for accelerating the creation of a 12th public university by giving independence to the University of South Florida’s Polytechnic campus in Lakeland — in Alexander’s home county — was included in legislation that was debated by lawmakers.

As a result, it doesn’t fit the organization’s definition of a turkey. But it still may not be the best use of taxpayer money. Polytechnic would receive $27 million in state start-up funds, while USF would get $16 million to cover costs stemming from the separation.

“Do we need a 12th university? I think the preponderance of our thinking is no,” Calabro said.  

 

Florida Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ panel to meet Thursday

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Frustrated by Gov. Rick Scott’s delay in assembling a task force to look into Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, state Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, has put together a panel that will meet Thursday to look into the first-in-the-nation law.

The Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin has intensified scrutiny of Florida’s first-in-the nation law, which allows individuals to use deadly force when they feel threatened. Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman claimed he shot the unarmed 17-year-old in self-defense.

Smith, a critic of the law since it was proposed in 2005 and who voted against it while in the Florida House, said the nation’s attention on the law prompted by Martin’s death has the potential to have a devastating impact on the Sunshine State’s upcoming tourist season.

“Florida is in crisis mode. We have a big problem and it’s time for leaders to lead,” Smith, the incoming Senate Democratic Leader, told reporters at a press conference this morning.

The panel, dominated by Democrats, includes prosecutors and public defenders from South Florida, including Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout, law professors and lawyers. Area judges and Nikki Grossman, head of the Fort Lauderdale tourism bureau, will appear before the group Thursday afternoon.

Smith said he wants to make recommendations for possible changes to the law to Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and wants a special session to address the law.

Under pressure from black lawyers and public outrage over Martin’s shooting, Scott last month announced he was convening a task force after a special prosecutor he appointed to investigate the shooting completes her work. Haridopolos and Cannon have said they support the task force and want to wait for its recommendations before considering a special session. Smith twice asked Scott to speed up the task force but Scott insisted he wants to wait until the Martin investigation is finished.

But that could take more than a year, Smith complained. Smith, a black lawyer who has discussed the law on national news programs since the Feb. 26 shooting, said vacationers are expressing fears about coming to Florida because of the law.

“We will not sit around and wait for action,” Smith said. “The Florida brand is being portrayed in a negative light each and every day.”

Smith has also launched a web site – FloridaStandYourGround.org – and is eliciting public comments.

Smith’s group will take public testimony from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Fort Lauderdale library main branch and meet later that evening to decide what their next step should be, he said.

Gov. Scott appoints special prosecutor in Trayvon Martin case

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi have appointed a special prosecutor to take over the investigation of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, responding to increased pressure from national civil rights leaders outraged over the killing of the unarmed black 17-year-old by a neighborhood watch volunteer whom local authorities have not charged with any crime.

Scott and Bondi asked State Attorney Angela Corey of Jacksonville to take over for Seminole County State Attorney Norman Wolfinger. The appointment came the same day Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee temporarily stepped down amid outrage over his failure to charge George Zimmerman with any crime in the Feb. 26 shooting. Wolfinger said in a letter to Scotthe was stepping aside “in the interest of public safety” and to “avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.” The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating the case.

Scott also announced the formation of a task force headed by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who is black, to look into the use of the state’s first-in-the-nation “stand your ground” law, which allows individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves when they feel threatened. Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense, and Lee said he lacked evidence to arrest him.

Several black lawmakers, including Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens who represents the district where Martin lived with his mother, had asked Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, to appoint special legislative committees to look into the law. Yesterday, both leaders said they did not believe the committees were yesterday. But today, Scott said they have agreed to suggest appointees to the task force.

Scott’s announcement of the task force comes two days after Scott held an impromptu meeting with about 50 black lawyers and civil rights leaders who marched to his office demanding he create such a panel to look into racial profiling.

Read Scott’s statement regarding the “Citizen Safety and Protection” task force after the jump.
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Sen. Siplin calls on Scott to appoint special prosecutor in Trayvon Martin case

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Senate President Mike Haridopolos also says “no” to a special committee on the use of the “stand your ground” law.

“The Senate President feels that Governor Scott is currently taking all of the appropriate steps to address the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin. Additionally, the Senate President is confident that the circumstances surrounding this shooting will be closely examined by lawmakers, and if the Senate concludes that laws need to be revised they will be addressed in the future,” Haridopolos’s spokeswoman Lyndsey Cruley said in an e-mail.

State Sen. Gary Siplin and a coalition of other black lawmakers are asking Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate last month’s shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a neighborhood watch volunteer near Orlando.

Trayvon Martin was killed last month by George Zimmerman, whom police identified as white but whose family says is Hispanic, in a gated community in Sanford on Feb. 26. Zimmerman, who has not been charged with any crime, has said he shot the high school student in self-defense after a confrontation.

The shooting, now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and local authorities, has sparked an international furor with civil rights leaders demanding Zimmerman’s arrest and a probe into selective prosecution of white-on-black crime.

Siplin, an Orlando attorney whose district neighbors Sanford, said the community is plagued by a “plantation” mentality and asked Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to quell racial tension.

“In my community today, they’re very upset. They’re very excited. They’re ready to ignite,” Siplin, a Democrat and a laywer, said at a press conference in the Capitol Wednesday afternoon.
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Florida political committees among nation’s top spenders, report shows

Thursday, March 15th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Political committees that helped drive the election of Florida Gov. Rick Scott two years ago were among the biggest independent spenders in the nation, according to a report Thursday by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Scott’s own Let’s Get to Work committee, heavily financed by his wife, Ann‘s, cash, spent $17.5 million in 2010, second only to the Republican Governors’ Association’s $26.5 million that cycle. While Let’s Get to Work confined its spending to Florida, the RGA cash was scattered across key battlegrounds.

Two other Florida committees also were included in the institute’s national top 10 of spenders.

Both formerly opposed Scott with fierce television spots and mailers.  But once Scott defeated rival Bill McCollum in state’s GOP primary that year, the cash and attack ads from these committees were aimed at Democratic rival Alex Sink.

The Florida First Initiative spent $6 million in 2010. The committee, led by Alachua County Republican Chairman Stafford Jones, ran television spots accusing Scott of profiting from the “largest Medicare fraud in American history,” before becoming friendly toward the GOP nominee.

During the free-swinging Republican primary, the Florida First Initiative had received $1.1 million from the Florida Liberty Fund, a committee associated with House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. That money helped sustain the scorched-earth campaign against Scott — who ultimately spent more than $70 million of his own cash to win the governor’s race.

Like the Florida First Initiative, the Cannon-allied Liberty Fund adjusted its aim after the primary, raising money from Florida corporations now intent on defeating Sink.

The third Florida big-spending committee cited in the institute’s findings, the Freedom First Committee, was tied to Senate President Mike Haridopolos and raised $3.6 million in 2010.  It, too, was a Scott enemy, turned ally.

These kinds of shadowy committees have mushroomed in recent years and their spending has climbed double that of conventional campaign donations, the institute reported. Independent spending on candidates increased 69 percent from 2006 through 2010, while the amount of campaign contributions rose by 25 percent, the study found..

In Florida, the spate of spending by these committees prompted one, short-term candidate for governor in 2010, to decry it as “legal money laundering.”

Lawton “Bud” Chiles, III, son of the late Democratic governor, who ran briefly as an no-party candidate, wanted political spending committees dubbed 527s to be required to disclose their $500-plus donors on every television ad or mailer they distribute, or when they give money to another group to use for or against a candidate.

Florida law currently requires 527s, named for the IRS code section that governs them, to report their contributions and spending on a website within five days of the activity.

But Chiles and many elections experts say most voters are unlikely to spend time tracking donations to groups with such names as Floridians for a Better Tomorrow, Floridians for Strong Leadership, or even Citizens for Transparency in Government – all 527s that he cited in his condemnation of the spending.

Fla Dem chief hails “historic rejection” of Senate redistricting plan

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith disputed Tuesday the claim by Senate Republican leaders that the plan for redrawing the chamber’s 40 districts was mostly approved by the state Supreme Court.

The court last week ruled eight of the districts were invalid, including two seats spanning Broward and Palm Beach counties. Justices also had “concerns” with another two districts which divide the city of Lakeland.

Echoing an earlier comment from Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said Monday that means, “three-fourths of the current plan has been deemed valid.”

Not so fast, Smith said.

“An entire redrawing of a Senate map is required,” Smith said, calling last week’s ruling by justices an “historic rejection” of the Legislature’s Senate plan.

Because the boundaries cited by the court are contiguous to other districts, it’s impossible to just make a few fixes, as Smith said Republicans are trying to cast the approach to a special session which begins Wednesday.

The court’s 233-page ruling provides, “enough instruction by the court for the Legislature to draw a map that will pass muster,” Smith said. “But there is no such thing as…(just) tweak the map.”

Smith also said he was pleased with the Supreme Court’s adherence to standards for compact districts and not drawing lines that favor a party or incumbents. These new provisions were included in the state constitution by voters in 2010, who approved Amendments 5 and 6.

While Amendment 5, which controlled legislative redistricting, was applied by justices, Smith said he is optimistic a Leon County Circuit Court will follow the same standard in reviewing the Legislature’s plan for redrawing congressional districts. Florida Democrats and allied organizations have sued to overturn that plan, based on the demands of Amendment 6, which covered congressional redistricting.

Smith also said that party leaders are still considering further action against the House redistricting plan, which was upheld by the Supreme Court. Smith said it’s possible legal challenges to a select number of districts would be filed in lower courts by Democrats.

Smith, meanwhile, acknowledged that he’s been fielding phone calls from Senate Democrats whose districts also could be dramatically redrawn in coming days.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, currently serves a heavily minority district that snakes from Broward County through Palm Beach County, mostly clinging to the Interstate-95 corridor. Smith’s district, and that of a parallel coastal district held by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, were declared invalid by the court.

Under redrawn maps, it’s possible that Smith’s district change to become primarily rooted in far western Palm Beach County, while reaching in to include mostly black voters in Mangonia Park, Riviera Beach, and parts of  West Palm Beach. Bogdanoff’s district, meanwhile, looks potentially destined to be confined to Broward County — and turn Democratic-leaning.

“I think you’re going to see a very different Senate makeup when Palm Beach and Broward districts are redrawn,” Smith said. 

 

 

Senators take aim at parent trigger

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Senate is poised to close out the 2012 legislative session with a fiery debate over a controversial measure that would let parents decide the fate of failing schools after opponents scored several victories with amendments to the “parent trigger” bill late Thursday evening.

The proposal, based on one pushed in California by the “Parent Revolution,” would allow parents to decide on a turnaround option for schools graded “F” for at least three years in a row if more than 50 percent of parents sign petitions.

The petition process received the most attention Thursday night from opponents, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who say the signature-gathering is rife for shenanigans as experienced in California, which became the first in the nation with its “Parent Empowerment” proposition two years ago.

The parent trigger plan is backed by GOP leaders including Senate President Mike Haridopolos, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Several Los Angles-based Parent Revolution lobbyists, in the Capitol for weeks advocating for the proposal, were in the public gallery during a heated debate over the bill (SB 1718) Thursday night.

Opponents include teachers unions and a coalition of Florida parent-led groups including the PTA, also watching the two-hour debate from the gallery. The measure has already flared emotions and procedural maneuvering in the Senate.

Proponents beat down several amendments on 21-19 votes – including one that would have criminalized bribing parents to sign the petitions – indicating Friday’s vote will be close. But opponents, including Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, said they believe they have enough votes to kill the measure on a 20-20 tie.

The anti-parent trigger group repeatedly tried to make changes to the signature-gathering process that would have put it on a par with petition-gathering requirements included in a controversial election law passed last year and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

One change would have made it a misdemeanor to take or offer a bribe in exchange for a signature and made it a misdemeanor to falsify signatures. But opponents of that amendment called it overreaching, eliciting outrage from Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

“Are you kidding me? We put this in an election year last year people. We did this. But now it’s overreaching. It’s undemocratic. Are you kidding me?” Smith said. The amendment was defeated on a 21-19 vote.

But Rich scored a win with an amendment requiring that signatures be valid, undoing language in the original bill sponsored by Republican Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers that would have allowed signatures submitted after the validation period to be accepted.

“If you don’t vote for this amendment, it means you condone fraud,” Rich, D-Weston, said.

Accusations of fraudulent signatures and coercion of parents are plaguing a parent trigger effort at a Mojave Desert school in California, where both sides are accusing each other of wrongdoing and a judge is considering open an investigation.

The Florida proposal would give parents a say in federal turnaround options for failing schools that include conversion into profit or non-profit charter schools or hiring for-profit management company to take them over, which critics say is part of an overall effort to privatize Florida’s public schools.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, failed to convince a majority to sign off on her plan requiring the charter schools to pay rent to school districts if they take over a failing school.

But she rallied enough votes to include a provision banning foreign nationals from owning or operating the charter schools.

Before the floor session wrapped up at 10 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner railed against his colleagues for objecting to giving parents more control over poor-performing schools.

“I know it’s late. And I know everybody’s emotional. But keep in mind what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about parents that are sending their children every day to an F school. Every day to an F school,” Gardiner, R-Orlando, said. “We’ve gotten off track here a little bit…These are F schools. These are just parents. Parents that want an opportunity to have their children go to a better school. We want to put a misdemeanor on them?”

Speaking against the bill, Sen. Larcenia Bullard invoked hanging chads, fraudulent petition-gathering campaigns in which dead people’s names were signed on petitions and other horribles.

“Trigger bill is double-barrel Glock,” Bullard, R-Miami, said.

Senate bids Haridopolos adieu

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Senate gave President Mike Haridopolos a country club membership and heartfelt, bipartisan and lengthy send-off before the unveiling of his portrait, marking the end of the Merritt Island Republican’s two-year tenure at the podium and his 12-year legislative career.

“I’ll miss being in the arena,” Haridopolos, accompanied by his wife Stephanie, children and parents, said. “I’ll miss some of you. But I’ll love being home and I think you can all understand why.”

Haridopolos’s colleagues heaped praise on Haridopolos for two hours, including a “tribute video” starring GOP icons Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, under whom Haridopolos served when Rubio was Florida House Speaker.

Haridopolos acknowledged his tenure has been at times contentious, including a blow-up a year ago on the final night of the legislative session.

“I know I agitated some. Too bad,” he said.

And Haridopolos, who was responsible for the creation of the state’s Innocence Commission now examining ways to preventing people from being wrongly incarcerated, spoke of two of his priority issues: getting compensation for William Dillon, who spent 27 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, and Eric Brody, a Broward County man left severely disabled more than a decade ago after a sheriff’s deputy crashed into him.

He failed to accomplish those goals last year, but launched a semblable effort this session. Gov. Rick Scott, who also attended part of the farewell, last week signed into law the $1.35 million restitution for Dillon. But with one day left until the session is scheduled to end, the two chambers have yet to agree on compensation for Brody.

Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, a veteran lawmaker and former House Speaker, lauded Haridopolos for being unafraid to bring up controversial issues – including a parent trigger bill up for a vote on the final day of session – during the last days of the session that ends tomorrow.

“It’s not about that kind of stuff with Mike Haridopolos. It’s about ideas. It’s about challenging the status quo. It’s about shaking things up and giving this body the opportunity to look at those very, very tough issues and make a decision,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said. “And that you have been a champion.
Don’t ever leave thinking that wins and losses is what this is about. It’s not about that. You, you are a winner in the highest sense of the word.”

Session likely to end on a sour note – again

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A testy Senate Special Order Committee meeting over a controversial “parent trigger” measure late Tuesday night set the stage for what will likely be an ugly end to the legislative session for the second year in a row.

But in a departure from the more typical animosity between the House and Senate, Senators can expect intra-cameral hard feelings before Friday’s sine die.

Intense bipartisan wrangling over the parent trigger measure peaked Tuesday night when Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, and Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich tried to remove the proposal (SB 1718) from a list of more than 50 measures being sent to the floor on special order on Thursday.

But committee chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, backed up by Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner and Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, refused to grant the pair the option of voting solely against the “Parent Empowerment” measure, which they both oppose.

Near the end of the meeting, Lynn repeatedly tried to ask Thrasher to allow her to vote no on the bill. An increasingly angry Thrasher finally cut Lynn off and, speaking over her, ordered the vote on the entire package, which passed by an unusual 4-3 vote, setting the “special order” calendar for Thursday. Lynn, Rich and Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, rejected the entire list rather than sign off on the parent trigger bill.

Lynn called the block vote a “political maneuver” that was “inappropriate and incorrect.”

But Gardiner, R-Orlando, chimed in, reminding Lynn that it was a procedural maneuver on the part of a bipartisan coalition led by Rich and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, that kept the measure from being withdrawn from a committee and sent to the Senate floor and instead required a special – and very rare – Saturday morning budget meeting to move the bill along. (Thrasher and Gardiner are an odd coalition, considering they are locked in a fight over the 2014-2016 Senate presidency.)

Gaetz, R-Niceville, agreed, accusing the bipartisan group of an “effort to stymie the process so the bill could not get to the floor.”

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Special session on PIP?

Monday, March 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott, insurers, chiropractors, masseuses, acupuncturists and consumer advocates are just some of the “special interests” trying to have a say in a personal injury protection overhaul.

And with the House and Senate still far apart in their proposed solutions and just four days left until the legislative session wraps up, Senate President Mike Haridopolos would not rule out the possibility of a special session on the issue.

The Florida House passed a bill to loosen the grip of massage therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists last week, keeping alive one of Scott’s top legislative priorities. The Senate version, among other differences, puts fewer time restrictions on treatment but also largely shuts the door on massage therapy and acupuncture.

Stuart Republican Sen. Joe Negron, leading the charge on PIP reform in his chamber, called the differences reconcilable.

But Haridopolos said he’s not sure he’s got the votes to get the proposal out of his chamber at all.

“All I can do right now is try to figure out how it can pass in the Senate. I know the House has been on a little bit different glide path,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said, calling Negron’s bill “outstanding.”

“Overall, the fraud component has been handled in a thoughtful manner,” Haridopolos said. “I do support where he stands on massage and acupuncture but I’ve got to get it off this floor.”

Haridopolos said he’d be willing to come back in a special session on the matter, especially because he’s expecting lawmakers will have to come back to Tallahassee anyway to redraw legislative maps. The Senate President is expecting the Supreme Court to reject at least in part the new legislative districts. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he does not want to hold a special session on PIP.

“I’m willing to come back. I think it’s an important issue. It’s not just the justice issue of eradicating fraud. It’s also a financial issue to a lot of families because they’re paying too much for auto insurance. So if we needed to have a special session, you won’t see me object at all,” Haridopolos said.

Scott apologizes, signs $1.35 million compensation for wrongly-convicted William Dillon

Thursday, March 1st, 2012 by Dara Kam

In an emotional ceremony, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill compensating wrongly-convicted William Dillon $1.35 million for the 27 years he spent behind bars before DNA evidence exonerated him of a murder conviction.

“On behalf of the state of Florida, I apologize for what’s happened to you,” Scott said at the bill signing ceremony. “What I really appreciate from sitting down with you is that you have such a positive attitude.”

Scott signed the bill hours after the Senate gave final approval to the measure (SB 2) with Dillon looking on from the public gallery.

And the ceremony put to rest a 30-year battle waged by Dillon and supporters, including former Florida State University president Sandy D’Alemberte, who also served as president of the American Bar Association.

Dillon thanked his team, including D’Alemberte and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, for whom Dillon’s compensation became a priority.

“There’s so many names I could tell you about that were behind the scenes to make this team…,” a refulgent Dillon said. “The dollars and cents they make sense for my life, but they don’t give me back what was taken from me. But at the same time, it’s such a joy to be here, because my life was gone. I can’t do anything but look forward.”

Long-awaited compensation for wrongly imprisoned man now in Gov. Scott’s hands

Thursday, March 1st, 2012 by Dara Kam

Sandy D'Alemberte, Guy Spearman, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and WIlliam Dillon

A bill paying William Dillon $1.35 million for the 27 years he spent behind bars for a murder he did not commit is headed to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it as early as today.

With Dillon watching from the public gallery, the Florida Senate gave final passage to the compensation for the Brevard County man, a priority of Senate President Mike Haridopolos that was part of a late-night drama on the last night of last year’s session.

Florida lawmakers have been tough on crime, Haridopolos said.

“But when there are people in prison who’ve been wronged, who should have never been there, we need to stand up as a legislature and do what’s right,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, added. The Senate gave Dillon a standing ovation before approving the bill (SB 2) with a 38-1 vote.

Last year, Haridopolos kept the Senate on hold until the wee hours of the morning, hoping the House would sign off on the measure. That did not happen. The House approved the bill and returned it to the Senate after adding language prohibiting Dillon from suing the Brevard County Sheriff’s office in the future. Dillon’s compensation also includes 120 hours of free education at a state college or university.

Dillon, now 52, was freed from a Florida prison after DNA evidence exonerated him of a murder he was convicted of in 1981.

“It’s awesome,” an emotion Dillon, who now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., said. “It certainly has been a long journey.”

Dillon thanked Sandy D’Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association who championed Dillon’s cause for about a decade, Haridopolos, and Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and lobbyist Guy Spearman.

“That’s the great thing about this. There are people that actually believe in you enough to actually help you,” Dillon said, recalling his confidence prior to his release.

“I had this grandeur that everybody was going to see it and know it to be true. But it wasn’t like that. When I was released…People thought I still committed the crime,” Dillon, choking up, said.

“The grandeur’s faded away…and I never thought I’d ever…,” he said, unable to finish.

Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, signed the measure this morning so Scott could receive and sign the bill as early as this afternoon.

Senate prez, budget chief to House: This isn’t a ploy

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his budget chief JD Alexander aren’t playing games by refusing to sign off on a $200 million permanent cut to higher education, the pair told reporters this morning.

The blow-up over a fraction of the state’s approximately $70 billion spending plan could put lawmakers into overtime and a possible reprise of last year’s ugly session finale.

The final budget agreement must land on legislators’ desks by Tuesday because of a 72-hour “cooling off” period required before a vote.

Alexander said gave his House counterpart Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, an offer at 7 p.m. last night but had not heard back as of about noon.

Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said the Senate had made a concession to the House by backing off on health and human services cuts and expects reciprocation on the higher ed issue.

“We are equal chambers. I have gone out of my way the last couple years, walking over to the House last year, working with the House to say ‘This isn’t the old, arrogant Senate,” Haridopolos a former House member, said, growing heated. “This is an accommodating Senate that is always working together with people. There’s always been this thing that the Senate is arrogant and so forth. We’re not going to do that. But we’re not going to sit here and disrespect the members of this chamber who worked hard on this budget and not have some give and take.”

In the otherwise fractured Senate, GOP leaders now have the backing on holding firm on the higher ed issue from both Democrats and rogue Republicans.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the permanent cuts to colleges and universities would cause a “dramatic loss of programs”and force lay-offs in an education system already struggling to manage shrunken budgets.

Once that issue is resolved, Alexander said it would take “maybe 10 minutes” to clear up the rest of the budget. But time to get started to finish on time is getting “razor-thin,” he said.

“I’m fearful that they think this is a ploy. But it’s not a ploy,” Alexander said.

Onset of budget talks stalled over college and university cuts, Senate talks special session

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Disagreement over a $200 million cut to higher education is keeping House and Senate budget chiefs from starting to negotiate the state’s $70 billion spending plan, Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, told his chamber this morning.

The stalled budget pre-talks opened the door for lawmakers to run out of time without passing a state budget before the session ends next Friday.

“The last 24 hours or so has not been as constructive as we had hoped,” Alexander said, adding that he and his House counterpart Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, “made a lot of progress” since Friday.

Republicans and Democrats agreed the Senate should hold firm on the higher education cuts, even it means coming back for a special session to deal with the budget.

The hang-up is a $300 million cut to higher education. The Senate backed off from a one-time, $400 million sweep of universities reserves, settling for $300 million. But the House wants $200 million of that to be a permanent reduction for higher ed.

That’s unacceptable, Alexander said before the morning floor session ended.

“We are holding our position there and we did deliver an offer to them at 7 p.m. yesterday,” Alexander said.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, backed up Alexander, saying she and her caucus “would be willing to stay here as long as it took.”

Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, agreed.

“I’ll stay here for a Tallahassee springtime in order to make sure we get the right budget, the right way, for the people of Florida,” Gaetz said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, part of a coalition of moderate Republicans, also gave his support.

“In this particular year there’s no rush to have to get out of here by a certain date. We know we have some responsibilities after session with redistricting anyway,” Latvala said.

Haridopolos: ‘There’s still some work to do’ before budget talks can begin

Monday, February 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Differences about spending on road-building projects and whether to sweep state universities’ savings are the main sticking points in GOP House and Senate leaders’ budget talks, quietly going on before the conference committees begin to meet.

The House wants to take $120 million from the state transportation trust fund and put it into general revenue while the Senate is sweeping $400 million from state universities. And the Senate agreed to create a 12th state university by allowing the University of South Florida Polytechnic to split from its mother school, a priority of Senate budget chief JD Alexander.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said those are the main kinks in the budget talks thus far.

Haridopolos and Alexander worked with their House counterparts throughout the weekend to try to get to a preliminary agreement, Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said on the floor this morning.

Haridopolos said he and Cannon did not meet in person, and that the talks are “moving us in the right direction” but gave no indication when the budget conference meetings would officially begin. House budget chairwoman Denise Grimsley told her chamber talks are progressing.

“There’s still some work to do,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters after the morning session. “I expect that to be ironed out hopefully today, maybe over the next few days, but we’re going to get it right…The Senate has some priorities. And we want to make sure those priorities are met.”

Talks are “moving at a good pace,” Haridopolos said, but opened the door for doubt when he added “I’m looking forward to our last couple weeks up here in Tallahassee and if we can get out here on time.”

When pressed, Haridopolos said: “I’d love to get out on time. But we’re going to do it right.”

Adding to the session complexity is what the Florida Supreme Court will do with redrawn legislative maps and another court case over the 3 percent state workers must now contribute to their pensions.

The Supreme Court has scheduled until the last day of session to rule on the maps, and a Tallahassee judge was supposed to issue a ruling in the pension case on Friday but delayed that.

UPDATE: Senate defeats prison privatization bill

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 by Dara Kam

_ In a rebuke to Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his lieutenants, a bipartisan coalition defeated a plan that would have privatized two dozen prisons and other corrections facilities, putting an end to the controversial proposal with three weeks left in the legislative session.

The plan, a priority of Haridopolos and Senate budget chief JD Alexander, would have moved more than 14,000 inmates in 24 state-run prisons and work camps and put more than 3,500 state workers out of a job.

Nine Republicans joined with a united Democratic caucus of 12 to kill the measure (SB 2038) on a 21-19 vote after weeks of intense lobbying by proponents, including Gov. Rick Scott, handing a victory to labor unions and a blow to Boca Raton-based GEO Group, a potential vendor.

“I accept the verdict of the Senate,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters after the vote Tuesday evening. “Tomorrow’s a new day.”

The proposal, the brainchild of Senate budget chief JD Alexander, would have been the largest single prison privatization effort in the nation.

But questionable savings, concerns about public safety and the role of government dragged down the undertaking and created a rift within the GOP caucus as the chamber prepares to vote on its $70.6 billion spending plan.

“We can’t have it both ways. If everybody’s lock-step, they complain that everybody’s lock-step. If Republicans vote their conscience, then supposedly there’s a rift. I don’t think there’s any of that,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who at midday appeared resigned that the bill was going to die. “This is not uncommon…The Senate’s always been very independent. It doesn’t concern me a bit.”

Prison privatization critics say they will kill the bill on tie vote in Senate Tuesday

Monday, February 13th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A key senator who helped kill an amendment that would have stripped a controversial prison privatization measure and replaced it with a study said he will vote against the measure on Tuesday in what opponents predict will be a tie vote.

“I liked the concept of the study. But I like the idea of just killing the bill better,” said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, one of a gang of nine Republicans who have joined with all but one Democrat whose coalition would kill the measure on a 20-20 vote.

Sen. Paula Dockery, one of the leading GOP senators opposed to the privatization plan (SB 2038), insisted after the 21-19 vote on the amendment late Monday that her coalition will put the issue to rest on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

“We do not lose anybody who’s going to be here to vote. My only concern is does somebody get sick, does somebody whatever. But our 20 are solid, 100 percent, anti-, don’t want this to happen. Twenty very solid votes,” Dockery, R-Lakeland said.

The Senate was originally scheduled to be in session in the morning, but late Monday Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher announced on the floor the session had been postponed until later in the afternoon. Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, was originally slated to be out of town tomorrow afternoon.

Later Monday evening, Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich said Ring’s travel plans were changed so he could be in the Capitol for the vote.

“He’ll be here,” Rich, D-Weston, said.

Prison privatization going down on Tuesday?

Friday, February 10th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Sen. Mike Fasano insists he and opponents of a sweeping prison privatization measure slated for a Senate vote on Tuesday still have enough votes to kill the bill.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos yesterday put the bill on Monday’s calendar after twice yanking it from the floor because Fasano had enough support to strip the privatization effort and replace it with a year-long study of the outsourcing’s cost-effectiveness.

Haridopolos said he intends to have an up-or-down vote on the measure, one of his priorities also being pushed by Gov. Rick Scott, on Tuesday, and hinted he may have the support to pass it although the vote will be close.

But Fasano this morning said nothing’s changed, and he and eight other Republicans along with 11 Democrats – Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando is the lone hold-out – will vote against the measure, meaning the bill (SB 2038) could die on a 20-20 tie vote.

“I have spoken to the eight Republicans that have said they opposed the bill and they are still firmly opposing the bill,” said the veteran New Port Richey Republican, a veteran lawmaker and outspoken critic of the plan to privatize more than two dozen prisons and other Department of Corrections operations – the largest prison privatization plan in the country – in an 18-county region in the southern portion of the state. Haridopolos kicked Fasano off as chairman of the budget committee that oversees prison spending in retaliation for his opposition to the privatization.

The tie vote assumes that the Fasano coalition sticks together and that all members show up for the vote on Tuesday.

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