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A rare sighting at the state Capitol: Black ink

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012 by John Kennedy

With Florida’s tax collections on the rise and several rounds of spending cuts having sharply shrunk services, state lawmakers should see something they haven’t eyed in more than five years:

Black ink.

Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legisature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, told a legislative panel Wednesday that revenue should outstrip spending next year by just over $71.3 million — even when lawmakers tuck away $1 billion in reserves.

“We are on track and things are moving as we expect them to move at this point,” Baker told the Legislative Budget Commission.

A year ago, Baker gave the panel a similar optimistic forecast – but included some cautions that ultimately came true. At the time, consumer confidence was darkening — unlike the current mood — and Florida’s revenues eventually crumbled in subsequent months.

Lawmakers entered last session with more than a $1 billion budget gap — and more cuts ensued.

Plenty of uncertainties remain, Baker said. But so far numbers show the state, “consistently in good shape.”

After cutting millions from the state budget when the recession hardened in 2007, lawmakers have dealt with shortfalls each of the past five years through program cuts and layoffs of thousands of workers across state and local governments.

The Legislature, however, has also sought to squirrel away dollars when they could – and completed the current year $69.9 billion budget with an additional $1 billion in reserves, a level that lawmakers have said they want to maintain.

Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who has guided much of the budget-cutting of recent years and will leave office in November, said Baker’s report was good to hear. But he added that sizing up the state of Florida’s economy, “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Belt-tightening court clerks get state windfall

Thursday, August 16th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Florida lawmakers steered $29.5 million back to state court clerks Thursday, erasing most of a budget cut that had led to shorter hours, longer lines and even a few layoffs.

The Legislative Budget Commission approved giving clerks authority to drawn the extra cash, which stems from increased fee and fine collections.

Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock, whose office absorbed a $2.5 million reduction when the budget year began July 1, had already cut two hours from the office’s daily public operating times and closed a branch office in Royal Palm Beach to save money.

A clerk’s office spokeswoman said it wasn’t immediately clear whether these reductions would be dropped with the promise of a state windfall.

Bock had avoided layoffs, after the office cut 111 positions since 2009.  But state budget analysts had warned the Legislature’s $31 million reduction could have led to as many as 930 layoffs statewide.

“We all recognize that tough budget challenges still remain ahead for all of us, but today’s action by the LBC will help Florida’s Clerks and Comptrollers fulfill our duties for the coming year,” said Gulf County Clerk Becky Norris, president of the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers.”

 Florida courts have been buffeted the past two years by financial instability. At the height of the state’s foreclosure crisis, court fees generated a bounty that left clerks with a $100 million reserve at the end of 2009.

But the slowing pace of foreclosures led to budget shortfalls each of the past two years, with the Legislature forced to step in to avert widespread court delays and layoffs. Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said Thursday he remains suspect that part of the problem facing some clerks is rooted in their own management.

Alexander said some clerk’s offices are thriftier than others.

“I’ve heard so many of those sort of things,” Alexander said. “But when you look at the cost per case adjudicated and all the metrics we use, there are still some real significant differences between high-cost clerks and low-cost clerks.”

Under a budget change for the 2012- 13 year, foreclosure filing fees will now go to general revenue. Seventy-five percent of the courts’ budgets will come out of the general revenue fund, with the remainder coming from court fees.

Scott OK’s Fla Poly as state’s 12th university

Friday, April 20th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland would emerge as the state’s 12th public university, under legislation signed into law Friday night by Gov. Rick Scott.

The bill (SP 1994) was shepherded through the Legislature by powerful Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. The term-limited Alexander said accelerating the independence of the University of South Florida’s Polytechnic campus would prove a key job creator in the state.

Scott, who has anchored his administration on rebuilding Florida’s economy, apparently agreed. Plans for creating the new schools developed even as lawmakers cut $300 million from the budgets of Florida’s 11 other universities.

The $24.7 million reduction facing Florida Atlantic University forced that school’s board of trustees this week to proposed closing its Fort Lauderdale and Treasure Coast campuses.

“This move is nothing more than an appalling and wasteful power play by the Republicans in Tallahassee,” said Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan. “The people of Florida didn’t ask for this university, they don’t need it and can’t afford it.”


Fla Council of 100 to Scott: Sign FSU-UF tuition hikes; veto USF-Poly breakup

Friday, April 13th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The Florida Council of 100, whose leaders include many of the state’s top corporate executives, urged Gov. Rick Scott to veto legislation that would create a 12th public university by separating the University of South Florida from its Polytechnic campus in Lakeland.

But the council said Scott should sign into law a separate measure (SB 7129) that would let Florida State University and the University of Florida raise tuition to whatever level the market will bear.

“Florida’s public postsecondary system has a historic opportunity to take a quantum leap that will ultimately mean more jobs and economic prosperity for Floridians,” wrote Steven Halverson, council chairman and president of the Haskell Company, a Jacksonville structural design company.

Halverson said the tuition bill follows the principles outlined in the counci’s 2010 report, Closing the Talent Gap, which called for bringing the state’s educational programs in line with future economic needs.

But the legislation accelerating the independence of USF’s Polytechnic campus isn’t a wise investment, Halverson wrote in a separate letter to Scott. He said the Polytechnic proposal hasn’t been adequately studied.

“The Council of 100 wholeheartedly supports making our state university system the best in the country,” Halverson concluded. “The future of Florida depends on it. Deciding where and how to invest scarce resources to achieve that objective should be the product of a fact-based, thorough analysis of the return on investment. That analysis hasn’t been done…”


TaxWatch bags almost $150 million in legislative ‘turkeys’

Friday, April 13th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott was urged Friday to veto $149.6 million in hometown projects and other suspect spending in the state’s proposed $70 billion budget, including millions tucked in by legislative leaders.

Florida TaxWatch released its annual “turkey watch” as a prelude to Scott’s planned budget signing next week. Last year, Scott vetoed a record $615 million in spending but recently told the Post he didn’t expect to get anywhere near that level in the latest round.

Still, TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro said Scott should rely on a simple guide when reviewing legislative spending proposals.

“When in doubt, take it out,” Calabro said.

In addition to the amount TaxWatch targeted for veto, the business-backed research organization recommended Scott take a closer look at $21.3 million in economic development projects. TaxWatch said it’s likely some can spur the economy, but added that the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity should give this 16-project list more scrutiny.

A handful of Palm Beach County budget items were marked as turkeys Friday. Among them, $1 million for water treatment work in the Glades area, $250,000 for security at this fall’s presidential debate at Boca Raton’s Lynn University, $50,000 to help prepare a master plan for Torry Island development, and $500,000 for widening Riviera Beach’s 13th Street.

Tony Brown, executive director of the Riviera Beach Community Redevelopment Authority, earlier told the Post the 13th Street money would help the city complete a project it sees as vital to connecting a nearby industrial park to the Port of Palm Beach. He called the state’s expected contribution a “good public partnership” for a city strapped by several years of budget deficits.

Legislative leaders saw several of their hometown projects questioned.  Two of the biggest spending items TaxWatch opposed were in the backyard of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, with $14 million for a Brevard College public safety institute and $10 million for economic development condemned as turkeys.

House budget chair Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, also would lose $520,203 for an international baccalaureate program at Sebring High School and incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, would have $389,825 axed from a science and technology program at a local middle school, if Scott follows TaxWatch’s recommendation.

But one of the most controversial spending provisions of the spring session was given the go-ahead Friday. TaxWatch said Sen. J.D. Alexander’s push for accelerating the creation of a 12th public university by giving independence to the University of South Florida’s Polytechnic campus in Lakeland — in Alexander’s home county — was included in legislation that was debated by lawmakers.

As a result, it doesn’t fit the organization’s definition of a turkey. But it still may not be the best use of taxpayer money. Polytechnic would receive $27 million in state start-up funds, while USF would get $16 million to cover costs stemming from the separation.

“Do we need a 12th university? I think the preponderance of our thinking is no,” Calabro said.  


How to complete budget talks? Just add pork

Monday, March 5th, 2012 by John Kennedy

A final state budget deal Monday cut $24.8 million from Florida Atlantic University as House and Senate negotiators capped days of talks with last-minute additions that tucked dozens of hometown projects into a $70 billion spending plan.

The agreement sets the stage for budgets to be placed on the desks of lawmakers today. A constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period means final votes are likely Friday, the two-month session’s last scheduled day.

FAU’s reduction trims about 10 percent of the school’s budget and is part of a $300 million cut leveled across Florida’s 11 public universities.

Officials said FAU can use $16 million in reserves to help ease the lost dollars. Still, it marks the fifth straight year of declining state aid for universities – a trend that has heightened the push for tuition increases.

The higher education cuts come even as the budget deal anticipates a 12th state university – with the Legislature approving separating the University of South Florida from its polytechnic campus in Lakeland.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, spearheaded the break with USF, as the term-limited lawmaker will leave office in November with a new school created in his home Polk County.

But Alexander wasn’t the only leading lawmaker to land a favored project Monday as millions of dollars was steered to community centers, social service programs, local road projects and even $5 million for a Sarasota rowing center, already vetoed once by Gov. Rick Scott.

Alexander’s House counterpart, Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, steered $520,203 to an international baccalaureate program at her hometown high school.

When asked about what critics call political pork, Alexander said lawmakers had a right to fight for hometown spending.

“It’s a fair amount, all and all,” Alexander said of the projects. “We haven’t done a lot of that in a number of years…but at the end of the day, each of us is elected to represent our districts and their unique needs.”

Scott, though,  last year vetoed a record $615 million in spending by lawmakers. Mindful of that, Alexander added a caution to the items lawmakers managed to include Monday.

“Of course, most all that will be subject to discussion with the governor,” he added.

$1 billion boost for schools settled; university spending is not

Thursday, March 1st, 2012 by John Kennedy

Florida school funding is set — with per-pupil cash expected to rise 2.34 percent next year — but higher education dollars remain up-in-the-air as House and Senate budget negotiators worked Thursday night on dozens of details separating the two sides.

The agreed-on school cash represents a $1 billion increase — complying with Gov. Rick Scott’s demand for a big boost to partially offset last year’s $1.3 billion reduction. That brought classroom spending to its lowest level in six years.

“We’ve done well. Schools are well served,” said Senate Pre-K-12 budget chief David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

The increase settled by Simmons and his House counterpart, Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, amounts to a $145.48 per-pupil hike, bringing average spending to $6,370 for each of Florida’s 2.7 million school kids. The funding level is closer to  the $141 level where the House started out, than the Senate’s more robust plan for increasing school cash by $1.3 billion, or  $192-per-student.

The fate of university dollars, though, remains unsettled.

The House and Senate have agreed to cut universities by $300 million, but how to apply the cuts has stumped negotiators. The final deal-cutting, involving scores of issues, was turned over Thursday night to Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and House Appropriations Chair Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, to settle.

Florida Atlantic University is among several schools warily watching how the final deal is structured. Many also have questioned Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander’scharacterization that Florida’s 11 public universities have more than $800 million in reserves.

FAU President M.J. Saunders described the Senate’s initial plan to cut $400 million as “disastrous.” It would have sliced $47 million from the Boca Raton-based university, costing it about one-third of its operating budget.

Under the smaller reduction, FAU is looking at losing between $23.1 million and $27.2 million, officials said. But the school’s cushion for softening this cut isn’t as large as lawmakers claimed. FAU’s purported $66 million reserve is actually closer to $16 million, when a range of spending commitments and already planned reductions are deducted, official said.

FAU among schools still sweating size of budget cut

Thursday, March 1st, 2012 by John Kennedy

House and Senate budget negotiators have agreed to cut $300 million from universities this year — which lawmakers say can be eased if schools tap rich reserves they’re sitting on.

But Florida Atlantic University is among several schools warily watching how the final deal is structured.  Many also have questioned Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander’s characterization that Florida’s 11 public universities have more than $800 million in reserves.

FAU President M.J. Saunders described the Senate’s initial plan to cut $400 million as “disastrous.” It would have sliced $47 million from the Boca Raton-based university, costing it about one-third of its operating budget.

Under the smaller reduction, FAU is looking at losing between $23.1 million and $27.2 million, officials said. But the school’s cushion for softening this cut isn’t as large as lawmakers claimed. FAU’s  purported $66 million reserve is actually closer to $16 million, when a range of spending commitments and already planned reductions are deducted, official said.

Meanwhile, budget writers have agreed to keep talk of university tuition increases out of the state’s roughly $70 billion budget. Colleges are now in line for a 5 percent tuition hike, under an agreement between House and Senate conferees. But Gov. Rick Scott has said he doesn’t want tuition increases this year.

No matter what lawmakers recommend, Florida universities can still seek as much as 15 percent tuition hikes from the State University System’s Board of Governors. Scott appoints members of the board. But he has no apparent ability to block board approval of a tuition boost.


Look who’s not talking: House-Senate not yet ready for budget work

Monday, February 27th, 2012 by John Kennedy

House budget chair Denise Grimsley gave House members a Monday morning update on how lawmakers are positioned for end-of-session negotitations with the Senate on a roughly $70 billion state spending plan.

In summary: Not-so-hot.

There’s no sign yet of the House and Senate agreeing on budget allocations — the first step toward working toward a consensus. The Senate approved its budget proposal last week, a plan that spends about $1.5 billion more than the House’s approach and includes dozens of individual spending differences.

But Grimsley, R-Sebring, said there remain plenty of hopeful signs heading into the Legislature’s scheduled final two weeks.

“We are far closer than we’ve been in several years,” Grimsley said.

In an unusual move, Grimsley also addressed Capitol hall-talk speculating that senators might be deliberately foot-dragging, or even looking to postpone budget negotiations until a later special session.  The House and Senate have grown increasingly at odds, nudging along plenty of suspicions.

Her counterpart, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, is a hardnosed deal-maker. But Grimsley said she has no reason to suspect he’s fueling those rumors.

“I have seen no indication that Senator Alexander shares that view,” Grimsley said.

Alexander on higher ed cuts: Still looking for “what fair is”

Monday, February 20th, 2012 by John Kennedy

University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft and Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander held a closed-door huddle Monday over the Senate’s deep cut in financing for the Tampa-based school, which supporters said was retribution for the administration’s alleged resisting of  Alexander’s push to make USF Polytechnic an independent university.

Genshaft and Alexander met with reporters following the meeting, but provided little detail.

Genshaft said USF planned to provide more data to Alexander about its financial needs and proof of its effort to meet the benchmarks set last fall by the State University System’s Board of Governors. The benchmarks are to be reached before Polytechnic, based in Alexander’s home Polk County, achieves independence.

For his part, Alexander said he would reexamine the proposed budget cut, which currently takes $400 million from the state’s 11 universities.

USF would absorb the biggest cut, $78.8 million. Florida Atlantic University is facing a $47 million reduction, which FAU President M.J. Saunders called “devastating” for her institution.

Alexander said he was willing to take another look at the spending plan.

“We’ve got to work through what fair is,” Alexander said, flanked by Genshaft.

Cannon embraces Scott’s school money, rejects his hospital cuts

Thursday, January 19th, 2012 by John Kennedy

House Speaker Dean Cannon and budget-writers revealed some broad brush strokes Thursday for how the House will craft next year’s state spending plan — embracing Gov. Rick Scott’s call for a $1 billion boost in public school funding, but rejecting his call for deep cuts in Medicaid payments to hospitals.

Cannon’s release of spending allocations for budget subcommittees also may heighten pressure on the state Senate, where Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, and budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, have talked about possibly delaying final action on a budget until later this spring.

Cannon, though, also seemed to try to find a middle ground — assuring lawmakers in his budget memo that “contingencies” could be included in a final spending plan that made changes if the economy brightens, or worsens.

 ”These contingencies will provide self-executing direction on how to enact reductions or provide additional spending authority, without accessing reserves, should circumstances change,” wrote Cannon, R-Winter Park, who is a lawyer, by profession.

Alexander, who declined to say much about the House approach, said the Senate did plan to move ahead with its budget work. But he said leaders there were still concerned about economic shifts that might effect the spending plan, which takes effect July 1.

Still, Alexander said the House’s idea about building in proposed cuts as contingencies, “is another option to deal with this concern.”

While Scott built his $1 billion public school increase by cutting almost $2 billion in Medicaid spending, the biggest share coming in cuts to hospitals, Cannon outlines a different course.

He said the House wouldn’t go along with Scott’s plan to overhaul immediately the way hospitals get reimbursed for treating poor, elderly and disabled Floridians. But Cannon hinted that deep reductions in general government, transportation and environmental programs would be deployed, instead, by the House to find school dollars.

The House also pulls close to $300 million from state trust funds for use elsewhere in the budget – double what Scott proposed diverting from these accounts. But the House has to set aside as much as $100 million for tax breaks in the coming year, topping the roughly $35 million the governor has proposed. 

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and a powerful ally of the Legislature’s outnumbered Democrats, were cool to the House’s proposal. Andy Ford, the FEA president, said the proposed school increase doesn’t come close to offsetting the $1.3 billion in cuts imposed by Scott and lawmakers last year.

Scott’s proposal would boost average per-pupil spending by $142, to $6,372, which is still well below the record $7,126 reached in 2008, before the recession forced deep cutbacks. Classroom spending currently is at its lowest level in six year.

“Every child in Florida deserves a high-quality neighborhood school – and it’s within our means to provide one,” Ford said. “But we must understand that investing in our children pays the highest dividends…This proposal puts a small bandage on the gashes inflicted with last year’s budget. We need to do better.”


It’s official: Florida faces $2 billion budget hole

Thursday, October 20th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Florida’s budget hole for next year was officially put at $2 billion Thursday — and the revised forecast from state economists also put it in the red through 2015.

The shortfalls reverse what had been an optimistic forecast delivered to lawmakersonly last month — by the same analysts. But that was before the European debt crisis deepened and sent shockwaves through consumer confidence across the nation, including the Sunshine State.

Tax collections “hit a wall,” in mid-summer, said Amy Baker, head of the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Baker and other analysts told the Senate Budget Committee they have downgraded earlier state revenue forecasts by $600 million for the current year and almost $1 billion for next year. Rising program costs — especially in public schools and Medicaid — also must be layered-in, resulting in what she said would be a $2 billion shortfall facing lawmakers when they begin crafting the 2012-13 budget in January.

The Senate Budget Committee took the bad news in stride Thursday. But Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said he also feared that if the economy stumbled further, tax collections wouldfall even further off projections.

“We could have more challenging numbers,” Alexander conceded, adding, “or they could be better.”

Education officials urge Scott to put down veto pen

Thursday, May 19th, 2011 by John Kennedy

State education officials are trying to get Gov. Rick Scott to back away from his veiled threat earlier this week to veto millions of dollars in college and university building projects to ease the state’s rising tide of red ink.

Ava Parker, chair of the State University System’s Board of Governors, wrote Scott assuring him Thursday that the robust list of bond-financed projects — topping $123 million– was needed repairs, renovations and expansions by the schools.

Governor, you can be assured that the entire list of State University System PECO projects as listed in the 2011 state budget on your desk adheres to all standards, were approved by their respective university boards of trustees, and are among the top priorities for the State University System,” Parker wrote, urging the chief executive to contact her or Chancellor Frank Brogan before wielding his veto pen.

Locally, among the projects is $3.2 million for new roofs and other maintenance at Florida Atlantic University.

More troubling, however, may be the $46 million worth of campus expansion, new buildings and renovations wedged in by Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, for his favored University of South Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland.

More than $100 million in Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) projects for the state college system also is getting a close look. Included among them is $7.3 million for a west campus building at Palm Beach State College.

The governor also may be looking toward at least one that could be seasoned with pork: a $7 million classroom building at Pasco-Hernando Community College, included in the budget late and in the hometown of House speaker-in-waiting Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

 Scott has until June 1 to act on the $69.7 billion budget approved earlier this month by lawmakers.

Budget deal done — seasoned with pork

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

House and Senate budget negotiators reached a deal Tuesday morning on a state budget — after leaders broke an impasse over health and human services funding and also tucked millions of dollars in hometown projects into the spending plan to satisfy key lawmakers.

The deal keeps lawmakers on track for an on-time adjournment Friday, the final scheduled day of the session. It also may allow Gov. Rick Scott to claim a modest achievement — with $308 million in tax breaks tucked into the proposal.

That’s far from the $2 billion Scott demanded. But Senate budget-writer J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the first-year governor should be satisfied.

“We all fight hard for the things we believe in,” Alexander said. “But at the end of the day, I think the governor has got a lot of the things he’s interested in, including some reduction in the corporate tax.”

Scott came into the session seeking a more than $450 million cut in the corporate income tax. Instead, lawmakers have advanced a $30 million reduction — a level close to what they’re also setting aside for a three-day back-to-school tax holiday in late summer.

In other issues, the Senate abandoned its push to slash spending on the state’s Medically Needy and Medicare Aged and Disabled programs, which serve 90,000 severely sick and elderly Floridians. Instead, the programs have maintained current-year funding.

But hospitals will absorb an even deeper reduction in Medicaid rate payments than earlier proposed by either the House or Senate. Hospitals will lose 12 percent of state reimbursement payments and nursing homes will absorb a 6.5 percent reduction.

The budget deal also was flavored with pork.

 The University of South Florida’s Polytechnic college in Lakeland, which has long been helped by Alexander, drew a stunning $46 million in state funding in the budget — about one-third of the state’s Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) total — far outstripping the University of Florida, Florida State University and other bigger schools.

House budget chief Denise Grimsley, R- Sebring, also represents a district that includes a large chunk of Polk County.

“There’s a lot of advocates for every part of the budget,” Alexander said.

Senate budget chief evokes ‘G’ word to make point: `Gators’

Saturday, April 30th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Football in Florida — especially University of Florida football — packs plenty of muscle in the state Legislature.

So when Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the Senate was having problems with the House’s push to deregulate more than a dozen profession, including athletic agents, he wasn’t averse to some influential name-dropping.

Alexander said Saturday morning that the day before he received a call from UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, reminding him of past tales of agent abuses, urging that the state maintain oversight of the profession.

“I’m very hesitant to deregulate that particular one,” Alexander said. “But we’re trying to find common ground.”

Alexander’s House counterpart, Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said during Saturday morning’s budget negotiations that her side would have to talk further about the Senate’s counter-proposal, which would maintain regulation of health clubs, dance studios and talent agents.

The House earlier this month approved legislation deregulating movers, auto repair shops, travel agents, auctioneers, telemarketers, architects and several other professions as part of a sweeping push to cut government red tape, a goal endorsed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Alexander, however, warned Saturday that many of the professions in line for being cut free have figured in past headline-grabbing scandals.

Talks between the budget chiefs are expected to continue at least through Saturday.

Could be lights out in Senate for utility rate hike

Friday, April 15th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Legislation that would have given Florida Power & Light and other investor-owned utilities authority to boost customer rates $377 million over the next five years looks troubled in the state Senate.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander said he spoke Friday with Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, chairman of the Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee that advanced the legislation (CS/SB 2078) earlier this month.

Alexander said that in their conversation, he discouraged Benacquisto from continuing with the legislation, as crafted, since it gave utilities authority to raise rates without prior approval by regulators.

Alexander, one of the Senate leaders, said Benacquisto, a first-year lawmaker, has agreed, and is reworking it. Benacquisto couldn’t be immediately reached Friday evening. 

“If it’s a…carve-out with no regulatory oversight, I think that’s not ideal,” Alexander said, adding that the legislation involved a “heckuva lot of money.”

The electric companies, heavy contributors to both political parties, would have been allowed to tack on an additional charge — without prior approval by state regulators — to cover their costs of building solar and biomass energy plants or buying renewable energy from producers.

For FPL’s 4 million customers, mostly in South Florida, the Jupiter-based utility’s $206.1 million share could mean an extra $2.40-a-month on average, or $28.80 annually, to encourage the use of alternate sources to oil-, gas-, coal-, or nuclear power.

Supporters said the move will create jobs in the burgeoning renewable industry. Critics said the extra charge is a giveaway, especially to FPL which last year was denied most of a $1.25 billion rate hike by the Florida Public Service Commission.

“I’m just concerned about that level of unregulated choice by IOUs. That doesn’t strike me as the way the Senate wants to be,” Alexander said.

Alexander makes it official: Budget talks on ice

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander made it official Wednesday: budget talks have unraveled between the House and Senate.

With lawmakers poised to break Friday for a weeklong Easter-Passover holiday, Alexander said that serious negotiations between the two sides will not occur until the Legislature returns.

 That gives lawmakers about two weeks to settle a $3.3 billion spending gap between the bigger budgeting Senate and the House, a tight time frame for a Legislature hurtling toward a scheduled May 6 adjournment.

Alexander’s announcement affirmed what had been hall talk in the Capitol for days. Big-ticket differences between the two sides have blocked House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, from even reconciling spending in broad budget areas — the first step before budget conferees begin their work.

These conferees, meanwhile, also have not been named — another troubling sign this week.

Alexander read a statement Wednesday that talked of the House and Senate commitment to settling Medicaid and public pension differences, while the Senate is pushing to reduce an anticipated $1 billion in cuts to public schools.

“Given these differences, we will work with our House colleagues to come to an agreement that atakes all of these goals into account,” concluded Alexander, R-Lake Wales. “We will continue to work toward a productive budget conference following next week’s holidays.”

Senate breaks with House on pensions

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Dueling budget plans were poised for votes Thursday in the House and Senate – a milestone for lawmakers still far from consensus and struggling to close an almost $3.8 billion budget shortfall.

But during almost daylong debate Wednesday, the Senate made the most striking move – breaking with the House on making 655,000 teachers, police, firefighters and other government workers contribute 3 percent of their pay to the state’s retirement plan.

Instead, senators rolled out an alternate approach, requiring 2 percent to 6 percent contributions. Supporters said the plan would be easier on lower-income employees – the bulk of those enrolled in the Florida Retirement System.

“Our intention is not to run (costs) up higher than it has to be,” said Senate Budget Chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is expected Thursday to revive his call for making elected officials pay 7 percent into the retirement system.

 The move drew lengthy debate Wednesday – but a vote was postponed, when Sens. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, argued against the higher rate.

Senate pension plan exposes GOP rift

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

With the House and Senate poised to approve state budget proposals next week, $3.3 billion separates the two sides — along with a smattering of ideology.

Some Senate Republicans are wary of efforts to extract $1.1 billion of the state’s budget shortfall from teachers, police, firefighters and other government workers in the Florida Retirement System.

Viera Republican Sen. Thad Altman went so far as to call budget chief J.D. Alexander’s plan, which pivots on 3 percent pay contributions by FRS enrollees, a “huge, huge mistake.”

The House pulls $710 million from government workers in its pension proposal. But the Senate’s budget proposal still spends way more than the House.

If senators want to ease back from public employee cash, there’s not many more couch cushions or cookie jars for lawmakers to find money. But watch for some senators to float some alternatives – more cuts, and maybe even some fee and fine-hikes – in the coming week.

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