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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.


Scott signs $70 billion budget, with $142.7 million in vetoes

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Tuesday a $70 billion state budget, while vetoing $142.7 million in spending and warning universities against seeking 15 percent tuition hikes next fall.

The budget for the year beginning July 1 includes a $1 billion increase for Florida classrooms. Scott signed the budget at the ‘A’ -rated Cunningham Creek Elementary School in the St. Augustine-area to underscore his newfound commitment to public schools.

A year ago, Scott signed a budget which cut $1.3 billion from schools. But on Tuesday, Scott called education, “the lifeblood of our state.”

But Scott’s urging universities to rein-in spending may set him at odds with Florida’s 11 public universities, which face a $300 million reduction in state funding this year. Scott let stand a budget item that allows Florida’s 28 colleges to raise tuition by 5 percent this year, but suggested Tuesday that universities should go no higher.

The State University System’s Board of Governors will decide tuition rates in June.

The $142.7 million in vetoes is a sharp dropoff from last year, when Scott vetoed a record $615 million. A year ago, Scott clashed with lawmakers through most of the session. But this year, legislators aimed early on at the $1 billion boost for schools that he called for in releasing his budget recommendation in January.

“Over the last year I have traveled the state to hear from Floridians what issues they care about most,” Scott said Tuesday. “That’s why this budget should be known as an education budget. The two issues that Floridians care most about are jobs and education, and the two go hand-in-hand since a good education is critical to getting a good job.”

School officials say they welcome the $1  billion increase. But they acknowledge it doesn’t bring per-pupil funding back to levels of even two years ago. The state’s largest teachers’ union, which had supported Scott opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, in the 2010 governor’s race, was especially critical.

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said Scott and the Republican-led Legislature are still shorting schools, even with the new money.

“At the same time the governor and lawmakers doled out more tax giveaways for corporations, more money for unaccountable voucher schools and more support and autonomy to for-profit charter schools, our public schools are given a budget nowhere close to adequate and light years away from a true investment in our children,” Ford said.

Palm Beach County didn’t have too many favored projects in the budget. But Scott vetoed most Tuesday, including $250,000 to reimburse local law enforcement agencies and others for security costs related to a presidential debate this fall at Boca Raton’s Lynn University; $50,000 toward developing a master plan for the Glades’ Torry Island; and $1 million for water treatment work in the Glades area.

But Scott allowed $500,000 in state funds to go toward roadwork on Riviera Beach’s 13th Street, which local officials said was needed to help link the Port of Palm Beach with nearby industrial sites.


Scott’s budget-signing to focus on new school cash

Monday, April 16th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott plans to sign the 2012-13 state budget at noon, Tuesday at a public school near St. Augustine.

The $70 billion spending plan approved last month by lawmakers includes a $1 billion boost for Florida’s classroom, coming after a year in which schools absorbed a $1.3 billion reduction and per-pupil spending fell to its lowest level in six years.

Scott also will unveil budget vetoes, which he has said are likely to prove well below the record, $615 million total he eliminated from last year’s spending plan.

The budget-signing is scheduled for Cunningham Creek Elementary School, an ‘A” rated school in St. Johns County.

The school ceremony follows a pattern. Scott last week visited three schools touting the $1 billion increase, which bumps per-pupil spending up an average $150 statewide, or 2.4 percent.

But the average $6,375-per-student spending in the budget slated to take effect July 1 will be the second lowest level since 2005-06. It’s still well off the average $7,143-per-student Florida was spending in 2008 — when the recession tightened its grip on the state.

While school officials generally welcome the cash, the state’s largest teachers’ union ridiculed the approach by Scott and the Republican-ruled Legislature.

“Rick Scott and legislative leaders will bombard you with happy talk about their commitment to public education,” the Florida Education Association said in a statement. “But they haven’t even begun to clean up the mess they made last year.”


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.  


Pension decision heads to Supreme Court

Friday, March 16th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The fate of the Legislature’s push to make government workers in the Florida Retirement System contribute 3 percent to their pensions likely rests with the Florida Supreme Court, after an appellate court Friday certified the case to justices.

A Leon Circuit Court judge last week ruled the contribution requirement violated the state’s constitution. The state is appealing the ruling, which casts an ominous cloud over the state’s finances. The Legislature used the $1 billion in pension payments to help cover holes in both the 2011-12 and 2012-13 budgets.

The Florida Education Association, among several public employees’ unions which challenged the pension contributions, said it welcomed Supreme Court review. The First District Court of Appeal chose not to act on the case.

““We’re pleased that this case will move more quickly toward its final resolution,” said FEA President Andy Ford. “This could help hundreds of thousands of middle-class Florida families who have seen their incomes tumble while the governor and legislative leaders handed out tax giveaways to corporations.”

Weatherford’s pitch for bipartisan backing of budget falls flat

Friday, March 9th, 2012 by John Kennedy

A last-ditch appeal for bipartisan support from Speaker-designateWill Weatherford  fell flat Friday night, as the House voted 80-37 in a partyline vote to approve the state’s $70 billion budget for 2012-13.

A Senate vote is expected later Friday.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said that it has only been over the last six years that Democrats began voting against the state budgets, and he called for the minority party to put aside differences and join Republicans in approving the plan.

No dice.

Rep. Scott Randolph of Orlando was among the Democrats who blistered the budget for cutting university spending, reducing hospital payments, and doing nothing to lift motorist tax- and fee-hikes approved three years ago.

“You are all taxing the middle class and you are taxing them out of existence,” Randolph said.

Following Randolph, Weatherford’ s appeal for bipartisanship fell flat.

“This is an opportunity for you to rise above party,” Weatherford said.

Session sleepwalks toward finish

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The Florida Legislature’s last week of session is usually a frenzied time of bills passing and last-minute cajoling by lawmakers to keep other must-pass measures from fading into oblivion.

It’s usually not a time when the House and Senate adjourn, as they did Wednesday, well before nightfall.

“Anti-climactic in the last week of session is usually a good thing,” said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, in line to become House speaker this fall. “I think the citizens want us to do our work on time, under budget, and get out of town, without too many fireworks. And, hopefully, that’s what we’ll see in the next 48 hours.”

A decision on whether to revamp the state’s personal injury protection requirements for motorists looms as the only big-ticket issue both the House and Senate are working toward a consensus.

Gov. Rick Scott also wants a deal on PIP, which leaders say is rife with fraud.But settling the issue also involves untangling a knot of well-connected doctors, lawyers, pain management clinics and insurers.

A special session on PIP, however, is expected if a deal isn’t done by Friday’s scheduled finish.

Other than PIP, a $70 billion budget awaits a Friday vote. And a Supreme Court ruling on the Legislature’s redistricting plans could emerge by week’s end, which could also force a special session before the month is out.

But when asked about other finish-line priorities, Weatherford was coy.

“We want to pass our bills,” Weatherford said.

House agrees to add more cash to corp tax vouchers for schools

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Following a partisan skirmish, the Republican-ruled House agreed Wednesday to expand the state’s corporate tax credit scholarship program, with Democrats decrying the move for pulling dollars from the state treasury which could go to public schools.

Businesses get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donating to the program, which began in 2001 as a centerpiece of then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s push toward giving parents private school options to leave troubled public schools.

The program began by setting aside $50 million for tax credits. But the measure approved Wednesday would expand the amount available for credits to $229 million next year.

Legislation approved two years ago set in motion a sliding scale that would allow the cap to climb to $219 this year. But Democrats fiercely fought the proposed increase, which still needs to clear the Senate.

“This bill is about private schools,” said Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston. “Please don’t take any more money out of public schools.”

The tax credit increase comes as lawmakers set aside an additional $1 billion increase in public school spending. But critics have cautioned that the boost fails to cover the $1.3 billion reduction in school spending approved last year by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature.

Last year’s cut brought per-pupil spending to its lowest level in six years.

But the House sponsor of the measure (CS/HB 859), Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey, said the tax money helps students leave “failing schools.” He rattled off state Education Department statistics that suggest student performance improves when they move to private schools.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the scholarship money is a ”lifesaver” to low-income students and their families. He also lashed out at Democratic opponents.

“These kids are stuck. Condemned. And you wouldn’t even send them a lifesaver?” Baxley said.

As of November 2011, there were 1,181 schools participating in the program and scholarships were awarded to 37,578 students, records show. The scholarship amount per-student is about two-thirds what the state spends on public school students.

The corporate tax program has long proved controversial. The Palm Beach Post reported in the program’s early years that questionable organizations and storefront schools were getting scholarship money, prompting state officials to more closely monitor participating schools and collect more data on how they were using those dollars.

Students in private schools are exempt from such public school testing programs as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). But the measure authorizes participating schools to administer state assessment tests, ordering public school districts to provide the material and whatever support the private schools need. 


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