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Gov. Scott signs manufacturing tax break into law

Friday, May 17th, 2013 by Dara Kam

A manufacturing tax break, one of Gov. Rick Scott’s two priorities this legislative session, is now law.

Scott signed the measure (HB 7007) on Friday and touted it during a stop at a Tampa manufacturing firm.

Under the new law, manufacturers won’t have to pay sales tax on equipment purchases for three years, beginning in April 2014. Scott had wanted to make the tax break permanent, but lawmakers gave him a three-year window instead.

The new law also creates a new nonprofit corporation to oversee money awarded to the state from lawsuits connected to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The manufacturing tax break was caught up in some late-night maneuvers during the final week of session. Two days before the session ended, Scott had to act on a campaign finance bill and an ethics measure that were priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Scott announced he signed the bills about half an hour after the House gave final passage to his manufacturing tax break.

But House Democrats believe the tax break, tucked into a 96-page economic incentive package, is not official because the bill did not receive a two-third majority vote.

The state constitution requires a two-thirds approval for tax-related items that cause counties or cities to lose revenue or reduce a tax in which the local governments share.

Weatherford insists that the tax break did not require the supermajority vote.

_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ouch! Senate Prez Gaetz TaxWatch smackdown

Thursday, May 16th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The ever-acerbic Senate President Don Gaetz spared no venom for Florida TaxWatch in a response to the business-backed group’s budget “turkey” list released earlier today.

The self-proclaimed government watchdog’s method of targeting the turkeys – which include $14 million for a Gulf Coast State College Panama City campus – that haven’t been approved by state agencies “is built on the unconstitutional perversion” that Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a statement.

“This is an arrogance of the elite who spend too much time in Tallahassee and Washington listening to the echoes of their own invented wisdom and thinking they’re hearing the voice of God,” Gaetz went on.

Read Gaetz’s rant after the jump.
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Florida House approves election package – again – sends back to Senate

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

The secretary of state won’t be able to punish elections supervisors under a modified elections package approved by the Florida House and sent to the Senate for final passage.

The Senate is expected to finalize the measure, which requires supervisors instead to post online a report of their preparations three months prior to the election, in one of the last actions before the 2013 session ends later this afternoon.

The Senate had wanted to give the secretary of state, appointed by the governor, the authority to put the locally elected officials on probation and force them to pass a test before being able to be removed from “noncompliant status.”

But House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, sided with the supervisors, who objected that Detzner already has the authority to review the local officials’ preparedness, give them written directions and take them to court if he believes they aren’t complying with the law.

Before the session began, Gov. Rick Scott, Weatherford, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, pledged to do something to fix the long lines and up to eight-hour waits encountered by many voters last fall.

Under the plan expected to go to Scott for signature, supervisors can choose from between eight and 14 days of early voting and stay open from eight to 12 hours per day. The 2011 law, HB 1355, shrank early voting from 14 to 8 days. GOP insiders said the 2011 law was designed to cut back on Democratic turnout in the 2012 election, a reaction to Florida Democrats’ support for President Obama in 2008 that helped him into the White House.

This year’s proposal also gives supervisors more options for early voting sites, and would allow add civic centers, fairgrounds, courthouses and government-run senior centers to the city halls, public libraries and elections offices they can now use.

“Reform is never final…We should be ready always to come here and make adjustments if we can make things better,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the sponsor of HB 1355.

Democrats applauded the effort but said it didn’t go far enough to reverse a 2011 elections package they blame for many of the problems.

Rep. Janet Cruz, who was the lead Democrat on the elections bill, called the effort “a very, very good big, big first step in solving the difficulties that our voters have faced.”

But, she added, “I want our citizens to know that we are not finished.”

Democrats contend that voters should still be allowed to change their addresses at the polls on election day. Current law, changed in 2011, requires voters who move outside of the county to cast provisional ballots – which have a greater likelihood of being tossed – if they don’t update their address before Election Day. Democrats contend that kept many college students from casting regular ballots in the fall.

The bill takes “solid steps” to “reform the deform that had happened” with HB 1355, incoming House Democratic Leader Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said. The bill isn’t “where we want to be but it’s better than where we are,” he said.

“Some of us feel like the bill hasn’t gone far enough. We want to go back to pre-1355,” Rouson said.

Senate signs off on Scott manufacturing tax break

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013 by Dara Kam

With less than 72 hours left in the session and two priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz hanging in the balance, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a manufacturing equipment tax break, one of just two items on Gov. Rick Scott’s wishlist.

The modified tax break approved by a 37-3 vote late Wednesday would exempt manufacturers from paying sales tax on manufacturing equipment for three years. Scott’s original proposal would have cost the state about $100 million per year, but the plan approved by the Senate would shrink that to about $18 million, according to the amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange. Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale and Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Arthenia Joyner of Tampa voted against it.

“(Scott’s) had modest requests this session. I think we need to get behind him,” Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said before the vote.

Lawmakers moved closer to Scott’s other priority – a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for teachers – yesterday.

Meanwhile, Scott has until midnight tonight to act on two of the GOP leaders top priorities: ethics and campaign finance measures.

Scott has repeatedly voiced concerns about the campaign finance changes, pushed by Weatherford, which would increase current $500 campaign contribution limits for statewide candidates like Scott, who is running for reelection, to $3,000 and to $1,000 for legislative and local candidates.

Son of man injured by Palm Beach County school bus calls on lawmakers to approve settlement

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013 by Dara Kam

David Abbott is making a last-ditch effort to get lawmakers to save his father’s life.

Abbott set up easels with photographs of his father, Carl Abbott, on the fourth floor of the Capitol rotunda Wednesday afternoon as the clock winds down until the legislative session ends on Friday.

Abbott says the clock is ticking on his father as well.

Carl Abbott desperately needs the $1.9 million the Palm Beach County School Board agreed to pay him when he was run over by a school bus in 2008, Abbott’s doctor said in a letter to House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz. The money, that the Legislature has withheld for three years, would enable Abbott to get rigorous medical treatment to regain some semblance of a normal life. Without it, “his life expectancy will in all likelihood be reduced,” Dr. Pierre Deltor wrote.

The Senate is refusing to act on any claims until the system is reformed and an attempt by a House committee to revamp the system went nowhere this year.

“Reform is not my issue. Getting my dad the help he needs is the issue. It’s my only concern. Reform is going to take years. My dad doesn’t have the time to wait,” Abbott said Wednesday.

When asked about Abbott’s bill last week, Gaetz said he was unaware of the specifics of his case and called the 72-year-old North Palm Beach man’s condition a perfect example of why reforms are needed.

“That’s tragic. That makes it all the more important that we have a claims bill process that does not rely upon who the lobbyist is or what the emotion is and doesn’t make the Senate into a finder of fact,” Gaetz said.

Under the principle of “sovereign immunity” the state limits the amount people can collect from the government for wrongdoing. The only way around what is now a $200,000 cap is persuading the Legislature to lift it. Critics of the system, including Gaetz, say the system is flawed in part because powerful lobbyists have too much influence – and make too much money – in the process.

David Abbott said he was aware of Gaetz’s opposition to the claims bills process but traveled from Palm Beach County to Tallahassee anyway to make Gaetz and Weatherford aware of his father’s situation.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said. “My dad’s a victim here. He was a victim when he was hit by the school bus. And now he’s a victim because he can’t get the help he needs.”

Teachers may not have to wait until 2014 for raises

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Teachers may not have to wait to get performance-based raises included in the state budget, according to Senate President Don Gaetz.

Gov. Rick Scott had wanted $2,500 across-the-board pay raises for teachers. House and Senate budget leaders this weekend agreed to $480 million for raises but with some limitations. Teachers graded “effective” will be eligible for a $2,500 pay raise, beginning in June 2014. Those rated “highly effective” would be eligible for $3,500.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Senate budget conforming bills due out later this week will make it clear that pay raises can be based on a “formative” teacher assessment instead of one based on student performance that won’t go into effect until 2014 and that would have held up the raises.

“In my experience as a school superintendent, we were able to evaluate students and evaluate effective teaching based not just on summative assessments at the end of a school year but based on formative assessments as we go along,” Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County superintendent, told reporters late Tuesday afternoon.

“As far as I’m concerned, teachers who earn their increases in pay ought to be able to get them as soon as school districts develop a plan to do so, collectively bargain that plan with their unions, submit the plan to the commissioner of education and have it confirmed,” he said.

Gaetz blamed Scott for the delay.

“We simply followed the governor’s proposal as to the timing of the pay increase…But I’m sure that the governor didn’t mean to unnecessarily delay the pay increase,” he said. “My hope is we ought to go forward and give Florida teachers the pay increase that they deserve especially because we have a pay increase…which is based on performance.”

Senate tie vote kills parent trigger for the second year

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 by Dara Kam

For the second year in a row, the Florida Senate killed a controversial “parent trigger” measure that would have given parents of students at failing schools a greater say in turning the schools around.

Six Republicans joined with the 14 Senate Democrats in the 20-20 tie vote after more than an hour of heated debate on the measure (HB 867).

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and former school superintendent, said parents already have the ability to make their voices heard.

“The issue is how do we get parents interested in the options already available to them. This bill will not help that,” Montford said. “I hope a year form now…we’ll spend this much time and energy trying to find a way to get our parents meaningfully involved.”

The bill voted down on Tuesday was a watered-down version of a similar measure that died on a tie vote in the Senate last year.

The proposal would have allowed parents to sign a petition supporting specific turnaround options for schools that received an “F” grade two years in a row. But the Senate amended the bill yesterday afternoon, giving the school board the final say the turnaround options. A companion bill approved by the House, similar to last year’s plan, would have given the state Bpard of Education to choose the options, which include turning the school over to a private management company or for-profit charter school.

The state’s teachers unions and PTA groups opposed the bill.

“The second time around is just as sweet as the first,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said his city turned an “F” school into a “B” school while was Lake Worth mayor.

“Never once…did we think we should…hand it over to a corporation to run,” he said. The school’s grade improved not by “turning it over to some corporation,” Clemens said. “It was by getting involved.”

But Sen. David Simmons, who sponsored the amendment giving the school board the ultimate decision in what happens to the failing school, said Democrats were arguing against a bill that didn’t exist.

The bill was changed to “eviscerate the argument” that the measure “was a Trojan horse where the corporate organizations are going to take over.,” Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said. “That’s just simply not true.”

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, argued that the bill is about “one word – trust,” saying “we ought to trust the parents, the parents who are directly involved in these schools.”

But Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican, objected that Florida already has more choices to turn around the failing schools and the bill does not create any new ones.

“Not one parent ever called me to support this bill. And if it’s the “Parent Empowerment Act” then why is the PTA lobbying so heavily against this bill? I don’t know who these parents are…Why are we doing this?
I don’t know. Who benefits? I don’t know.”

GOP Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami; Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah; Charlie Dean, R-Inverness; Greg Evers, R-Baker; and Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, joined Detert in voting against the measure.

Visitors in the public gallery erupted in cheers after the tie vote, eliciting a stern rebuke from Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

“If there are any more outbursts for or against any bill I will clear those galleries. You understand? Thank you,” Gaetz said.

Why the Senate president voted against the stadium deal

Monday, April 29th, 2013 by Dara Kam

As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross peered down into the chamber from the public gallery late this afternoon, Senate President Don Gaetz pushed the red button rejecting a deal that could steer taxpayer money to refurbish the stadium.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, said he voted against the bill (SB 306) “because I have to go home to Northwest Florida.”

The deal signed off on by the Senate on Monday did not include a provision in an earlier version of the bill that would have eliminated a tax break for foreign banks in exchange for the professional sports franchises tax incentive.

That was “one of the better things about the arrangement,” Gaetz said.

Even that would not likely have coaxed a favorable vote, however, Gaetz told reporters.

While the bill is “a whole lot better” in other ways, Gaetz still doesn’t like the idea that there’s nothing in it that offsets the cost to the state for what could be millions of dollars – up to $13 million a year – in tax breaks.

The Department of Economic Opportunity would have to rank the teams and give the recommendations to the Legislature, who would have the ultimate say, meaning “they’re not being handed out on the basis of who had the best lobbyist,” Gaetz said.

But he said that without swapping the tax break on foreign banks there isn’t “a way to actually pay for the tax incentives. And I wish there would have been.”

Ethics commissioner urges lawmakers to act on reform

Friday, April 12th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida Commission on Ethics member Matt Carlucci is asking the Legislature to move forward on legislation that would strengthen the panel’s ability to collect fines and probe possible wrongdoing by elected officials.

The ethics proposal is a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. But it’s caught up in horsetrading over a campaign finance measure that’s the priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. And Gov. Rick Scott’s opposition to the campaign finance changes may doom both measures.

Carlucci penned an editorial today urging lawmakers to act on the ethics proposal.

“As a member of the Florida Commission on Ethics, I am grateful and encouraged that we are on the cusp of dramatic and necessary ethics reform. The Senate, under the leadership of Senate President Gaetz and Senator Latvala, created a strong base on which the House, with the leadership of Speaker Weatherford and subcommittee Chair Boyd, built further improvements. The result, House Bill 7131, is a good work product that with a few changes, could be a great work product.
News reports suggest that the House, Senate, and Governor have disagreements over changes to the elections laws, and that those disagreements are putting HB 7131 in jeopardy. On behalf of the Commission, I urge all the parties not to let differences in philosophy in one arena stand in the way of progress on things we all can agree on. I would also ask that the Legislature make the following changes that would make HB 7131 a true and lasting achievement:
• Restore the language that would allow the Commission to record its final order as a lien in cases where there are unpaid fines for failing to file financial disclosure;
• Delete the language that allows officials the opportunity to re-do their financial disclosure after a complaint has been filed, or at least make allowing such a second chance discretionary with the Commission;
• Give the Commission the ability to investigate complaints on its own initiative, subject to a vote of seven of its nine members.
These three changes will move HB 7131 from good to outstanding. A great deal of hard work by the House and Senate has been poured into ethics reform this year. I encourage the parties to make these three changes, and then make it the law.
Sincerely,
Matt Carlucci

Will Rick Scott’s opposition to campaign reform doom ethics overhaul?

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott’s opposition to proposed campaign finance changes will also doom an ethics reform, the two top priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, according to the lead GOP senator on both issues.

The campaign finance proposal, a priority of Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, approved by his chamber last month would boost individual contribution limits from $500 to $3,000 for local and legislative candidates and to $5,000 for statewide candidates.

Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers on Monday told The Associated Press that the governor “can’t imagine signing a bill” that would raise contributions by any amount.

The Senate proposal, approved by the Rules Committee Tuesday, would keep the contribution levels but impose more frequent reporting requirements for political committees.

“My feeling is that the governor has probably sapped the energy out of campaign any campaign fiannce bill this session,” Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg. told reporters Tuesday.

The House hasn’t moved on the ethics package, a priority of Gaetz, R-Niceville, since receiving it from the Senate, which passed it on the first day of the legislative session 31 days ago.

“Unfortunately, the House is tying their campaign finance bill to our ethics bill, which we passed as our first order of business on the first day of session and has now been over there for 31 days, just sitting,” he said. “They wanted these changes in campaign finance in return for doing some fairly sensible, easy to understand things on ethics. That’s a shame. What I’ve been told is they had to have campaign finance to pass our ethics package.”

Florida Senate unanimously approves President Gaetz priority ethics reform

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Calling it the most comprehensive reform in Florida in three decades, the state Senate unanimously approved a sweeping ethics package, a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Gaetz said he skipped the traditional president’s speech to take up and pass the bill.

“You have made your mothers and fathers proud of you today,” Gaetz said after the bill passed. “You have brought by your vote today honor to this Senate and to the people who you serve with. You have changed the code of public conduct in Florida forever and for the better and I thank you.”

The measure (SB 2) would give the ethics commission more teeth to the Commission on Ethics, bar legislators from voting on bills that would inure to a special private gain for them and ban lawmakers from getting special jobs at public institutions such as universities just because of their position.

The plan would also close the “revolving door” that allows lawmakers to lobby after they leave office. An amendment approved on the floor Tuesday afternoon would make that provision apply to all lawmakers instead of the original version that only applied to those elected after 2014.

“You can look any constituent in the eye with conviction and tell them that you have taken a firm stand for improved ethics in government,” Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said while explaining the bill on the floor.

The Senate bill also includes something not in the House’s companion measure: Closing the loophole in the lobbying gift ban.

The measure would ban lawmakers from accepting contributions from lobbyists in their political committees, or CCEs, and using the money for swank dinners or parties.

Latvala urged his colleagues to convince the House “that we want real, meaningful ethics reform in the Florida Senate and we don’t want it watered down.”

Gift ban tweak stays out of Senate ethics reform

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Seven years ago, then-Senate President Tom Lee pushed a gift ban that essentially barred lobbyists from giving gifts of any kind – except flowers and plaques on the opening day of the legislative session – to lawmakers.

Lee, a Brandon Republican, wanted to put an end to what he called lawmakers out-of-control wining and dining at the expense of lobbyists perhaps looking for a payback for lavish meals.

After returning to the Florida Senate as a freshman this year, Lee is willing to modify the ban after hearing “a parade of horribles” from lawmakers who say the gift ban bars them from participating in receptions held by groups as innocuous as the Boys and Girls Clubs because they fear violating the ban.

Lee had hoped to include the tweak in an ethics reform package, a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, headed to the floor after the Senate Rules Committee unanimously signed off on the measure this afternoon.

But Lee said including changes to the gift ban in the ethics bill was “a non-starter from the president’s perspective” and will instead file a stand-alone bill to deal with the issue instead.

Gaetz didn’t want his fast-tracked priority ethics reform, expected to get a Senate floor vote possible on the first day of the legislative session in two weeks, to get bogged down in a debate over whether the Legislature was watering down the gift ban.

“I would have been happy with it being in this bill. But it’s just taken a while to get it together. And this bill is moving pretty rapidly. So we’re going to make sure he’s got a bill spot for that,” Sen. Jack Latvala, the St. Petersburg Republican who sponsored the ethics package (SB 2), said.

Lee said he’s trying to “find a way to ensure that the public and organizations get access to legislators but that that access isn’t clandestine and it isn’t in violation of the law, which was predominantly what was going on at the time” his signature legislation was passed.

But any rewrite of the gift ban is a “briar patch,” Lee cautioned.

“It is very, very difficult to create exemptions to the gift ban that you can’t drive a truck through. And therein lies the problem,” he said. “And while a lot of people are talking about the bottle of water or the cup of coffee, I guarantee you an amendment to the gift ban that allows them to take a bottle of water and a cup of coffee will not satisfy them.”

Lee said lawmakers may be skirting the gift ban already.

“I really wanted to get through one session before I had this discussion. But I’m trying to be accommodating. Some of this has resulted in behavior being driven underground into lobbyists’ homes and into the Governor’s Club. There’s a point at which you can’t legislate morality,” he said.

Lee said he’s sympathetic to lawmakers who say they run into trouble particularly in Tallahassee when groups from home who have lobbyists hold receptions. He’s open to allowing lawmakers to attend those “highly public” events provided there is a record of attendance and “as long as the gift that’s being received by the legislator is de minimus.”

Senate ethics package ready for floor vote

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by Dara Kam

A sweeping ethics overhaul is headed to the Florida Senate for a floor vote, possibly on the first day of the legislative session that begins on March 5.

The Senate Rules Committee unanimously approved the plan, a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, Tuesday afternoon.

The omnibus measure (SB 2) would impose new restrictions on legislators who become lobbyists; on state and local officials who take jobs with universities or other public agencies; and on candidates who dip into political committees for what require Gaetz calls a “filet mignon lifestyle.”

Lawmakers would also be required to disclose when voting on bills that would result in a special benefit for them, their business partners or their immediate family members.

Constitutional officers including sheriffs and elections supervisors would have to undergo four hours of ethics training. The proposed ethics code would also require candidates or officeholders to set up “blind trusts.”

And the measure gives more teeth to the state’s Commission on Ethics by allowing the authority to initiate investigations and impose liens or garnish wages of wrongdoers who don’t pay fines.

The commission would also be required to update its financial disclosure system by putting all the forms online in a searchable database.

The employment restriction is designed to keep public agencies from creating jobs for powerful politicians. The proposal would allow elected officials or qualified candidates to get public employment if the job is publicly advertised, the position was already created and if they are subject to the same requirements as other candidates.

“They can basically apply for any job that’s out there advertised in government as long as they’re qualified for the job, as long as it’s an open application period. We just want to discourage those kinds of things that happened with Ray Sansom” or in a Panhandle county where a commissioner got a special job with the city, Senate bill sponsor Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said.

Former House Speaker Ray Sansom was hired by Northwest Florida State College for a $110,000-a-year job on the day he became speaker. The Destin Republican was forced to resign as speaker in 2009 after he was charged with conspiracy and grand theft for spending that benefited the college that onetime appropriations chairman Sansom tucked into the state budget. Prosecutors later dropped the charges against Sansom.

Latvala called the ethics overhaul “a significant piece of legislation” aimed at improving the public’s confidence in elected officials.

Clemens files resolution that would create full-time legislature

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013 by Dara Kam

For many Capitol insiders, the 60-day legislative sessions are more than long enough.

But state Sen. Jeff Clemens, a freshman who won a bitter primary against former state Rep. Mack Bernard, filed a resolution that would make the sessions last two years.

Under Clemens’s proposed constitutional amendment (SJR 512), the session would begin two weeks after the general election and last two years.

Clemens said lawmakers don’t have enough time to fully vet issues during the two-month session.

“The compressed nature of the legislature as we have it right now forces us to rush bills through without thinking them through and doesn’t allow enough time for us to delve into the budgetary process,” the Lake Worth Democrat said. “I think the voters suffer because of that.”

And the 160 members of the House and Senate, whose annual legislative salaries is around $30,000, have full-time, outside jobs that may create conflicts when voting on legislation, Clemens said.

“It’s really a case of not being able to serve two masters at once,” he said. “The idea of a full-time legislature is really rooted in allowing legislators to make decisions based on what they think is best for the state and not have to have their individual employment or individual financial situations compromised by that.”

No word yet on what Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, thinks of Clemens’s proposal. But, after the GOP-controlled legislature was blamed for long voting lines during the 2012 presidential election because they put 11 lengthy constitutional questions on the ballot, Gaetz has said instructed his members to use restraint regarding constitutional changes.

“If you have a proposed constitutional amendment, it’d better solve a constitutional problem, not an issue du jour,” Gaetz said in November.

No details yet on how bulk of $334 million foreclosure settlement will be spent

Thursday, January 24th, 2013 by Dara Kam

GOP legislative leaders vowed that $200 million from a mortgage foreclosure settlement will be spent on helping homeowners but said they do not know yet how they will divvy up the money.

“We’re not going to be spending this money on members’ favorite projects that have nothing to do with the crisis. The idea is to focus the resources on helping the people who are in the greatest needs,” House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said at a press conference Thursday with Attorney General Pam Bondi and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Weatherford pledged to work with Bondi, who wrangled with the legislative leaders for months over control of Florida’s $334 million settlement made in March as part of a national agreement between attorneys general and the nation’s five largest banks.

“You’ll be hearing from us,” Bondi, standing beside Weatherford, promised.

A legislative committee last week finalized Bondi’s request for $60 million of the settlement. More than half of the money will go to first-time homebuyers for down no-interest payment assistance. The rest is earmarked for housing counseling, legal aid and the courts to help a backlog of foreclosure cases.

Bondi and lawmakers struck a deal in November that handed her control of the $60 million and put the legislature in charge of the bulk of the funds – $200 million – to be spent on “housing-related programs.” They won’t finalize their spending plan until the end of the legislative session in May, more than a year after the settlement was reached.

Bondi, praised by both legislative leaders for her office’s work in reaching the settlement with the banks, said she’d like to see the money spent on:
_ Foreclosure prevention;
_ Neighborhood revitalization;
_ Affordable housing;
_ Home buyer or renter assistance;
_ Additional legal assistance;
_ Counseling.

Flanked by Bondi, Weatherford told reporters on Thursday that the money will not be used to replace funding already spent on housing-related items.

“There’s no intention to do a bait-and-switch on this,” Weatherford said, adding that the leaders and Bondi had developed a trust “to use these funds to help the people who were actually harmed.”

‘Nullifers’ revolt creates tea party divide

Thursday, December 6th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A group of tea party organizations is apologizing for what they called “disrespectful and inappropriate behavior by some conservative activists at a Senate committee meeting earlier this week.

Leaders of more than a dozen Florida-based tea party groups – including Palm Beach County Tea Party’s Pam Wohlschlegel – signed off on a letter sent the apology to senators today while asking lawmakers not to create a state-based health insurance exchange. That was the issue that drove dozens of tea partiers led by lawyer KrisAnne Hall, who later got into it with Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Hall and others were demanding the state “nullify” the federal health care act, upheld this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Our compatriots were responding from an over-abundance of passion for freedom. They were spontaneously trying to participate in a process that has been frustrating and opaque for years and their response was not pre-meditated and not intended to interfere in your process,” the leaders wrote today. “However, speaking over a sitting Senator who is using his allotted time to represent his constituents is unacceptable. We cannot allow basic rules of civil conduct to be violated and we will endeavor to ask our fellow patriots to respect the process in ways we ask to be respected as well. We stand ready to assist you in your efforts to protect the natural rights of Floridians protected by the Florida and U.S. constitution to life, liberty and property.”

Some of the tea partiers at the Senate committee’s Monday meeting interrupted and booed Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. Smith pointed out that the U.S. Constitution is an “imperfect document” that had to be amended to do away with slavery.

Gaetz further angered Hall with a history lesson about Andrew Jackson that included a reference about shooting and hanging Civil War-era “nullifiers” that launched an Internet firestorm.

Gaetz’ ‘Shoot and hang the nullifiers’ history lesson riles tea partiers

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has raised the hackles of Florida tea party activists on the warpath about Gaetz and other GOP leaders’ apparent willingness to go along with the once-reviled “Obamacare.”

With more than a dozen supporters backing her up, tea party lawyer KrisAnne Hall heatedly told a Senate committee exploring implementation of the federal health care act they should nullify the law because it is unconstitutional. The raucous crowd repeatedly burst into applaud and even booed one senator who refuted their position.

Hall had a short confrontation with Gaetz after the meeting and apparently sent him an e-mail explaining “the Founders’ position on State Sovereignty and nullification,” according to her blog.

Gaetz, a sharp-tongued history buff who often punctuates his arguments with sarcasm, replied to Hall and others with a history lesson about Andrew Jackson. First, Gaetz reminds Hall that he opposes the law and also believes it’s unconstitutional.

“As to nullification, I tend to favor the approach used by Florida’s first Governor, Andrew Jackson:

It is said that one evening, while he was president, General Jackson was interrupted in his reading in his bedroom by an alarmed military aide who breathlessly reported, “Mr. President, the “nullifiers” are in front of the Executive Mansion with torches and guns. They are screaming that each state has the right to decide for itself which federal laws to follow. They threaten to burn us down if you will not agree with them.”

Without lifting his head from his reading, Andrew Jackson said, “Shoot the first nullifier who touches the Flag. And hang the rest.”

I have sworn an oath on my father’s Bible before Almighty God to preserve, protect and defend the constitution and government of the United States. And that’s exactly what I intend to do. Count me with Andrew Jackson.

Senator Don Gaetz

The e-mail sparked a firestorm in the tea party community, including on Hall’s Facebook page.

“After sending Senator Don Gaetz my letter explaining the positions of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton on State Sovereignty, Mr. Gaetz says that citizens who agree with the writer of the Declaration of Independence should be summarily shot and hanged. Does that means Don Gaetz is in favor of shooting the many Catholic Bishops and other religious leaders who have said that they will not comply with this mandate? Notice the double-speak in his email below. He affirms his support for the Constitution and then demonstrates his utter ignorance of its meaning and purpose,” Hall wrote on her blog.

Caught outside the Senate Democratic suite where Gaetz lunched with Democratic Leader Chris Smith and others, Gaetz downplayed the brewing battle between the “nullifiers” and the president and clarified that he was not advocating shooting tea partiers.

“No. I’d have to shoot my son,” Gaetz said. Rep. Matt Gaetz is an even more conservative Panhandle lawmaker than his father.

Gaetz explained the use of the Jackson anecdote.

“That’s just an old tale of what was said about what Andrew Jackson said. I simply sent it to her as a way to try to let her know that you can still be civil about these issues and you don’t have to be outraged about every single thing. You can disagree without being uncivil,” he said.

Gaetz completes Senate committee assignments

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has finalized the make-up of his chamber for the next two years, tapping five Democrats to head committees and appointing Sen. Joe Negron as the head of a select committee on the federal health care law. Negron, R-Stuart, is also chairman of the Senate’s budget committee.

Some of the key positions include two new committees set up by Gaetz:

Gaming Committee: Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples; Vice Chairwoman Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach.
Select Committee on Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart; Vice Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

Other high-profile committee assignments:
Judiciary Committee: Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon; Vice Chairman Darren Soto, D-Orlando.
Budget subcommittees:
Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations: Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island; Vice Chairwoman Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Education Appropriations: Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton ; Vice Chairman Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.
Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development: Chairman Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando; Vice Chairwoman Gwen Margolis, D-Miami.
Health and Human Services Appropriations: Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; Vice Chairwoman Anitere Flores, R-Miami.

Several freshmen senators, who also served in the state House, will also serve as chairmen.

Gaetz also boosted Democrats’ clout in the chamber, appointing five Dems to head committees compared to just two last year. And nearly every committee is co-chaired by a Democrat. Democrats picked up two Senate seats this year, breaking the GOP’s supermajority hold and winding up with a 26-14 split.

Gaetz’s bipartisan approach earned kudos from Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

“I am grateful to Senate President Gaetz for listening to the interests and desires of my Caucus members to serve on various Senate Committees. By appointing them as Chairs of five of them, President Gaetz underscored his commitment to bipartisan cooperation for the good of the people of Florida. And I applaud him for his actions,” Smith wrote in a press release.

Read Gaetz’s memo after the jump.
(more…)

Gaetz taps Senate leadership team

Monday, November 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz announced his top lieutenants for the next two legislative session, tapping Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Ft. Myers, as Majority Leader and picking Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, as budget chief, a position he also held in the Florida House.

And in a possible nod to President Lincoln, who staffed his Cabinet with one-time adversaries, Gaetz named Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, as chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. Gaetz has made ethics reforms one of his top priorities and lawmakers are being pressured to address a contentious elections overhaul passed last year (HB 1355) that some blame for long lines and other problems during this year ‘s presidential election. Latvala was in a leadership battle against Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, earlier this year. Gardiner is expected to take over the Senate in two years but whether his successor will be Latvala or Negron (or someone else) remains undecided.

As expected, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, will keep his post as head of the powerful Rules Committee. Thrasher is a former House speaker and also served as chairman of the state GOP.

Returning Sen. Tom Lee, R- Brandon, will be Deputy Majority Leader and Whip, also not a surprise since Lee is a former Senate president.

Negron served as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee for the past two years and has represented Gaetz in talks with the Obama administration recently over how to handle the federally-mandated health care exchanges.

Gaetz is also setting up a special committee to deal with the health care law but hasn’t yet named its chairman.

New House, Senate leaders take over

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, officially took the gavels in their respective chambers this morning, launching their two-year terms as presiding officers and welcoming a slew of newly elected lawmakers.

Weatherford’s ceremony had the added bonus of being led by former House Speaker Allan Bense, Weatherford’s father-in-law.

Both Weatherford and Gaetz gave speeches outlining their plans for the next two years.

Fifteen of the 40 senators are new to the chamber. Several of them – including Palm Beach County Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Joseph Abruzzo of Wellington – previously served in the state House.

Gaetz praised Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, and emphasized that the two parties have to work together, unlike lawmakers in Washington.

“You want to know who lost the 2012 election. Congress. Congress, both parties, has an approval rating of 11 percent. Muammar Gaddafi had an approval rating of 14 percent and his people killed him,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz said he and Weatherford agreed to make ethics reform a top priority.

“In my medium-sized north Florida county, a commissioner was just removed for official misconduct, the tourism director committed suicide after he stole bed tax and BP money, the Speaker of the House was forced to resign, the tax collector was run out of office, our college president was fired and our sheriff is in federal prison. That’s just my county,” said Gaetz, who lives in Okaloosa County.

And Gaetz also pledged to do something about the state’s prolonged election, certified this morning by Gov. Rick Scott and two other members of the Election Canvassing Commission, saying Florida is not a “third world country.”

“Floridians should never again have to stand in lines for six and seven hours to vote. Floridians should never again have to wonder if their ballots were miscoded or misprinted or miscounted. Floridians shouldn’t be embarrassed that while most counties in our state run flawless elections, some counties keep running flawed elections,” Gaetz said. “This isn’t a third world country. America shouldn’t have to wait for five days after the polls close to find out how Florida voted.”

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