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House OKs budget plan — setting stage for homestretch dealing with Senate

Friday, April 12th, 2013 by John Kennedy

The Florida House approved its $74.4 billion state budget Friday, setting the stage for end-of-session negotiations with the Senate over a final spending plan for 2013-14.

The House vote was 99-17, with about one-third of the Democratic caucus opposing the proposal.

Unlike recent sessions, the House and Senate budgets are relatively close, helped along by a $1 billion budget surplus which follows six years of spending reductions.

“We prioritize people, while maintaining reserves,” said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, who helped craft health and human services spending.

The House increases public school spending by $1 billion, or an average $395-per-student. College and university tuition would jump by 6 percent under the House plan, which also sets aside $2.6 billion in reserves.

The Senate approved its $74.3 billion proposal earlier this week on a 40-0 vote. Much of the session’s remaining three weeks will be devoted to reaching a consensus  plan for the year beginning July 1.

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale criticized the House proposal for failing to embrace a Medicaid expansion that could draw $51 billion to Florida over the next decade, while costing state taxpayers no more than $3.5 billion. Another 1 million Floridians could get health insurance under the approach.

Instead, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and other ruling Republicans unveiled a health insurance proposal Thursday that would cover only about 115,000 Floridians while costing state taxpayers $237 million a year. No federal dollars would be used in the modest expansion.

Thurston said the difference means a “big elephant stands in the way,” of his supporting the House budget proposal.

“We stand with a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only do something good, but to do great things,” Thurston said.

Negron doesn’t buy insurers ‘apocalypse’ claims, meaning tax break may be doomed

Thursday, March 28th, 2013 by John Kennedy

When Senate budget chief Joe Negron rolled out a plan last week to eliminate a longtime tax break for the insurance industry and use the savings to reduce motorist fees, insurers were caught by surprise.

By Thursday, the industry had reloaded — with insurance lobbyists lining up to plead with Negron’s Appropriations Committee to drop the plan. Several raised the possbility of insurers choosing to locate offices outside of Florida, if the incentive is lost.

In the end, the bill (SPB 7132) sailed 19-0.

Insurance representatives told senators that companies had created 44,000 jobs in Florida since 2008 — even while the state was rocked by high unemployment. They also boasted that insurers were financially strong and paid claims on time.

“But the repeal of this will have an impact,” said Paul Sanford, lobbyist for the Florida Insurance Council.

Negron wants to repeal a tax incentive on the books since 1987, which gives insurers a credit on the insurance premium tax for 15 percent of the salaries paid employees in Florida. Negron said $220 million earned through the repeal would be used to reduce motorist fees boosted in 2009 when lawmakers were scrambling to patch budget holes.

The increases were part of a $2.2 billion package of tax and fee hikes that included an increase in the state’s cigarette tax.

Negron said industry statements about the strength of the industry help make his case that the tax break is no longer needed.

“For every person who is paying less in taxes, someone is paying more,” Negron said, adding, “State Farm in 2012 had a net income of $3.2 billion. The CEO had a good year, which he deserved….he made $9.6 million. Allstate had $2.3 billion in net income for 2012. I’m happy about that. That’s a good thing. That means they’re solvent and they’ll pay claims.

“But this idea that if we decide to redeploy a tax incentive to our constituents that the apocalypse is going to occur, I don’t think the facts support that,” he concluded.


House OK’s pension overhaul — facing troubled future

Friday, March 22nd, 2013 by John Kennedy

After fierce debate Friday between ruling Republicans and union-allied Democrats, the House approves an overhaul of the Florida Retirement System, the pension fund used by more than 620,000 teachers, law enforcement and other public employees.

Breaking along party lines, the House voted 74-42 for the measure (CS/HB 7011), which would close the traditional pension plan to new employees. New hires seeking a retirement account would instead be required to join a defined contribution investment plan beginning Jan. 1.

The legislation is a top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who maintains that the Florida Retirement System is underfunded and will command increasing millions of dollars from Florida taxpayers to keep it afloat in future years, a stance disputed by many experts.

“It’s fair. It’s fiscally responsible. And it’s time to act,” said Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne.

But Democrats accused House Republicans of using scare tactics to push through a proposal which already has been rejected by fellow Republicans in the Senate.

“You’re using boogyman tactics of how the taxpayers will save money….it’s absolutely false,” said Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach.

Democrats said the legislation is not only unnecessary but potentially dangerous to the $136 billion pension fund, which is used by more than 623,000 state and local government workers and another 335,000 retirees.

The FRS is considered 87 percent funded, with most analysts acknowledging that 80 percent is the benchmark for a fund considered to be on solid financial footing.

Republican leaders, however, say that unfunded actuarial liability is $19.2 billion — a level they say is alarming. Still, those defending the fund say the shortfall exists only if every pensioner demanded their full payments at once, which analysts say would never happen.


Senate looking to cut motorist fees cranked up in recession

Thursday, March 21st, 2013 by John Kennedy

Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron said Thursday he wants to end a longtime tax credit for the insurance industry and use $220 million in savings to reduce motorist fees jacked up in 2009.

The proposal came after Negron’s budget committee spent weeks reviewing tax and spending policies. When the panel unearthed a 1987 credit given Florida insurance companies for the salaries they pay employees, Negron saw green.

The 15 percent tax credit was aimed at giving insurers an incentive to open offices in Florida. But Negron said the industry now looks “robust.”

By eliminating the credit, lawmakers could free money that could be used to reduce driver’s license and registration fees enacted by lawmakers scrambling to close budget holes at the height of the recession.

“I’d rather send this money back to them,” Negron told the Senate budget panel. He said legislation would be ready next week for the committee to review.

Mark Delegal, who lobbies for State Farm and other insurers, said the move was a surprise to many in the industry. He cautioned that eliminating the tax credit could make some companies reluctant to hire or keep operations in Florida.

“Companies are always looking to consolidate costs and they consider a lot of things when moving an operation to Jacksonville or somewhere else in Florida,” he said.

Lawmakers struggled in 2009 to balance the recession-ravaged state budget. Motorists took a hit, when lawmakers agreed to boost the cost of renewing a license from $20 to $48. First-time licenses went up to $48 from $27. Registering a car went from $100 to $225 that year.

Negron said the $220 million in savings the state would earn by erasing the credit would allow lawmakers to cut the 2009 increases by half.

“Over time, I hope we can eliminate that fee increase,” he said.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said, “If we have the funds and we can return it to the people, I applaud you.”

House and Senate leaders kick-off budget work

Monday, March 18th, 2013 by John Kennedy

House Speaker Will Weatherford released budget allocations Monday to House committees that will begin putting together next year’s state spending plan — calling for at least $1 billion more for public schools and enough cash to increase state worker pay for the first time in six years.

The Senate followed suit by also handing its budget committees their shares. While Weatherford provided a roadmap to priority items, Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, kept quiet about items where his chamber is looking to spend cash.

Negron, however, did criticize a “lack of leadership in Washington,” for making state budgeting more uncertain.

The Legislature’s closing weeks will be consumed with budget work. But the leaders’ allocations are essentially the public kick-off of the process.

“For the first time in seven years, we are no longer facing a significant budget shortfall,” Weatherford said Monday, in a memo to House members. ” This is not only attributable to improved economic conditions but also to your hard work by making responsible choices in tough times to balance our budget and provide a fiscally sustainable future.”

State economists Friday night enhanced their tax collection forecast, concluding that lawmakers will have more than $1 billion extra to spend this spring – even after matching the same spending and reserve accounts of the curent $70 billion budget.

Like Negron, economists concluded that Washington’s handling of automatic spending cuts that took effect March 1 has made it tougher to predict the state’s budget future.

While both sides welcome the bounty of extra cash, the House acknowledged it still skims another $300 million from state trust funds to supplement spending.

While the Senate didn’t specificially address how it handles trust funds, such raids have been common in recent belt-tightening years, usually drawing push-back from road-builders, environmentalists and other advocates angered by having earmarked funds diminished.

Weatherford, however, said pointedly that the House won’t reduce transportation funds, which Gov. Rick Scott and others see as key to fostering more business development in Florida.

In other provisions, the speaker said that the House will restore to Florida’s 12 public universities the $300 million they lost last year in a budget cut.  Weatherford, who is pushing to revamp the Florida Retirement System, also pledged to steer more than $500 million into the $126 billion account to reduce its unfunded liability.


House plan to close traditional pension to new workers carries costs, study concludes

Friday, February 15th, 2013 by John Kennedy

The Florida Retirement System, used by more than 600,000 state workers, teachers, police officers and firefighters, would change dramatically under a state House proposal to close the plan’s traditional pension to new employees, according to a state study released Friday night.

The analysis by Milliman, a Virginia-based actuarial firm, concluded that the move would likely increase the plan’s cost for employees. These workers began contributing 3 percent of their pay to take part in the plan for the first time, beginning in 2011.

Also, within as little as seven years, more employees could belong to the 401(k)-style investment plan than the traditional defined benefit plan. The shift  would contribute to a likely change in how the $122 billion FRS invests its holdings,  concluded Milliman, who completed the report for the state’s Department of Management Services.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who is spearheading the pension change, said the report will help lawmakers map a course for the FRS when the legislative session begins next month.

“We are reviewing the study received from the actuary and will derive from it the fiscal impact of our plan to reform Florida’s outdated pension system,” Weatherford said. “Ultimately, we believe that reducing the taxpayer exposure to Florida’s pension liability and creating greater fiscal predictability in our budget is in the best interest of all Floridians.”

The pension fund currently is 87 percent funded — with Gov. Rick Scott recommending in his budget that state lawmakers add $552 million in taxpayer money to fund the state’s share of the fund’s liability.

It’s those payments Weatherford and other supporters of the plan would like to see reduced. Florida’s fund is currently considered strong by most analysts, with the recommended minimum level of funding usually considered to be 80 percent.

Unions oppose ending the defined benefit option for new employees.

They say the move would undermine a strong pension plan and that it is driven by politics — with the Republican-controlled Legislature intent on weakening union strength in Florida.

“This is more about ideology than money,” said Rich Templin, spokesman for the AFL-CIO.

The Florida Retirement System has 623,011 currently employed members, including teachers, state workers, and many local government employees, police officers and firefighters.

Within the system, workers currently can choose between the traditional pension or, for the past decade, an optional 401(k)-like plan. The pension remains the favorite, though, with more than 500,00 employees enrolled, compared with only about 100,000 in the inverstment plan.

The pension fund has another 334,682 retirees enrolled who already collect benefits.

Closing the plan to new employees will rob the traditional pension fund of its stream of new dollars, Milliman concluded. It will also create a system where only older workers looking forward to gaining larger pensions, remain in the fund.


Rising sea levels more than just South Florida’s costly problem, officials say

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 by John Kennedy

South Florida lawmakers got a stark look Wednesday at how rising sea levels could dramatically change Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade counties and the Keys in coming years, leading to calls for more state aid to stem the tide.

County planners and water managers from officials presented an 84-page action plan to regional legislators that was compiled last fall. While climate change has caused sea level to climb nine inches over the past century, that rate is accelerating and could advance an at least an additional nine inches over the next 50 years, analysts have concluded.

Evidence of the changes are already being seen across South Florida, where regional flooding and saltwater intrusion is becoming common in area canals and waterways. Several lawmakers said a goal for this spring’s legislative session should be to convince more of their colleagues that South Florida’s problems have a statewide impact.

“We’ve got to convince the rest of the state that this is an economic disaster,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “We can’t wait for sea levels to keep rising. We’ve got to plan for the future.”

Making more funding available for the region is a likely push, said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, chairman of the Palm Beach County legislative delegation, who organized Wednesday’s hearing. “This demands our attention,” he said.

Officials speaking at Wednesday’s hearing offered plenty of anecdotes about South Florida’s changing coastline. In Broward County, several waterside neighborhoods commonly flood during high tides; on Stock Island, in the Keys, Monroe County officials are elevating the ground floor of a new fire station, in anticipation of future flooding, officials said. Roads, sewer systems and development decisions will all be affected by the changing water line across the region, officials said.

In Palm Beach County, Everglades restoration efforts could be slowed by rising saltwater intrusion, hurting water management efforts, said Ernie Barnett of the South Florida Water Management District.

“You can fight water with water,” Barnett said. “We need to push more water through the Everglades toward the coast.”

The report by local officials included some sobering conclusions about the impact of rising water on the area.

The report found, “The upper estimate of current taxable property values in Monroe, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties vulnerable in the one-foot scenario is $4 billion with values rising to more than $31 billion at the three-foot scenario. The greater values reflected in the financial impacts are coastal residential properties with ocean access and high taxable value.”

But Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, offered a darker view. He said lawmakers and county officials will have a challenging time convincing many Florida leaders to direct dollars toward fighting what he said was an inevitable change.

“We can do this stuff,” Hager said. “But inevitably, the cycles of the earth will overcome whatever we do.”

Scott’s budget gets another gentle review — this time from Senate

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013 by John Kennedy

A day after the House budget committee gave Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed $74.2 billion state spending plan a mostly gentle review, its Senate counterpart followed suit Wednesday — although a few stylistic differences emerged.

Senators seemed more concerned than the House about the state maintaining fat reserve funds — a particular focus of Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, also extracted an acknowledgement from Scott budget director Jerry McDaniel that the Legislature could move forward with a funding boost for Florida State University similar to the $15 million extra the governor wants for University of Florida to help it achieve top 1o ranking by academic reviewers.

McDaniel also pledged that Scott’s plan for $2,500 pay increases for teachers would not interfere with local collective bargaining agreements between union representatives and county school boards.

Several counties have reached deals that require raises to be based on performance standards — which may affect how counties dole out the pay hikes sought by Scott.

“We recognize that some teachers may get $4,000; some may get $1,000,” McDaniel said.

Otherwise, the Senate panel followed a course similar to that cut Tuesday by the House budget panel. Democrats’ questions pivoted mostly on school funding and why Scott was not endorsing the Medicaid expansion authorized under the Affordable Care Act.

“We believe we have too many questions than answers,” McDaniel said, echoing comments he made a day earlier.

But McDaniel may have given some hope to health care advocates who have been looking for signs that Scott’s resistence is waning.

“He does not yet propose expansion,” McDaniel told the committee.

Scott to propose a $1.2 billion boost for schools

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday that he is proposing a $1.2 billion increase for Florida’s public schools, a boost that would hike per-pupil spending by about $400.

Scott’s proposal will be unveiled Thursday as part of his 2013-14 budget recommendation to the Legislature. More policy details also will be revealed then, showing more about how Scott found the cash for schools in a year that marks his first where he’s not staring at a budget shortfall.

“My top two priorities are jobs and education, and they are directly connected,” Scott said at the Associated Press’ annual planning meeting at the Florida Capitol.

Education under Scott has rollercoastered the past two years. Within months of his swearing in, Scott signed a budget that slashed public school spending by $1.3 billion — but last year he approved a $1 billion increase.

Scott said he is “doubling down” on the schools investment this year. His overall schools plan will include $480 million that will allow for $2,500 pay raises for Florida teachers and covers the 26,746 additional students who will fill Florida’s classrooms next
year at a cost of $172.9 million.

Scott’s proposal also would outstrip the $70-per-student increase sought by the state’s Board of Education. Scott said his per-pupil funding level will reach $6,800 — edging closer to the state’s record, $7,126 reached during the pre-recession 2006-07 school year.

“Investing in our teachers and our education system is our key to economic growth,” Scott said.

Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, also speaking at the AP session, said he would welcome the boost for schools. But he mocked Scott for having an “epiphany” on education that was driven largely by concern over his re-election campaign next year.

Smith said Scott’s action showed he was effectively saying, “I was wrong to starve education and starve government so much.”

Scott’s latest proposed tax break draws praise from manufacturers

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott drew praise Wednesday from business groups for proposing another round of tax cuts for Florida manufacturers.

Scott said he would push the Legislature this spring to eliminate a requirement that businesses show they have expanded their productivity by at least 5 percent to earn a sales tax exemption on equipment purchases.

Scott wants to exempt manufacturers completely from the state sales tax when they buy equipment. It’s expected to steer $57.5 million from the state treasury its first year on the books, and $115 million the following year.

“We know that when manufacturers purchase equipment in our state, they are investing in Florida workers for years to come,” Scott said. “We want more manufacturers to move to Florida, and our existing manufacturing companies to buy the equipment they need to grow and create more jobs to support Florida families.”

Florida TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro said that erasing the tax will spur job growth. TaxWatch urged making equipment purchases tax-free in a report released in 2011.

“This tax has clearly been and remains an impediment to capital investment and the related job creation in Florida,” Calabro said.

The Legislature embraced Scott’s call last year to reduce what had been a 10 percent production requirement to the current 5 percent level.

The break for manufacturers is the second sweetener Scott is offering businesses next year. In November, the governor said he would ask lawmakers to expand the current $50,000 exemption to the state’s corporate income tax to $75,000.

The levy now takes in $2.1 billion, but under Scott’s proposal, businesses wouldn’t have to pay the tax on their first $75,000 in taxable income. The plan would cost $8 million next year and remove 2,000 businesses from the corporate tax rolls.



Universities would freeze tuition — for a price

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012 by John Kennedy

University presidents and student leaders Wednesday said schools would put a temporary moratorium on tuition increases if Florida lawmakers approve $118 million in new funding next year.

The offer was part of  the Aim Higher campaign unveiled at the state Capitol, a public relations offensive rolled out three months before the start of the legislative session. The push is designed to underscore the role universities play in sparking economic development in Florida — while also building a case for more taxpayer support.

The $118 million would be spread across Florida’s 12 public universities. Universities want it to come on top of the Legislature restoring the $300 million cut from universities last year — a decision that helped fuel the latest round of tuition increases, which this fall ranged from 9 percent to 15 percent.

University of Florida President Bernard Machen said Wednesday that dollars have to come either from taxpayers or tuition, but that supporting universities is “vital to this state.”

Gov. Rick Scott opposed the tuition hikes and appears poised to dig-in again when lawmakers return to Tallahassee for the spring legislative session. But University of West Florida President Judy Bense said that if lawmakers grant the $118 million increase, “We promise not to seek one penny of a tuition increase this year.”

Still, the University of Florida and Florida State University plan to seek legislative approval for a measure that would allow them to hike tuition to the “market rate” — effectively whatever students will pay. Earlier this year, Scott vetoed the legislation, but UF, FSU and other schools which could later qualify for the tuition privilege support making another attempt at convincing the governor this year.

While the average annual tuition to a Florida public university has spiked in recent years to $6,232 this fall, Florida’s cost ranks only 41st highest in the nation among public university systems.

The $300 million reduction in taxpayer funding this year came after taxpayer dollars tumbled 24 percent the preceding four years, heightening the focus on tuition.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the Senate’s budget chairman, said he agreed that more money should flow into education — but stopped short of endorsing the pitch made by university leaders.

Scott, who has criticized Florida schools for seeking tuition increases while still handing out robust salaries to administrators, embraced the leaders’ commitment to freeezing tuition. But Scott, too, didn’t advance the request for additional funding.

“We know Florida families want the best value possible from our higher education system, which means we have to make advanced degrees more affordable and more connected to
students’ ability to get a great job when they graduate,” Scott said.  “We are pleased to share this important goal with many of Florida’s finest higher education leaders who are committed to holding the line on tuition.”



With almost $500,000 settlement, Scott and Atwater achieve dubious victory

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said Tuesday that state offficials have agreed to an almost $500,000 settlement with a Tallahassee art gallery and a construction firm ensnared in a controversy stemming from the new First District Court of Appeal building.

The settlement still must be approved by the Legislative Budget Commission. And even though the state is paying not only the full amount owed Signature Art Gallery and Peter Brown Construction — plus the private companies’ legal fees — Republican leaders cast the settlement as a victory for taxpayers.

The companies will be paid the $392,658.56 owed them, along with $122,224.14 for litigation and other costs, according to the settlement.

“Our most important goal is to protect taxpayer dollars to best meet the needs of Florida families,” Scott said. “It was right to ask for a rigorous and thorough review of the tax dollars
committed to this project.”

Atwater, a former North Palm Beach legislator, said, “With this settlement, the parties now agree that it is appropriate for the Legislature to determine the legitimacy of the payment request.”

The stand-off with the contractors began in 2010, when Atwater’s predecessor, Democrat Alex Sink, completed an audit of the First DCA project a month before her defeat by Scott in the governor’s race. She  said a “perfect storm” of wrongdoing helped run cost of the project – which she dubbed the Taj Mahal – to $48.8 million, about $17 million more than initial estimates.

The courthouse, she said includes 20 miles worth of imported African mahogany, granite countertops and other luxury fixtures.

It had become a “travesty,”  Sink said, because of a lack of oversight by the state Department of Management Services and bullying by appeals court judges – particularly Chief Judge Paul Hawkes. Hawkes has since stepped down from the court.

Sink froze payments to Signature Gallery for 369 framed, historic photos for for the courthouse. The hardline stance was continued by Atwater after he was elected that fall. The construction company included in the settlement had contracted with Signature Gallery to provide the art work.

According to the settlement announced Tuesday, the photos don’t sound destined for the First DCA building. Instead, the artwork involved in the settlement will go to the Department of State’s Division of Cultural Affairs.


Scott’s latest proposed corp tax cut draws ire of Democrats

Thursday, November 8th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott told a business gathering Thursday that he intends to push next year for another cut in the state’s corporate income tax, a $2.1 billion levy that has drawn the wrath of companies and tea party groups.

Scott would raise an existing $50,000 exemption from the tax to where companies would not have to pay until they owe $75,000 in tax. It would remove another 2,000 businesses from the corporate tax rolls, the Republican governor said.

“I’ve made a commitment to the people of Florida to eliminate the business tax over seven years – and over the past two years we have been able to eliminate the tax for more than 75 percent of businesses that fall under it,” Scott said Thursday, after announcing his plan at a National Association of Realtors convention in Orlando.

“Everything  we do must be tied to helping families get jobs, and eliminating this tax will ensure more small businesses can hire people,” Scott said.

Florida Democrats don’t see it that way  — and ridiculed Scott for ignoring themes emerging from Tuesday’s elections.

“On election night, the people of Florida sent a clear message that they have rejected Gov. Rick Scott’s failed priorities and policies which have slashed funding for our public schools while giving hand outs to the corporate special interests who
epitomize the broken politics of Tallahassee,” said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “But Governor Rick Scott apparently didn’t get the message: announcing today that he will hand out even more of our tax dollars in special interests giveaways instead of investing in middle class families.”

But the proposal ignited a vigorousback-and-forth between the parties, with Republicans ridiculing the rival party for ignoring Obama’s own support for reducing the federal corporate income tax rate.

The state GOP called Scott’s approach a  “middle-class tax cut for small business owners.”

“It took less than 48 hours for the Democratic Party to abandon one of Barack Obama’s most important campaign promises,” said Mike Grissom, executive director of the Florida Republican Party.



A rare sighting at the state Capitol: Black ink

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012 by John Kennedy

With Florida’s tax collections on the rise and several rounds of spending cuts having sharply shrunk services, state lawmakers should see something they haven’t eyed in more than five years:

Black ink.

Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legisature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, told a legislative panel Wednesday that revenue should outstrip spending next year by just over $71.3 million — even when lawmakers tuck away $1 billion in reserves.

“We are on track and things are moving as we expect them to move at this point,” Baker told the Legislative Budget Commission.

A year ago, Baker gave the panel a similar optimistic forecast – but included some cautions that ultimately came true. At the time, consumer confidence was darkening — unlike the current mood — and Florida’s revenues eventually crumbled in subsequent months.

Lawmakers entered last session with more than a $1 billion budget gap — and more cuts ensued.

Plenty of uncertainties remain, Baker said. But so far numbers show the state, “consistently in good shape.”

After cutting millions from the state budget when the recession hardened in 2007, lawmakers have dealt with shortfalls each of the past five years through program cuts and layoffs of thousands of workers across state and local governments.

The Legislature, however, has also sought to squirrel away dollars when they could – and completed the current year $69.9 billion budget with an additional $1 billion in reserves, a level that lawmakers have said they want to maintain.

Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who has guided much of the budget-cutting of recent years and will leave office in November, said Baker’s report was good to hear. But he added that sizing up the state of Florida’s economy, “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Pension battle now in hands of high court

Friday, September 7th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The battle over 3 percent payroll contributions demanded of public employees by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature in 2011 went Friday before the state Supreme Court, with a lawyer for workers saying it violates an almost 40-year pension fund guarantee.

About $2 billion is at stake — cash lawmakers expected to draw from the payments. It was used to plug holes in last year’s budget and this year’s spending plan, which took effect July 1.

 Lawmakers also could be forced to repay $786 million already collected from employees of  the state, school boards, counties, colleges, universities and special districts if justices agree with a lower court that found the payments unconstitutional.

Ron Meyer, attorney for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said much of the dispute turns on timing. The lower court found the move violated the constitution because it applied to all 623,000 employees in the Florida Retirement System. 

If lawmayers had sought the payments only from workers hired after the law took effect July 1 last year, they may have been on solid legal ground, Meyer conceded.

“You just can’t go back and change the deal midway,” Meyer said following arguments before the seven-member court.

Scott and lawmakers, however, say a 1981 court ruling involving the Florida Sheriffs Association, held that the Legislature could reduce the amount of benefits that would go to FRS members. Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero argued for the state before his former colleagues.

Scott called the change “common-sense public pension reform.”

“The legal question in the case is straightforward,” Scott said. “The Legislature relied on and carefully followed a thirty-year-old Florida Supreme Court case, which held that the Legislature can change the public pension system on a going-forward basis.  We therefore expect the Supreme Court to follow its own prior decision.”


Belt-tightening court clerks get state windfall

Thursday, August 16th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Florida lawmakers steered $29.5 million back to state court clerks Thursday, erasing most of a budget cut that had led to shorter hours, longer lines and even a few layoffs.

The Legislative Budget Commission approved giving clerks authority to drawn the extra cash, which stems from increased fee and fine collections.

Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock, whose office absorbed a $2.5 million reduction when the budget year began July 1, had already cut two hours from the office’s daily public operating times and closed a branch office in Royal Palm Beach to save money.

A clerk’s office spokeswoman said it wasn’t immediately clear whether these reductions would be dropped with the promise of a state windfall.

Bock had avoided layoffs, after the office cut 111 positions since 2009.  But state budget analysts had warned the Legislature’s $31 million reduction could have led to as many as 930 layoffs statewide.

“We all recognize that tough budget challenges still remain ahead for all of us, but today’s action by the LBC will help Florida’s Clerks and Comptrollers fulfill our duties for the coming year,” said Gulf County Clerk Becky Norris, president of the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers.”

 Florida courts have been buffeted the past two years by financial instability. At the height of the state’s foreclosure crisis, court fees generated a bounty that left clerks with a $100 million reserve at the end of 2009.

But the slowing pace of foreclosures led to budget shortfalls each of the past two years, with the Legislature forced to step in to avert widespread court delays and layoffs. Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said Thursday he remains suspect that part of the problem facing some clerks is rooted in their own management.

Alexander said some clerk’s offices are thriftier than others.

“I’ve heard so many of those sort of things,” Alexander said. “But when you look at the cost per case adjudicated and all the metrics we use, there are still some real significant differences between high-cost clerks and low-cost clerks.”

Under a budget change for the 2012- 13 year, foreclosure filing fees will now go to general revenue. Seventy-five percent of the courts’ budgets will come out of the general revenue fund, with the remainder coming from court fees.

Court ruling now heightens focus on future of Florida’s Medicaid program

Thursday, June 28th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday on the Affordable Care Act intensifies focus on the measure’s Medicaid expansion — with states given authority to shun the added coverage outlined by the federal law.

Medicaid already absorbs about almost one-third of Florida’s $69.9 billion state budget. Gov. Rick Scott and Republican leaders in the Legislature have warned Florida taxpayers can’t afford to underwrite any expansion in a program serving poor, disabled and elderly Floridians.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a former Republican congressman, was among the first to lash out at the decision.

“Unconstitutional or not, the so-called ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’ is the wrong policy for reforming health care and the wrong direction for America,” Putnam said. “Individual liberties and the doctor-patient relationship took a step back today.”  

 Despite his longheld opposition, Scott last week reiterated his earlier stance that the state would comply with the law, following the Supreme Court’s ruling. Still, he said he remained “optimistic” the sweeping legislation would be overturned by justices.

Now the focus is on the fate of Medicaid, which already absorbs $21.4 billion of Florida’s $69.9 billion state budget. State taxpayers pick up $9.7 billion of the program, with the remainder covered by the federal government.

State officials said Florida taxpayers will have to pay $121.2 million more next year, mostly to cover the enrollment of those already eligible for coverage but who have stayed out of the program for various reasons. The Affordable Care Act’s mandate is likely to bring these Floridians into Medicaid.

But cost of annual coverage is expected to reach an additional $473 million by 2016.

But health care advocates have argued the Affordable Care  Act is worth the extra cost. Florida has 4 million have no health coverage, among the largest populations in the nation without coverage.

Workers losing jobs and health coverage during the economic downturn swelled the ranks of low-income, elderly and disabled Floridians covered by Medicaid from 2.1 million in 2007 to 3 million this year, with the number forecast to grow to 5 million by 2020 under the new law.

Under the law, the federal government would absorb all of the initial expansion costs, but states will have to start paying a percentage in 2016 if they want to draw federal dollars.

 The states’ share for those becoming eligible under the new law would max out at 10 percent in 2020, but even that, state officials say, is expected to cost an extra $1 billion in Florida.


Americans for Prosperity launches ’5 for Florida’ campaign

Friday, June 22nd, 2012 by John Kennedy

A conservative group Friday said it is launching an election-year campaign aimed at getting political candidates to endorse dramatic changes to Florida’s public pension plans, its tax system and education.

Slade O’Brien, Florida director for Americans for Prosperity, said the organization will ask the public and those running for office this year to commit to promoting its “Five for Florida,” plan.

The five issues highlighted will make Florida the “most attractive state in the nation for families, businesses and entrepreneurs,” said O’Brien, who is based in Boca Raton.

The plan is posted on A questionnaire seeking support for the proposals also is being sent to candidates. Results are to be posted on the AFP site. 

AFP, which is supported in the project by the James Madison Institute, is calling for ending the state’s corporate income tax — a move O’Brien said will attract businesses. It would also create a level playing field for businesses when balanced with an end to corporate tax breaks and incentives.

 AFP said Florida’s current tax policy is “dictated by cronyism.”

“Floridians are really clamoring for politicians who will be honest with them,” O’Brien said.

Another plank in ”Five for Florida,” would steer all new employees in the Florida Retirement System into 401(k)-style investment plans, away from the state’s traditional pension plan. The FRS recently received strong marks from the Pew Center on the States, but the groups Friday still warned that the fund is not adequately financed and looms as a potential problem for taxpayers.

Municipal pension plans, which are generally in worse shape than the FRS, also should push new workers into the investment plans to assure longterm solvency, said O’Brien and J. Robert McClure, president and CEO of the James Madison Institute.

McClure said the proposals included in “Five for Florida,” are “another tool in the toolbox for freedom.”

 Americans for Prosperity, a grassroots activist organization, was founded by Charles Koch and part-time Palm Beacher David Koch, billionaire brothers who back of a host of conservative causes and whose Koch Industries is an oil services company.

AFP also is a mainstay of the tea party movement, which was a big supporter of Gov. Rick Scott in his 2010 election.

The pension overhaul and elimination of  the state’s corporate income tax, which brings $1.8 billion into the state treasury, have also been advanced by Scott.

Other provisions of the platform unveiled Friday include a call for expanding charter schools and virtual education, and bringing more public scrutiny to state contracting and permitting at all levels of government. If the changes limit revenue flowing into public coffers, that’s OK, O’Brien said.

“We don’t want government to grow,” he said.

New report shows Florida’s economy has hit poor hardest

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Florida’s tough economy has proved even more challenging for those living on the state’s financial fringes, with poverty, infant mortality and an unmet need for mental health care on the rise, a new report shows.

A study called The Well Being of Florida’s Children — Is Our Future at Risk? shows the poverty rate among Florida’s children has climbed 35 percent between 2006 and 2010, resulting in 1.8 million kids living in low-income households. The state’s rate of low birth-weight infants also is worse than the national average, with 10 percent of Florida children having developmental or behavorial problems.

The number of homeless students in Florida has almost doubled since 2006 and the rate of food insecurity among Florida’s children is worse than the national average, the study found.

The report was put together by Voices for Florida and the Minority Issues Action Council, a pair of advocacy organizations, and financed by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

 ”It is not new that disparities exist,” said Linda Alexionok, co-director of Voices for Florida.  “What is new is that disparities are more prevalent today than ever before, and growing.  This report dispels the myth that a level playing field exists for all children.”

 In the report, project researcher John Hall also found that Florida’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) has declining caseloads and expenditures at a time when the poverty rate has increased.

“It warrants a closer look,” Hall said.  “There are considerable needs among Florida’s children that are unmet or addressed minimally due to inadequate funding.”


Scott signs Penn State scandal-inspired bill into law

Friday, April 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law four measures – including a proposal inspired by the Penn State child molestation scandal – today after being blasted by victim advocates for vetoing $1.5 million for rape crisis centers around the state earlier this month.

At the top of the list of the bills Scott signed today is the “Protection of Vulnerable Persons” measure (HB 1355) making Florida the first state in the nation to impose the hefty fine for each incident of child abuse higher education institutions – both public and private – fail to report.

Child advocates said the hefty fines and new mandatory reporting requirements make Florida’s law the strongest in the country.

“Florida is the leader in protecting children and families from sexual violence. It’s a truly wonderful day,” said Lauren Book, a child sexual abuse survivor and the founder of “Lauren’s Kids” advocacy group. Lauren Book and her father Ron Book, a prominent Capitol lobbyist, pushed for the bill.

The new law, which goes into effect on Oct. 1, imposes a $1 million-per-incident fine on college and university administrators who knowingly withhold information about child sex abuse on campus or at institution-sponsored events.

The new Florida law is one of dozens considered or passed in other states in the wake of child molestation scandals at Penn State University, Syracuse University and The Citadel. The Penn State scandal came to light in November and resulted in the ouster of the football team’s beloved, veteran coach Joe Paterno, who died earlier this year.

Last year, former Penn State defensive coordinator Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky was arrested last year on charges that he sexually abused at least eight boys over a 15-year period. After Sandusky’s arrest, the university fired long-time coach Joe Paterno, who died last month, and president Graham Spanier. Athletic director Tim Curley and a vice president stepped down from their positions and are accused of perjury and failing to report suspected child abuse.

Like Florida’s, proposals in other states add coaches, athletic directors or university officials to the list of “mandated reporters” of suspected child abuse or neglect. In the past month, such bills have been signed in Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, with several other states expected to follow suit.

The Florida law also puts college and university law enforcement agencies on the hook if they fail to turn over suspected abuse reports to prosecutors.

Scott angered advocates earlier this month when he red-lined $1.5 million for rape crisis centers from the state’s $70 billion budget. Critics called the veto especially egregious because it happened in April, Sexual Violence Awareness Month.

But Scott defended the veto, saying money elsewhere in the budget covered rape crisis centers and domestic abuse victims, and reiterated his support for those programs on Friday in a press release announcing the bill signings. The release noted that the state $70 billion budget includes $6.5 million for rape prevention and sexual assault services and $29 million for domestic violence programs.

“This critical legislation I have signed into law shows the valuable steps Florida has made in protecting the rights of victims,” Scott said in a statement. “April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and this week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and it is an important time to raise attention to promoting victims’ rights and remember those lives affected by violence.”

The child molestation scandal-inspired measure also includes what child sex abuse victim advocates say is a critical change in who must report child sex abuse and why.


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