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House education budget pumps up spending, tuition

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013 by John Kennedy

The Florida House would increase school spending by $395 per-pupil next year while also allowing Florida colleges and universities to boost tuition by 6 percent, under an education budget released Wednesday.

Education Budget chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said the spending plan is also likely to include $2,500 teacher pay raises — a priority of Gov. Rick Scott. Details are still being worked out.

“Right now, we are exceeding it,” Fresen said of the pay-raise effort.

But there are clear areas of friction.

Scott has recommended a $412-per-pupil increase — bringing spending to $6,800 for each of Florida’s 2.7 million students. That’s edging closer to the state’s high-water mark, $7,126 reached during the pre-recession 2006-07 school year.

Scott also reiterated his opposition Tuesday to tuition increases.

“I’m against tuition increases. This is a tax, this is a tax on students, it is a tax on families. We can’t be raising the cost of getting a higher education in this state,” Scott said.

Among the more controversial provisions of the House budget is what Fresen called a recalibration of the state’s school funding formula. The rewrite changes how students taking online classes are calculated — a move which supporters of Florida Virtual School — condemed Wednesday.

Florida Virtual School is the nation’s largest K-12 online system. It’s been used by many students to take a seventh class — above the standard six offered by many school districts — and in rural counties where online students can access classes not available in classrooms, supporters said.

Vern Pickup-Crawford, lobbyist for the Palm Beach County School Board, said the revamped formula would likely cost the county about $5 million.

 

Florida tops in public corruption, changes needed, watchdog says

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012 by John Kennedy

With Florida leading the nation in federal public corruption convictions over the past decade, a watchdog group Wednesday urged the state Legislature to give more investigative power to the state’s Commission on Ethics.

Palm Beach County has contributed its share to the statistics, with four county commissioners convicted of corruption charges over a four year period ending in 2010. Integrity Florida, a research organization, said the first step should be for lawmakers to pay attention to the wish list of proposals the ethics panel is expected to approve June 15.

Among the recommendations — some a repeat from earlier years — is that the panel be authorized to begin its own investigations of possible wrongdoing, without waiting for a citizen complaint. Similar calls have been ignored in the past by lawmakers, but Integrity Florida leaders said next year could prove different.

“2013 will be the year we see ethics reforms finally happen in Florida,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, who co-authored the report on Florida with research director Ben Wilcox.

The report concluded that Florida had 781 public corruption convictions between 2000 and 2010, tops in the nation. California and Texas were close behind, with New York fourth. But Florida’s corruptions history also contributed to it having three cities listed this year among Forbes’ magazine’s ‘most miserable,’ with Miami #1, West Palm Beach #4 and Fort Lauderale #7.

Krassner said he has had three meetings with leading officials in Gov. Rick Scott’s administration on the issue. Tea party organizations and the Florida League of Women Voters also have joined the call for tougher ethics standards, he said.

Other proposals Integrity Florida is backing include creating a corruption hotline,  requiring more financial disclosure for public officials, and making it easiner to obtain ethics convictions in cases that go to court. Some of the provisions are included in what the Ethics Commission is expected to recommend to the Legislature later this month.

But the commission that day also is scheduled to consider again writing-off thousands of dollars in penalties imposed against public officials who failed to file state-required financial disclosure forms. The commission prides itself on having a compliance rate of 99 percent for officials submitting their forms, but state law currently gives scofflaws an incentive for waiting out the commission.

A four-year time limit on the commission’s ability to collect led last summer to about $1 million in fines against 800 public officials being written off.

Most of the accused had served on professional boards, pension committees and other panels that generally make up the low minor leagues of state politics. But at least one served as a mayor and ran in 2010 for the state Senate: former North Miami Beach Mayor Joe Celestin. He owed $3,000 in fines accumulated in 2003 and 2005.

Also on the agenda June 14 is Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who owes $1,500 dating to when he served as a legislative aide in the early 2000s and apparently failed to file disclosures. Fresen didn’t return calls from the Post seeking comment.

State party fundraising modest this spring — but juiced by casino dollars

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The Florida Republican and Democratic parties’ latest reports show modest fund-raising totals for the opening quarter of this presidential election year — with the state’s high-voltage battle over casino gambling proving a big dollar driver on both sides.

Republicans raised $2.9 million, while Democrats pulled in $1.2 million between Jan. 1-March 31, according to reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections.

For Republicans, it was the lowest quarterly fund-raising total in three years. The Democratic total was closer in line with typical party collections, although Democrats had reported a stunningly low $894,445 late last summer.

Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan said the party was confident it was on the right track with voters this election year. She pointed out the Florida GOP had out-raised Democrats $22 million to $6 million last year.

“The Republicans fundraising advantage does not translate into electoral success,” Jordan said. ”Despite the financial disparity last year, Democrats won mayoral races across the state, including the GOP stronghold of Jacksonville and in the heart of the state’s I-4 corridor.

“The bottom line: smart, strategic investments trump fundraising and money can’t buy approval for the GOP’s extreme agenda,” she added.

Republicans counterpunched.

“We will have the resources in 2012 to communicate our message of economic growth and job creation,” said state Republican Party spokesman Brian Hughes.  “At the same time, Democrats will offer more debt and deficits, higher taxes, and policies that punish success rather than encourage it.

“These failed ideas led us to overwhelming wins in 2010 and will be the reason for Republican victories this November,” Hughes said.

Both sides, though, seemed to agree that this spring’s push by Genting Resorts World to win legislative approval for a bayside casino in Miami helped generate dollars.

Republicans collected $307,423 from Universal Orlando Resort and Disney World, resorts which fought the Genting resorts plan. Also echoing the Disney line was the Florida Chamber of Commerce, whose political committees gave $85,000 to the GOP.

The Seminole Tribe gave $125,000 to Republicans last quarter, while the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders Association gave $25,000. Both organizations are wary of the business risk casinos posed.

For its part, Genting gave the GOP $100,000, reports show.

Democrats also benefited from the tug-of-war, which fizzled in early February when House sponsor, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, ended debate on the bill (HB 489) amid steady opposition.

The Florida Democratic Party’s quarterly fund-raising included $150,000 from Hill Brow LLC, a Genting affiliate based in Miami. Another $5,000 came from the Florida AFL-CIO, some of whose affiliated unions supported the casino push.

But the Florida Chamber gave the opposition some heft with Democrats, weighing-in with $12,500 for the party. Disney gave $10,000 and the Isle of Capri Casino and Racetrack in Pompano Beach gave $10,000.

Genting, a Malaysian casino giant, has spent $250 million buying the Miami Herald site and surrounding real estate in Miami, and had hired 23 lobbyists for last session. Genting initially proposed a $3 billion, 10-million-square-foot resort, with 5,200 rooms at the location, but last month announced a sharply scaled-back proposal, but offered few new details.

Fresen’s bill would have allowed as many as three casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade, if approved by voters in county referendums. But the casino drive was mostly hampered by the increasingly complex politics of gambling in Florida — which is reflected in the cash flowing to the state parties in their latest reports.

South Florida horse- and dog-tracks fear casinos will kill the already flagging industry, while the Seminole Tribe, which reached a lucrative gambling compact with the state only a few years ago, also opposed the entry of a well-heeled casino rival.

In the end, Genting and its lobbyist corps were unable last spring to crack the political Rubik’s Cube. But most expect the measure will be back. Genting is heavily invested, having poured almost $630,000 into Florida campaigns last year, with $385,000 going to the state Republican Party.

 

Casino gambling fizzles — dead for 2012

Friday, February 3rd, 2012 by John Kennedy

The drive to bring resort casinos to South Florida fizzled Friday, with the House sponsor of the measure effectively abandoning the proposal for this year.

Facing a hostile House panel — where opponents of expanded gambling said they had 10 of 15 members on their side — Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, abruptly postponed debate on his legislation (HB 489).

 With the House Business and Community Affairs subcommittee not scheduled to reconvene this session, the contentious plan is dead.

“Obviously, this is an issue that won’t go away and it’s going to be at the forefront of Florida voters’ minds when the elections come around,” said Jessica Hoppe, general counsel for Genting Resorts World Miami, which is looking to open a massive, bayside casino resort in Miami.

“This would have actually resulted in a contraction of gaming,” Hoppe said. “And the Legislature will need to take up this issue again in the future.”

 

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