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Associated Press

Disney CEO: ‘Last Jedi’ not changed due to Carrie Fisher’s death

Disney CEO Bob Iger says the upcoming “Star Wars” sequel has not been changed due to the death of Carrie Fisher.

Fisher completed filming her role as Princess Leia in “The Last Jedi” before her death following a heart attack in December.

Iger said in an interview at a University of Southern California tech conference Thursday that Fisher “appears throughout” the film and her performance “remains as it was.”

Iger says Disney is discussing “what could be another decade and a half of Star Wars stories.”

Iger’s remark came on the same day Disney ended speculation that he would retire this year by extending his contract one year to 2019. He says he and Disney’s board thought they needed more time to work on a succession plan.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida cities among the biggest population gainers

Three metro areas in Florida were among the nation’s 10 biggest gainers in the number of people moving there last year, and another three Florida metro areas were in the top 10 for overall growth rates.

The U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday said the Tampa area had the nation’s fourth-highest gain from people moving there last year. Some 58,000 new residents moved there.

South Florida had the nation’s seventh-highest gain from migration, adding about 48,000 residents who moved there.

Orlando added nearly 47,000 residents through migration, placing it at No. 8.

Those three metro areas also were in the nation’s top 10 for overall population growth — which includes natural population increases and migration.

South Florida grew by nearly 65,000 residents from births and migration, and its population stood at more than 6 million last year.

The Tampa area grew to 3 million residents last year, adding 61,000 residents through natural increases and migration. Orlando grew overall by nearly 60,000 residents and had a population of 2.4 million residents last year.

The Villages community northwest of Orlando had the nation’s highest overall growth rate last year at 4.3 percent.

Fort Myers had the fifth highest at 3.1 percent. Punta Gorda’s 3 percent rate placed it at No. 8.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Mickey vs. the tax man: Disney, Universal fight tax bills

It takes a lot of land to accommodate Cinderella’s castle, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Epcot’s 11-country World Showcase — and a hefty purse to pay the property taxes on it.

To cut tax bills in the tens of millions of dollars, the specialists at Orlando’s famous theme parks have employed methods from the creative — placing cows on undeveloped land and claiming an agricultural exemption — to the traditional — negotiating or appealing to a county board.

Over the past couple of years, however, such tactics aren’t quite doing the job: Property assessments and taxes have jumped — and so has the number of lawsuits the theme parks and other businesses have filed against Orange County’s property appraiser. That’s Rick Singh, who was re-elected to a second four-year term last fall despite the thousands of dollars in donations park officials gave his opponent.

Park guests relax and cool off with a water mist under the globe at Universal Studios City Walk in Orlando, Fla.

In lawsuits filed last year, the theme parks said Singh’s office had failed to use proper appraisal methodology. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts issued a statement describing increased assessments on some of its properties for 2015 as “unreasonable and unjustified.”

Beyond such terse statements, officials from Disney, the development arm of Universal Orlando and SeaWorld of Florida are saying very little about an issue they hope to resolve in court.

But they have spoken loudly with their wallets. Groups affiliated with all three companies gave $19,000 to Singh’s Republican opponent. Singh, a Democrat, got only $5,000 from the groups.

“If the single mother who is working two jobs has to be held accountable to pay her fair share, so should everybody else.” — Rick Singh, Orange County property appraiser

The backlash isn’t surprising, said Doug Head, chairman of the watchdog group Orange County Watch. Head said the appraiser’s position has traditionally been a cushy post for local politicos waiting to retire, but Singh is one of the first to have substantial professional training.

“He uses professional expertise, and he clearly figured out there is a lot more value than is properly being reflected,” Head said. “He did what he needed to do, and people accustomed to the way business was done weren’t happy.”

Singh said his methods for assessing properties are no different than those of his predecessors — except when looking at resorts and hotels. Then, he considers their income statements and the local “bed tax” paid by hotel customers, which he said his predecessor didn’t use. Income isn’t considered when assessing theme parks.

“It’s a matter of being fair and equitable,” Singh said. “If the single mother who is working two jobs has to be held accountable to pay her fair share, so should everybody else.”

The importance of the three theme parks to Orange County, which includes Orlando, can’t be overstated: The properties owned by Disney, Universal and SeaWorld are valued collectively at about $10.7 billion. Properties owned by the largest resort and timeshare companies are worth another $6.3 billion.

The three theme park companies pay 7 percent of the county’s property taxes — more than $135 million last year. That revenue helps to mitigate the impact of hosting 66 million visitors in 86,000 hotel rooms and 15,500 timeshare units every year, and to finance law enforcement, schools, parks and public health programs. Disney also pays property taxes to a private government established by the Florida Legislature that provides the Disney parks and resorts with services including utilities, roadways and firefighters.

Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh, left, at an election party in Orlando, Fla.

Property values for the theme parks, resorts and other large commercial properties are set by a team of almost two dozen of the county’s seasoned appraisers in what Singh calls “the most complex tax roll in the world” due to the constant growth.

Singh said the appraisers use a “cost approach” when evaluating theme parks. Tax bills go up not just from rising property values but also from new construction, which is constant at the parks.

“What does it cost to improve the land? What does it cost to build this? … What is the labor cost? Factor in all that and then it depreciates, and that’s your cost approach,” he said.

But the results are meeting a wall of resistance. Last year, Disney, Universal and SeaWorld filed a dozen lawsuits against Singh’s office, the tax collector and the state Department of Revenue. Several other Orlando resorts also have sued.

The companies pay taxes only on their properties’ “assessed” values; the “market” values reflect what the properties could be sold for.

SeaWorld is fighting the market and assessed values of its flagship SeaWorld Adventure Park, its Aquatica water park and Discovery Cove, an animal-encounter park. In a separate lawsuit the property appraiser’s office filed against SeaWorld in 2015, Singh’s office listed a market value of $192.5 million; SeaWorld listed it at $143.4 million.

Universal is disputing the market value of its 20,000-vehicle parking garage, which has nearly doubled in two years, from $148.6 million in 2014, to $297 million in 2016. The garage’s assessed value only went up 10 percent a year during that time, however, from $145 million to $175 million.

The entrance to Sea World, in Orlando, Fla.

Disney, whose total properties in Orange County have a market value of $8.2 billion, is not saying publicly what it thinks the value should be. But the company’s tax bill from Singh’s office jumped from $84.5 million in 2014 to $97.2 million in 2015 to $102.6 million in 2016, an average increase of about 10 percent a year. Those numbers exclude what Disney pays its private government in property taxes.

“Similar to other property owners in Orange County, we have no choice but to take action to dispute these errors by the property appraiser,” Disney’s statement said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida Speaker: Suspend prosecutor who nixes death penalty

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran has called on the governor to suspend a prosecutor for pledging to not seek the death penalty in any case while she is in office.

Corcoran said Thursday that Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala was “violating the constitution” because she is not even considering the death penalty. Capital punishment is authorized under the Florida Constitution. Corcoran added that if Florida lawmakers had the power to impeach Ayala, they would already be doing so.

Gov. Rick Scott removed Ayala from a high-profile police murder case last week after she announced her decision against the death penalty. Ayala argues Scott has overstepped his bounds and filed a motion in response, asking a judge to let her present her argument in court.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

House Freedom Caucus chairman says there’s ‘no deal’ on the GOP health care legislation after White House meeting

The Latest on the upcoming health care vote in the House (all times local):

1:35 p.m.

The chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus says there’s “no deal” on the GOP health care legislation after a meeting at the White House with President Donald Trump.

The assertion from Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina throws plans for a vote on the bill later Thursday into doubt.

Two dozen or so Freedom Caucus members have opposed the legislation pushed by GOP leaders, saying it doesn’t go far enough to repeal “Obamacare.”

But the group had been negotiating directly with the White House in hopes of reaching agreement to eliminate additional requirements on insurers.

Without a deal with the Freedom Caucus, and with moderate-leaning members defecting, it seems unlikely GOP leaders will have the votes they need to go forward with a vote later Thursday as they had planned.

___

10:06 a.m.

Former President Barack Obama is celebrating the seventh anniversary of his landmark health care law, saying in a statement on Thursday that “America is stronger because of the Affordable Care Act.”

Obama does not directly address GOP efforts to repeal his law, which are coming to a head Thursday as House leaders push toward a vote on their repeal legislation. Republicans remain short of votes.

The former president does say that if Republicans are serious about lowering costs and expanding coverage, and are prepared to work with Democrats, “That’s something we all should welcome.”

But, Obama says, “we should start from the baseline that any changes will make our health care system better, not worse for hardworking Americans.”

He notes 20 million Americans gained coverage under his law.

___

9:40 a.m.

President Donald Trump is urging people to call their lawmakers to express support for the Republican legislation to repeal and replace “Obamacare.”

Trump posted a video on Twitter Thursday asking people to get behind the plan. He says that people were “given many lies” about the Affordable Care Act.

Trump added that the legislation was “terrific” and “you’re going to be very, very happy.”

The GOP legislation was on the brink hours before Republican leaders planned to put it on the House floor for a showdown vote. Trump was spending the final hours trying to close the deal with conservatives who have opposed the plan.

___

9:00 a.m.

The GOP’s long-promised legislation to repeal and replace “Obamacare” stands on the brink, just hours before Republican leaders planned to put it on the House floor for a showdown vote.

The stakes are high, and Republicans are staring at the possibility of a failure that would throw prospects for their other legislative goals into uncertainty. Speaking to members of the conservative Freedom Caucus mid-day Thursday, Trump is pitching concessions to representatives who want to limit the requirement for health plans to include benefits including substance abuse and maternity care. But those changes appear to be scaring off at least some moderate Republicans.

In a count by The Associated Press, at least 26 Republicans say they opposed the bill, enough to narrowly defeat the measure.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon leaving early for NBA draft

Dwayne Bacon said he felt like he wasn’t ready to turn pro last year, which is why he took his name out of consideration for the NBA draft.

This time the Florida State guard doesn’t have any doubts.

The 6-foot-7 sophomore said Wednesday that he will declare for the draft, which will be held on June 22, and hire an agent.

“I had a lot of doubt about me last year. This year I feel like I’m much more mature and got better with my game,” Bacon said. “This time there wasn’t any comeback talk because the coaches and I felt like I was ready.”

Bacon has led the Seminoles in scoring the past two years, averaging 16.5 points and becoming the second sophomore in school history to reach 1,000 points. He scored in double figures in 35 straight games, which is tied for ninth-longest in school history.

This past season Bacon averaged 17.2 points and was a second-team All-ACC selection. He helped Florida State (26-9) reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. The third-seeded Seminoles advanced to the second round before a 91-66 loss to Xavier.

“This year was a very positive year,” Bacon said. “We got back in the tournament and I wanted to get better in my overall game along with becoming a better leader.”

One area of Bacon’s game where he feels like he has grown the most over the past year is perimeter shooting. He made 57 3-pointers this season, compared to 32 as a freshman. His percentage from beyond the arc also improved from 28.3 percent to 33.3 percent. Bacon was near 38 percent at one point but was 5 of 33 on 3-point attempts in his last seven games.

Bacon has been projected to be drafted anywhere from a late first-round to middle second-round pick. He’s also expected not to be the only Florida State player to leave early. Freshman Jonathan Isaac, a 6-10 forward, is seen by most as a lottery pick after averaging 12.0 points and 7.8 rebounds.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

U.S. probes banking of ex-Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort

U.S. Treasury Department agents have recently obtained information about offshore financial transactions involving President Donald Trump‘s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, as part of a federal anti-corruption probe into his work in Eastern Europe, The Associated Press has learned.

Information about Manafort’s transactions was turned over earlier this year to U.S. agents working in the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network by investigators in Cyprus at the U.S. agency’s request, a person familiar with the case said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to publicly discuss a criminal investigation.

The Cyprus attorney general, one of the country’s top law enforcement officers, was made aware of the American request.

A spokesman for Manafort did not immediately respond to questions from the AP.

Manafort, who was Trump’s unpaid campaign chairman from March until August last year, has been a leading focus of the U.S. government’s investigation into whether Trump associates coordinated with Moscow to meddle in the 2016 campaign. This week, the AP revealed his secret work for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago.

Federal prosecutors became interested in Manafort’s activities years ago as part of a broad investigation to recover stolen Ukrainian assets after the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych there in early 2014. No U.S. criminal charges have ever been filed in the case.

It was not immediately clear what time period was covered under the government request for information about Manafort’s financial transactions in Cyprus. Manafort was known to route financial transactions through Cyprus, according to records of international wire transfers obtained by the AP and public court documents filed in a 2014 legal dispute in the Cayman Islands.

In the 2014 case, Manafort used Cypriot shell companies as part of a nearly $19 million deal with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska to purchase Ukrainian cable television provider Black Sea Cable. Deripaska said that after taking the money, Manafort and his associates stopped responding to Deripaska’s queries about how the funds had been used.

As part of their investigation, U.S. officials were expected to look into millions of dollars’ worth of wire transfers to Manafort. In one case, the AP found that a Manafort-linked company received a $1 million payment in October 2009 from a mysterious firm through the Bank of Cyprus. The $1 million payment left the account the same day — split in two, roughly $500,000 disbursements to accounts with no obvious owner.

There is nothing inherently illicit about using multiple companies as Manafort was doing. But it was unclear why he would have been involved with companies in Cyprus, known for its history of money laundering before joining the European Union, with unclear sources of the money flowing in to them and with such secrecy surrounding the firms’ connections to Manafort.

A Treasury Department spokesman, Stephen Hudak, declined to answer the AP’s questions about Manafort’s records. “We often get press inquiries concerning individuals and our policy is to never confirm, nor deny the existence, or non-existence, of any potential investigation,” Hudak said.

Cypriot officials said further information would have to come to the agency through a formal request to the Cypriot Ministry of Justice and Public Order — under a mutual legal assistance treaty — although no request has been made, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the case.

Democrats on Capitol Hill who are part of two congressional investigations of Trump associates said the new disclosures about Manafort’s work for the Russian billionaire guarantee that Manafort will be sought as a key witness in upcoming hearings. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who is a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said revelations about Manafort’s work were “serious and disturbing.”

The AP’s reporting about Manafort’s activities “undermines the groundless assertions that the administration has been making that there are no ties between President Trump and Russia. This is not a drip, drip, drip,” said Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, a member of the House intelligence committee. “This is now dam-breaking with water flushing out with all kinds of entanglements.”

The White House said Trump had not been aware of Manafort’s work on behalf of Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006. “To suggest that the president knew who his clients were from 10 years ago is a bit insane,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer said. “I don’t know what he got paid to do,” Spicer said, adding, “There’s no suggestion he did anything improper.”

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN, was established in 1990 and became a Treasury Department bureau soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It collects a vast repository of records that financial institutions are required to report under the Bank Secrecy Act, such as suspicious activity reports and currency transaction reports, and assists law enforcement agencies in helping analyze complex data.

The agency is a part of an international network of so-called financial intelligence units that share information with each other in money laundering and terrorism financing investigations. It’s work has been critical in helping officials piece money trails together and identify leads for criminal investigators.

Bill banning steroids for greyhounds headed to House

A bill that would ban injecting racing greyhounds in Florida with anabolic steroids is heading to the House floor.

The House’s Commerce Committee approved the bill (HB 743) on Tuesday.

Florida is home to 12 of 19 tracks in the United States and one of the few places where the use of steroids is permitted. It’s banned in Great Britain and Australia, where the sport remains popular.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith — the Orlando Democrat who is the bill sponsor — says the use of steroids only keeps female greyhounds from going into heat and losing racing days.

He equates the drug use to “pre-game dog doping.”

Representatives from Florida’s greyhound industry argued steroids don’t enhance performance. Some legislators discussed the possibility of an amendment that would allow exemptions when medically necessary.

Florida investigating whether grad rates were manipulated

Florida is investigating whether or not school districts are moving students around in order to manipulate graduation rates.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart announced Wednesday that she has asked top officials in her department to look closer at students who were in their senior year but weren’t counted in final graduation rates.

Gary Chartrand, a member of the Florida Board of Education, said the state needed to look into what he called a “very serious allegation.”

News reports this year have detailed practices at schools, including those in Orlando, where students have been shifted from regular schools to alternative schools.

Florida leaders have continually touted the state’s rising graduation rate over the last few years. The state’s graduation rate was reported at 80.7 percent during the 2015-16 school year.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

White House distances Donald Trump from Paul Manafort after AP report

The White House is distancing itself from former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, saying his secret work for a Russian billionaire detailed in an Associated Press report happened during “the last decade.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer says nothing in Wednesday’s AP report references any action by the president, the White House or any Trump administration official.

Spicer says Trump was not aware of Manafort’s clients from the past decade and there are “no suggestions” Manafort did anything improper.

Spicer also says former presidential rival Hillary Clinton had her own Russia ties. He says Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta sat on the board of a Russian-based energy company and Hillary Clinton was “the face of a failed Russia reset policy.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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