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Negron advice on budget talks: ‘Don’t leave the Capitol’

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Millions of dollars in hometown water projects along with money for cleanup of the Everglades and troubled Indian River Lagoon were among the big ticket issues separating House and Senate budget negotiators as they worked toward a midnight deadline Wednesday.

The bottom-line for public schools and terms of the state’s plan to distribute $200 million in performance incentives to Florida’s 12 public universities still separates the two sides, working since Monday on reaching a consensus $75 billion budget for 2014-15.

The dozens of issues that are certain to remain unsettled will be handed over to House budget chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and his Senate counterpart, Joe Negron, R-Stuart, on Thursday. They’ll begin more deal-making that will stretch through the weekend.

“One thing you learn when you get to Tallahassee is you don’t leave the Capitol building the weekend before session ends, because one of your projects may have been traded for someone who is still in the Capitol,” Negron said. “We’ll be working over the weekend and, of course, the presiding officers will have the last word on the budget.”

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, have until Tuesday to button-up the spending plan. That would start the clock on the state’s constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period preceding a May 2 vote, the session’s final scheduled day.

The House spends $13 million more than the Senate on three-dozen local water projects, including money sought for work in Palm Beach County. The House also spends $12 million more than the Senate on freshwater springs protection — but the overall level on both sides still falls short of what Gov. Rick Scott wants.

Work on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee — close to Negron’s home district — draws at least $82 million in the Senate, but would get nothing in the House spending plan. Scores of differences also remain on hometown projects close to top lawmakers, including cash for theaters, schools, and social service programs.

“Some of the projects will fall out during conference, some will be added,” Negron said.

House ban on e-cigs for kids lets local regulations stand

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Laws already regulating the sale of electronic cigarettes in Palm Beach County and other communities would endure under legislation approved Wednesday that ban their sale to minors.

The House voted 114-0 to approve the statewide prohibition on selling nicotine dispensing devices to those under age 18. The measure still has to win final approval from the Senate before going to Gov. Rick Scott.

Anti-smoking advocates were opposing the House’s earlier version of the bill, which would have eliminated local ordinances restricting various sales and display of the devices.

But sponsor Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, withdrew that provision, drawing praise from supporters of the tougher law.

“He’s doing what’s right for the state of Florida,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

Palm Beach County is among 28 counties and 28 Florida cities which have adopted some kind of e-cigarette regulation that could have been affected by the initial House proposal, which took standards regulating cigarettes and smokeless tobacco and applied them to e-cigarettes.

The Florida Retail Federation was among those pushing for the so-called statewide preemption of local regulations.

Florida’s Clean Indoor Air Act, enacted in 1985, has prohibited communities from enacting tougher local standards than what the state law set. But like the name implies, it’s aimed chiefly at barring smoking indoors, at workplaces, restaurants and other public buildings.

Still, the statewide preemption has tripped up local efforts to ban smoking on beaches, and this year inspired a push for legislation to allow a smoking ban on playgrounds, a proposal which hasn’t gained traction with lawmakers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida is among 12 states that have a statewide standard banning tougher local regulations, a number that is down from 19 states in 2004.



Abruzzo hits pause on revamp of local ethics panels, summit to follow

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

An effort to revamp how the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission and similar local panels operate will be postponed for a year while organizations which have dueled over the proposal take part in a planned August summit, Sen. Joe Abruzzo said Tuesday.

Abruzzo, sponsor of the ethics rewrite, will be joined Wednesday at a Capitol news conference by representatives of government watchdog groups and officials from the Palm Beach, Jacksonville and Miami-Dade County ethics panel.

The Wellington Democrat said legislation has advanced (SB 1474) and a similar House proposal (HB 1315) are on track for full votes in the two chambers. But lingering questions about the measures have prompted the call for a pause, Abruzzo said.

“I believe it is in the best interest of the people to hold the first-ever statewide summit on ethics reform within the communities,” Abruzzo said. He added that a goal would be to devise “policy that is unanimously supported,” for next year’s session.

Palm Beach County officials initially fought Abruzzo’s proposal, but came around to support the latest version of the plan. Jacksonville and Miami-Dade, however, still questioned some provisions, and had been joined by Integrity Florida, the Florida League of Women Voters, and other groups in urging more work on the proposal.

“The commissions and organizations appear to agree that reform is needed, specifically in the area of due process where one board is not the investigator, prosecutor, jury, judge, appellate court, and clerk of the courts,” Abruzzo said. “This will be the premise of the summit.”

Palm Beach County ethics officials had feared Abruzzo’s bill would strip them of much of their authority. But a later revision softened those concerns, requiring local commissions to give those accused of violations an option of having their guilt decided by an entity other than the ethics commission.

Palm Beach County’s ethics commission currently reviews complaints to determine whether probable cause exists to conduct a hearing. If a formal hearing is held, the commission is also responsible for determining whether the person involved is guilty of violating the county’s ethics rules.


Watchdog groups urge action on ethics bills in session’s homestretch

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Watchdog groups Wednesday urged Florida lawmakers to finalize ethics proposals that would strengthen access to public records and require more lobbyists to register and disclose how much they get paid.

Both measures have cleared the Senate, but are languishing in the House. The Legislature returns from a Passover-Easter break on Monday to begin the session’s last scheduled two weeks.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, have touted ethics reforms as a central part of their two-year term as leaders. This year’s proposals could represent a postscript to steps taken last year, which included a revamping of how political fund-raising committees operate.

Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, a government oversight group, said lawmakers need to enhance last year’s moves.

“We encourage our legislative leaders to build on these small steps and pass major ethics reform and open government legislation in the remaining two weeks,” Krassner said.

Among those calling for action were representatives of the First Amendment Foundation, Common Cause of Florida, the Citizens Awareness Foundation and Tea Party Network.

Barbara Petersen, president of the news organization-backed First Amendment Foundation, said that while 250 public records exemptions existed in 1985, that number could climb to 1,100 if some two-dozen proposed loopholes are created this year.

One bill (SB 1648) pushed by advocates Wednesday clarifies issues involving fees for public records, including those sought by citizens and later costs run up by attorneys seeking documents. It also requires more training of government employees to satisfy the demands of Florida’s open records laws.

The other measure (SB 846) seen as a priority by open government advocates would require lobbyists working the state’s almost 1,000 independent special districts to register and publicly disclose how much they get paid.

Palm Beach County, alone, has more than 60 such districts, ranging from the huge South Florida Water Management District to municipal airport, port, drainage and community development districts.

Billions of taxpayer dollars flow through these districts.

“Certainly, our state lawmakers are outnumbered by lobbyists nearly 12-to-1,” Krassner said. “The lobbying community…is very powerful in our state Capitol. Any measure that looks to require more disclosure from lobbyists is going to face some resistance.”

Bill tightening oversight of summer camp employees advances in Senate

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A measure aimed at tightening state oversight of summer camp employees, inspired by a 2012 Palm Beach Post series on abuses in the current system, cleared a Senate panel Tuesday.

The bill (SB 1424) by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, was approved by the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. It would authorize the state’s Department of Children & Families to create a statewide database containing names of summer camp personnel, who have cleared a state-required criminal background check.

The proposal follows a Post investigation that found convicted child molesters and other felons had worked at or owned summer camps throughout the state. Clemens and Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, have since been pushing to pass a law requiring the statewide registry of summer camps.

DCF took early steps at creating a database last year, but apparently could not proceed without further authorization by the Legislature.

In the past. legislative leaders, including House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said the burden should be on parents – and not the state — to ensure that camp operators are conducting the background checks. Some Republican lawmakers also balked at an earlier $3 million price tag analysts said would be associated with creating the registry. It was unclear Tuesday whether that cost endured under the current proposal.

The action Tuesday was the bill’s first hearing in either the House or Senate.

Gambling expansion “not in the cards,” Senate told

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Senate Gaming Chairman Garrett Richter addressed the Senate Thursday, telling his colleagues that proposals to revamp gambling in Florida are dead for this session.

Although the session has just passed its midpoint, Richter said what had become increasingly clear: There are just too many moving parts to the issue.

“Comprehensive reform is not in the cards this session,” Richter, R-Naples, told the Senate.

In an election year, keeping alive prospects for opening new casino resorts in South Florida, additional card rooms at pari-mutuel facilities, and other sweeteners, has been a surefire way to assure that campaign contributions flow from gambling companies to lawmakers and the state’s political parties.

But central to any idea is Gov. Rick Scott reaching agreement on renewing the Seminole Tribe compact that is set to expire next year. Scott has been talking to the tribe. But the status of the talks have been closely guarded.

Richter fed into that murkiness Thursday.

“We can reasonable expect an agreement soon,” Richter said, although not offering any further details.

But for now, all bets are off.

“This is nothing that’s going to be accomplished by one committee in one session,” said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, vice-chair of the Senate’s gambling plan.

Senate approves toughening state hit-and-run law

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Senate would toughen hit-and-run laws

The Florida Senate agreed Wednesday to toughen penalties for hit-and-run drivers by ending what officials say is a gap in state law that gives drunk drivers an incentive to flee accident scenes.

The 39-0 vote would create the “Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act,” named after a Miami man killed while bicycling on the Rickenbacker Causeway in 2012.

The driver who fatally struck Cohen, Michele Traverso was sentenced to less than a year in jail despite having driven illegally and being on probation for cocaine charges. Cohen was killed after Traverso had spent the night partying at a Coconut Grove bar.

Traverso, though, didn’t turn himself into police until 18 hours after the accident, eliminating any chance that he could be checked for DUI and risk facing the tougher, four-year sentence.

“If you are driving under the influence, there is an incentive to flee right now,” said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, sponsor of the measure (CS/SB 102).

The legislation, which still must clear the House, would create a four-year, minimum-mandatory prison sentence for anyone leaving the scene of an accident involving a death. It would match the current penalty for DUI involving a death.

Supporters of the legislation said that making the penalty for fleeing the scene the same as a DUI fatality might prompt motorists to stick around and call for help, providing aid that can be critical.

The Florida Highway Patrol said in 2012, an average of three people a week were killed on state roadways by a hit-and-run driver. Palm Beach County had more than 3,500 hit-and-run crashes that year.

On one day last December, three hit-and-run accidents left at least five people injured and led to three arrests in the county.

On Senate Reunion Day, Pruitt slapped by former colleagues

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Former Senate President Ken Pruitt's double-duty as lobbyist could be barred.

Former Senate President Ken Pruitt is a loser in new ethics standards for local government officials unanimously approved Wednesday by the Florida Senate.

The legislation (CS/SB 846) sets a new code of conduct for members of quasi-government boards like Enterprise Florida, requires city council members to take four hours of ethics training,  and would force lobbyists working for such special districts as the South Florida Water Management District and Port of Palm Beach to register with the state and submit quarterly financial disclosure reports.

The measure still has to clear the House before going to Gov. Rick Scott. But sponsor, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said the legislation was a logical extension of the tougher ethics standards lawmakers adopted for themselves last year.

“There’s no reason for the people who serve on these boards not to have the same code of conduct,” Latvala said.

But an amendment added Wednesday and sponsored by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, also toughened the bill by prohibiting local officials from lobbying the Legislature for other special interests. The measure would affect state attorneys, county commissioners, constitutional officers, school superintendents, school board members and others.

Although not specifically named, a target of the prohibition is Pruitt, who as St. Lucie County Property Appraiser also has built a large and lucrative lobbying practice.

Pruitt, who was not immediately available following the Senate vote, works the halls in Tallahassee while on temporary leave from his St. Lucie post but represents 15 clients, including the city of Boca Raton, sugar giant Florida Crystals and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

Pruitt was Senate President from 2006-08 and represented parts of Palm Beach County in the Legislature for most of two decades. His lobbying practice has rankled some senators. The bill would prohibit these officers from lobbying after their next election.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, unsuccessfully sought to have Sobel’s amendment softened by shielding any local officers currently lobbying — making it only apply to those who seek double-duty in the future. She said only three officials — presumably Pruitt among them — would be protected by the measure.

But it was a no sale with fellow senators.

The legislation was approved 39-0 by the Senate, about two hours before the chamber ended its day early and paused to honor its past members on Senate Reunion Day.




Common Core opponents to crash Scott Hobe Sound fund-raiser

Friday, March 7th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Opponents of the Common Core Standards set to govern Florida classrooms next fall plan to rally outside a fund-raiser Gov. Rick Scott has planned for Sunday in Hobe Sound.

Scott will be collecting campaign cash at the home of Amin Khoury, CEO of B/E Aerospace, Inc., of Wellington. The $500-a-ticket barbecue, $3,000 if you want to share a roundtable discussion with the governor, will help fuel the governor’s re-election campaign.

But also on hand plan to be a handful of demonstrators from Florida Parents Against Common Core and other groups, urging Scott to “pause” the state’s participation in the nationwide testing standard.

Common Core critics also are frustrated by how Republican leaders in the Legislature have also stalled action on legislation (HB 25, SB 1316) aimed at stopping the standards from being used at least until a host of conditions are met, including statewide public hearings.

Common Core has been condemned as a government takeover of education by tea party groups, but opponents also have gained support from some on the left who see it as setting the stage for more teaching-to-the-test.

“Parents and Republicans want Common Core ‘paused’ for further review,” said organizers Laura Zorc of Vero Beach and Allison Rampersad, a Lynn University business professor and leaders of the FPACC.

“It was never voted on the way it stands now. It was implemented without parent say or representation from our local representatives,” they added.


Bush-era school voucher plan poised for expansion in House

Thursday, March 6th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A private school voucher program launched under former Gov. Jeb Bush could be dramatically expanded under legislation getting its first review today in a House subcommittee — and facing stiff opposition from Palm Beach and other school districts.

A priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program looms as a sharp political dividing point this election year. Along with another proposal aimed at beefing-up the charter school industry, the push is part of what Weatherford has promised to be a “massive” expansion of school choice options.

The program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to a private, non-profit group, which then passes the money to low-income parents for private school tuition.

Under legislation sponsored by Weatherford in 2010, the program’s funding was allowed to grow annually and will reach $357.8 million in scholarship money next year.

Legislation going before the House Finance and Taxation subcommittee today would allow sales tax dollars — the state’s prime source of revenue — to be directed into the program by corporations and expand the eligibility pool of students, setting the program on pace to spend $873.6 million by 2018.

Meanwhile, the Step Up for Students, private non-profit which oversees the program, would see its 3 percent take for administrative costs swell from its current $8.6 million this year to $26.2 million when the scholarship program fills out.

While almost 60,000 students received scholarships this year, almost 94,000 applications were begun by families, who  Step up for Students says earn on average about $25,000 annually.

Step Up for Students Chairman John Kirtley is close to Weatherford and has called him the “poster child” for school choice, with the speaker having been home-schooled until his first year of high school.

Kirtley also is an adept political player on the Republican side. He chairs the Florida Federation for Children, a political committee that spent almost $1.5 million in the 2012 election season.

That political committee has collected contributions from Charter Schools USA, a Fort Lauderdale-based company that operates dozens of charter schools across Florida, including Renaissance Charter School in West Palm Beach.

Awake the State plans opening-day rallies around Florida

Friday, February 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

While Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers open the 2014 Legislature on Tuesday, rallies are planned for more than a dozen cities across the state, with Democratic-leaning groups blasting Republican leaders for the priorities set in Tallahassee.

Lake Worth’s John Prince Park is the site of the Palm Beach County “Awake the State” rally, planned to begin at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

“Average Floridians are fed up with Tallahassee politicians balancing the budget on the backs of hard-working families,” said Mark Ferrulo of Progress Florida, a St. Petersburg-based activist organization. “We will continue to fight Rick Scott and the tea party until we see these anti-middle class policies changed.”

A day before the session begins, similar themes are expected to be sounded at a “Moral Monday” demonstration planned at the state Capitol and led by the NAACP of Florida, unions and other groups.

The Awake the State movement has been around a few years. In 2011, organizers held two demonstrations, before and after Scott’s inaugural session that was marked by changes to the state’s public pension fund, tougher abortion laws, and a reduction in the days available for early voting, reversed last year by lawmakers.

Democrats want a three-year pause on statewide school testing

Thursday, February 27th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Democratic lawmakers are looking to hit the pause button on Florida’s student testing, school grading and plans to tie teacher pay to student performance, with legislation introduced Thursday calling for a three-year moratorium.

The proposals by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, come only a few weeks before Education Commissioners Pam Stewart is set to announce a new system for evaluating students, schools and teachers that would succeed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

Gov. Rick Scott last year demanded that the state abandon the testing system that was intended to succeed FCAT because it was closely tied to the Common Core Standards, the evaluation Florida and more than 40 other states are implementing.

Common Core will be put in place beginning this fall.  But Montford and Saunders say the current, hurry-up attempt to devise a Florida-specific testing system that would evaluate Common Core this year risks wide-ranging failure, affecting schools, kids and teacher pay.

They want to wait. Although as Democrats in the Florida Legislature, Saunders and Montford are vastly outnumbered, they might find some allies on the Republican right, which has advocated scrapping Common Core.

Palm Beach County and a number of other school boards are pushing for a delay in the new testing regimen.

“Unless public confidence is restored, the entire system is at risk and we would forfeit the gains we’ve made in closing the learning gap and preparing our students to be college and career ready,” Saunders said. “I believe this bill gives us the time we need to build an accountability system that is unlike any other in the country.”



Lobbyists for special districts getting special attention from lawmakers

Monday, February 17th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A Florida Senate panel took steps Monday toward requiring lobbyists working the state’s almost 1,000 independent special districts to register and publicly disclose how much they get paid.

Palm Beach County, alone, has more than 60 such districts, ranging from the huge South Florida Water Management District to municipal airport, port, drainage and community development districts.

Billions of taxpayer dollars flow through these districts. But legislation (CS/SB 846) which cleared the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee on a 10-0 vote would shine a brighter light on how the money is spent, supporters said.

“There’s no reporting, no accountability and nobody knows who their lobbyists are,” said Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. “Without this bill, there is nothing.”

At capital book-signing, Crist says veto pen would be mightier than GOP disdain

Thursday, February 13th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Near the midpoint of a three-week tour, former Gov. Charlie Crist came to Tallahassee to sign copies of his new book Thursday for a few dozen fans about three miles from the state Capitol.

Maybe it was the location. But questions from reporters soon had the ex-Republican-turned-Democrat theorizing about how he would lead in a state Legislature dominated by the GOP and where many from his former party detest him.

Asked how he’d work with the Legislature, Crist responded:

“I think very effectively,” Crist said. “One of the very first things I did when I was elected governor before was reach out to the other party….You reach out. You cooperate. You keep the conversation going. It’s amazing what good things can happen.”

Crist also shrugged off the depth of the hard feelings among Republicans. If elected, the governor gets the wield the power of his veto pen and that can change everything, he said.

“Well, if we’re fortunate enough to win, those difficult feelings have a way of warming,” Crist said. “Because, if you win, then you have a pen. And that can warm their feelings.”

The Tallahassee Books-A-Million stop was Crist’s fourth on an nine-city tour that is scheduled to bring him to the Classic Bookshop in Palm Beach on Wednesday, promoting his new, ““The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat.”

He’s also been on national TV talking about his conversion to the Democratic Party and emergence s the frontrunner in this fall’s governor’s race against Republican Rick Scott.

In Tallahassee and along his tour, bad feelings between Crist and Republicans aren’t hard to gauge. They are manifested in Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry, who showed up at the Thursday  evening book-signing, just as he has at all but one other of the stops.

“We just have to set the record straight,” Curry said. “He clearly will say or do anything this election cycle to get elected. But what’s notably absent from his message is job creation or what he would do for education. Charlie is the self-proclaimed happy warrior…but he’s attacking like a party chairman would attack.”

Crist did declare that “education is a very keen interest of mine.” But he sidestepped a question about the level of funding for charter schools — which acknowledging that he supported them when he was in the Legislature. He also said he wanted to know more about House Speaker Will Weatherford’s call for sharply expanding a corporate voucher program.

As a Republican, Crist used to support the Tax Credit Scholarship Program started by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“I’ll have to look at it, to be honest with you. They change things around pretty fast,” Crist said of his former Republican colleagues.

Money or safety? New red light camera study emboldens critics

Monday, February 10th, 2014 by John Kennedy

New state study emboldens red light camera critics

A new state study is emboldening critics of red light cameras in Florida who want the Legislature to either outlaw the controversial devices or dramatically scale-back their money-making potential for cities and counties.

Use of the cameras has proliferated and fines collected have increased 200 percent since 2010-11, according to the new report by the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA).

Meanwhile, fatal crashes have decreased at red light camera intersections. But rear-end and angle crashes have increased, the watchdogs found.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is sponsoring legislation to repeal the 2010 state law which gave local governments authority to install the cameras.

“Clearly the red light camera vendors are benefiting,” Brandes said Monday. “I think clearly that the ultimate losers have been Floridians who are seeing an increase in the accidents…they were supposed to be about safety. Unfortunately, they’re about revenue.”

The OPPAGA report shows total revenue from the cameras grew from $37.6 million to $118.9 million between 2010 and last year. Nearly half of the fines collected  by local governments are used to pay red light camera vendors, the report found.

Among the counties with red light camera intersections, almost 40 percent had an increase in rear-end and angle crashes, OPPAGA found.

Getting a repeal effort through the House and Senate may be tough — since cities and counties are fiercely defending the use of cameras. But Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, has already advanced a provision in a massive House transportation bill that would prohibit local governments from collecting the kind of money they’ve been taking in from the program.

Artiles also would ban cities and counties from installing more cameras. He has said that “profiteering” is driving the program.

“If we can’t repeal it, we would be willing to modify it,” Artiles said.

Palm Beach County commissioners recently voted to continue the county’s red light program, used at 17 intersections in the unincorporated area. The move came despite a staff study reached few solid conclusions on the effectiveness of the cameras.

The county’s program is operated by American Traffic Solutions. The Arizona-based company commands about 80 percent of the Florida market and has 23 lobbyists poised to work state Capitol hallways this spring.

ATS also is an active political player, contributing $160,000 to the Florida Republican Party and $95,000 to the Florida Democratic Party over the past two years, records show.

Scott’s latest tax cut proposal pushes givebacks over $600 million

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott unveiled another tax cut proposal Tuesday — a $104 million reduction in the sales tax on business rents.

Scott, who promised a $500 million overall reduction in fees and taxes this election year, has so far floated five different proposed cuts that add up to about $618 million in savings, according to the governor’s math.

The growing level of givebacks may earn Scott some resistance in the Legislature, where some lawmakers appear initially underwhelmed with his proposal for school funding and also want to maintain a large budget reserve.

Scott promoted the break for business rentals at an Ace Hardware Store in Orlando, a day before he plans to roll out his full budget recommendation to the Legislature for the 2014-15 year.

While reducing the 6 percent state sales tax on commercial leases appears to be Scott’s final tax-cut pitch, the governor heard the request from many business leaders last fall when he embarked on a four-day listening tour seeking ideas for trimming taxes.

Scott opened his tour in September in West Palm Beach, where Palm Beach County Business Development Board President Kelly Smallridge brought up the tax.

“Whenever we’re courting a company to come to the state of Florida and Palm Beach County, they’re taking a look at these real estate taxes on leases and we’re one of the only states that has a tax on commercial leases,” Smallridge said.


Scott to call for 15-day hurricane sales tax holiday

Sunday, January 26th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott will announce Monday that he wants a 15-day sales tax holiday on flashlights, tarps and other supplies related to hurricane preparedness.

The sales-tax holiday proposal is the latest in a series of rollouts the governor has been doing before unveiling his full 2014-15 budget proposal Wednesday. In an event Monday at Delray Beach’s Spady Elementary School, he also is expected to showcase one of the budget’s biggest provisions — his school spending plan for next fall.

The hurricane sales tax holiday would save taxpayers about $20 million, according to the governor’s office.

Similar hurricane holidays were earlier held in 2006 and 2007, after the state was whacked by a series of bad storms. The 2007 holiday was signed into law by Scott’s predecessor, former Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican but who now looms as Scott’s Democratic rival for re-election.

Scott plans to make the hurricane-related announcement at a lumber store in Miami’s Coconut Grove.

Scott has promised to recommend cutting taxes and fees by $500 million in his budget proposal, including a proposed sales-tax holiday on back-to-school shopping. But the bulk of the proposed savings, $401 million, would come from his plan to eliminate increases on a wide range of motorist fees that were approved in 2009 when Crist was governor.

Bernard named to Elections Commission by Scott

Friday, January 24th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Mac Bernard

Former Democratic state House member and Delray Beach city commissioner Mack Bernard was appointed Friday to the Florida Elections Commission by Gov. Rick Scott.

Bernard, who lost a bid for the state Senate in 2012, is  a real estate lawyer in Delray Beach. His appointment to the nine-member Elections Commission is subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

The commission acts on complaints filed involving possible violations of state elections law, including campaign finance and vote-fraud issues. Bernard was appointed to a vacant seat for a term that lasts through Dec. 31, 2016.

Clemens’ ethics rewind draws heat — in a hurry

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

House and Senate Republican leaders hailed a new, tougher ethics standard for public officials as one of the top achievements of the 2013 session.

But legislation filed earlier this month by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, is drawing heat for clashing with the freshly minted theme of reform.

Clemens’ proposal (SB 606) would lift most gift-reporting requirements for state and local elected officials and public employees; shield officials from ethics complaints if they acted after getting advice from a lawyer; and allow for penalties of as much as $5,000 against someone who files an ethics complaint “with malicious intent.”

Ethics advocates are warning Clemens’ proposal would lower watchdog standards and have a chilling effect on anyone looking to complain.

Clemens said the legislation was sought by the Florida League of Cities. But a lawyer who formerly was the executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics said claims that the measure is harmless don’t make sense.

“I have to say at the outset, the claim by the League of Cities that ‘the provisions of SB 606 in no way weaken the laws that are on the books’ is simply absurd. It is preposterous to say that this bill would ensure ‘full transparency’ or provide ‘the right tools to enforcement agencies to root out corruption,’ as the League proclaims,” said Phil Claypoole in a memo to Integrity Florida, good government advocates who oppose Clemens’ bill.

Clemens, a former Lake Worth mayor, said he was willing to run bill “up the flagpole.” But given the backlash the legislation is drawing, Clemens said he may reconsider.

He has a meeting scheduled this week with the Ethics Commission’s current executive director, Virlindia Doss, and a representative of the League of Cities.

“It’s still early, and we have time to tighten up the language,” Clemens said. “It’s not my intent to move this bill forward if there are problems.”

Clemens also said he wasn’t looking to scrap ethics laws. But Clemens said that defenses should be enhanced for elected officials who get slapped with unfounded complaints that are politically motivated or aimed at harassing them.

“Politics is a high-stakes game in Florida,” Clemens said. “I was trying to file something that at least could stop these serial complainants from acting.”

Scott proposes almost doubling Everglades spending

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott proposed spending $130 million on Everglades restoration Wednesday, almost doubling what the state is currently putting into water treatment and other projects across South and Central Florida.

The Republican governor also managed to fire a shot at the Obama administration, for reducing an $80 million expenditure on the Everglades to $46 million this year — saying it’s the lowest amount spent by the federal government in two decades on the fabled river of grass.

But he said the state is doing its share.

“We’ve made a lot of progress on the Everglades,” Scott said Wednesday at a Cabinet meeting in Kissimmee.

Scott’s proposal would sharply increase the $70 million currently spent on Everglades work. He announced the budget recommendation following an update on work currently going on in the region made by state and federal officials and representatives of environmental groups.

Dan Kimball, supervisor of Everglades National Park, told Scott and the Cabinet the wide-ranging efforts are aimed at a seemingly simple goal.

“We will ensure that the water entering the Everglades is clean,” Kimball said.

About $30 million of the money recommended Wednesday by Scott will go toward continuing work on a bridge along the Tamiami Trail. The bridge will help fix a road that has acted for decades as a dam, blocking the flow of fresh water to the southern Everglades and help ease water flowing from Lake Okeechobee that has fouled the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

Kimball said the federal government will match the state’s three-year, $90 million commitment to the Tamiami Trail work. Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation, said the project “will uncork the southern end of the Everglades,” and improve the entire system.

On the northern end of the Everglades, Scott’s budget proposal also would continue the state’s 25-year effort to restore the Kissimmee River basin and continue water storage and treatment projects from the Lake Okeechobee area to South Miami-Dade County.

Scott’s Everglades announcement came only a day after he unveiled plans to increase spending on restoring Florida’s springs. Scott said he wants to spend $55 million on the work this election year, up from $10 million currently.

As a first-year governor in 2011, Scott dramatically cut property taxes going to water management districts – forcing wholesale layoffs and limiting state oversight. The same year, he signed into law legislation that eliminated most of the state’s 25-year-old growth management laws.

But Scott now defends his environmental record, citing the Everglades commitment as a key example.

Scott is helped this year by a budget surplus of about $1.1 billion and has already proposed increases in transportation and tourism, and a pledge to reduce taxes and fees by $500 million. He is expected to unveil his full budget proposal to the Legislature next week.


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