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Foster kids assured access to their histories with new law

Thursday, May 14th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law two bills helping kids in foster are and those who are getting ready to live on their own.

One bill (SB 126) makes it easier for former foster children to get access to their personal records. And it makes it easier for prospective foster and adoptive families to find out the histories of the children they are considering taking into their homes.
The law also requires state officials to keep complete and up-t0-date records for the kids in their care.

Another bill (SB 1128) makes sure that disabled homeless children and those in foster care have an advocate to make education decision.

Crist signed both bills into law today at a youth services center in Broward County.

Some former foster children have had problems getting their records, making it difficult for them to enroll in college or get a job.

Read about that here.

Jeb! backs Negron for Pruitt senate seat

Thursday, May 14th, 2009 by Dara Kam

The date hasn’t yet been announced but former state Rep. Joe Negron’s already got the thumbs up from GOP heavyweight Jeb Bush in the special election to fill retiring Sen. Ken Pruitt’s seat.

Negron’s campaign sent out an announcement today in which the former governor touts Negron’s conservative qualifications.

Negron “has the experience and temperament needed to help solve the problems that are facing our great state. Joe is a true conservative and has my complete support,” the release said.

Negron was planning to run next year to replace Pruitt, the former Senate president who on Friday said he was stepping down a year before he would have been forced out of office by term limits.

It’ll be the second special election show-down for Negron, who’s facing former foe Art Argenio in the GOP race for District 28.

Argenio, who also served in the state House, beat Negron in a bitter 1999 special election runoff to win a state House seat. Negron ousted Argenio in another rough-and-tumble primary the following year.

WPB freshman rep begs guv to veto budget

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009 by Dara Kam

4435Freshman Democratic Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach asked Gov. Charlie Crist today to veto the $66.5 billion budget because of concerns about cuts to programs for the elderly.

Pafford, a former aide to WPB Mayor Lois Frankel, picked a bad day to make news, however.

Pafford hand-delivered a letter to Crist requesting the veto just as the governor’s campaign staff sent out a press release ending months of speculation about whether Crist will run for U.S. Senate. As expected, he will.

Also today U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, folded on his opposition to Craig Fugate’s pending appointment to head FEMA. Fugate is the former head of Florida emergency operations.

And with hurricane season just around the bend Crist announced he was appointing Fugate’s deputy Ruben Almaguer to take his former boss’s place. Almaguer’s new job also is being upstaged by Crist’s candidacy.

Here’s what Pafford had to say in defense of the one out of five Floridians who are seniors.

The budget lawmakers passed on Friday takes away $2.5 million from senior services, including home care and community care for the elderly and Alzheimer’s programs and has a negative impact on about 29,000 seniors in Florida, Pafford wrote.

Pafford mentioned the 103-year-old woman in his district who has been on a waiting list for two years for home care to help keep her out of a nursing home.

He asked Crist to veto the budget and call a special session to force lawmakers to come up with a better spending plan.

“As you might imagine, many seniors on waiting lists for services cannot wait another 14 months for the care that they need today,” Pafford concluded.

Senate gives thumbs up to gambling

Friday, May 8th, 2009 by Dara Kam

The Senate approved a gambling bill giving the Seminoles the ability to continue to hold blackjack and other banked card games at their Broward and Hillsborough county facilities in exchange for a guaranteed $150 million a year for education.

The bill (SB 788) also opens the door for more slot machines at parimutuels outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties where they are already allowed. Voters would have to sign off before that could happen.

The Palm Beach Kennel Club could also use its jai alai permit to open a card room or another dog track under the legislation, which the House is expected to pass and Gov. Charlie Crist has said he will sign into law.

Why the special treatment for the Kennel Club, bill sponsor Sen. Dennis Jones was asked.

The Rooney clan who own the club wants to open another facility north of the West Palm Beach locale. But it’s also for the dogs, Jones said.

“The feeling is that the owners would basically like to convert that…and have a facility in the north county and the south county,” Jones, R-Seminole, said.
“It’s to basically utilize the dogs more so the breeders have more activities…and at the same time a biz decision for the owners of those two permits.”

The Senate approved the measure by a 31-9 vote.

Jim King ticked off again, this time about Hialeah

Friday, May 8th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Sen. Jim King had barely caught his breath after lambasting Democrats for threatening to vote against the budget before he launched into a diatribe about Hialeah Race Park getting special treatment in the gambling bill.

The bill, approved by the Senate by a 31-9 vote, will allow the quarter horse track, built in 1925 and a historical landmark, to reopen and eventually have thoroughbred racing and slot machines.

“Here you have an entity that was all but gone, dead and buried, just basically a permit,” complained King, R-Jacksonville. “Not only are they in the mix they are also in the opportunity to run races.”

King took a swipe at Miami-Dade County lawmakers who lobbied diligently to get the special provision for Hialeah.

“I’ve never seen some of them work so hard…but that doesn’t make it right for those of us who’ve been here and who have seen what have happened,” King said. He voted for the bill (SB 788).

32-8 Sen vote for budget after GOP tempers flare

Friday, May 8th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Half of the Senate Democratic caucus, including Leader Al Lawson, retreated from their threat to vote against the budget after being excoriated by a livid Sen. Jim King.

King threatened the D’s with payback if they carried the “no” votes out after Senate President Jeff Atwater went out of his way to accommodate them in budget and other issues.

“Why would this president or any other presiding officer in the future ever want to include you at all? What does he get for it?” King, a former Senate President, demanded.

King likened a “no” vote to taking “a wooden stake and drive it through the heart of a presiding officer who tried to be so inclusive.”

“If what he gets for that is everybody’s negative vote who’s a Democrat, then shame on you…I would hope that with the vote coming up we don’t so hopelessly set us back that we’ll never be able to recover,” King, R-Jacksonville, went on.

“This goes further than that and it has implications beyond what we just talked about here,” he threatened.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, cast the sole GOP vote against the $66.5 billion budget in the 32-8 vote.

Seminoles don’t want slots look-alikes

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Max Osceola is biding his time down the street from the Capitol after gambling negotiations between the House and Senate blew up earlier this morning.

The Seminole Tribal Councilman is in the same limbo as a crush of lobbyists on the other side of a gambling stalemate.

Osceola sat beside Gov. Charlie Crist this morning as talks took a nosedive after the Senate offer broadened gambling opportunities for the Indians. House gambling negotiator Bill Galvano shut down the talks and now it remains up in the air when he and Senate counterpart J.D. Alexander will meet again, if at all.

Atwater: We’re close on gambling; chief Senate negotiator: ‘Fire me!’

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009 by Dara Kam

A few hours after the House’s chief negotiator accused the Senate of “moving backwards” on a gambling deal and threatened to call off talks, Senate President Jeff Atwater said he thinks the two chambers are “close” to reaching an agreement before the session ends on Friday.

“I’m frankly just so impressed that we’re down to just a couple of items left that I think if I were looking at odds at the moment my odds would be, now that we’re this close, I think we can come up with something that can work,” Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said this afternoon.

Rep. Bill Galvano abruptly walked out this morning after Sen. J.D. Alexander presented his latest offer on a compact with the Seminoles that would allow them to hold blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer at all of their seven casinos. The Senate’s previous offer had limited all of the card games and only permitted blackjack at all of the casinos.

Atwater, accompanied by Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander who is also handling the gambling deal, said he wasn’t surprised by Rep. Bill Galvano’s reaction, saying that it was the “first pushback” after two days of negotiations.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise that in something this significant that we hit a bump. But hopefully they’ll call us shortly and be ready to sit back down soon,” Atwater said.

Atwater met with the Seminoles early this morning and said he believes the two chambers are “finding some common ground” on their disparate plans. The House wants to limit blackjack to the tribe’s three Broward County resorts, which the Seminoles have rejected.

When asked if it was time for Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul to take over gambling talks, Atwater said “I don’t think so” before Alexander interrupted.

“Please. Please. Please. Fire me,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, pleaded in jest.

Slots for Palm Beach Kennel Club back on the table?

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Gambling negotiations broke down this morning after the Senate reversed an earlier offer to the House limiting an expansion of gaming for the Seminoles and instead allowing them to have blackjack and all banked card games at each of their seven facilities.

And the latest Senate plan would also allow Palm Beach Kennel Club to have electronic slot machines if voters approve, something they had taken off the table.

“Mr. Chairman I appreciate your offer but I will say that it appears the Senate, with all due respect and notwithstanding your brief explanation, is moving backwards. Backwards from where we want to go in an expansion standpoint. Backwards from where the House is heading. And I’ll look at your offer and we will let you know if it’s necessary to meet further,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, said after his Senate counterpart J.D. Alexander quickly read through “Senate Offer #4.”

“Thank you very much,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.

No deal on blackjack

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 by Dara Kam

After three meetings today, House and Senate leaders remain sharply divided over a gambling proposal.

Appearances by Gov. Charlie Crist and Lt. Gov Jeff Kottkamp, who showed up twice, did little or nothing to bring the two sides closer together on whether the Seminoles should be allowed to offer blackjack and slots at their Hard Rock resorts.

The House made few concessions in their third offer at the day’s final meeting, signing off on minor issues but refusing to grant the Seminoles the right to hold tabled card games.

Lawmakers are trying to come up with a replacement compact after the Florida Supreme Court tossed out an agreement between the tribe and Crist allowing blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer at its casinos.

After the ruling, the tribe continued to operate the games at the Hard Rock near Hollywood and started running them in their Tampa facility.

Rep. Bill Galvano, the House’s chief gambling negotiator, said that granting the tribe permission to have the games was tantamount to “rewarding bad behavior.”

Crist said the House should approve the compact “cuz the kids need the money” for education but bristled when asked about Galvano’s remarks.

“That’s up to them to decide. It’s in their hands,” he said.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, who had been negotiating throughout the day on gambling, tobacco taxes and the budget, left hurriedly after the meeting looking displeased with “House Offer #3.”

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, had counted on up to $500 million from the Seminoles for education spending. Lawmakers may need to return to Tallahassee for a special session on gambling if they do not reach consensus before Friday, the last day of the extended session.

Alexander the Great – J.D., that is

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Florida taxpayers got more than their money’s worth out of Sen. J.D. Alexander today.

The Senate budget chief dealt with a revolving door of House counterparts as he brokered deals on the budget, gambling and tobacco after a weekend of doing the same.

The Lake Wales Republican takes the long hours in stride because, he says, as a farmer he’s used to getting up early and going to bed late.

Alexander chaired practically back-to-back conference meetings with Reps. Marcelo Llorente, David Rivera, Bill Galvano and Ellyn Bogdanoff today, wrapping up talks on the buck-a-pack cigarette tax around 5:30 p.m. before horsetrading with Galvano on gambling was set to begin an hour later.

“After spending quite a few days and nights here, I’m ready to go home,” Alexander told Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, as he made a final concession on the tobacco deal.

Alexander’s put in 18-hour days on the budget for weeks and is anxious to seal the deal on gambling so lawmakers, already into a week of overtime from an extended session, won’t have to come back after Friday.

“I love hanging outwith you guys but I’ve got a family and a business,” Alexander told reporters yesterday when asked about the possibility of a special session on gambling. “I’ve missed my daughter’s birthday. I’ve missed her prom and graduation and all kind of stuff. I’m ready to go home. I don’t think the people of Florida need to pay for more time. I think we need to go to work. We need to get this stuff done. I think that can be done if we work hard. That’s the best approach.”

Tobacco tax – no butts about it

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Cigar aficionados, rejoice. Cigarette smokers, not so much.

The House officially signed off on a buck-a-pack cigarette tax and the Senate agreed to exempt cigars from what lawmakers like to call a “surcharge” on tobacco.

Those who dip, chew or snuff also will pay more – also about $1 per ounce of loose tobacco.

The hope is to raise at least $800 million, most of which will pay for the state’s Medicaid program, and which lawmakers have included in next year’s budget.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and his House counterpart Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, held a series of brief meetings to close out the tobacco deal, which Gov. Charlie Crist said today he would sign.

The tobacco tax was the brainchild of Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch.

Lawmakers will vote on the bills on Friday.

Latest gambling offer: Seminoles get blackjack, tracks don’t

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 by Dara Kam

The Seminole Tribe of Florida could keep blackjack at all of its casino resorts and also offer baccarat and chemin de fer at all but their Immokalee, Cypress Creek and Brighton locales.

Under the latest Senate offer, blackjack’s not in the cards for Miami-Dade or Broward race tracks but all tracks with card rooms would be able to hold no-limit poker.

House negotiator Bill Galvano said the 3 p.m. offer will keep the talks alive.

“This is a meaningful offer. It gives me confidence that negotiations should continue,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, said.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, also in charge of the gambling proposal, also agreed to the House’s 35 percent tax rate for Miami-Dade and Broward county horse and dog tracks, a 15 percent drop from what they now pay.

The two sides also agreed to allow simulcast racing at pari-mutuels throughout the state if they also have cardrooms. They also agreed to try to collect sales taxes on hotel rooms and other items from the Seminoles. The tribe already collects a hotel room surcharge but does not remit it to the state as other Florida hotels are required.

The Senate backed down from a previous plan that would have allowed Broward and Miami-Dade county tracks to offer blackjack and would have given Palm Beach County voters the ability to authorize slot machines at the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

Alexander and Galvano are scheduled to meet again at 6 p.m.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the two have about 24 hours to finalize a deal in order for lawmakers to vote for it before the session ends on Friday.

Autism license tag makes it into budget

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 by Dara Kam


A new license plate that lawmakers failed to approve made it into the state budget today despite the leaders’ prior promise not to add items that hadn’t been passed during the regular session.

Proceeds from the Autism tag will go toward research for the disorder.

The House included the new item in a conforming bill that first appeared at an 11 a.m. conference meeting. Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander signed off on it.

House budget co-chief David Rivera offered the following explanation for the last-minute addition.

“The Speaker of the House was very reluctant to reopen the entire issue of license plate ideas,” Rivera, R-Miami, began. “The only reason that the Speaker was willing to look at the autism license plate again was because this item had a direct nexus to what is going on with the budget.”

Proceeds from the tag will go to offset some of the $600,000 in cuts to autism research, Rivera said.

House porn blockers ban bill access

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Don’t try to print out or even view staff analyses on public computer terminals in the House.

The House “Print on Demand System,” known affectionately as PODS in the Capitol, denies access to requests to view staff analysis on any bill.

The reason?

Anti-pornography filters block it and with the following explainer: “Found keyword in URL: anal”

Privatization of PBC TB hospital included in budget – again

Monday, May 4th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Lawmakers have again ordered the Department of Health to privatize A.G. Holley, the state-run tuberculosis hospital, one of the only in the nation.

Added to the budget implementing bill late Monday evening is a line ordering health officials to “enter into an agreement with a specified private contractor to finance, design and construct a hospital for the treatment of patients with active tuberculosis from July 1, 2009 to July 1, 2010.”

House health and human services budget chief Marcelo Llorente said the intent was to force state officials to move forward with the privatization, a priority of Gov. Charlie Crist.

The last-minute language is reminiscent of last year when an amendment was inserted into the budget on the second-to-the-last night of the 2008 legislative session.

Crist’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development received only one bid for the project and it was considered sorely lacking.

Budget done.

Monday, May 4th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Lawmakers closed out the $65 billion budget this morning that includes nearly $2 billion in taxes and fees, including a $380 million property tax increase if school boards approve it.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander and House counterparts David Rivera and Marcelo Llorente resolved most of their disagreements over the weekend and sealed the deal this morning without sending any unresolved disputes to Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul.

One of the losers in the deal: Florida Forever, the state’s land-buying program received no new money. But the budget chiefs did agree to issue $250 million in bonding authority from this year. They could not sell the bonds because of a decline in real estate transaction taxes used to pay them back.

The legislature closed a real estate tax loophole during the session that they hope will generate enough money to keep Florida Forever running next year.

A last-minute change this weekend shifted $25 million for Florida Forever to the Everglades clean-up program, bringing the total for that to $50 million.

Also included in the budget are more than $800 million in fees, including a hike in driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations and court filings. And smokers will pay an extra buck-a-pack for cigarettes to raise about another $800 million to be spent on the state’s Medicaid program.

State workers earning more than $45,000 a year will see a 2 percent salary cut but university workers are exempt. That amounts to a $30 million cut from general revenue, far less than the $100 million in state employee pay cuts the House had original proposed.

School boards, meanwhile, got the OK to hike property taxes an additional 25 cents per $1,000 of value with a majority vote. Voters would have to sign off on the tax increase at the general election in 2010. The tax increase would raise $380 million for school districts statewide if implemented by all 67 counties, including nearly $17 million for Palm Beach County.

Bright Futures will no longer cover tuition hikes, including the 8 percent tuition increase included in the budget. Lawmakers also gave universities the ability to raise tuition up to 15 percent.

House caves on Cuba travel, stem cells, driver schools

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009 by Dara Kam

Rep. David Rivera, a House budget chief, backed off two of his priorities: a request to ban using state money for college and university travel to Cuba or for stem cell research.

Rivera suggested he agreed to take the items out of the House’s proposed budget because there was no money for stem cell research in either his or the Senate’s proposed spending plans and because the Senate agreed to let his alma mater Florida International University issue bonds to build a health center.

Rivera dropped the items into the budget during horse-trading with Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander yesterday. Alexander also introduced a new item: a $5 million annual payment for one of his pet projects, the University of South Florida Polytechnic at Lakeland in his district.

Rivera also backed off another last-minute proposal that would have required first-time Florida drivers to take a driver improvement course.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said yesterday that the Senate would not approve issues like the driver’s license schools that were part of bills that did not pass or were not debated during the session.

Still unresolved is where to get $13 million for county and local libraries. The state must spend at least $21 million to draw down $8 million in matching federal funds.

Both sides agreed to spend the full amount but the House wants to take the money from transportation spending and the Senate does not.

No talks on gambling this weekend

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009 by Dara Kam

Lawmakers won’t begin working out a gambling proposal until Monday, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander said late Saturday evening.

Alexander, looking weary, said he was concentrating first on settling spending differences because of the time constraints that require a 72-hour waiting period before lawmakers can pass the $65 billion budget on Friday.

Alexander has a reason to be tired.

The Lake Wales Republican is the sole budget negotiator for the Senate.

But he’s got three House chiefs to deal with: David Rivera on education and economic development, Marcello Llorente on health and human services and criminal justice, and Bill Galvano on gambling.

Money for Marissa Amora back in the budget

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009 by Dara Kam

House and Senate budget chiefs agreed to a $1.7 million payment this year to Marissa Amora and her family as part of the 11-year, $18.2 million settlement for the girl who suffered life-altering injuries while in the state’s care.

The state agreed to the settlement last year but Department of Children and Families officials failed to request this year’s second payment to the family as an oversight, they and Senate President Jeff Atwater said.

The payment was included in late-night negotiations between legislative leaders on differences over next year’s $65 billion spending plan.

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