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Gary Fineout

Rick Scott has a friend in White House and foes back home

With a friend and a political ally in the White House, this was supposed to be a moment of triumph for Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

For years, Scott complained and criticized President Barack Obama and contended he wasn’t helping Florida. Now with Donald Trump in office, Scott has worked out a deal with federal officials to provide at least $1 billion for the state’s hospitals and he obtained a promise to move forward with repairs to a federally-operated dike that surrounds the state largest freshwater lake.

But that didn’t help him with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Instead by the end of this year’s session, Scott’s legislative agenda was in tatters, ignored by GOP legislators he has feuded with for months and criticized during visits to the lawmakers’ hometowns.

And on Tuesday, he bashed the newly-passed $83 billion budget, giving his strongest sign that he may veto the spending plan and force the state House and Senate to reconvene in a special session. He criticized legislators for assembling most of the budget — which covers spending from July of this year to June 2018 — in secret and for refusing to set aside money for his top priorities including money for business incentives.

“I ran for governor to fight career politicians and it’s backroom deals like this that make families think politics is nothing more than a game,” Scott said in a statement. “Just like I do every year, I will make my decisions based on what’s best for our families because my job is to wake up every day and fight for Floridians.”

The Florida Legislature wrapped up its session late Monday, passing a series of budget-related bills that included a pay raise for state workers, a measure to cut funding to the state’s tourism marketing agency by two-thirds and a small boost in money for day-to-day school operations. They also passed a sweeping education bill that includes more than $400 million for teacher bonuses as well as money for charter schools that enroll students now attending failing public schools.

Scott contends the new budget could harm the state’s economy and suppress job creation.

The big question, however, is whether Scott will take the political risk of vetoing the budget since it was passed by overwhelming margins. A Florida governor hasn’t vetoed the entire budget in more than two decades.

Scott, a potential candidate for U.S. Senate next year against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, could be embarrassed if legislators return to the Capitol and override him. It takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, meaning Republicans would need Democrats to join with them.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran has derided Scott’s requests for business incentives as “corporate welfare” and has ridiculed VISIT Florida for deals such as the secret one where the rapper Pitbull was paid $1 million to promote the state. The Land O’ Lakes Republican has defended his strong stance opposite Scott and criticized politicians he says have flipped positions. Scott backed strong anti-immigration moves in 2010 but then backed off later. The governor also flipped on whether to support Medicaid expansion.

“There’s a war going on for the soul of the party,” said Corcoran, who says he thinks the Legislature has enough votes to block Scott’s veto. “Are we going to be who we say we are?”

Senate Republicans say they tried to back Scott’s priorities and have urged him to sign the new budget. Sen. Bill Galvano, a top Republican from Bradenton, said Scott’s situation was a byproduct of negotiations in order to get a final budget.

“The reality is what it is,” Galvano said. “There’s got to be some give and take.”

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon from Miami Gardens said Republicans should not assume that Democrats will join in an override, especially since there are measures, including the education bill, that were opposed by Democrats.

“You can’t predict that until we see what he vetoes,” Braynon said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida may restore college aid lost during Great Recession

Nearly a decade after the Great Recession, Florida may finally restore one of its main programs that aids students headed to college.

The state Legislature late Monday approved an overhaul of the state’s higher education system that is intended to lift schools in the Sunshine State into the ranks of elite counterparts.

A key part of the legislation now headed to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott would require the state to cover 100 percent of tuition costs for top performing high school students who attend a state university or college. Florida used to pay 100 percent of tuition for those eligible for the top level of the state’s Bright Futures scholarship, but it was scaled back when the economy soured.

Those students eligible for the top award would also be able to use their Bright Futures scholarship — which is paid from lottery ticket sales — on summer courses for the first time.

Senate President Joe Negron, who called for having schools in Florida rival other public universities such as University of Virginia and University of North Carolina, pointed out that legislators agreed to spend nearly $600 million to increase financial aid and to boost spending in state universities. The new state budget nearly doubles the amount of financial aid provided to low-income students.

The Stuart Republican asserted the changes in the bill (SB 374) would encourage students to graduate faster.

“I believe Florida taxpayers will see a return worthy of their investment when our top Florida students attend our own colleges and universities, complete degree programs on-time, and then graduate with job opportunities in high-demand fields needed in our growing communities,” Negron said.

Some Democrats questioned why the state was not boosting money available in other scholarship programs. Some Tampa Bay area legislators also were upset because a last-minute change pushed by Negron prevented University of South Florida from being eligible for money intended to the state’s top universities. Currently, only the University of Florida and Florida State University qualify for the extra money.

Rep. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, said her hometown school was “cheated” by the maneuver.

The House voted 85-27 for the bill, while the Senate approved the legislation by a 35-3 vote.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Rick Scott to rail against Legislature in state tour

Gov. Rick Scott is going on a statewide tour over the next three days to blast the Republican-controlled Legislature for ignoring his top priorities during its annual session.

Starting Wednesday Scott will visit 10 cities where he will call out legislators. Scott is upset that legislators are planning to cut funding to the state’s tourism marketing agency and the economic development agency that helps lure businesses to the state. These cuts were pushed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has called the funding “corporate welfare.”

Republican leaders have also refused to endorse Scott’s push to set aside $200 million in state money for repairs to the federally-operated dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee.

Scott maintains that Florida could “lose hundreds of thousands of jobs” if legislators do not give him the money he’s requested.

After delay Florida will finally hand out oil spill money

After keeping the money locked up for nearly a year, Florida legislators have finally agreed on a plan to hand out millions of dollars given the state for damages related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Florida Senate on Monday voted unanimously for a bill that would guarantee that $300 million be distributed to eight Panhandle counties hardest hit by the spill. The bill heads back to the Florida House, which is expected to approve it before the annual session ends Friday.

“This 300 million is finally at long last going to get to Northwest Florida,” said Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

In 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, leased by energy giant BP, killed 11 workers and caused a blowout that began spewing an estimated 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. It took nearly three months for the well to be capped.

Under a settlement reached with BP, Florida is to receive $2 billion for economic losses related to the spill over a 17-year-period. Legislators previously passed a law that created a nonprofit corporation — Triumph Gulf Coast — that was supposed be in charge of handing out any money received as a result of the oil spill.

Last July the first payment came in, but the fate of the money remained in limbo for months and into this year’s session. House and Senate Republicans have been in a tug-of-war over who could get the money — and what it could be spent on.

House leaders, for example, were adamant that the money could not be used as an incentive to lure new businesses to the region. House Republicans are opposed to business incentives and have labeled them “corporate welfare.”

State senators said they wanted to make sure that the final proposal guaranteed that all eight counties got some share of the initial $300 million. They also pointed out that the bill (HB 7077) guarantees that any future payments must go to Triumph Gulf Coast and cannot be held by the Legislature.

“We won’t be here in 15 years, and we did not want to see our colleagues in the future to have the same debate,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, a Gulf Breeze Republican.

The final bill allows the money to be spent several different ways, including letting counties use the money to reduce local property taxes. The money can also be used on tourism ads, construction projects such as new roads and worker training programs.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Legislature at stalemate over new state budget

With time running out in this year’s regular session, Florida’s legislative leaders are at a stalemate over a new state budget and are starting to lash out at one another over the breakdown.

The first but crucial round of negotiations between the House and Senate fell apart on Sunday. The session is scheduled to end on May 5, but state law requires that all work on the budget be finished 72 hours ahead of a final vote.

The lack of a budget deal can also derail other crucial legislation since many times stand-alone bills get tied to the spending plan or are used as leverage in negotiations.

The growing divide prompted Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran to lash out at fellow Republicans in the Senate, comparing them to national Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders.

“There are no limits to their liberalism,” Corcoran said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the Senate budget chief, said that Corcoran was acting as if “everyone was a liberal but him.”

“I just think it’s very unfortunate for the process, where we start calling names and broadly classify people instead of trying to constructively work out solutions,” Latvala said.

The House and Senate are working on a new budget to cover state spending from July 1 of this year to June 30, 2018. The two chambers started their budget negotiations with a roughly $4 billion difference in their rival spending plans.

For more than a week, the two sides privately traded broad offers that outlined how much money would be spent in key areas such as education, health care, the environment and economic development.

Gov. Rick Scott has been highly critical of a House plan to shutter the state’s economic development agency and to sharply cut money to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing corporation. Scott has urged Senate Republicans to stand firm against House Republicans.

Part of this broad framework also included how much money the state should set aside in reserves.

Corcoran said one stumbling block was that the House wanted to place more money in reserves because of projections that show a possible budget deficit in the next two to three years if spending continues to increase.

“We refuse to let the state go bankrupt,” said Corcoran, who also said such a strategy could force Florida to raise taxes.

Unable to reach a deal, the House over the weekend offered a “continuation” budget that would have kept intact state funding at current levels in many places. That would have allowed legislators to end the session on time and avoid the need for a costly special session. But it would have meant that there would be no money for any new projects.

The Senate, however, rejected this idea. Senate President Joe Negron, in a memo sent out to senators Monday morning, called it a “Washington creation where Congress is habitually unable to pass a budget.”

Reprinted with permission of The Associated Press.

House Speaker: Push for tougher ethics laws dead

State House Speaker Richard Corcoran says a push to give Florida some of the toughest ethics laws in the nation is dead for this year’s session, and he’s blaming Senate Republicans for showing “zero interest.”

The Land O’Lakes Republican pushed to enact several far-reaching proposals, including one that would ban legislators and elected officials from lobbying state government for six years after leaving office. The House overwhelmingly passed them, but the legislation has not moved in the state Senate. The annual session ends in less than three weeks.

“The Senate has shown us they have expressed zero interest in holding elected officials accountable and draining the swamp,” said Corcoran, echoing a line used by President Donald Trump on the campaign trail last year.

Corcoran said this week he’s not giving up and will seek other ways to place his proposals into law, including asking the state Constitution Revision Commission to put them before voters in 2018 or launching a petition drive to get them on the ballot. The commission is formed once every 20 years to propose additions, deletions or revisions in the state’s constitution.

When he came into his leadership post, Corcoran vowed to aggressively change what he called a broken system that let special interests and lobbyists wield too much influence. The House adopted rules limiting contacts between lobbyists and legislators and Corcoran pushed to shed more light on projects added to the annual budget.

Currently, legislators and statewide elected officials are subjected to a two-year lobbying ban after leaving office. The House proposed a constitutional amendment and a new state law to extend that ban to six years. The measure would also expand lobbying restrictions so that a legislator or statewide elected official could not lobby any state agency during that period.

The House has also passed a bill that would require city officials to file more detailed financial disclosure forms. The House is also scheduled this week to consider another measure that would clamp down on public officials using their posts to seek jobs or going into business with lobbyists.

When asked earlier this month Senate President Joe Negron said he was “open for ways to make the process more transparent, more accountable.” But he also said he was “content” with the current ethics laws in place including the two-year ban on lobbying.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump taps lawyer involved with Trump U case for federal job

As a top aide to Florida’s attorney general, Carlos G. Muniz helped defend the office’s decision to sit out legal action against Trump University. Now the president is naming him to be the top lawyer in the U.S. Education Department.

President Donald Trump has announced his intent to nominate Muniz to serve as general counsel to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The Senate would then consider the nomination of the Republican lawyer.

Emails reviewed by The Associated Press show that in 2013 Muniz, who served as Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s chief of staff for three years, was included in discussions about student complaints alleging fraud with Trump’s namesake real-estate seminars.

Muniz, now in private practice, has also been the lead attorney defending Florida State University in a lawsuit by a former student who said the school failed to investigate after she said she was sexually assaulted by the star quarterback of the Seminoles’ 2013 national championship football team. The player was never charged with a crime by police in Tallahassee, and the state attorney’s office declined to pursue a criminal case against him.

An investigation by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is still underway, presenting a potential conflict of interest if Muniz is confirmed.

Both Muniz and the White House declined to comment Tuesday, referring all questions to the Education Department.

That department did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment about the Trump University review or whether Muniz would recuse himself from involvement in the Florida State probe.

AP reported last year that Bondi personally solicited a $25,000 political contribution from Trump as her office was weighing how to respond to questions from the Orlando Sentinel newspaper about whether she would join New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in suing the billionaire businessman.

Though both Trump University and the Florida-based Trump Institute had stopped offering classes by the time Bondi took office in 2011, more than 20 consumer complaints had been filed by former students who said they were swindled.

Emails from August 2013 obtained under Florida’s public records law showed that Muniz was copied on discussions about how to respond to the newspaper’s request for comment, though he did not actively weigh in.

Emails show Muniz did help direct Bondi’s public defense on the issue, including rewriting an October 2013 fact sheet distributed to reporters.

Days after Bondi’s office said it was reviewing the Trump U case, a political committee supporting her re-election received a $25,000 check from Trump’s charitable foundation. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, also added $500 more to support Bondi.

Bondi, who endorsed Trump’s bid for president right before the Florida Republican primary, said she was unaware her staff had been asked about the New York lawsuit until a Florida newspaper columnist highlighted the 2013 donation from Trump.

Bondi has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and defended her decision to accept the contribution, saying her office never seriously considered suing Trump.

Trump’s 2013 check, drawn on an account in the name of the Donald J. Trump Foundation, violated a federal prohibition against charities giving money to political groups. The issue garnered national media coverage last year during Trump’s presidential campaign, and his foundation paid a $2,500 fine to the IRS.

The illegal donation prompted a Massachusetts attorney last year to file a state bribery complaint against Bondi and Trump. A Florida prosecutor assigned to review the case informed Republican Gov. Rick Scott last week of his office’s conclusion that there was not enough evidence to move forward.

A memo about the complaint against Bondi said it was “insufficient on its face to conduct a criminal investigation” and was based almost entirely on media coverage. The assistant state attorney who wrote the memo said the complaint was based on insinuation and there was no evidence Bondi asked for the money in exchange for any official act. There was no indication she interviewed Trump or Bondi before reaching her decision.

Though Bondi’s office took no action against Trump, the president later agreed to settle the class-action case filed by New York and private lawyers, paying his former students $25 million in damages.

After leaving Bondi’s office, Muniz became a partner at the Jacksonville, Florida, office of a large law and lobbying firm. He defended Florida State University in a Title IX lawsuit filed by Erica Kinsman, a former student who said she was raped by quarterback Jameis Winston in 2012.

Kinsman sued Winston in April 2015 in federal civil court, alleging sexual battery and assault, and Winston countersued her one month later, alleging her accusations were false and defamatory. Both civil cases were settled in December under confidential terms. Winston, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Title IX is a federal law that bans discrimination at schools that receive federal funding. The Education Department warned schools in 2011 of their legal responsibilities to immediately investigate allegations of sexual assault, even if a criminal investigation has not been concluded.

Last year, FSU agreed to pay Kinsman $950,000, the largest settlement ever for claims regarding a university’s indifference to a student’s reported sexual assault.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Florida may pay millions to homeowners for lost citrus trees

Florida may end a long-running battle and pay millions to homeowners whose healthy citrus trees were torn down in a failed attempt to eradicate citrus canker.

The Florida House has $66 million in its proposed budget to pay lawsuits filed on behalf of homeowners in Broward, Lee and Palm Beach counties. There are also lawsuits ongoing in Orange and Miami-Dade counties.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, the House budget chairman, said the payments should be made because courts have already ruled against the state in those counties.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam says the state should wait until the lawsuits reach the Florida Supreme Court.

So far Senate Republicans have not included the payments in their budget.

Canker damages citrus trees. From 2000 to 2006, the state removed citrus trees within 1,900 feet of an infected tree.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Divided over dollars: Florida legislators split on spending

With about a month left in the regular session, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature is on a major collision course over spending.

This past week the House and Senate released rival budgets for the coming year that reveal a wide divide between the two chambers on everything from taxes to schools to state worker pay raises.

The two sides don’t even have the same bottom line: The Senate’s overall budget is more than $85 billion, or roughly $4 billion more than the House proposed. The current state budget is nearly $82.3 billion.

Part of the reason for the disparity is that House Republicans sought aggressive budget cuts, aimed largely at hospitals and state universities. But the House budget also sets aside money for roughly $300 million in tax cuts, including a reduction in the tax charged on rent paid by businesses.

House leaders say they pushed ahead with deep spending cuts to help the state avoid possible shortfalls that are projected over the next two to three years by state economists. In describing the need for cuts, House Republicans have referred to a budget “deficit” even though state tax collections are actually growing.

“We have to make informed decisions, and we have to make tough decisions,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and the House budget chairman. “We can’t be all things to all people.”

A big sticking point between the House and Senate will be over money for public schools.

The Senate is recommending a nearly $800 million increase for day-to-day operations that would boost the amount spent on each student by close to 3 percent. That contrasts with the House’s proposal that would increase the per-student amount by 1.25 percent.

“The budget meets the needs of our growing state in a manner that reflects the priorities of the constituents who elected us,” said Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

But a large portion of the Senate plan relies on an increase in local property taxes triggered by rising property values. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has vowed to block any proposal that relies on higher taxes.

Corcoran and other House Republicans have proposed steering large amounts of money into contentious programs, including an ambitious $200 million “Schools of Hope” plan that would offer money to charter school operators that set up schools near failing public schools.

Another wide area of disagreement: Money for economic development programs and tourism promotion that has already pitted House leaders against Gov. Rick Scott. The Senate has kept intact the state’s economic development agency known as Enterprise Florida and agreed to keep spending on tourism marketing close to current levels. The House is proposing to shutter Enterprise Florida, while slashing the state’s tourism ad budget by roughly $50 million.

“Over and over again, politicians in the House have failed to understand that Florida is competing for job creation projects against other states and countries across the globe,” Scott said this week about the House proposal.

The House and Senate also differ on the need for across-the-board raises for state workers. The Senate is offering a raise of $1,400 to all employees making $40,000 or less, and $1,000 to those who earn more than $40,000. The House is recommending targeted pay raises to corrections officers and state law-enforcement agents.

The Senate is also proposing to borrow up to $1.2 billion to acquire 60,000 acres of land and build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries that have been blamed for toxic algae blooms. House leaders have said they are opposed to borrowing money this year but have not rejected the Senate plan.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Florida may shift students away from failing schools

Calling it an “emergency,” Florida may agree to spend up to $200 million to shift students from chronically failing schools to charter schools run by private organizations.

The idea crafted by House Speaker Richard Corcoran and other top Republicans in the Florida House is this: Offer up money to help build “Schools of Hope” in neighborhoods, many of them in urban and poor areas.

The schools would be within 5 miles of or in the zones of existing traditional public schools that have repeatedly earned low grades under the state’s school grading system.

“No longer will we rob children of dignity and hope,” Corcoran said. “Now every single child will be afforded an opportunity of a world-class education.”

Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’Lakes, has touted the idea for months of using charter schools to serve low-income students, but his ambitious proposal is sure to ignite an ongoing debate over expanding the role of charter schools. Charter schools are considered public, but they are run by private organizations that sometimes use privately run companies to manage them.

The “Schools of Hope” proposal is coming at the same time that the Republican-controlled Legislature is considering a contentious idea to force school districts to share part of their local property taxes with charter school operators.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, the lead Democrat on the House’s main education committee, called the House plan part of a long-running movement in the state to offer assistance to charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools run by districts.

“We are creating a mess,” said Jones, who is from Broward County. “We should be taking $200 million to put the resources into those failing schools to ensure those schools are successful.”

Republicans, however, counter that many of the low-performing schools already get extra money from the state and from the federal government but have been unable to make steady improvements. They cite the recent decision of Jefferson County —a rural county in north Florida — to hand over its schools to a charter operator after years of struggle.

More than 100 schools statewide have been consistently ranked as low performing for more than three years.

Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said legislators met with charter school operators and asked what it would take for them to set up schools in the neighborhoods now served by traditional public schools. He said one answer was that they needed help paying for new buildings to house the school.

The House proposal would create both a grant program that would pay for expenses such as teacher training and other startup costs, and a loan program that would pay up to 25 percent of any school construction costs. It would also extend the money only to school operators that are already either nationally recognized or have a record of successfully serving students with a high percentage of students from low-income families.

A big question is whether or not the proposal will survive a looming fight during the next month between the House and Senate over a new state budget. Both sides have crafted vastly different spending plans.

But Sen. David Simmons, the Senate Republican in charge of the panel that oversees education spending, said he is open to any idea that seeks to help students at low-performing schools. Simmons has been championing his own proposal to offer a long school day at the same schools.

“I’m looking at anything that works,” Simmons said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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