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

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012 by Dara Kam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will free market economics convince Gov. Scott to raise tuition?

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

House Speaker Dean Cannon used a free-market argument will persuade Gov. Rick Scott to sign off on a proposal allowing the University of Florida and Florida State University to charge higher tuitions than the state’s nine other public universities.

Scott said he does not want a tuition hike for university students and their parents, but Cannon said he hopes to get Scott on board with the proposal already agreed to by House and Senate leaders.

“I think it’s important to note that there’s a big difference between the cost of gasoline or the cost of your utility bill where you’re actually paying for something and then you get a degree for it which enables you to make money,” Cannon told reporters this evening.

He said it’s important to draw a distinction between the state’s universities because “the value of a degree from FSU is probably different in terms of real earning capacity than the value of a degree from New College,” and launched into a free-market idea businessman Scott might like.

“Market rates on tuition, at least for our top-tier universities, is a good idea,” Cannon said. “The governor, I hope, would be supportive of the notion of letting the market drive the tuition at least at our premier universities and avoiding government price controls and pricing unlike products the same.”

Cannon would not weigh in on whether a controversial separation of the University of South Florida Polytechnic from the University of South Florida, pushed by Senate budget chief JD Alexander, was a good idea.

“I don’t want the debate over USF/Poly or any position I may take on it to distract from the greater goal of driving a discussion about better overall system governance. We’ll sort of cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.

Earlier today, Scott said he does not believe the state is ready for a twelfth university.

“I’m being very cautious about trying to add liabilities to the state. So can we afford a twelfth university? I want to make sure we can afford it,” Scott said, adding he is concerned about accreditation for the university.

Prison privatization study dies on close vote

Monday, February 13th, 2012 by Dara Kam

With a 21-19 vote, a sharply divided Senate rejected an amendment that would have done away with a sweeping prison privatization effort, but doubts remain over whether GOP leaders =have the support to pass the outsourcing on its own.

After nearly two-and-a-half hours of questions and heated intra-partisan debate, Sen. Mike Fasano failed to muster enough votes for his amendment that would have stripped the controversial bill (SB 2038) and replaced it with a cost-benefit analysis. Eight Republicans joined 11 Democrats in voting for the measure.

Monday’s actions leave Senate President Mike Haridopolos and other GOP leaders poised to bring up the bill tomorrow. But it’s unclear whether Monday’s vote indicates that Haridopolos, who twice yanked the bill from the floor because it appeared Fasano had the votes to pass his amendment, has enough support for his bill that would die on a tie vote.

Critics of the privatization include Sen. Paula Dockery, who Monday morning released data provided by the Department of Corrections showing that just four of the seven private prisons currently operating in the state are cheaper to run that similar public institutions.

But Senate budget chief JD Alexander insisted the proposal – that would outsource all DOC operations, including more than two dozen prisons and work camps, in an 18-county region in the southern portion of the state – would have to save at least 7 percent, or $16.5 million annually, of the $232.3 million the state now spends on Region IV.

“You can’t get more information than we have. It’s going to be disputed any way you go. The only way you get better information is you privatize a region and find out exactly what the savings are,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said, urging a “no vote” on Fasano’s amendment.

Fasano later took umbrage at criticism from incoming Senate President Don Gaetz over the Fasano faction’s refusal to agree to take up a late-filed amendment. Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, kicked Fasano off as chairman of a budget committee because of his public objections to the privatization.

“Just because I disapproved of a policy I was removed as a chairman. Is that process? All this is is a study. Why are we so afraid of a study?” Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said.

Fasano also disputed proponents’ arguments that many of the 3,800 state workers who would be impacted by the privatization could find jobs elsewhere within the system or be hired by the private vendors because the department is shutting down nearly a dozen work camps or prisons.

“Let’s not play those games. That’s not going to happen. People are going to be without a job. Veterans are going to be without a job,” Fasano said.

Senate budget chief: Everglades money coming

Thursday, February 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Everglades lovers should probably chill out over the lack of funding for river of grass clean-up in the Senate budget.

Senate budget chief JD Alexander said this morning he’s “seriously considering” matching the House’s $35 million line-item for Everglades restoration. Gov. Rick Scott tucked away $40 million for the clean-up, and the money will almost certainly show up late in negotiations between the two chambers over their spending plans.

“We’re looking at it. We’re trying to figure out if we can afford it this year,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said, adding that he’s supported that and the Florida Forever land-buying program for his 14 years in the legislature soon coming to an end. “So it’s something I’d love to see us be able to do.
I would hope we’d be able to eventually get there…If we can do something it won’t be a lot, but we’d certainly like to provide some funding for preservation of Florida’s ecological needs.”

Alexander said he doesn’t foresee much trouble reconciling the two spending plans. The Senate’s proposal includes deeper health and human services, more spending on schools and road projects and dips into state universities’ reserves.

“There aren’t a lot of differences. It should be fairly easy to get to something we both can agree to,” Alexander said.

Senate budget chief Alexander holds emotional meeting with prison workers

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012 by Dara Kam

As promised, Senate budget chief JD Alexander met with more than two dozen prison workers who’d traveled to the Capitol to protest a prison privatization bill approved by his committee late Wednesday afternoon.

Alexander met with the workers after the committee approved the measure by a 14-4 vote and sent it on its way to the Senate floor to a full vote. They pleaded with him to reconsider the proposal that would privatize an 18-county region in the southern portion of the state and affect nearly 3,800 state workers, objecting that Alexander’s estimated $22 million savings are questionable because of “cherry-picking” by the private prison operators currently running seven Florida prisons.

“I don’t do this to hurt people. You all may not believe that but I don’t. I’m trying to figure out how to make all this stuff work,” said Alexander, R-Lake Wales, overseeing his chamber’s version of the state’s nearly $69 billion spending plan.

Private prison guards also do not have to undergo the same training as workers at the state-run prisons, union leaders representing the prison workers said.

The emotionally-charged meeting took place in a large conference room manned by the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Donald Severance and at least two of his aides. Alexander remained calm throughout the 45-minute meeting as the workers tried to persuade him with comparisons about per diem rates and then anecdotes about the fear they have about losing their jobs.

“The privatization has added stress on us,” Martin Correctional Institutional guard Sarah Babineaux said. “I lay awake at night…just thinking about what am I going to do.”

Babineaux has two children and custody of two nieces, she said, one of whom is a 17-year-old senior looking for a high school ring. “And I don’t know where to purchase it, what county, what high school.”

Private prisons cost less because they are able to “cherry-pick” inmates that are cheaper to supervise, the workers said. Alexander said he believed the inmates have been assigned appropriately and later said he would look into the issue.

“I don’t work for anybody but the people of Florida. You might believe that but I don’t. I’m not running for anything. I’m not ever going to work for these folks. I haven’t raised money in years. I have no interest in making money. I have an interest in trying to make a budget work,” Alexander told the group, led by Teamsters lobbyist Ron Silver, a former state lawmaker. “Everything…is to get as clean and unfudgeable a set of contracts as possible because I don’t believe we should contract for one and give them easier stuff. If that’s what they contract for, that’s what they get.”

Prison workers decry privatization

Monday, January 23rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Emotional pleas and threats of questionable savings and a danger to public safety failed to move an elite group of senators who gave preliminary approval to a sweeping prison privatization plan struck down by a judge last year.

Dozens of prison workers from throughout the state packed the Senate Rules Committee and testified for more than two hours on a fast-tracked proposal (SB 2038), pleading with the panel to slow down and warning that the savings for the state from outsourcing are overstated.

The privatization effort coincides with a Department of Corrections decision to shut down seven prisons and other facilities, doubling the prison workers’ worries.

Amanda Abers, 28, told the committee she moved from Minnesota to Florida a year ago to work at Indian River Correctional, a youth offender prison slated for closure.

“Vero Beach is not a big area. This is going to hit the economy very, very hard. You’re putting me out on the street plus their spouses, their kids, everybody,” she said.

Senate budget chief JD Alexander, who included the privatization in the budget last year and sponsor of the proposal, said the outsourcing will force the department to reexamine its spending and questioned its management after the discovery last year that the agency had 12,000 empty beds scattered throughout the system. Shutting down the prisons will save an estimated $77 million annually, Alexander said.

“Competition makes us all better. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not always fun. But I believe that it makes it better,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.
(more…)

Senate budget chief JD Alexander on prison boss ouster, mental health and more

Thursday, August 25th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate budget chief JD Alexander sat down with Gov. Rick Scott for an hour this afternoon at the Lake Wales lawmaker’s request. Alexander was there to pitch Scott on allowing USF Polytechnic to become a stand-alone university at its campus near his hometown.

Before leaving the Capitol, Alexander shared some thoughts about Scott’s ouster of corrections secretary Ed Buss, the $700 million cut to water management districts’ spending and issues coming up in the next legislative session.

Alexander said Buss’s resignation was called for, citing concerns about a possible conflict of interest with the woman Buss hired to oversee the privatization of the prison system’s health care.

And Alexander harshly criticized Buss’s business plan justifying the privatization of all prisons within an 18-county region encompassing the southern portion of the state, calling it “wholly inadequate.”

Alexander included the privatization of the Department of Corrections Region IV in the budget late during the legislative session that ended in May. He’s convinced it will save the state about $45 million.

Perhaps Buss was not as keen on privatization as others in Scott’s administration or the legislature had hoped, Alexander was asked.

“That’s probably true. Looking not from what he told me during session but what he did after session didn’t seem like he was really taking that seriously,” Alexander said.

Read what Alexander says about what the legislature may do about the water management districts, the shuttering of the prison health care watchdog and state contracts after the jump.
(more…)

Senate GOP leader: E-Verify might have saved lives of 9/11 victims

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Florida Senate came closer to finalizing its immigration reforms after killing an amendment proposed by powerful Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher.

Thrasher’s plan would have fined businesses that hired workers in the country illegally but would not have required business owners to use the federal E-Verify system.

Trying to convince senators to support his amendment, Thrasher implied that the 9/11 terrorist attacks might not have happened nearly a decade ago if Florida had the E-Verify system in place.

“I will remind everybody in here that 10 of the 19 terrorists that attacked our country that were directed by Osama bin Laden to do that lived in the state of Florida. I wish we had had an E-Verify system because some of them were working. We might have saved the lives of 3,000 Americans,” said Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former House Speaker who also recently served as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

The Senate killed the amendment by a 23-16 vote after more than an hour, including a heartfelt speech by JD Alexander, the Senate’s immigration reform architect.

Alexander, a citrus farmer who also raises blueberries, crafted a measure that, among other things, would essentially exempt agricultural businesses like his from having to verify workers’ immigration status.

But he objected to Thrasher’s amendment after saying he could not find enough legal immigrants – or other workers – to pick his blueberry crop during the season that ended this week and expressing frustration that the federal government’s inaction on the issue was forcing state lawmakers to acting because of political pressure from tea party activists.

“Quit all these one-sided political arguments,” said Alexander, who is term-limited out of office next year. “I don’t believe it’s the right thing to do. The federal government should stop it tomorrow without a doubt. But we’re not talking about that…This is not our problem and we’re having this problem put on our shoulders and I resent it. And I resent it because we’re asked to choose between hard-working people and somebody’s uninformed knowledge” of illegal immigration.

Senate immigration update: E-Verify, biz fines, boycotts now in the mix

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate Rule Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, filed an amendment to the immigration bill (SB 2040) that would fine businesses up to $1,500 for each unauthorized worker hired after July 1, 2012.

Thrasher’s amendment would not force business owners to use the federal E-Verify system – which could cost up to $60 per hiree for small businesses – but would fine those who hire undocumented workers $500 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second and $1,500 after that.

Thrasher’s amendment also would force state agencies to use E-Verify before hiring new employees, something Gov. Rick Scott has done for current state workers.

Meanwhile, national groups are threatening to boycott Florida as they did Arizona if lawmakers approve legislation they deem would be a vehicle for racial profiling. The legislature’s Hispanic caucus also came out in opposition to the reforms today.

Left-leaning organizers, moveon.org, held a telephone conference this morning warning they are mobilizing boycotts and voter registration drives. They said the Arizona boycotts cost that state hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Our members in Florida and around the country are watching the legislature very closely today,” said Moveon.org executive director Justin Ruben. “Our members will take their business and their tourism dollars elsewhere.”

The Senate is slated to take up Senate budget chief JD Alexander’s proposed immigration reform today as Friday’s end to the legislative session approaches. Alexander, a farmer, filed a proposal that would essentially exempt the agricultural industry from the reforms but includes a variety of other measures that would make it easier to deport criminals who are in the country illegally after their sentences are complete. They could also serve reduced sentences if they agree not to fight deportation.

The House’s version, sponsored by Stuart Republican William Snyder, goes much farther and would allow law enforcement officials to request documentation if the individual is the subject of a criminal investigation. Snyder’s proposal (HB 7089) would also require that all businesses use E-Verify.

Senate leader files immigration amendment, no E-Verify

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate budget chief-turned-immigration reformer JD Alexander filed a strike-all amendment this morning that would require work boards to check the immigration status of applicants but lacks any requirement that businesses use the federal E-Verify system to ensure hirees are in the country legally.

Alexander, a Republican farmer from Lake Wales, crafted the amendment to essentially leave the agricultural community out of the reforms because the vast majority of farm workers do not use the work centers to seek jobs.

The absence of the E-Verify requirement is a victory for the business community but puts the two chambers at odds: The House plan (HB 7089) includes E-Verify and the ability for law enforcement to request documentation of immigration status during criminal investigations.

In contrast, Alexander’s amendment, expected to be offered today, would require law enforcement officials to “make a reasonable effort” to ascertain immigration status after someone has been arrested.

Immigration advocates, who’ve thronged the Capitol for months and held daily press conferences pleading with lawmakers to
drop the reforms, had pushed for post-conviction rather than post-arrest checks of immigration. They contend the post-arrest component is problematic because driving without a drivers license, which some undocumented immigrants do, is a vehicle for racial profiling.

Immigration protests continue, Senate looks to ease up on biz, will hear bill Tuesday

Monday, May 2nd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Hundreds of immigrants continued their protests inside the Capitol on Monday as Senate GOP leaders craft reforms that would ease up on the House’s penalties against businesses that don’t use the E-verify system.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said this afternoon that the Senate will take up and vote on its bill (SB 2040) tomorrow.

Before and after the Senate’s lunch break, immigrants – many of them children – and knelt in prayer outside the hallway leading into the back entrance to the chamber.

During the recess, they swarmed senators’ offices – including Palm Beach County’s Lizbeth Benacquisto’s – pleading with them to abandon their effots.

Senate budget chief JD Alexander, in charge of the chamber’s immigration package, has yet to release his proposal. During the lunch break, U.S. Sugar – one of the many agricultural businesses opposed to the reforms – lobbyist Robert Coker was inside Alexander’s office as immigrants lined the walls outside.

Alexander’s proposal is likely to include a modification of the House’s plan that would require businesses to use E-verify when hiring new employees and punishing those who do not use the federal system by yanking their licenses to do business in Florida. His plan include a fine for businesses that don’t comply with E-verify and take out the licensing provision, said Senate GOP leaders and business lobbyists working on the deal.

(more…)

Senate immigration leader has serious reservations about reforms

Friday, April 29th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate budget chief JD Alexander, a citrus farmer who’s now shepherding a developing immigration reform package, expressed his reservations about the push to deport illegal immigrants, many of whom have lived in the state for decades picking fruit and vegetables for his colleagues.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said he’s concerned about the fallout from the federal E-Verify program to check on potential employees, something Gov. Rick Scott has already initiated for state government workers and a component tea party activists are pushing lawmakers to pass.

“My personal struggle with E-Verify is that many of these folks have been here for decades for good or for bad,” he said.

In “a perfect world” the federal government would control the borders but instead has given tacit permission for illegal workers to remain in the country, Alexander said.

“It seems challenging to suddenly ask them to not be able to be here. I personally believe we need a federal guest program to allow for some sort of normalization of these folks status where they can be protected by our laws without fear of deportation,” he said. “Because some of these things have been going on for so long, I’m personally troubled by the broad net that could be cast.”

Alexander said he’s having a hard time balancing his duties as budget chief and agricultural baron as he tries to get his blueberry crop harvested.

“I’m probably short about 100 people to get my blueberries picked,” he said, adding that he and other blueberry farmers can find less than half the workers they need to get their crops in.

“For all the unemployment there just aren’t folks who want to pick blueberries,” he said.

The Senate is slated to take up its immigration package on Monday. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, had pledged that each bill would pass through at least three committees before being sent to the floor for a vote. But he reversed himself on the contentious immigration measure (SB 2040), which was heard in a single committee. Haridopolos also took the bill away from its sponsor, Sen. Anitere Flores, and gave it to Alexander this week. Flores, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami, refused to go along with the Arizona-style bill proposed by the House, sponsored by William Snyder, R-Stuart.

Hundreds of immigrants, including undocumented workers, and children whose parents have been deported have swarmed the Capitol over the past several weeks demanding that lawmakers abandon the immigration package.

Senate Saturday session includes Medicaid, immigration still on hold

Thursday, April 28th, 2011 by Dara Kam

As budget talks on health and human services appropriations stalled, the Senate is moving forward with its Medicaid overhaul. Senate GOP leaders have not scheduled the immigration bill for Saturday, although only two hours of notice are required to add it to the agenda.

The Senate will take up its proposal (SB 1972) on Saturday along with dozens of local bills and Senate confirmations of Gov. Rick Scott’s appointees. But no word yet on whether the chamber will address immigration reform, still in flux as Senate Budget Chief J.D. Alexander, now shepherding the bill (SB 2040), weighs his options.

The House and Senate are both looking to put most of the state’s 2.9 million Medicaid patients into HMO-style plans. But differences abound between the two approaches. The Senate would divide the state into 19 regions, based on state court circuits; the House proposes eight.

The chambers are far apart on immigration reform as well. The House’s Arizona-style plan is on hold as the Senate considers a more moderate approach.
(more…)

Senate prez ‘used to pulling all-nighters’

Monday, April 25th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Stalled budget talks between the two chambers aren’t much of a concern to Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who showed up at the Senate Budget Committee this afternoon to speak in favor of a joint resolution telling Congress to balance the federal budget.

“The good news is that we are in our side-by-side spending the same amount of money and we’re not going to raise taxes or fees,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said. “We’re going to be here every day working hard…We’re going to work this out.”

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander and his House counterpart Denise Grimsley haven’t agreed on the allocations for the major areas of the state spending plan. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said he made an offer to the House on Thursday evening but hasn’t heard back yet with just two weeks left in the 2011 legislative session.

Haridopolos said he’s not worried about finishing up on time as Alexander and his cohorts carve nearly $4 billion from last year’s budget – with no stimulus funds to help soften the cuts.

“We’ve never seen reductions like this. This is the real deal,” he said.

Haridopolos, who’s running in the U.S. Senate GOP primary, said he’s “in no rush” to hit the campaign trail and said he intends to keep up the hectic pace established since the session began.

“I’m dedicated that however long it takes we will be here, working on the weekends, late into the nights. I’m a college teacher…I’m used to pulling all-nighters. We might have to do it again here to make sure we finish. But I’m here. The Senate will be here. We’re ready to negotiate and we are negotiating,” he said.

Library Guy: Location, location, location!

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Paul Clark, aka “The Library Guy,” was a familiar presence in the Capitol last year as he stood silently in busy hallways holding a sign urging lawmakers to fully fund the $21.2 million in state aid to libraries to keep federal funds flowing.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, credited Clark with the last-minute addition of the complete funding and advised other advocates to take a tip from the soft-spoken librarian. Clark’s efforts also won him a national “I Love My Librarian” award in December, and he was recently named Florida’s “Librarian of the Year.”

Clark was back in town on Wednesday, accompanied by his sons Jacob, 11, and Joseph, 10, who handed out bookmarks to lobbyists and lawmakers trekking along the bridge connecting the Capitol with the Knott Building, prime real estate according to the Clay County systems librarian.

Clark said he positioned himself at the top of the long hallway so that he’d be in plain sight as budget conferees made the long walk down the bridge as they headed into meetings during the harried final days of the 2010 session. And he stood at the opposite end when the meetings were over.

“You have to be noticed. You’ve got to be approachable, but you have to know your facts,” Clark said. That shows lawmakers “you’re not a total nut case.”

With a $3.8 billion budget deficit, there’s no money in the Senate spending plan for libraries right now, and Clark won’t be around to plead with lawmakers to put it in. He used up all his vacation time last year and has to (apologies to Gov. Rick Scott) get back to work.

Wednesday morning, Clark met briefly with Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, a visit he’s been trying to nail down for months, he said.

Carroll expressed a great deal of interest in his fact sheet, Clark said, giving him hope that libraries may not be forgotten this year, even in his absence.

UPDATE: SunPass users to keep their discount

Friday, April 8th, 2011 by Dara Kam

SunPass users can breathe a sigh of relief. Senate President Mike Haridopolos said lawmakers won’t take away the discounts on toll roads, reversing what the Senate did yesterday.

“The discount stays. Period,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters during his weekly Q-and-A this morning.

The Senate had scrapped the SunPass discounts, which vary on different toll roads, as part of its plan to merge some of the state’s turnpike authorities.

Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, tried to amend the bill to keep the discounts intact but Haridopolos ruled on a voice vote that Norman’s amendment lacked the two-thirds majority to pass.

Critics said that doing away with the discounts could be considered a tax increase, a potential no-no for conservative Republicans, including U.S. Senate candidates like Haridopolos.

“That is something where there is a legitimate debate going on. Is that a discount or not? How will that be described?” Haridopolos.

Haridopolos said he told Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, who backed the proposal because it would add back about $100 million to the transportation budget that could be bonded to create up to $1 billion in road projects, it’s off the table.

Haridopolos changed his mind within 12 hours of the vote yesterday after talking with other senators and “after taking my opinion,” he said.

“As I got more engaged I thought the discount’s a good idea. I think it encourages people to purchase the pass, to use the pass and that helps with traffic flow across the state,” Haridopolos said.

Haridopolos said the debate could make SunPass buyers more aware that they get the discount and the ability to fly through toll plazas.

“I’ve let it be known that we will not be adjusting those. The discounts will stay in place. We think that especially as you commute across the state of Florida the best thing to do is to keep those discounts in place,” he said.

Senate does away with SunPass discount

Thursday, April 7th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Motorists could say bye-bye to the 25 cent savings they typically get when use the SunPass card to speed through Florida toll exchanges.

The Senate approved a bill (SB 2152) merging the state’s turnpike authorities that includes an end to the 5% SunPass discount over the objections of several Republicans.

“We should not raise the fees. Keep our word,” argued Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, who tried to amend the bill to take out the elimination of the discount.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander argued that the discount began when SunPass was created to ease back-ups at toll booths. Since then, SunPass users enjoy special lanes they can zip through without even slowing down, Alexander said.

Doing away with the discount would add $100 million to the state’s transportation budget, which translates into $1 billion worth of projects if bonded.

“For me I think that’s worthwhile doing,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.

Norman’s amendment died on a voice vote, and the bill passed by a 28-11 vote.

Senate approves water management takeover

Thursday, April 7th, 2011 by Dara Kam

With no debate or discussion, the Florida Senate overwhelmingly approved a legislative take-over of the state’s five water management districts.

The measure (2142) is the brain-child of Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. Although lawmakers set the maximum amount of property taxes the districts are allowed to levy, the governor, who appoints the district members, has the ultimate say over how they spend it.

That’s not fair, Alexander said. He wants the legislature to have more financial oversight of the districts. The South Florida Water Management District got into hot water several years ago for lavish spending.

Only three Senators voted against the measure: Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston and GOP Sens. Thad Altman of Melbourne and Paula Dockery of Lakeland.

Senate passes $70 billion budget

Thursday, April 7th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Florida Senate approved its $69.8 billion spending plan by a 33-6 vote after spending about an hour politely debating its pros and cons.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander acknowledged the plan is tough on state workers, who would be required to contribute between 2 and 6 percent to their pensions.

“We are asking a lot from our state employees. It has been a while since folks have had raises. I get that. But I also know in my district virtually every business has had layoffs…Many businesses have closed. Many businesses have struggled to remain open,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said, adding that he hoped his budget would prevent lawmakers from having to make future cuts to state workers.

“One of the biggest pressures we have in our job is when we’re insecure about our future,” he said. He said he hopes the plan gives workers “a reasonable confidence…that we will not be continuing to add to that burden going forward.”

According to Sen. Don Gaetz, lawmakers could either sign off on the nearly $4 billion spending cuts in the budget or raise taxes.

But Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston said lawmakers had not even attempted to close tax loopholes that could have pumped billions back into spending on health care for the poor, frail and elderly.

“In the long run, I really believe this budget is being balanced on the backs of our public employees, state workers and our working families,” Rich said. Closing loopholes are not tax increases. Nobody’s standing up here and urging a tax increase.
What I am urging is fairness in our tax structure so we don’t constantly put the emphasis on those who have the least and give to those who have the most.”

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