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Sen. Siplin calls on Scott to appoint special prosecutor in Trayvon Martin case

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Senate President Mike Haridopolos also says “no” to a special committee on the use of the “stand your ground” law.

“The Senate President feels that Governor Scott is currently taking all of the appropriate steps to address the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin. Additionally, the Senate President is confident that the circumstances surrounding this shooting will be closely examined by lawmakers, and if the Senate concludes that laws need to be revised they will be addressed in the future,” Haridopolos’s spokeswoman Lyndsey Cruley said in an e-mail.

State Sen. Gary Siplin and a coalition of other black lawmakers are asking Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate last month’s shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a neighborhood watch volunteer near Orlando.

Trayvon Martin was killed last month by George Zimmerman, whom police identified as white but whose family says is Hispanic, in a gated community in Sanford on Feb. 26. Zimmerman, who has not been charged with any crime, has said he shot the high school student in self-defense after a confrontation.

The shooting, now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and local authorities, has sparked an international furor with civil rights leaders demanding Zimmerman’s arrest and a probe into selective prosecution of white-on-black crime.

Siplin, an Orlando attorney whose district neighbors Sanford, said the community is plagued by a “plantation” mentality and asked Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to quell racial tension.

“In my community today, they’re very upset. They’re very excited. They’re ready to ignite,” Siplin, a Democrat and a laywer, said at a press conference in the Capitol Wednesday afternoon.
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Senate kills controversial ‘parent trigger’ measure on tie vote

Friday, March 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A split Senate shot down a controversial “parent trigger” bill on a 20-20 tie vote on the final day of the legislative session in a defeat for Senate GOP leaders, including Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

It’s at least the second high-profile measure backed by Haridopolos and his leadership team defeated by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, who also banded together to stop a prison privatization measure earlier this session.

The Senate spent an hour debate the measure (SB 1718), sponsored by Republican Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers, and half an hour on questions before taking a vote. The vote was expected to be so close that Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, delayed it for moments until all 40 senators were in the chamber.

The plan, heavily lobbied by California-based “Parent Revolution” and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education foundation, would have given parents the ability to determine whether low-performing schools should become charter schools or be taken over by for-profit management companies if more than 50 percent of parents whose children attend the schools sign petitions.

Critics said the process was riddled with problems and made parents at the failing schools vulnerable to manipulation by for-profit charter companies. A coalition of Florida parent-led groups including the PTA oppose the proposal.

“I’m tired and weary. I’m tired of sound bites and gimmicks that don’t do anything. Parent trigger. Parent revolution. Parent empowerment. Sound bites that mean nothing,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who called the proposal “fraught with risk.”

Three other states – California, Texas and Miss., – have instituted the “Parent Empowerment” process and 20 other states are considering similar legislation this summer.

But Venice Repubican Nancy Detert, a former Sarasota County school board member, said Florida has already enacted education reforms, many of them promoted by Bush, including a major overhaul just last year.

“We’ve been changing everything year after year after year. And we never give it time to gel,” Detert said. “Why do we want to keep throwing everybody in the bag and shaking it up…I feel so sorry for our teachers and students. They are on an island in a sea of chaos.”

But Benacquisto said the bill would empower parents who might feel helpless when their children are forced to go to school each day in a school with an “F” grade.

“What this bill does at its core is look at a system that already exists to address failing schools in our community and say that we acknowledge the legiimatecy of a parent’s voice when it comes to choosing what is already destined to be chosen,” she said.

Senators take aim at parent trigger

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Senate is poised to close out the 2012 legislative session with a fiery debate over a controversial measure that would let parents decide the fate of failing schools after opponents scored several victories with amendments to the “parent trigger” bill late Thursday evening.

The proposal, based on one pushed in California by the “Parent Revolution,” would allow parents to decide on a turnaround option for schools graded “F” for at least three years in a row if more than 50 percent of parents sign petitions.

The petition process received the most attention Thursday night from opponents, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who say the signature-gathering is rife for shenanigans as experienced in California, which became the first in the nation with its “Parent Empowerment” proposition two years ago.

The parent trigger plan is backed by GOP leaders including Senate President Mike Haridopolos, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Several Los Angles-based Parent Revolution lobbyists, in the Capitol for weeks advocating for the proposal, were in the public gallery during a heated debate over the bill (SB 1718) Thursday night.

Opponents include teachers unions and a coalition of Florida parent-led groups including the PTA, also watching the two-hour debate from the gallery. The measure has already flared emotions and procedural maneuvering in the Senate.

Proponents beat down several amendments on 21-19 votes – including one that would have criminalized bribing parents to sign the petitions – indicating Friday’s vote will be close. But opponents, including Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, said they believe they have enough votes to kill the measure on a 20-20 tie.

The anti-parent trigger group repeatedly tried to make changes to the signature-gathering process that would have put it on a par with petition-gathering requirements included in a controversial election law passed last year and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

One change would have made it a misdemeanor to take or offer a bribe in exchange for a signature and made it a misdemeanor to falsify signatures. But opponents of that amendment called it overreaching, eliciting outrage from Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

“Are you kidding me? We put this in an election year last year people. We did this. But now it’s overreaching. It’s undemocratic. Are you kidding me?” Smith said. The amendment was defeated on a 21-19 vote.

But Rich scored a win with an amendment requiring that signatures be valid, undoing language in the original bill sponsored by Republican Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers that would have allowed signatures submitted after the validation period to be accepted.

“If you don’t vote for this amendment, it means you condone fraud,” Rich, D-Weston, said.

Accusations of fraudulent signatures and coercion of parents are plaguing a parent trigger effort at a Mojave Desert school in California, where both sides are accusing each other of wrongdoing and a judge is considering open an investigation.

The Florida proposal would give parents a say in federal turnaround options for failing schools that include conversion into profit or non-profit charter schools or hiring for-profit management company to take them over, which critics say is part of an overall effort to privatize Florida’s public schools.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, failed to convince a majority to sign off on her plan requiring the charter schools to pay rent to school districts if they take over a failing school.

But she rallied enough votes to include a provision banning foreign nationals from owning or operating the charter schools.

Before the floor session wrapped up at 10 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner railed against his colleagues for objecting to giving parents more control over poor-performing schools.

“I know it’s late. And I know everybody’s emotional. But keep in mind what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about parents that are sending their children every day to an F school. Every day to an F school,” Gardiner, R-Orlando, said. “We’ve gotten off track here a little bit…These are F schools. These are just parents. Parents that want an opportunity to have their children go to a better school. We want to put a misdemeanor on them?”

Speaking against the bill, Sen. Larcenia Bullard invoked hanging chads, fraudulent petition-gathering campaigns in which dead people’s names were signed on petitions and other horribles.

“Trigger bill is double-barrel Glock,” Bullard, R-Miami, said.

UPDATE: Brody family lawyers, lobbyists agree to give up payment to get bill passed

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Fourteen years after he was critically injured after a Broward Sheriff’s deputy crashed into him, Eric Brody and his family are in line to receive $10.75 million.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate finally settled their differences over the compensation for Brody, one of Senate President Mike Haridopolos’s top priorities, after the chambers traded the bill back-and-forth. The wheelchair-bound Brody and his parents were in the Senate gallery when the measure was unanimously approved this evening.

Attorneys and lobbyists trying to get compensation for a severely disabled Broward County man – one of Senate President Mike Haridopolos’s top priorities – have agreed to waive their fees in order to settle Eric Brody’s case.

Brody, now 32, was injured in 1988 when a speeding Broward Sheriff’s deputy crashed into his car, leaving him in a wheelchair and requiring extensive personal assistance

The chambers failed to reach agreement on the compensation for Brody last year, and the measure became part of a late-night meltdown on the final day of the session.

This year, the House and Senate have again been unable to reach consensus on how much Brody’s team should be paid. The House wanted to limit the fees to $400,000, but the Senate yesterday changed the bill (SB 4) to let the man’s family decide how much of the $10.75 million settlement should go to the team, including lawyer Lance Block, who has worked on the case for 14 years.

The fight over the fees is “what gives lawyers a bad name,” Block said.

Senate bids Haridopolos adieu

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Senate gave President Mike Haridopolos a country club membership and heartfelt, bipartisan and lengthy send-off before the unveiling of his portrait, marking the end of the Merritt Island Republican’s two-year tenure at the podium and his 12-year legislative career.

“I’ll miss being in the arena,” Haridopolos, accompanied by his wife Stephanie, children and parents, said. “I’ll miss some of you. But I’ll love being home and I think you can all understand why.”

Haridopolos’s colleagues heaped praise on Haridopolos for two hours, including a “tribute video” starring GOP icons Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, under whom Haridopolos served when Rubio was Florida House Speaker.

Haridopolos acknowledged his tenure has been at times contentious, including a blow-up a year ago on the final night of the legislative session.

“I know I agitated some. Too bad,” he said.

And Haridopolos, who was responsible for the creation of the state’s Innocence Commission now examining ways to preventing people from being wrongly incarcerated, spoke of two of his priority issues: getting compensation for William Dillon, who spent 27 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, and Eric Brody, a Broward County man left severely disabled more than a decade ago after a sheriff’s deputy crashed into him.

He failed to accomplish those goals last year, but launched a semblable effort this session. Gov. Rick Scott, who also attended part of the farewell, last week signed into law the $1.35 million restitution for Dillon. But with one day left until the session is scheduled to end, the two chambers have yet to agree on compensation for Brody.

Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, a veteran lawmaker and former House Speaker, lauded Haridopolos for being unafraid to bring up controversial issues – including a parent trigger bill up for a vote on the final day of session – during the last days of the session that ends tomorrow.

“It’s not about that kind of stuff with Mike Haridopolos. It’s about ideas. It’s about challenging the status quo. It’s about shaking things up and giving this body the opportunity to look at those very, very tough issues and make a decision,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said. “And that you have been a champion.
Don’t ever leave thinking that wins and losses is what this is about. It’s not about that. You, you are a winner in the highest sense of the word.”

Special session on PIP?

Monday, March 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott, insurers, chiropractors, masseuses, acupuncturists and consumer advocates are just some of the “special interests” trying to have a say in a personal injury protection overhaul.

And with the House and Senate still far apart in their proposed solutions and just four days left until the legislative session wraps up, Senate President Mike Haridopolos would not rule out the possibility of a special session on the issue.

The Florida House passed a bill to loosen the grip of massage therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists last week, keeping alive one of Scott’s top legislative priorities. The Senate version, among other differences, puts fewer time restrictions on treatment but also largely shuts the door on massage therapy and acupuncture.

Stuart Republican Sen. Joe Negron, leading the charge on PIP reform in his chamber, called the differences reconcilable.

But Haridopolos said he’s not sure he’s got the votes to get the proposal out of his chamber at all.

“All I can do right now is try to figure out how it can pass in the Senate. I know the House has been on a little bit different glide path,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said, calling Negron’s bill “outstanding.”

“Overall, the fraud component has been handled in a thoughtful manner,” Haridopolos said. “I do support where he stands on massage and acupuncture but I’ve got to get it off this floor.”

Haridopolos said he’d be willing to come back in a special session on the matter, especially because he’s expecting lawmakers will have to come back to Tallahassee anyway to redraw legislative maps. The Senate President is expecting the Supreme Court to reject at least in part the new legislative districts. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he does not want to hold a special session on PIP.

“I’m willing to come back. I think it’s an important issue. It’s not just the justice issue of eradicating fraud. It’s also a financial issue to a lot of families because they’re paying too much for auto insurance. So if we needed to have a special session, you won’t see me object at all,” Haridopolos said.

Senate budget committee to meet Saturday morning for ‘parent trigger’ bill

Friday, March 2nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Unable to withdraw a controversial ‘parent trigger’ bill approved by the Florida House yesterday, Senate GOP leaders instead scheduled an early-morning meeting Saturday to hear the measure, supported by former Gov. Jeb Bush and Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

The “Parent Empowerment” (SB 1718, HB 1191) would allow parents to determine the fate of troubled schools and convert them into charter schools or turn them over to private management companies. Parents could even reject school boards’ recommendations for low-performing turnarounds.

A coalition of parent groups, including the Florida PTA, oppose the measure, saying it makes parents at low-performing schools vulnerable to lobbying by for-profit charter schools and management companies.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, was involved in a dispute in a Senate committee earlier this week. Critics of the proposal said a 4-3 vote on the bill came after the “time certain” ordered by Senate Education Appropriations Committee Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

But Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican close to Bush, approved the vote and tried to withdraw the bill from the budget committee, which was supposed to hold its final meeting this afternoon.

Removing the bill from a committee and sending it to the floor requires a two-thirds majority vote. Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich objected, D-Weston, objected and asked for a vote. Democrats joined with a group of Republicans led by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, to kill the withdrawal with a 20-19 vote.

That prompted Thrasher to announce an unusual, 8 a.m. Saturday morning Budget Committee meeting to take up the bill.

“I think it’s important to a lot of members that we have a hearing on it,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said after the session ended shortly after noon.

Latvala said he had concerns about the measure’s fiscal impact because, with new grading formula approved by the state Board of Education this week, many more schools may be deemed failing and be eligible for the parent takeovers and become targets of the for-profit charter school industry.

“It’s going to be like union-organizing with petition cards, going to parents and getting them to sign,” the perspicacious Latvala said. “I know how the political process works and they can go out and get signatures. Then they can just add to their empires. I think it needs to be carefully looked at…It’s within our rights to require it to go through all the committees that it’s assigned to.”

But Thrasher – Latvala’s nemesis in a Senate leadership struggle – defended the measure.

“Look, parents want their kids to have a good education. And some people have a different view of where that should take place or how it should take place. And I don’t fault them for that. Any more than I fault folks who believe passionately in the public school system,” he said.

Scott apologizes, signs $1.35 million compensation for wrongly-convicted William Dillon

Thursday, March 1st, 2012 by Dara Kam

In an emotional ceremony, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill compensating wrongly-convicted William Dillon $1.35 million for the 27 years he spent behind bars before DNA evidence exonerated him of a murder conviction.

“On behalf of the state of Florida, I apologize for what’s happened to you,” Scott said at the bill signing ceremony. “What I really appreciate from sitting down with you is that you have such a positive attitude.”

Scott signed the bill hours after the Senate gave final approval to the measure (SB 2) with Dillon looking on from the public gallery.

And the ceremony put to rest a 30-year battle waged by Dillon and supporters, including former Florida State University president Sandy D’Alemberte, who also served as president of the American Bar Association.

Dillon thanked his team, including D’Alemberte and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, for whom Dillon’s compensation became a priority.

“There’s so many names I could tell you about that were behind the scenes to make this team…,” a refulgent Dillon said. “The dollars and cents they make sense for my life, but they don’t give me back what was taken from me. But at the same time, it’s such a joy to be here, because my life was gone. I can’t do anything but look forward.”

Long-awaited compensation for wrongly imprisoned man now in Gov. Scott’s hands

Thursday, March 1st, 2012 by Dara Kam

Sandy D'Alemberte, Guy Spearman, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and WIlliam Dillon

A bill paying William Dillon $1.35 million for the 27 years he spent behind bars for a murder he did not commit is headed to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it as early as today.

With Dillon watching from the public gallery, the Florida Senate gave final passage to the compensation for the Brevard County man, a priority of Senate President Mike Haridopolos that was part of a late-night drama on the last night of last year’s session.

Florida lawmakers have been tough on crime, Haridopolos said.

“But when there are people in prison who’ve been wronged, who should have never been there, we need to stand up as a legislature and do what’s right,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, added. The Senate gave Dillon a standing ovation before approving the bill (SB 2) with a 38-1 vote.

Last year, Haridopolos kept the Senate on hold until the wee hours of the morning, hoping the House would sign off on the measure. That did not happen. The House approved the bill and returned it to the Senate after adding language prohibiting Dillon from suing the Brevard County Sheriff’s office in the future. Dillon’s compensation also includes 120 hours of free education at a state college or university.

Dillon, now 52, was freed from a Florida prison after DNA evidence exonerated him of a murder he was convicted of in 1981.

“It’s awesome,” an emotion Dillon, who now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., said. “It certainly has been a long journey.”

Dillon thanked Sandy D’Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association who championed Dillon’s cause for about a decade, Haridopolos, and Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and lobbyist Guy Spearman.

“That’s the great thing about this. There are people that actually believe in you enough to actually help you,” Dillon said, recalling his confidence prior to his release.

“I had this grandeur that everybody was going to see it and know it to be true. But it wasn’t like that. When I was released…People thought I still committed the crime,” Dillon, choking up, said.

“The grandeur’s faded away…and I never thought I’d ever…,” he said, unable to finish.

Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, signed the measure this morning so Scott could receive and sign the bill as early as this afternoon.

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.

Gardiner: I’m it in ’14. Thrasher: It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

A GOP leadership pact that emerged after three days of closed-door wheeling, dealing and cajoling proves that politics makes strange bedfellows.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner – a die-hard conservative and anti-abortion stalwart – and veteran lawmaker Jack Latvala – a veteran lawmaker and campaign consultant far to Gardiner’s left on social issues – joined forces in a presidency pact preserving Gardiner’s 2014-16 presidency.

Latvala allegedly abandoned his challenge against Gardiner and instead agreed to take the gavel after Gardiner’s term ends.

Latvala and a coalition of moderates and conservatives helped Gardiner beat back a presidency challenge by former House Speaker John Thrasher and Stuart’s Joe Negron, who tried to usurp the throne from their opponents on Wednesday.

Negotiations dragged on over three days, and on Thursday the leadership battle played out in the Senate chambers as the members debated the state’s proposed $70.7 billion budget.

At the end of the day, a weary Gardiner told reporters he had secured the pledges to assume the helm after Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Gaetz is in line to take over after current Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ tenure ends after the November elections, in which a dozen new senators will enter the chamber. Eight term-limited Republicans are leaving, and another is running for Congress.

“There’s been a lot of speculation. I am confirming that I have enough signatures of the sitting members and the returning members for the Senate presidency in ‘14. It’s extremely, extremely humbling,” Gardiner said.

Gardiner denied that he and Latvala had struck a deal – “I can assure you there were no deals” – but said his former foe is a candidate for the 2016 presidency.

But Thrasher, rushing to leave the Senate after the session ended near 7:30 to attend a Florida State University basketball game, insisted the political game was still afoot.

He said the discussions about the future presidencies will continue throughout the summer as he tries to get more conservatives elected.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Thrasher, who had hoped to become the second lawmaker to serve as leader of both chambers.

And the elder statesman needled Gardiner without naming him.

“It’s something I’m not going to discuss in the press. I think anybody else who does…that’s their choice,” Thrasher went on.

But he did say the race is not yet over.

“I don’t think anybody has pledges until the day they get designated. In a year like this, when we have a big summer with a lot of elections, a lot of things can change,” Thrasher said.

But in what could be a blow to the Treasure Coast, Negron’s probable future as powerful budget chief under Gaetz is now in question.

Negron is clearly in Thrasher’s corner, at least for now.
“All of us who want the opportunity to serve in any leadership capacity, will support candidates that share our political perspective,” he said.

One-time foes Latvala – a portly, hot-headed, political powerhouse – and Gardiner – a soft-spoken, laid-back, triathlete – put an end to speculation about their challenge, at least temporarily.

But the unlikely union raises questions about which direction the Senate will take, after Haridopolos crowed that he had successfully moved the chamber farther to the right.

Roping in moderates seems an unlikely maneuver for Gardiner, an Orlando hospital executive.

And holding hands with conservative’s conservative seems an odd strategy for Latvala, a Clearwater political consultant who made his fortune in the direct-mail business.

But politics makes strange bedfellows.

Senate president-designate Gaetz’s time at the podium in question?

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President-designate Don Gaetz anticipated time with the gavel may be in question after a leadership coup staged by Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, a veteran lawmaker who also served as head of the state GOP, failed yesterday.

Gaetz said he played a “very, very limited” role in the still-unraveling presidency power play in which Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, tried to strip Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner of his expected ascendency to the throne in two years. Thrasher was joined in his effort by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who is angling to take over in 2016.

Gaetz told reporters this evening that who will follow in Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ footsteps will be determined after the November elections. Eleven senators – including eight Republicans – are leaving the chamber this year because of term limits.

“I’ve been designated as the next Senate president. Depending on the results of the 2012 election, the Republicans may or may not control the Senate. At that time, the Senate as a whole will elect its next president. I will be a candidate,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said. It’s virtually impossible that Republicans won’t control the chamber with their 28-12 lead majority, but the outcome of the elections could very well impact his future.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is challenging Gardiner, R-Orlando, for the 2015-2016 presidency. Latvala supporters joined with Gardiner backers yesterday to prevent Thrasher, a veteran lawmaker, from replacing Gardiner in that battle.

The machinations turned sour for many in the GOP caucus, especially on the heels of intense pressure from Haridopolos and his lieutenants who failed to contain a GOP uprising against a prison privatization bill.

“Members on both sides rose up in support of Andy because of outrage over how this was handled,” Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said, without adding who she’s supporting.

Many in the fractured GOP caucus hope the drama will be resolved before the session ends in two weeks. But the Senate palace intrigue will likely play out for some time with shrewd tacticians Thrasher and Latvala pulling strings.

And the disarray could bring Democrats into play. A bipartisan coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans joined forces in 1986 to unseat Sen. Ken Jenne, a liberal Hollywood Democrat who was replaced by more conservative Democrat Jon Vogt of Cocoa Beach.

UPDATE: Senate defeats prison privatization bill

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 by Dara Kam

_ In a rebuke to Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his lieutenants, a bipartisan coalition defeated a plan that would have privatized two dozen prisons and other corrections facilities, putting an end to the controversial proposal with three weeks left in the legislative session.

The plan, a priority of Haridopolos and Senate budget chief JD Alexander, would have moved more than 14,000 inmates in 24 state-run prisons and work camps and put more than 3,500 state workers out of a job.

Nine Republicans joined with a united Democratic caucus of 12 to kill the measure (SB 2038) on a 21-19 vote after weeks of intense lobbying by proponents, including Gov. Rick Scott, handing a victory to labor unions and a blow to Boca Raton-based GEO Group, a potential vendor.

“I accept the verdict of the Senate,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters after the vote Tuesday evening. “Tomorrow’s a new day.”

The proposal, the brainchild of Senate budget chief JD Alexander, would have been the largest single prison privatization effort in the nation.

But questionable savings, concerns about public safety and the role of government dragged down the undertaking and created a rift within the GOP caucus as the chamber prepares to vote on its $70.6 billion spending plan.

“We can’t have it both ways. If everybody’s lock-step, they complain that everybody’s lock-step. If Republicans vote their conscience, then supposedly there’s a rift. I don’t think there’s any of that,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who at midday appeared resigned that the bill was going to die. “This is not uncommon…The Senate’s always been very independent. It doesn’t concern me a bit.”

Prison privatization critics say they will kill the bill on tie vote in Senate Tuesday

Monday, February 13th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A key senator who helped kill an amendment that would have stripped a controversial prison privatization measure and replaced it with a study said he will vote against the measure on Tuesday in what opponents predict will be a tie vote.

“I liked the concept of the study. But I like the idea of just killing the bill better,” said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, one of a gang of nine Republicans who have joined with all but one Democrat whose coalition would kill the measure on a 20-20 vote.

Sen. Paula Dockery, one of the leading GOP senators opposed to the privatization plan (SB 2038), insisted after the 21-19 vote on the amendment late Monday that her coalition will put the issue to rest on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

“We do not lose anybody who’s going to be here to vote. My only concern is does somebody get sick, does somebody whatever. But our 20 are solid, 100 percent, anti-, don’t want this to happen. Twenty very solid votes,” Dockery, R-Lakeland said.

The Senate was originally scheduled to be in session in the morning, but late Monday Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher announced on the floor the session had been postponed until later in the afternoon. Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, was originally slated to be out of town tomorrow afternoon.

Later Monday evening, Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich said Ring’s travel plans were changed so he could be in the Capitol for the vote.

“He’ll be here,” Rich, D-Weston, said.

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.

Prison privatization going down on Tuesday?

Friday, February 10th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Sen. Mike Fasano insists he and opponents of a sweeping prison privatization measure slated for a Senate vote on Tuesday still have enough votes to kill the bill.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos yesterday put the bill on Monday’s calendar after twice yanking it from the floor because Fasano had enough support to strip the privatization effort and replace it with a year-long study of the outsourcing’s cost-effectiveness.

Haridopolos said he intends to have an up-or-down vote on the measure, one of his priorities also being pushed by Gov. Rick Scott, on Tuesday, and hinted he may have the support to pass it although the vote will be close.

But Fasano this morning said nothing’s changed, and he and eight other Republicans along with 11 Democrats – Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando is the lone hold-out – will vote against the measure, meaning the bill (SB 2038) could die on a 20-20 tie vote.

“I have spoken to the eight Republicans that have said they opposed the bill and they are still firmly opposing the bill,” said the veteran New Port Richey Republican, a veteran lawmaker and outspoken critic of the plan to privatize more than two dozen prisons and other Department of Corrections operations – the largest prison privatization plan in the country – in an 18-county region in the southern portion of the state. Haridopolos kicked Fasano off as chairman of the budget committee that oversees prison spending in retaliation for his opposition to the privatization.

The tie vote assumes that the Fasano coalition sticks together and that all members show up for the vote on Tuesday.

House spinning wheels over Internet cafés

Thursday, February 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A ban on Internet cafés poised for a House floor vote appears to be dead in the Senate, which likely won’t do anything about regulating the so-called “casinos on the corner” either.

A Senate committee approved a measure regulating the cafés, and would have killed a bill to ban them despite the support of Gov. Rick Scott who said they should be outlawed.

“Candidly, the Internet cafés are not a major pressing issue in our world. We’re focused on the budget,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said.

Haridopolos pointed out a proposal to ban the cafés would not have made it through its first committee stop and said his chamber would “take a look” at the measure (HB 3) if the House passes it.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not our major focal point. I guess some people are really excited about taking that issue on. It’s pretty low on our totem pole,” Haridopolos said.

A pair of competing legal opinions – one from the Seminole Tribe’s lawyers and another from lawyers for the cafés – say that SB 390 that would regulate the cafés would nullify a compact with the tribe potentially losing the state $233 million a year, or that it wouldn’t.

Senate takes another swipe at privatizing prisons next week

Thursday, February 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Mike Haridopolos will next week resurrect a prison privatization plan he set aside twice, indicating he may have garnered enough support to pass the controversial measure.

Haridopolos said today the Senate will take up the privatization plan (SB 2038) and amendments on Monday, including a proposal that prompted Haridopolos last week to put the brakes on the bill that would privatize all Department of Corrections operations – including prisons and work camps – in an 18-county region in the southern portion of the state. Haridopolos stopped debate before an amendment that would have stripped out the privatization and instead ordered a study of the outsourcing.

When asked if putting the bill on the calendar meant that he now has the votes to pass the plan, Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, smiled.

“We’ll see,” he said.

Haridopolos may have garnered more support for his priority issue since stripping outspoken critic of the plan Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, of his committee chairmanship after Fasano’s privatization study amendment appeared to likely to pass and gut the bill. Haridopolos, Gov. Rick Scott and other GOP leaders have urged senators to go along with the plan because of an estimated minimum $16.5 million annual savings.

The Senate will likely have an up-or-down vote on the privatization plan on Tuesday, Haridopolos said.

“I think some people have been impressed by the facts,” he said.

Haridopolos on gaming: House ‘led folks on,’ Internet café reg in doubt

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

It’s highly unlikely that Senate President Mike Haridopolos will get the up-or-down floor vote he wanted on a sweeping gambling bill that included three high-end casinos since the House effectively killed the bill last week.

Without naming names, Haridopolos accused GOP leaders across the rotunda of playing games with the way they handled the “destination resorts” bill that sponsor Erik Fresen, R-Miami, asked to be put aside Friday because he knew it would not get voted out of its first committee.

“Given all the signals they were sending, what committees they sent it to, it was pretty obvious that they led some folks on and they weren’t really going to vote on it,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters this afternoon. “We saw that coming about a week ago.”

When asked if he was disappointed that the bill appears to be done for before the mid-point in the 60-day legislative session, Haridopolos reiterated that he wanted it to get a floor vote.

“Clearly with the decision made in the House, we’re not going to have that opportunity. But that’s why we have two chambers. I’m not offended by it. I think we all saw it coming. They chose to act quickly and just kill it from discussion. That’s their prerogative,” he said.

But Haridopolos stopped short of sticking a fork in the destination resorts bill, saying the Senate’s version would continue to move through committees even though it appears to be going nowhere in the House.

“It’s a 60-day session. We’ll have to see what happens,” he said.

And a legal opinion from the Seminole Tribe’s attorneys puts in doubt the future of another gambling issue dividing the two chambers – Internet cafés.

The House is moving forward with a proposal to ban the “casinos on the corner” now operating under Florida sweepstakes laws. But the Senate appears to favor a measure that regulate the cafés.

That would violate an agreement the state struck with the Seminoles, the tribe’s attorneys wrote in an opinion, and could put at risk the $233 million a year the Indians give the state for “exclusivity” in certain types of gambling.

Haridopolos called that a “new wrinkle” in the Internet café debate and said the Senate’s lawyers were looking into the issue.

“Clearly the House and the Senate are not on the same page…A majority of senators would agree with regulating as opposed to banning those facilities,” he said.

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