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Senate school cuts not so deep after all

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Cuts to public school funding won’t be nearly as bad as it appeared earlier this week under the Florida Senate plan, budget chief J.D. Alexander said Wednesday morning.

That’s because the spending allocations released this week don’t include about another $1 billion in savings Alexander said he’s making in state employees,’ including teachers’, pay and benefits.

It appears he’s funneling nearly half that to schools, bringing down the cuts to about $300 million from more than $700 proposed earlier this week, Alexander said. That’s the opposite direction the House is headed in with its K-12 spending plan.

“It depends on your view of the world, but in terms of what a school board will have to do to adjust to available funds, our proposal has a much lower broad cut. I think the $700 million was too high,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.

Without being able to raise new revenue through taxes or fees, Alexander said the savings from cutting health care benefits or requiring state employees to contribute to their pensions is the only way to avoid deeper direct cuts to services and education.

Under Alexander’s plan, state workers would have to contribute less to their pensions than the 5% Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida House are asking.

Just how much?

All will be revealed Monday when Alexander releases his budget proposal.

More train hi-jinks: Scott puts brakes on SunRail

Friday, March 11th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott has put the brakes on the $1.2 billion SunRail commuter train in Central Florida by freezing $235 million in contracts for the project until July while he decides whether to allow it to go forward.

Could give him some the upper hand with powerful GOP lawmakers who support the project, including Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, as they craft their budget? It’s due before the legislative session ends on May 6.

Nope, Alexander said.

“Unless he had my children in handcuffs I don’t think he can get leverage on me,” Alexander said after learning of Scott’s maneuver.

Read The Orlando Sentinel’s Aaron Deslatte‘s blog about Scott and SunRail after the jump.

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UPDATE: Can guv kill drug database donation?

Friday, March 11th, 2011 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Gov. Scott’s spokesman Brian Hughes said his boss never tried to return the $1 million donation to the private, non-profit Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Foundation.
“If the senator wanted an answer to his question, he should have called us,” Hughes said.
Scott “never communicated any opinion” about the grant to Purdue or the foundation, Hughes said.
“The decision is up to the foundation,” he said.

Does Gov. Rick Scott have the authority to reject a $1 million donation to a private foundation created by lawmakers to create the prescription drug database the governor opposes?

That’s what Sen. Mike Fasano, an ardent supporter of the yet-to-be-implemented Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, publicly asked Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander at a budget committee meeting this afternoon.

Fasano said he’s had no direct contact with Scott – “that’s no surprise,” he said -but had seen news reports that Scott was not interested in the $1 million Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the highly addictive pain pills Oxycontin, offered to give to the foundation created to pay for the drug database.

“Does the governor have the right to reject that money?” Fasano asked.

Alexander diplomatically dealt with Fasano’s inquiry.

“I’m not sure,” the Lake Wales Republican, who’s had his own differences with Scott about his sale of the state’s planes, replied. “I share your concern. I certainly voted for and supported the effort to rein in the prescription drug mills.”

A House committee, with House Speaker Dean Cannon’s blessing, approved a measure yesterday repealing the drug database law enforcement officials believe is crucial in cracking down on prescription drug abuse.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, piled on.

She asked the committee to find out how much the state is paying to prosecute and lock up drug dealers associated with pill mills.

Senate prez wants everyone to act like grown-ups about state planes

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said he’s confident Scott will comply with Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander‘s request of Gov. Rick Scott for info regarding the sale of the two state planes. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, contends Scott may have broken state law with the way the planes were sold.

Haridopolos suggested Scott may have made a mistake because he’s so new on the job.

“He’s only been working a month…I’m sure the governor will get back to me…That’s how adults handle problems,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters at a weekly roundtable this afternoon. “We all make mistakes…No one thinks the governor tried to pull a fast one.”

Scott spokesman Brian Hughes gave no indication Scott would give Alexander or Haridopolos anything more but insisted the governor acted within his purview.

“He promised the people of Florida he would sell the planes. The sale has returned money to the state and removed the burden facing taxpayers to operate and maintain the aircraft. Governor Scott is certain that he complied with the law,” Hughes said in an e-mail.

Senate budget chief won’t let go of guv’s planes sale

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander challenged Gov. Rick Scott publicly Wednesday over the way the governor sold the state’s air fleet earlier this month.

Alexander, who supported selling the state’s two airplanes, contends that Scott violated state law in the manner in which he sold the planes without routing the money through the state treasury.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, last week sent Scott a letter questioning the way the governor’s office sold the planes and used the cash from the deal to pay off a lease on one of the two planes.

Scott insists he had the authority to do the deals.

But on Tuesday, Alexander sent a second letter to Scott disputing that and asking Scott to name the legal authority he had to sell assets and spend the proceeds without an appropriation from the Legislature, which constitutionally has control of the government’s pocketbook.

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UPDATE: Scott may have broken law with state planes sale

Thursday, February 17th, 2011 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott says he did not violate state laws with his sale of the state’s air fleet.

“We did it absolutely in compliance with the law. We reviewed it with our general counsel,” Scott told reporters after visiting the Florida Lottery this afternoon. “It was something that the taxpayers of this state wanted and it was one of the campaign promises that I followed up on.”

Gov. Rick Scott may have broken state law with his sale of the state’s two airplanes, according to Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander.

Scott used the sale of one state plane to pay off the lease on the second.

But in a letter to Scott sent today, Alexander says the governor needed the legislature’s approval to do that.

Using the money from the sale of the first plane to pay off the second plane “appears to be an expenditure of state funds not made in pursuance of an appropriation made by law,” Alexander wrote.

“My concern, of course, is that these actions may have violated the law and as such fail to recognize the Legislature by not respecting the Legislature’s constitutional duty to appropriate funds and your duty to spend appropriated funds in accordance with the law,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, wrote.

The state planes are at the bottom of the heap of items the legislature and Scott are at odds over.

Yesterday, he sent Democrats and fellow GOP leaders in Tallahassee and Washington into a tizzy over his rejection of a sought-after $2.4 billion federal grant for high-speed rail.

Privatization dust-up: Was Fasano too mean to Scott’s peeps?

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee Chairman Mike Fasano says he’s not sorry for being harsh with Gov. Rick Scott’s aides at a budget meeting last week.

Scott’s policy and budget staff skipped Fasano’s meeting this morning after Scott ordered them not to show up because of Fasano’s angry questioning about the governor’s plan to do away with more than 1,800 prison jobs.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander told reporters “an apology is in order” after saying Fasano’s treatment of Scott’s staff was “not ideal.”

Fasano said no mea culpa is forthcoming.

“Why would I apologize?” Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said.

Scott’s staff should have been better prepared to answer his questions, Fasano said.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said of this morning’s snub. “I thought it was a bit childish.”

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Scott’s dinner with top Senators has his office rethinking get-togethers

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott, a few of his closest aides and three of the Senate’s most powerful lawmakers broke bread at the governor’s mansion last night, covering a variety of topics ranging from Ironman triathlons to Scott’s $65 billion budget. The dinner took place just a few hours after Scott released his first-ever budget to the public earlier in the day.

But questions about whether the dinner violated the spirit of Florida’s open government laws – if not the laws themselves – have Scott’s office reconsidering future soirees.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander and Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner and Sen. Don Gaetz – two probable future senate presidents – also discussed major league baseball and the use of psychotropic drugs on children at the hour-long dinner with Scott, his wife Ann, and Scott’s chief of staff Mike Prendergast, special advisor Mary Ann “Mac” Carter, special counsel Hayden Dempsey and communications director Brian Burgess. Two reporters also attended at Scott’s invitation.

The governor and Senate trio discussed in broad terms his request that lawmakers give him $800 million to attract new businesses to the state and help existing ones expand. Scott said he was told that the current process – requiring approval from a legislative committee before the economic development grants or tax credits can be spent – is too lengthy and has caused the state to lose some deals because other states swooped in.

Whether the lawmakers’ chat was a violation of state Sunshine Laws is unclear.

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Senators find out about super-secret drug contract costing state millions

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The state of Florida is paying too much for prescription drugs because, in part, its contract with a middleman bars discussion about potential cost-savings, a consultant told the Senate Budget Committee this afternoon.

In addition, the state – the largest employer in Florida – is paying way more than other businesses for prescription drug dispensation, consultant Jeffrey Lewis, who analyzed state agencies’ spending on prescription drugs, found.

The state pays a $4.28 dispensing fee to pharmacies for each prescription filled, more than three times more than the $1.25 market rate.

But the state’s getting ripped off even worse for mail-order drugs, Lewis said. Florida pays a dispensing fee of $4.22 for each prescription filled through home delivery while most other companies pay nothing.

“Paying for mail-order is unheard of,” Lewis said.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander requested the analysis of prescription drug spending after running into trouble getting information from state agencies about what they were spending on drugs.

Just before Lewis’ presentation, Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and his committee learned that the state’s budget hole is continuing to grow and is now at an estimated $3.62 billion.

Lewis, the president of the Heinz Family Philanthropies, estimated the state could save about $230 million in two years by revamping how it buys prescription drugs. Florida should renegotiate the contract with Minnesota Multi-State Contracting Alliance and its distributor Cardinal Health, Lewis recommended, among other things.

“This is incredible,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

“Hopefully somebody from the governor’s office is in here. If they’re not I would recommend somebody hand carry this down to the first floor right now,” Thrasher said, waving a copy of the presentation.

Thrasher asked if Gov. Rick Scott, whose office is now scrutinizing all state contracts worth more than $1 million, could issue an executive order to change any of the state’s prescription drug purchasing processes.

“Our governor obviously likes those kinds of things,” Thrasher said.

Senate prez keeps budget chair, makes RPOF head rules chief

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island

Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos tapped John Thrasher, head of the Republican Party of Florida, as chairman of the powerful Senate Rules committee and is keeping J.D. Alexander as budget chief.

Haridopolos, who officially takes over the helm on Tuesday, also assigned Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, to lead the chamber’s reapportionment efforts.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville

Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, called Gaetz’s assignment perhaps “the most challenging committee chairmanship of all” because he’ll have to operate under the new reapportionment system approved by voters on Election Day that prohibits drawing districts that favor incumbents or political parties. One of the two constitutional amendments revamping reapportionment is now being challenged in federal court.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine

Thrasher, a St. Augustine lawyer and lobbyist who also served as House Speaker, took over the troubled state GOP earlier this year but has said he would step down as chairman after the November elections.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, has been in charge of the Senate’s budget for the past two years.

Alexander’s task isn’t an easy one either. He’s expected to have a $2.9 billion spending gap to manage, a new governor – Rick Scott – who wants to slash spending on state government and prisons, and no more federal stimulus funds to help plug the budget hole as he has for the past two years.

UPDATE:Senate sends Crist’s Public Service Commissioners packing

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Read Commissioner David Klement’s response saying “this whole process is a farce” after the jump.

The Florida Senate refused to confirm two of Gov. Charlie Crist’s utility regulators after a heated debate on the Senate floor this afternoon.

The Senate’s action means the two will not fill out the remainder of their Public Service Commission terms, unlike other gubernatorial appointees, and came in the shadow of Crist’s veto of GOP-backed SB 6, the controversial teacher merit pay plan.

Lawmakers will have 30 days to meet and provide another list of three names for each PSC slot and give them to Crist, who makes the final selection.

Opponents of Benjamin “Steve” Stevens, a Panhandle accountant and co-owner of a bar, and David Klement, a former newspaper editorial writer, said the two are not qualifed to serve on the commission that sets billions of dollars in utility rates.

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Budget update: Mental health and substance abuse cuts could create a ‘forensics crisis,’ DCF chief says

Monday, April 26th, 2010 by Dara Kam

House and Senate budget chiefs are closing in on a final budget, with lawmakers backing off a plan to cut state workers’ salaries and agreeing to a ban on funding for human stem cell research.

For the first time, lawmakers and other high-ranking state workers would have to pay a nominal fee for their health insurance, from $100 a year.

(more…)

BUDGET UPDATE: JD saves rape crisis centers

Saturday, April 24th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Among the items settled at this morning’s budget negotiations is $250,000 for the state’s 30 rape crisis centers.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander made sure the money for the centers that provide emergency services to rape victims made it into Florida’s $69 billion budget after President Jeff Atwater was asked about the item yesterday evening.

Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said at the time that he had dozens of similar requests from advocates sitting on his desk and he had yet to sort through them.

However the other agencies fared, rape victim advocates are calling Alexander, R-Lake Wales, a hero today.

Alexander and House counterpart David Rivera, R-Miami, have finished up their work for today. Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, will likely iron out the final differences between their two spending plans by Tuesday.

Secretary of State trying to save the libraries

Friday, April 23rd, 2010 by Dara Kam

Lantana Road Branch Library (Palm Beach County Library System)

Lantana Road Branch Library (Palm Beach County Library System)

Secretary of State Kurt Browning pounding the Capitol halls today with one thing on his mind: saving the state’s libraries.

“This is a good government issue. This is motherhood and apple pies, public libraries,” said Browning.

He’s about halfway there.

State lawmakers originally scrubbed all funding – $21.2 million – for public libraries from the budget.

But during negotiations between the House and the Senate, the House has put in about $11 million and the Senate slightly more with $13 million.

That’s still not enough to reach the $21.2 million required to draw down about $9 million in federal aid. The state and federal funds keep the libraries in small counties alive and help purchase new books and other materials in others.

With the state’s economy in the tank, more and more Floridians are turning to libraries for free Internet access to search online for jobs and assistance.

The extra money for the libraries – about $10 million – is a drop in the bucket for the state’s $68 billion budget.

“I know money’s tough and I know money’s tight but you’re talking about some library systems that are so dependent on those state dollars” including the one in rural Hardee County that happens to be in Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander’s district, Browning pointed out.

“We need to have these libraries funded. So yes, we’re working on it.”

Senate GOP leaders say Crist misinformed, hypocrite on leadership veto

Thursday, April 8th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Senate GOP leaders are still steamed over Gov. Charlie Crist’s veto of a campaign finance bill (HB 1207) would have allowed legislative leaders to have fundraising accounts separate from those of the state parties.

Lawmakers outlawed the “leadership funds” more than two decades ago, and Crist in his veto letter wrote that they “allowed legislative leaders to solicit and accept campaign contributions during the legislative session from lobbyists and interest groups outside of the public view.”

An outraged Senate President-Designate Mike Haridopolos blasted Crist yesterday for not reading the bill and today Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, never a big fan of Crist’s to begin with, said the governor’s comments were inaccurate. Lawmakers are prohibited from raising campaign money during the legislative session but the governor is not. And Crist has kept busy fundraising for his U.S. Senate primary against former House Speaker Marco Rubio throughout the legislative session that began more than five weeks ago.

“So that seems a bit hypocritical to have some of the complaints that he raised in his veto when I believe the bill, although it may not go as far as some would like, could have provided more transparency on fundraising for House and Senate leaders in the party than we’ve had,” said Alexander, R-Lake Wales. “But he’s the governor and that’s his prerogative.”

Crist on Wednesday defended his veto. “I just think it was the right thing to do,” Crist said. “Given the current climate, dealing with those slush funds, the last thing we should do is put the stamp of approval on them. So we vetoed them.”

Haridopolos got even more riled at Crist’s characterization of the “slush funds” and had this to say on Thursday: “You can’t say you shouldn’t be fundraising during session when you’re doing it yourself and you have the extended veto period. I mean, if you want to go completely clean, that’s great. But you can’t say it’s okay if you do it and it’s not okay if we do it.”

Senate unanimously passes budget, okays private prison compromise

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Senate unanimously passed a $69 billion budget this afternoon setting in motion negotiations with the House that is expected to sign off on its plan tomorrow.

The Senate’s plan uses about $3 billion in federal stimulus funds to plug most of a $3.2 billion budget deficit and spends about $1 billion more than the House does.

The plan also relies on more than $880 million in federal funds for Medicaid not yet approved by Congress and more than $400 million from the Seminole tribe in a gambling deal still in the works.

“It’s no doubt one of the most challenging assignments I’ve ever run into. I hazard to guess you all feel the same way,” said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Alexander backed off a plan that could have shut down up to five state prisons and opened the private Blackwater prison built and to be operated by Boca Raton-based Geo Group. The revised plan would allow the Panhandle private prison to open without shutting down state prisons.

But the compromise orders corrections officials to pare back their costs by 5 percent in some areas or outsource some functions.

Also still on the table: a $23 million cut to the county clerks of court. Palm Beach County clerk Sharon Bock said that would amount to a $2.7 million cut to her office and force her to fire 100 employees on top of the 101 she laid off last year.

Alexander said that the clerk issue would be dealt with later in negotiations with the House but did not promise all of the money would be put back in.

Deal struck on private prisons

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010 by Dara Kam

After intense opposition to a prison privatization plan linked to disgraced former House Speaker Ray Sansom and slipped into the budget late last week, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander has apparently backed off his proposal to shut down up to three prisons and outsource another.

Alexander’s plan drew allegations of foul play from the Police Benevolent Association, the powerful union that represents prison guards and frequently backs GOP candidates, and Gov. Charlie Crist’s Secretary of Corrections Walt McNeil.

The privatization plan would have shut down enough prisons to fill the Blackwater facility in the Panhandle that the state hired Boca Raton-based Geo Group Inc. to build and operate. But the prison population hasn’t grown as anticipated and there aren’t enough inmates to fill the 2,224-bed Blackwater without shutting down other state-run prisons and putting guards out of work.

McNeil said Friday he would have to shut down five prisons and let inmates out early to comply with a federal court order under the Senate’s proposal that would cut about $60 million in salaries.

Under the new plan, expected to be introduced as a budget amendment today by Democratic Leader Al Lawson, the department would gradually fill Blackwater by closing 17 dorms in other prisons, something McNeil favors.

Critics of the proposal also filed complaints with State Attorney Willie Meggs and U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirwin, both in Leon County, alleging that the Blackwater deal was done in secrecy and questioning Sansom’s association with it. Sansom put the original $110 million to the build the prison into the 2008 budget in a floor amendment and tried to guarantee that it would be built as an annex to the Graceville prison that Geo operates.

PBC Clerk to Senate Prez: Access to justice in your hands

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Nearly half of the phone calls to the Palm Beach County courthouse will go unanswered and people could wait for up to four hours to get served in person under budget cuts slipped into the Senate budget with little warning last week, county clerk Sharon Bock warned in a letter to Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.a

“Access to justice has already been severely compromised in Palm Beach County,” Bock wrote. “Further cuts will cause court cases to languish without any foreseeable resolution.”

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander cut the clerks’ budget $23 million statewide – a $2.7 million cut in Palm Beach County – in a last minute amendment filed less than an hour before his budget meeting began on Thursday.

The Senate is expected to vote on the budget tomorrow. Palm Beach County Democratic Sens. Dave Aronberg and Ted Deutch filed an amendment to restore the clerks’ $23 million Alexander cut using a complicated formula that bases their budgets on per-case costs.

Bock said she would stop offering walk-in service at courthouses in Belle Glade, Palm Beach Gardens and Delray Beach, forcing the downtown courthouse to handle another 324,000 customers if the cuts go through.

Bock axed 101 workers last year after taking a $7.1 million budget hit and said she will have to lay off another 100 under the current plan, a 23 percent reduction in staff.

Senate budget chief slashes county clerks’ by $23 million

Friday, March 26th, 2010 by Dara Kam

After chopping $46 million from county clerks’ funding last year, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander diced another $23 million from the clerks’ budgets in a last-minute amendment late yesterday.

Sixty-five of the state’s 67 clerks would see budget decreases from 1 to 10 percent, including Palm Beach which faces a $2.6 million, or 8 percent, reduction under Alexander’s proposal. That could mean doing away with about 100 jobs.

Fred Baggett, a lobbyist who represents the clerks, said he and a few of the county officers met with Alexander on Tuesday, two days before the Ways and Means Committee meeting at which he made his proposal. But they had no idea the drastic change was coming, Baggett said.

Smaller counties “cannot function at this level,” Baggett said.

(more…)

UPDATE: Senate budget chief privatization push would shut down three state prisons, axe at least 639 guards

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander just got a reluctant Senate Ways and Means Committee to sign off on his prison privatization plan that would shut down three prisons and put more than 600 prison guards out of work.

Alexander’s late-filed budget amendment, offered during the committee meeting this afternoon, drew protests from the PBA and some committee members, including Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee Chairman Victor Crist.

Alexander’s plan is to open the new Blackwater prison in the Panhandle, a 1,350-bed facility the state paid more than $160 million to build but is not yet operating. Boca Raton-based private corrections company Geo Group would run the prison, Alexander said, saving the state about $20 million a year and doing away with 639 prison guard jobs. The state corrections department would be ordered to shut down two prisons to fill the 2,200-bed facility, saving the state about $24 million a year, according to Alexander’s amendment.

(more…)

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